In nominating Sen. John F. Kerry for secretary of state, President Barack Obama observed that “in a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role.” Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has been an activist in foreign affairs since his arrival in the Senate in 1985. A consistent advocate of U.S. leadership, he has forged personal ties with top politicians in scores of countries. Even his failed 2004 presidential campaign left him with experience managing a large organization and its daily challenges.
Most significantly, Kerry has already worked as a discreet and able representative for Obama during his first term. While serving as chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, the 69-year-old Massachusetts Democrat traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Sudan, among other places, to advance U.S. aims. He delivered back-channel messages and helped to broker agreements; at a time when Afghan President Hamid Karzai was at odds with several of the administration’s senior officials, Kerry coaxed him into accepting a runoff election for president.
A believer in Bill Clinton’s vision of the United States as “the indispensable nation,” Kerry pushed the more cautious Obama toward two of his most important foreign policy decisions, the intervention in Libya and the endorsement of Hosni Mubarak’s departure from the Egyptian presidency. He also played a critical role in one of the president’s most notable successes, the Senate’s ratification of a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Tackling one of the most difficult U.S. relationships, with Pakistan, Kerry has advocated a long-range strategy of promoting economic development to balance short-term military cooperation.
As secretary of state, Kerry would find himself most often carrying out policies forged at the White House rather than implementing his own vision. The senator is known for his conviction that the United States should do more to broker an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but that worthy goal is looking more remote than ever as hard-liners on both sides gain ascendancy. A better focus for the next secretary would be trying to shape the direction of the turbulent Arab Middle East.
Kerry shares one of Obama’s greatest weaknesses: an excessive faith in the potential benefits of “engagement” with rogue regimes and dictators. In particular, Kerry’s repeated attempts to foster a dialogue with Syrian ruler Bashar Assad offer a case study of how such diplomacy can go wrong. The cynical Assad convinced Kerry that he was a “reformer” who sought peace with Israel – conclusions that, as the past 18 months have shown, could not have been more wrong.
Kerry’s dedication to dialogue even with U.S. enemies makes some sense for a secretary of state. But Obama’s new Cabinet could also benefit from the balance provided in the first term by figures such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Robert M. Gates, who took a more skeptical view of “engagement” and favored steps such as the surge of troops in Afghanistan.
Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state would be a rare achievement for a losing presidential candidate. It’s one he has earned, and we expect he would serve the country well.