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Obama chooses John Kerry for secretary of State. How might he do?

President Obama is expected on Friday to name Sen. John Kerry to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He'd come with his own pet issues – as well as a reputation as a patient negotiator.

By Staff writer / December 21, 2012

Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts leads a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday on the Sept. 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP



As a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, John Kerry was an ardent advocate of arms control – a position he would later use to help President Obama win ratification of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

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In Congress, the senior senator from Massachusetts has championed climate-change legislation, ranking the issue in the very top tier of the nation’s international challenges.

On Friday afternoon, Mr. Obama will nominate Mr. Kerry to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State. If he is confirmed, Kerry might give those two foreign policy priorities a higher profile.

While a secretary of State’s job is to carry out the president’s foreign policy, the holders of the nation’s top diplomatic office find ways to boost the issues that are important to them. And so Kerry is expected to place special emphasis on his own policy priorities if he becomes Obama’s second secretary of State.

Most officials, foreign-policy experts, and friends who have watched Kerry in action say he has demonstrated the diplomatic traits – the patience, perseverance, artfulness, and stature – required to further the president’s international priorities and to successfully represent America to the world.

“What you see with John Kerry is what you get: He’s a serious, very articulate man, and he has the stature to really further America’s interests,” says Sanford Katz, a family law professor at Boston College who taught Kerry, a 1976 alumnus of the law school.

That “stature” would also serve Kerry well in the difficult task of following in the footsteps of Secretary Clinton, who has enjoyed – and employed – the rock-star status she’s gained around the world.   

Many international experts cite Kerry’s productive forays into some of the toughest diplomatic thickets as a quiet Obama envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years as evidence of his potential effectiveness.

“He combined a presence and stature and a skill at conducting personal relations with difficult people that bodes well for his ability to carry out the duties of secretary of State, should he be so named,” says James Dobbins, a former special US envoy to Afghanistan, speaking in particular of Kerry’s dealings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2009.

Kerry would later be sent by Obama several times to repair crumbling relations with Pakistan, including to negotiate the release of a CIA contractor detained in the killings of two Pakistanis, and in the tense days after the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

In his dealings with Mr. Karzai – who is famously hard to work with – Kerry “exhibited an evenness of temper and a degree of patience” that not all senior US officials have been able to muster when working with the Afghan leader, says Mr. Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va.


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