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.
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“He treated Karzai with respect,” says Dobbins, noting that Kerry’s “patience” with the prickly leader stood out in contrast with the response of other US leaders – including Vice President Joe Biden, who when still a senator become so exasperated that he walked out of a dinner with Karzai.Skip to next paragraph
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Most people in Washington, including a number of influential Republican senators, expect that a Kerry nomination will sail through the Senate.
In anticipation of his nomination, observers listened closely Thursday as Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, addressed a hearing on security failures during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Senior US diplomats acknowledged the State Department’s serious shortcomings in providing diplomatic security, but Kerry also underscored that Congress has a responsibility to fund the high cost of keeping America’s diplomats safe.
There remain a few question marks over Kerry that senators will presumably want to address during Kerry's confirmation hearing.
One is Kerry’s past deferential treatment of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry has had numerous meetings with the Middle Eastern strongman and long considered him “an essential player” in the region. In March 2011, he said that “in my judgment Syria will change” and embrace “a legitimate relationship with the US.”
Kerry has since turned against Mr. Assad and has taken to advocating measures to speed his departure, but he could still expect questions during confirmation hearings about his “judgment” of Assad.
Kerry could also face questioning over his emphasis on the need for a “political solution” to the Afghan war and his calls for Obama to speed up the drawdown of US troops there. Some Republicans, in particular, worry that the president wants to pull out US troops faster than his military commanders on the ground recommend, and they would want to see where Kerry positions himself.
One issue that is not expected to be a problem is Kerry's war record in Vietnam and his post-service antiwar stance, since he dealt with that criticism during his unsuccessful presidential bid.
Professor Katz of Boston College acknowledges that Kerry’s long-held faith in Assad could come back to “haunt” him. But he adds that Kerry’s “extraordinary talent as a negotiator” would serve him and the US well on issues like Syria.
A knack for negotiating with tough customers could also come in handy in addressing Iran and its nuclear program, the foreign policy issue that is expected to dominate at least the first few months of Obama’s second term.
With issues like Iran and Syria on the agenda, a Secretary Kerry might find it difficult to advance personal priorities such as arms control and climate change. But Clinton was able to elevate her favorites – women’s and girls’ issues, and the global problem of inefficient and health-threatening cook stoves among them – even as she pursued the Obama foreign policy agenda.
As RAND’s Dobbins notes, both arms control and global warming are issues that sit high on the president’s priority list, as well – which may help explain why Kerry has Obama’s nod.
“The president is committed to another round of negotiations with the Russians to get further reduction in nuclear arms, and he seems to want more robust action when it comes to climate change,” Dobbins says. “So there’s nothing that would make Kerry incompatible with [Obama] on these issues.”