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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.”  

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