John Kerry has now officially become the president’s choice for Secretary of State, fulfilling an ambition he has had for years. The senior Massachusetts senator is certainly well qualified for the job; with decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and widely respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he is expected to “sail through” the confirmation process.
But this quintessential diplomat was not the president’s first choice; it was only when UN Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration in the face of severe opposition from Republican legislators that Kerry finally got the nod for Foggy Bottom.
It is a bit odd that the man who put Barack Obama on the map has had to wait so long for his reward. When Kerry picked an obscure state senator from Illinois to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention 2004, he launched Obama on a trajectory that would take him to the White House just four years later.
Obama made reference to this when he announced his decision at the White House on Friday.
“Of course, I also have to say thanks because John invited a young Illinois state senator to address the Democratic Convention in Boston,” said the president.
Kerry is no stranger to consolation prizes. He was openly lobbying to become Secretary of State after Obama’s first election, but was passed over for Hillary Clinton, who had been a fierce critic of Obama when she ran against him for the nomination.
He also narrowly missed the country’s top job in 2004, losing to incumbent President George W. Bush by just 3 million votes.
It was during this campaign that Kerry, a decorated war veteran, fell victim to a dirty-tricks campaign that has become part of the political lexicon.
“Swift-boat is shorthand for the brilliant, despicable Republican campaign strategy in 2004 that turned John Kerry's honorable service in Vietnam into a negative factor in his campaign,” wrote Michael Kinsley in TIME magazine. “The phrase has become more broadly the term for a particular category of campaign tactics and has even become a verb.”
When Obama was preparing for his debates against Republican challenger Mitt Romney this summer, it was Kerry who was asked to help prep the president – and Kerry who took some of the blame when the first debate in Denver turned out to be a disaster for the incumbent.
Kerry is widely seen as a safe pair of hands for the State Department, someone who will carry out his duties with intelligence, integrity and honor, but who will not rock the boat.
He is no longer the young firebrand who famously asked a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 1971: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Instead, he is the one people turn to when things get rough.
In 2009, when the presidential election in Afghanistan took a bad turn, it was Kerry who went to Kabul to sort things out.
President Hamid Karzai had failed to win reelection, despite what experts said was widespread fraud in his favor. But the Afghan president was refusing to agree to a runoff election as dictated by the Afghan Constitution; instead, he was insisting that he had won outright in the first round.
The late Richard Holbrooke, who was then Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, could not do the job. His “explosive” meeting with Karzai the day after the election had made him persona non grata in Kabul.
So the White House tapped Kerry, whose calm and measured style did the trick. In a number of sessions with the Afghan president, Kerry convinced him that the runoff was a necessity.
The press conference in which Kerry stood alongside Karzai and Kai Eide, head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, was a triumph of diplomacy, which has been called “the art of the possible.”
Kerry praised Karzai for his “statesmanship” for “embracing the constitution and the rule of law,” although in reality the Afghan president had only grudgingly bowed to international pressure, and never did acknowledge that he had not won outright.
Nevertheless, Kerry got the credit for avoiding a crisis in Afghanistan, and for preserving the illusion that the elections had been successful.
These skills will almost certainly be called into play in his tenure at the State department. The United States is facing severe rises on many international fronts at present, including Syria, Iran, Israel/Palestine, and, of course, Afghanistan.
Kerry has weighed in on all of these issues. He was at the forefront of efforts to reach out to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, something that has drawn fire from certain quarters.
In 2009, Kerry told the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh that Assad was a man that the United States could deal with.
“He wants to engage with the West,” Kerry said in an interview in his Senate office. “Our latest conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States. “
He has also called Assad “his dear friend,” something he may live to regret.
But in general, Kerry’s nomination is the farthest thing from controversial.
“In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role,” said Obama when he made his announcement Friday. “Over these many years, John has earned the respect and confidence of leaders around the world. He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training… I think it’s fair to say that few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers, or grasp our foreign policies as firmly as John Kerry. And this makes him a perfect choice to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead.”
But the question remains; if John Kerry is so “perfect,” why was he not the president’s first choice?