Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: Senator John Kerry is President Obama’s choice to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton and so could become the 68th US Secretary of State.
Sounds pretty straightforward. A shoo-in for the Senator from Massachusetts. Could well be but it’s worth remembering that Kerry is Obama’s second choice. He wanted his UN Permanent Representative Susan Rice in the job but Ms Rice was forced to pull out over her handling of the diplomatic aftermath of the death of America’s top man in Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans in Benghazi.
What’s more, Kerry was Obama’s second choice four years ago. Kerry wanted the State Department job and made that pretty clear. Instead, Obama chose Clinton. Why did Kerry lose out first time round? He did so because Clinton had only just lost to Obama in the Democrat presidential nomination and for eight years as First Lady she had amassed a good knowledge of foreign affairs and was therefore on first name terms with many foreign figures important to the new President’s foreign policy agenda. Obama knew next to nothing about foreign affairs, Clinton knew a lot so it was a good team choice – and has so proved to be. Kerry, although a sound man on the Hill, was not in that league.
Putting all this together, does this mean Kerry as second choice is second rate? Could be, except that Kerry has the pedigree for the job. He comes from a foreign affairs family. His father was a State Department man. He speaks passable French and knows his way around capitals, especially in Europe..
Also, Kerry’s foreign affairs’ rating has improved during the past three years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Moreover, he has not been a stay-at-home policy wonk. He was very much Obama’s personal envoy with many trips to Pakistan in a not entirely unsuccessful attempt to overcome animosities in that country’s military and political top brass following the assassination by American Seals of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. That was no social call.
There is too some evidence that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trusts Kerry. Whether or not Kerry trusts Netanyahu is unclear, but he sure knows by now that it is better not to. Indeed it is hoped that Kerry has learned that leaders outside the United States can be just as smart as anyone mooching around the corridors of Washington power. Like many American envoys and officials he still needs to understand that when dealing with anyone, especially from the Middle East, the first two rules of negotiating should be simple to grasp: in modern times, America doesn’t offer much that can pull off a peace deal or alliance and secondly, the person an American is dealing with often has to be sharper and even more duplicitous than anyone sent roaming from the State Department because he (and sometimes she) has more to lose than the American. In spite of the style and good manners, negotiators and go-betweens in the Middle East usually have a lot to lose. It’s a warning, even a rule, Kerry would be well advised to understand – it’s an extension of the old journalistic interview safeguard: Why is this lying bastard lying to me?
That bronze, if not golden rule of cynicism needs to be cleaned up for Kerry who in times past has spoken of his close relationship with Bashar Al Assad. Outside the Syrian leader’s family and select Alawites, there is no such thing as a close relationship. It is significant that the Syrian conflict was regarded as a No Go area by Ms Clinton and a mark of her brilliance at the State Department was the way in which she kept channels open to leaders in so many conflicts and urged caution on Obama when there was any notion that America should go out and save yet another chunk of the world. Ms Clinton’s view after the removal of Saddam Hussein was that America had to take on board that even when in a position to bring about change, that change could easily do more harm than good. Waiting for waiting to happen, as the British 19th century diplomatists agreed, was often a safer and in the long-term, wiser course.
There is a further irony in the Kerry saga that may have a long term significance. Kerry first met Obama during his own attempt to get the Democrat nomination during the run up to the 2004 election. Kerry had asked Obama, a virtually unknown politician, to speak for him during the Democratic convention. Obama did and was something of a wow. Kerry did not make it. Four years later, his political best man did make it.
So the irony? Deep down, Kerry has not given up on the idea of being President. If he did a good four year job at State, especially pulling off a spectacular in Israel-Palestine, then would he not be in a good position to make a second play for that nomination? On present showing he would not get it because, again – on present showing – Hillary Clinton would. But Kerry will never have another nor a better chance to go for the nomination.
If that happens, Clinton would knock him off any ambition perch. His one disadvantage is that there’d be few to catch him. The difference between Clinton and Kerry is that Clinton is a team player – Kerry shows no sign of being so. That is important in the State Department where there are few second chances in diplomacy and no room for second raters.
For the coming three years, Clinton, should she choose to run, will have the biggest and brightest team backing her and it will be a team working with the finest Secretary of State America has produced since the Kennedy and Johnson era, Dean Rusk.
So no chance for Kerry? Looks that way except for one thing: the presidential race will be on in 2016 and three years is an awfully long time in politics.