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November 22, 2012 10:21 PM Kerry Is the Right Choice to Lead U.S. Diplomacy

By Jonathan Alter

For all the talk of tax increases and debt-cutting, President Barack Obama’s biggest and most- revealing decision this year may be which candidate he chooses to be his new secretary of state. It will tell us whether the president allows comfort to trump qualification.

The two candidates are Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both would be impressive, though they bring different strengths.

Rice’s advantage is that she has a closer personal relationship with the president, making her better integrated in the administration’s policy-making apparatus. Kerry’s edge is that he’s a heavyweight who would be more effective representing the U.S. around the world.

Rice has the inside track for now, and she got an unintentional boost last week from Senator John McCain, who was shooting from the hip, as usual. McCain, who is Kerry’s old friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, hounded Rice mercilessly over the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya. Her only sin was that on the Sunday shows in September she conveyed exactly what she was told by the Central Intelligence Agency about the attack on the U.S. consulate.

Just before his first post-election news conference, the president heard that McCain and his Sancho Panza, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, were threatening to block Rice’s nomination with a filibuster. This made the president angrier than he has been in months, according to a senior White House official I spoke with. “For them to go after” Rice and “besmirch her reputation, is outrageous,” Obama said at the news conference.

Appearances’ Sake

Obama says he hasn’t made a decision. But rejecting Rice in favor of Kerry would make the president look like he’s buckling to pressure from McCain, the Republican opponent he defeated in the 2008 election. And yet, if how something looks is the issue — and appearances are critical in diplomacy — then Obama should choose Kerry.

Kerry, a prominent senator for 28 years, would sail through his Senate confirmation hearings. Rice would be pinned down not just by Benghazi but by some of her past statements, in particular these two: In 1994, when she served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, she reportedly asked about the possibility of intervening in Rwanda: “If we use the word ’genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

In 2011, as European countries were pushing for a UN Security Council resolution creating a no-fly zone over Libya, she reportedly told the France’s UN ambassador, Gerard Araud, that the U.S. wouldn’t be pulled into France’s war and she disparaged the conflict with an obscenity. Dredging up the latter incident is especially unfair, considering that Rice joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the National Security Council official Samantha Power to push the men in the administration to intervene in Libya. Still, Kerry’s colleagues wouldn’t hesitate to use any ammunition on hand against Rice.

Kerry would be much-better received than Rice not just in the Senate but in the rest of the world — which should be more than a little relevant in this decision. After 27 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he knows every player of consequence. His on-the-job training would be minimal.

Lest we forget, Obama probably wouldn’t be president without Kerry, who asked him to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that started his career.

Loyal Soldier

In 2008, Kerry gave then-Senator Obama critical early support in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. When Obama picked Clinton over him as secretary of state, Kerry was a loyal soldier. He helped persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold elections, smoothed over tense relations with Pakistan and shepherded the Start treaty through the Senate. He even played Mitt Romney in the mock debates this year.

Gratitude, loyalty and experience shouldn’t be the only factors in the president’s decision, but don’t they count for something?

If Kerry giving up his Senate seat jeopardized Democratic control of the Senate, the appointment would be too risky. But Democrats in the new Congress will have a five-vote margin in the upper chamber, and it’s unlikely a Republican could win a special election next year in Massachusetts.

This decision isn’t as much about Rice and Kerry and the political angles as it is about Obama and how he views governing.

We know that the president is often leery of having other big fish in his administration, less because of ego or insecurity than his insistence on harmonious policy making, free of turf fights. But comfort is overrated; Obama needs more “principals” (officials with their own power bases) to challenge him.

Before the UN, Rice’s experience consisted of being assistant secretary of state for Africa, which is important but not central to U.S. foreign policy. More recently, she won credit for helping to convince Russia and China to back sanctions against Iran and not oppose the bombing campaign against Libya. Yet when Russia and China vetoed a resolution aimed at Syria, Rice called the action “disgusting” and “shameful,” which was stronger than the White House’s “regrettable.” Diplomacy is all about word choice.

Having accompanied Hillary Clinton on international trips, I can testify to how helpful it is to have a woman in charge of public diplomacy. Most of the positive things going on among nongovernmental organizations are spearheaded by women, who would like seeing the third woman in a row (and second African- American by the name of Rice) in the top job.

Still, the next secretary of state may be called on to broker Mideast peace talks between Israel and Hamas or conduct high-stakes talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Wouldn’t it be better to have someone at the table with wide experience and the political clout to make things happen?

In 2008, Obama’s staff was dead set against Clinton getting secretary of state. Finally, Obama broke in sharply and said, “You guys are missing the fundamental point — she’s the most- qualified candidate.”

This time, he is.

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Jonathan Alter , a columnist for Bloomberg View, is the author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One." He is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • REL on November 23, 2012 5:06 PM:

    And don't forget that Senator Kerry is one of the most inarticulate public figures ever to grace the Senate. No simple declarative sentence will ever do for Senator Kerry. Never say one word when ten will suffice. By the time he finishes an answer to a question, everyone, including the Senator has forgotten the question. He talks on and on with the meaning getting lost in the sheer volume of words. Doesn't anyone remember his disastrous run against G.W. Bush. He was less articulate than the President. The man couldn't even answer the question of why he wanted to be President. Mr. Alter, please reconsider your opinion. Yes, he'd probably sail through the confirmation, but he'd make a terrible national spokesperson.


  • MichMan on November 23, 2012 10:04 PM:

    Before the UN, Rice's experience consisted of being assistant secretary of state for Africa, which is important but not central to U.S. foreign policy.

    Maybe it should be!

  • rodger dodger on November 24, 2012 2:19 AM:

    I would rather have Susan Rice's energy and creativity than Kerry's experience. What is needed, if anything is going to happen in the Mideast in 2013, is a very good diplomat with a close ties to Obama, not a legislator and career politician.

    I agree that it doesn't hurt one bit that she is a woman.

    If Obama does not nominate Rice, he will be inviting this kind of a pre-nomination tantrum from one Republican Senator or another for the foreseeable future.

    I'm interested in other's thoughts about the possible timing of the nomination.

  • DJ on November 24, 2012 10:10 AM:

    Before the UN, Rice's experience consisted of being assistant secretary of state for Africa, which is important but not central to U.S. foreign policy.
    Maybe it should be!

    Ahead of Asia? No.

  • JackD on November 24, 2012 2:15 PM:

    Isn't Kerry the guy who in 2004 said if he'd known then what he does now, he still would have voted to invade Iraq? And you want to give him influence?

  • Kansachusetts on November 24, 2012 2:21 PM:

    Jonathan Alter has not spent his life in the state that Kerry ostensibly represents, Massachusetts.

    Let us put aside the fact that Kerry is insufficiently progressive and made a total mess of his challenge to Bush, and that REL and rodger dodger are spot on with their comments above. The big question to me is what happens when you pull Kerry out of the senate.

    I'm not sure what makes Alter think Scott Brown wouldn't run and win in a special election. This time he won't be running against Elizabeth Warren, and his reelection would set back the country and give aid and comfort to the right, which is now very properly wallowing in despair. If you don't think Scott Brown can win, you have zero understanding of Massachusetts politics.

  • Cambridge Chuck on November 24, 2012 6:26 PM:

    @Kansachusetts -- exactly. Alter blithely claims "it’s unlikely a Republican could win a special election next year in Massachusetts", but offers nothing to support this curious and spurious claim. Brown is not damaged goods here -- he did very well against a remarkable Dem candidate, after vanquishing a previous and less than remarkable Dem candidate. He's had a taste of Washington and wants more. The Dem bench at the statewide level doesn't present enough immediate winners (to my mind) to take the risk. As for Kerry being a loyal soldier -- well, so were many of us when we supported him in 2004. Loyal soldiers don't always get the glory. Also, what REL and rodger dodger said.

  • Ronly Konly on November 24, 2012 8:04 PM:

    "We know that the president is often leery of having other big fish in his administration, less because of ego or insecurity than his insistence on harmonious policy making, free of turf fights. But comfort is overrated; Obama needs more “principals” (officials with their own power bases) to challenge him."

    You kinda defeated this charge against Pres Obama by mentioning one big fish he hired: Hillary.

    Sad that Africa holds such low realpolitik esteem.
    I like John Kerry, but it's strange for someone to condemn Rice as inferior given her background.

  • earthworx on November 25, 2012 2:42 PM:

    Strongly disagree with Alter's article, Obama needs to stop raiding the Senate for personnel. In 2014 the democrats have more seats to defend, and in a mid-term election he needs every seat he has to maintain the democrats' advantage. If he is looking for a alternative to Rice I would suggest Richard Lugar. In Lugar, Obama would have a very capable individual to handle America's foreign interests, and it also boosts his bipartisan cred.

  • Allan Snyder on November 26, 2012 4:24 PM:

    I agree with Alter, Kerry is more qualified and would be a better diplomat, period.
    The criticisms in the comments here are based on a lot of pettiness, especially regarding the 2004 campaign, that don't mean a lot when it comes to who would be our best chief diplomat. The total disregard of Alter's points regarding Kerry's work as an envoy for Obama in Afghanistan and Pakistan, passing the START treaty, and his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are all ignored by his critics.
    Sure, it would be great for symbolic purposes to have another black female SoS, and maybe it would be nice to have more focus on Africa, but if anyone here could look beyond that to actual experience and qualifications, then Kerry wins in a landslide.
    On top of that, as someone with a close relative and several friends working in the State Department, I can tell you that Rice would not be a popular choice with the career employees. The Kerry-bashers who say "who cares?" about that will only be further demonstrating how little they know about this subject.

  • Kansachusetts on November 26, 2012 8:56 PM:

    Ah but Allan Snyder, you don't address the biggest issue: Why is appointing Kerry worth the resurrection of Scott Brown?

  • yellowdog on November 27, 2012 11:41 AM:

    "Kerry would be much-better received than Rice not just in the Senate but in the rest of the world — which should be more than a little relevant in this decision. After 27 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he knows every player of consequence. His on-the-job training would be minimal."

    How patronizing. It is absurd to think that Ambassador Rice needs many introductions to 'players of consequence' or vastly more 'on-the-job training' than Senator Kerry. (And who would make these introductions and conduct this training? The same folk who think John McCain is a credible voice on foreign policy?)

    Let's see...Rice is Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford and a Truman and Rhodes Scholar. She is now a high-level diplomat who has the president's ear. She spent the last Democratic Administration in tough assignments at NSC and State. She then went to an academic/think tank job where she dealt with security and foreign policy complexities day in and day out. Her credentials are not much different from those of Madeleine Albright when she was nominated and confirmed in 1997.

    These are exceptional qualities--and they need not take anything away from Senator Kerry's strong record. Kerry has distinguished himself on the New START Treaty, among other matters. Neither nominee should face difficulties with confirmation or with reception from world leaders. To suggest, without evidence, that Rice will not be 'received' well around the world is unfair to her.

    And remember...Rice has been through Senate confirmation twice already. If she is now on the wrong side of bitter old John McCain, then that counts as more evidence of her good judgment and sense. He is in the wrong on Rice--and it is a fight worth having to show that to be true.

  • Robert from upstate on November 29, 2012 9:58 AM:

    "Ah but Allan Snyder, you don't address the biggest issue: Why is appointing Kerry worth the resurrection of Scott Brown?"

    Exactly! Alter has produced a politically tone deaf analysis and overlooked the fact that at this point nominating Kerry is a weak move by the President who has just kicked the Republican's ass. It would be stupid to nominate Kerry. If for some strange reason it can't be Rice, and I think it should be because SHE IS QUALIFIED and also we can use the nomination to test out the new Filibuster rules, then I say 'Mr. President, surprise us!'