John Kerry as Secretary of State
John Kerry has been trying to become president all his life. He failed miserably. His personality does not translate into a mass appeal movement. This is a man who was a politician from his school days: opposing the war in Vietnam while distancing himself from the radical progressives of the anti-war movement. He, like Bill Clinton in that famous letter from Georgetown University while an undergraduate, was protecting his political viability. John Kerry ran for president all his life while serving in the shadow of the senior senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy. John Kerry is good at serving as an understudy of a leader, but not as a leader.
John Kerry’s confirmation will sail smoothly through the Senate. The Senate is a club and rarely do members oppose one another for jobs outside the senate. After all, this is why senators are the most sought after lobbyists. They, more than anyone else, know how to open the doors of the Senate for new clients. They possess access and they offer it for sale when they are ready to retire; or when they are ready to bogusly claim to the media that they wish to “spend more time with the[ir] family.”
But Barack Obama owes John Kerry: the latter selected a largely unknown junior senator from Illinois and catapulted him onto the national, and international, stage when he chose him as a keynote speaker for the Democratic Convention in 2004. It was in that speech during that convention when Obama captured the attention of the media and the public, and it was then that Obama probably began to plot his presidential quest. Kerry knows that.
Kerry, however, did not want any job in the Obama administration except that of the secretary of state: but the job was not available because Obama needed to appeal to the Hillary constituency after a bitter and drawn-out contest in the Democratic primaries. Kerry could have obtained any job he wanted but there was no job that would have been better for him than the chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He waited in the wings for the time when Hillary plans the next step in her long political career.
Kerry did not mind that he was not Obama’s first choice for secretary of state. And Kerry does not have the bond that Obama has with Susan Rice. But the mood of the Republican senators did not allow for an easy and smooth confirmation process, and the president did not want to squander his political capital on a non-essential matter. Kerry was a safe choice and would not engender any opposition in the Senate.
Kerry’s political preferences and orientations have been quite established. He represents the mainstream of US foreign policy bipartisanship. This is not a bold man (just like the Clintons) and does not in any way threaten the foreign policy consensus on the Middle East in Washington, DC. He has been a safe and obedient servant of the Israeli lobby – just like most , if not all US Senators. He never wavered in his support for Israeli occupation and aggression, and he never wavered in his staunch support for Arab dictatorships. It is true that the House of Saud were nervous when Kerry during his presidential run in 2004, spoke about the need to end US reliance on Arab oil and its weakness vis-à-vis Gulf regimes. But those are words that don’t resonate, just like the tough rhetoric on China during presidential runs: the winners never follow through.
When I taught at Tufts University outside of Boston in 1989, one of my students worked in John Kerry’s office. He told me a lot about his operational methods. He said that Kerry learned from the Kennedys: that the key to a successful senator does not lie in hard work or professional ethics or even in a great vision. They believe that the most important element of a senator’s work is the selection of a great staff. Kerry (like any senator who harbors presidential ambitions) invested in foreign policy and was quite outspoken against US foreign policy in Latin America in the 1980s. His voice was vocal against US alliances with Latin American dictatorships in El Salvador and Honduras, among other places. He had top-notch experts on Latin America work with him at the time.
My student used to tell me that the ostensibly courageous decision by Senator Kerry to refrain from accepting PAC money was meaningless: that his main donors were wealthy pro-Israeli activists. He never wavered from the agenda of the Israeli lobby, even when he would engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Syrian dictator (father and son). He (like Senator Arlen Spector) engaged Bashar al-Assad, not in opposition to the policies of AIPAC, but at its behest. They were trying to nudge the Syrian regime to move toward peace with Israel. And Bashar has always been very weak towards visitors from the US, especially if they are Zionists.
Kerry would not have a big role in foreign policy, just as Hillary’s role was largely ceremonial in foreign policy. I agree with the assessment that never has been foreign policy as centralized in the hands of a president as it has been under the Obama administration – not since the administration of Nixon. Kerry would merely be implementing the foreign policy agenda of Obama with little dissent or debate. But the man (Kerry) will be serving in his last job. The title and the photo opportunities would mean a great deal to him. They are now all he’s got.
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