John Kerry: 'the perfect choice' for secretary of state
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US President Barack Obama handed John Kerry his dream job this week, nominating him for the post of secretary of state. But even if he was Obama's "perfect choice" Kerry will need to call on all his diplomatic skills for the tasks that lie ahead.
Veteran lawmaker John Kerry, who lost the 2004 presidential election to George W Bush, has finally landed a job he has long coveted.
Nominated to succeed Hillary Clinton as US secretary of state, the 69-year-old Kerry - often referred to as “America’s unofficial envoy” - will become the country’s official top diplomat tasked with guiding foreign policy.
The five-term Massachusetts senator, will not exactly be stepping into the unknown when he formally takes up the role next year once his nomination has been approved by the Senate.
After missing out on the post to Clinton in 2008, Kerry has spent the intervening years as Chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, priming himself in the hope that a second chance would come along.
'I am very proud to announce my choice for America’s next secretary of state, John Kerry.'
During his stint as “unofficial envoy”, Kerry, the son of a diplomat, has helped implement US foreign policy in the powder keg state of Afghanistan. On one visit he spent hours walking around the palace in Kabul persuading Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff election in the autumn of 2009.
Kerry, a French speaker, has also travelled to Pakistan, where his diplomatic skills came to the fore in helping quell anger after the US operation to kill Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. After helping solve another diplomatic crisis in Pakistan last year, Kerry’s gravitas on the diplomatic stage was noted by Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
“It was clear that both the diplomats and the military folks we met with viewed him as a real man of credibility and experience who was likely to contribute meaningfully to those negotiations,” Coons said.
Kerry also led delegations to Syria where he built ties with President Bashar al-Assad before the Syrian leader became a pariah in the US for his brutal crackdown on the country’s popular uprising.
He also has strong personal ties with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“He’s not going to need a lot of on the job training,” Obama quipped to reporters after announcing Kerry’s nomination. “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. This makes him a perfect choice to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead.”
Republicans on board
The respect Kerry has garnered among foreign governments of all political persuasions is reflected back in Washington DC where Republican lawmakers greeted his promotion to secretary of state with rare public approval.
“John's going to adapt to this well. I think he spent a lot of his time grooming to be a good secretary of state. I don't see any downside to this nomination, “said Republican Senator Richard Burr.
The compliments fired in Kerry’s direction reflect a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of a man who was lambasted by Republicans on his way to losing the 2004 presidential election to George W Bush.
Back then Kerry, who was educated in elite East Coast boarding schools before attending Yale University, was portrayed by his rivals as an over-privileged windsurfing liberal.
The former county prosecutor is one of the wealthiest members of the Senate, largely thanks to his second wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, a philanthropist and Ketchup heiress.
During that 2004 race for the White House Kerry’s military record during his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War was also called into question. His candidacy for the White House was also dogged by his much publicised anti-Vietnam war stance in April 1971 when he testified before Congress and even famously threw away some of his medals.
Kerry was also attacked by Republicans for his French connections (see video). Kerry, whose mother was born and raised in France, was portrayed as being anti-patriotic after he followed the line of the then French President Jacques Chirac in opposing the second Iraq War.
French Foreign Secretary Laurent Fabius welcomed Kerry's appointment acknowledging the senator's "personal commitment to Franco-American friendship".
Choppy waters ahead
Similarly to his predecessor Hillary Clinton, an expanding and troublesome list of problems awaits Kerry when he takes up his post in the New Year.
Kerry will have to confront a raft of global crises with the worrying standoff with Iran over its nuclear program near the top of the list.
The incoming secretary of state may seek new talks with Tehran aimed at averting a confrontation that could draw in US ally Israel and plunge the Middle East into all-out war.
Dealing with the fallout from the ongoing civil war in Syria will also be high on Kerry’s list of priorities and he will also face the task of mapping out the next phase of US relations with Russia and China.
Foreign relations with the Far East giant will be crucial if Kerry wants to tackle climate change, an issue close to his heart, which he has tried to take on in the past without much success.
During his tenure as head of the Foreign Relations Committee Kerry cast climate change as a national security threat, joining forces with Republicans on legislation, that eventually faced too many obstacles to achieve passage through Congress.
Kerry will also face the personal challenge of succeeding Clinton, who has become one of Obama’s most popular and most visible Cabinet secretaries during her four years in office.
But if anyone is qualified enough to fill her shoes then Kerry, Obama’s “perfect choice”, appears to be the right fit.