WASHINGTON – Within four months of becoming a U.S. senator in 1985, John Kerry had traveled to both of that year’s foreign policy hot spots. In Nicaragua, he sought a deal he hoped would end the Reagan administration’s “contra” war. In the Philippines, he concluded that U.S. support for the decades-long dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos had to end.
Marcos was out within a year, thanks in no small measure to Kerry’s efforts. The demise of the contras took considerably longer.
Kerry, 69, has tempered the approach he adopted as a freshman firebrand. But he has continued to practice personal, face-to-face diplomacy, often in the service of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere, he has used his stature as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to carry messages, gather information and smooth ruffled feathers for the president.
“In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role,” Obama said Friday in nominating Kerry to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “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.”
Kerry, Obama said, “is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training.”
The Massachusetts Democrat will probably slip smoothly into the job, with quick confirmation expected from the chamber where he has served for nearly three decades and has broad bipartisan support.
It is a position he has eagerly sought, even if being America’s top diplomat was not the highest aspiration of a man for whom the presidency itself was once within reach. Asked several weeks ago by the White House if he would consider becoming defense secretary, Kerry declined and indicated his strong preference for the State Department job, a senior administration official said.
The offer he was waiting for finally came within days after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the leading contender for the post, withdrew her name from consideration.
Despite signals that Obama was likely to put forth nominees for two or more national security posts together, Kerry’s was the only name announced Friday.
Obama has made no decision on a nominee to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and an announcement is unlikely before the first of the year, said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Panetta has said he is eager to return to his home in California but has put no date on his departure.
Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, reportedly at the top of a short list of candidates to lead the Pentagon, has run into bipartisan opposition over past statements he has made about Iran, Israel and gay rights.
In a brief ceremony in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Obama praised Kerry, the son of a U.S. diplomat, for his military service in Vietnam and work decades later restoring diplomatic relations with that country.
Obama credited Kerry with inviting “a young U.S. senator from Illinois” to give the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in which Kerry was nominated for president, an appearance that launched Obama onto the national stage.
Colleagues of both men have said the two are friendly but not especially close. Obama joked that they had had a lot of forced togetherness as he prepared for this year’s campaign debates and Kerry served as a stand-in for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Kerry did not speak at the lectern, but he exited with Obama after a handshake.
A second Obama administration official described Kerry as “an incredible team player” in support of the president’s foreign policy the past four years. “He’s taken on a whole bunch of assignments, done them discretely and done them in full coordination with us.”
At home, Kerry also served as point man for passage of the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that Obama signed last year, and he has been a consistently strong voice for U.S. and international action on climate change.
In the months since Clinton announced she would not serve a second term, Kerry has been particularly careful to allow little daylight to emerge between his own views and those of the administration. But he is known to be frustrated with what he sees as the need for more assertive U.S. leadership in the world.
He is expected to push for more aggressive, direct U.S. involvement on the interconnected challenges of Iran’s nuclear program, upheavals in Syria, Egypt and other Arab Spring countries, and dim prospects for an Arab-Israeli peace.
If confirmed, Kerry would take over a department stretched by short budgets and rising security costs overseas, and a diplomatic corps still reeling from the death of Christopher Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, during the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
A former top State Department official said that “good internal management of the department” could be a challenge for Kerry. “It’s very different running a Senate staff and running a big agency,” he said. “Senators have unique challenges, but they’re used to a world that revolves around them, and they have a staff, not a team.”
Clinton, who has been out sick for the past two weeks and did not appear at the ceremony, released a statement calling Kerry an uncommonly gifted and experienced public servant.
“He has forged strong relationships with leaders around the world,” Clinton said. “As I have learned, being able to talk candidly as someone who has won elections and also lost them is an enormous asset when engaging with emerging or fragile democracies.”
Kerry’s rise in the Senate took an ultimately painful detour in the grueling 2004 presidential race that gave George W. Bush a second term. After nursing the wounds of a campaign in which Republicans called him an untrustworthy flip-flopper and fellow-Democrats bemoaned his image as an aloof patrician, Kerry renewed his focus on international affairs.
Considered a candidate for secretary of state in Obama’s first Cabinet in 2008, he was overtaken by Clinton. But he moved into the powerful committee chairmanship when Vice President Joe Biden departed the Senate.
Kerry first burst onto the national stage in 1971 when he appeared before that same committee as a 27-year-old combat veteran to denounce the architects of the Vietnam War. Since then, he has rarely been out of the limelight. He lost a 1972 congressional race, and spent a stint as a prosecutor before scoring his first electoral victory as Massachusetts lieutenant governor under Michael Dukakis in 1982. Two years later, he won his Senate seat.
In the late 1980s, Kerry used his position as a foreign relations subcommittee chairman to enlist staff investigators to look for links between the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan “contras” and drug smuggling. An investigation of money laundering involving Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and the Pakistan-based Bank of Credit and Commerce International, while derided by many of his colleagues at the time, led to BCCI’s collapse in 1991. Many other investigations followed over the years, including more recent inquiries into U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
Kerry has frequently referred to his decorated Vietnam service as a “swift boat” officer patrolling the waters of the Mekong Delta. “The question of being ready and certain is important to many of us of the Vietnam generation,” he said in opposing the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. “We come to this debate with a measure of distrust, with some skepticism, with a searing commitment to ask honest questions and with a resolve to get satisfactory answers so that we are not misled again.”
Although Kerry voted in favor of the second war against Iraq in 2003, he later opposed it, leading to flip-flop allegations during his presidential campaign.
He has almost always ended up in close proximity to Obama’s foreign policy positions, although not always at the same moment. Kerry pushed for establishing a no-fly zone in Libya, and called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power before Obama took those positions.
Even when relations with countries such as Egypt and Pakistan have gone through difficult patches, he has been a leading voice for the use of economic assistance as a primary foreign policy tool.
In July 2011, he described expenditures on the Afghanistan war as “unsustainable,” and called for Obama to accelerate plans for U.S. troop withdrawal.
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