John Kerry won confirmation from his fellow U.S. senators as secretary of state, succeeding Hillary Clinton as the top U.S. diplomat.
With Kerry easily winning Senate confirmation, attention will turn to Obama’s more contentious choices for other national security positions. Confirmation hearings are scheduled on Jan. 31 for former Senator Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense and on Feb. 7 for John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who will replace Kerry as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised Kerry today as “uniquely qualified” for the job because he has “already built relationships with leaders across the world.”
Menendez cited Kerry’s wartime service in Vietnam as having schooled him in the horrors of war and the importance of using diplomacy when possible. He also said that Kerry, during his years in the Senate, led investigations into drug trafficking and money-laundering by former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, as well as into criminal wrongdoing at BCCI, an international bank that was closed by regulators.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee, also praised Kerry’s readiness for the job, while predicting they won’t always agree on policy. Corker referred to inadequate security at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that was attacked in September as an example of weaknesses at the State Department that Kerry will need to overhaul.
Kerry will inherit a “sclerotic” State Department “that needs some oversight,” Corker said.
Cornyn, one of the three “no” votes, said in an e-mailed statement that Kerry “has a long history of liberal positions.” Cruz, another of the opponents, said Kerry has supported “treaties and international tribunals that have undermined U.S. sovereignty.”
On foreign policy, Kerry shares President Barack Obama’s preference for working through multinational alliances and for avoiding open-ended engagement, such as the Iraq war. Kerry’s approach to U.S. intervention abroad has been reflected by his comments on the war in Syria, in which he has reflected Obama’s reluctance about direct military involvement.
Kerry and Obama have political bonds dating to 2004, when the senator gave Obama his breakthrough opportunity as the keynote speaker at the Democratic convention that nominated Kerry for president. The speech turned Obama, a state senator from Illinois running for the U.S. Senate, into a national political star.
The president today called Kerry a “champion of American global leadership” in a statement released by the White House after the confirmation vote.
“John has earned the respect of leaders around the world and the confidence of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and I am confident he will make an extraordinary Secretary of State,” Obama said.
After graduating from Yale University, Kerry volunteered for the Navy. In two tours of duty in Vietnam, he rose to the rank of lieutenant and served on a Swift Boat that traveled treacherous river deltas. He was decorated with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
Kerry came to see the war he fought as futile, and on his return to the U.S. he became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Kerry made an unsuccessful bid for a House seat from Massachusetts the following year, then worked as a prosecutor before being elected lieutenant governor in 1982 and senator in 1984.
In 2008, Kerry backed Obama over front-runner Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, only to see Obama choose Clinton as his first-term secretary of state. Clinton is planning to depart the post within days, and Kerry is to resign his Senate seat on Feb. 1, according to his resignation letter read on the Senate floor today.
Largely because of the wealth of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Kerry is one of the richest members of Congress. His net worth was at least $181.5 million in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
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