Obama Turns to Global Traveler Kerry This Time Around

Senator John Kerry
From Afghanistan and Pakistan to Sudan and China, Kerry, 69, has made at least 30 trips abroad over the past four years, often serving as an unofficial special envoy for the Obama administration. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Months after passing over Senator John Kerry for a Cabinet post in 2009, President Barack Obama turned to the Massachusetts senator to warn Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai that U.S. support was at risk.

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee coaxed Karzai into agreeing to a runoff after a contested presidential election. Kerry “made the kind of difference diplomacy can make,” Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said in an interview.

From Afghanistan and Pakistan to Sudan and China, Kerry, 69, has made at least 30 trips abroad over the past four years, often serving as an unofficial special envoy for the Obama administration. Today, the president made it official, saying he will nominate Kerry to replace the departing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

“Over these many years, John’s earned the respect and confidence of leaders around the world,” Obama said, with Kerry at his side at the White House. “He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training.”

Republican colleagues predicted in advance of Kerry’s nomination that he would easily win Senate confirmation.

“I don’t foresee a big obstacle,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who will become the No. 2 Republican leader in January, said in an interview. “He’s been a good and effective senator.”

Patrician Manner

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who first became known nationally as a critic of that war, has been steeped in foreign policy issues throughout his career. Traits Republicans ridiculed in his failed presidential campaign in 2004 -- his patrician manner, his fine-grained parsing of language, even his occasional tendency to lapse into French to choose the mot juste -- may wear well on the international diplomatic circuit.

Kerry will be able to follow in the footsteps of Clinton, who is effective partly because she’s a well-known figure globally, according to Joseph Nye, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Kerry is “a distinguished senator and he’s seen as having a political presence of his own, which is very helpful,” Nye, a former Defense and State Department official who has known Kerry for 20 years, said in an interview.

On foreign policy, Kerry shares Obama’s preference for working through multinational alliances and for avoiding open-ended engagement, such as the Iraq war they both opposed.

“Ideologically, he and the president are in a very similar place,” James Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said in an interview.

Syria Caution

Kerry’s approach to U.S. intervention abroad has been reflected in his comments on the war in Syria, where he has shared Obama’s reluctance about direct military involvement.

“It would be important not to repeat the mistakes of the past by thinking we can just willy-nilly commit some forces to a conflict without a definition or achievable objective,” Kerry said at a committee hearing on Aug. 1.

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.

Clinton Chosen

In 2008, Kerry backed Obama over front-runner Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, only to see Obama reach out and choose Clinton as his first-term secretary of state. In this year’s presidential campaign, Obama prepared for debates with Kerry playing the role of Republican opponent Mitt Romney.

“Nothing brings two people closer together than weeks of debate prep,” Obama said today.

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.

“Having served with valor in Vietnam, he understands that we have a responsibility to use American power wisely, especially our military power,” Obama said today.

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.

‘Last to Die’

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Kerry said in April 1971, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he would one day lead. On that visit to Washington, he joined other veterans who threw their medals and ribbons over a fence at the Capitol to protest 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. For years, he was overshadowed in Washington by the state’s senior senator, Edward M. Kennedy, who died in 2009.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, Republicans portrayed Kerry as flip-flopping on funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They seized on his comment in March 2004 that “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Kerry said his “inarticulate” phrasing referred to his support for an unsuccessful Democratic alternative that would have offset war costs by reducing Bush’s tax cuts.

Among Wealthiest

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.

Kerry and Senator John McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran, traveled to Hanoi in 1993. They visited the prison where McCain was held as a prisoner of war for six years. Kerry and McCain, an Arizona Republican, worked together for the normalization of Vietnam-U.S. relations that occurred two years later.

Kerry became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, when Joe Biden left the post to become Obama’s vice president.

In February 2009, Kerry was the highest-level U.S. official to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007. He didn’t meet with Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Afghanistan Dinners

On his visit to Afghanistan in 2009, Kerry met with Karzai five times over five days, including twice over dinner, to broker the terms of a runoff election. Obama later said Kerry was “extraordinarily constructive and very helpful.”

In May 2011, Kerry was the first high-level U.S. official to visit Pakistan amid bilateral strains following the May 2 killing there of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs.

At the Capitol, Kerry worked with the Foreign Relations panel’s top Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, on issues such as a strategic arms control treaty with Russia that they ushered through the chamber in December 2010.

Kerry tried unsuccessfully to push through the Senate legislation intended to curb global climate change. As secretary of state, Kerry may be able to revive interest in the subject as “the recession recedes and you’ve more reminders like Hurricane Sandy,” Nye said.

Kerry also may help negotiate a “status of forces agreement” for U.S. forces to maintain a role in Afghanistan after most troops are withdrawn in 2014, Nye said.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is in line to replace Lugar as top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee next month, said Kerry is clearly qualified for the Cabinet post.

“He’s lived a life of involvement in diplomacy and issues related to foreign relations,” Corker said.

(Updates with Kerry and McCain traveling to Vietnam in second paragraph after ‘Among Wealthiest’ subheadline.)
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