WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday nominated Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state in his second term, calling the Vietnam veteran and onetime presidential contender the “perfect choice to guide American diplomacy.”
Kerry’s nomination was all but assured after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, once considered a shoo-in to succeed Hillary Clinton, withdrew her name from consideration amid intense Republican opposition that would’ve ensured an ugly Senate confirmation process.
Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat known for his gravitas and statesmanship, isn’t likely to face such opposition, and Obama told him Friday that he was “confident the Senate will confirm you quickly.”
Kerry’s bigger challenge would come after confirmation, as Clinton’s replacement will inherit a department that’s just been slammed by an independent panel on the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. posts in Libya. He would be in charge of fixing the serious, systemic leadership problems the investigating panel found at State, while also finding ways to boost the morale of a diplomatic corps that’s still reeling from the killing of a popular ambassador and the fallout from the report’s harsh criticisms.
And then there’s the Syrian civil war, North Korean posturing, Iranian nuclear ambitions, North African political transitions and strained relations with Russia, to name but a few of the urgent foreign policy issues he’ll confront. Kerry also would have to manage the so-far unsuccessful effort to negotiate a political settlement to the war in Afghanistan, a conflict in which he has invested considerable personal attention.
Obama, speaking at the White House, said Kerry’s military background, family ties to the Foreign Service, “extraordinarily distinguished” Senate career and chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee make him the ideal pick to serve as America’s top diplomat.
“John’s played a central role in every major foreign policy debate for nearly 30 years,” Obama said. “As we turn the page on a decade of war, he understands that we’ve got to harness all elements of American power and ensure that they’re working together – diplomatic and development, economic and political, military and intelligence, as well as the power of our values which inspire so many people around the world.”
Obama was expected to have unveiled his full national security team Friday, but the administration has run into snags with former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a leading contender for defense secretary who’s facing growing opposition related to his statements on Israel and gays. On Friday, Hagel issued an apology for remarks he made in 1998 about a gay ambassadorial nominee, saying they “do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record.”
Analysts say that by announcing Kerry’s nomination separately, Obama sets him apart from candidates who could face a thornier path to Senate confirmation. Kerry, 69, and his wife, Teresa Heinz, 74, stood next to Obama as the nomination was announced but didn’t make any remarks. Kerry chuckled when Obama riffed that the two had become close during weeks of debate preparation – Kerry was the stand-in for Mitt Romney in mock debates during Obama’s second presidential campaign.
One question that swirled as Kerry’s name was put forth for secretary was: What happens to his Senate seat? Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick would appoint a temporary senator, and an election to fill the Kerry seat would have to be held later in 2013, probably in June. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., is expected to try to regain the seat he is leaving Jan. 3 – he lost in November to Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Brown had won his seat in a special election in 2010, after Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy died.
Several prominent Democrats could vie for the seat, including Reps. Edward Markey, Mike Capuano and Stephen Lynch. Actor Ben Affleck also has been mentioned.
Senate reaction to the Kerry nomination was overwhelmingly positive, hardly a surprise for a colleague who’s been serving since 1985. Traditionally, the Senate confirms presidential appointees with strong bipartisan votes. Most senators believe that voters have spoken, elected a president, and therefore he’s entitled to his team.
They often won’t say how they’re voting to confirm prior to hearings, but Friday, they came awfully close.
“We have known John Kerry for many years. We have confidence in John Kerry’s ability to carry out the job,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Kerry was the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee – and routinely criticized by Republicans – and McCain was the Republicans’ 2008 nominee against Obama, but the two have long been friendly.
Other conservatives had similarly warm words.
“I don’t anticipate any surprises,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Foreign Relations Committee member. “Sen. Kerry was a very, very solid choice by the president,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Kerry was a “popular choice with the Senate.”
Kerry and Republicans clashed at times on policy, most notably over the Iraq war effort. Such disagreements, McCain said, hardly disqualify him.
“My view will not be based on differences of opinion,” he said.
Kerry’s nomination will be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a panel he has led for the last four years. Likely to chair the panel during confirmation proceedings is Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
The top Republican will be Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, known for his temperate approach. Corker was one of the few Republicans recently who said Rice, the U.N. ambassador who withdrew from consideration, at least deserved a hearing should she be tapped for State.
The hearings are likely to involve the controversy over the U.S. role in protecting Americans at the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in Sept. 11 attacks. Republicans continued to raise major questions about security Friday, but they did not mention the turmoil when they pivoted and discussed Kerry.
Cynthia P. Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands who’s now a distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, said the complex issue of diplomatic security is magnified now because of the Benghazi tragedy, but that it shouldn’t overshadow other pressing U.S. interests.
Schneider said one priority should be trying to craft better policy toward the Arab and North African political transitions, which she said began with aspirations toward U.S.-style democracy and now are continuing with little or no U.S. leverage – a threat to national security as militants and hard-line Islamists drown out the moderate voices.
“It’s tragic that, in these countries now, the United States is not only not the model, it’s the enemy,” Schneider said. “Losing our soft-power position of moral authority is really regrettable.”
She added that she’s counting on Kerry to address that with a “multi-layered approach” that draws on his record of engaging actors beyond just his governmental counterparts.
Only the day before his nomination, Kerry presided over a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Benghazi attacks. Though everyone in the room was aware that his nomination was likely imminent, it wasn’t mentioned once as senators quizzed senior State Department officials on an independent panel’s findings that security was “grossly inadequate” at the U.S. posts in Benghazi.
However, Kerry offered a preview of his vision for the State Department in opening remarks that focused on the necessity of striking a balance between a proudly “expeditionary” diplomatic corps and the need for greater security in high-risk posts around the world. He pointedly and repeatedly mentioned the need for Congress to approve sufficient funding for the State Department, one issue of contention as Republicans balk that too many resources there are squandered without enough oversight.
“There will always be a tension between the diplomatic imperative to get ‘outside the wire’ and the security standards that require our diplomats to work behind high walls, concertina wire and full body searches,” Kerry said at the hearing. “We do not want to concertina-wire America off from the world. Our challenge is to strike a balance between the necessity of the mission, available resources and tolerance for risk.”
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.