In many ways, John Kerry has lived the greatest foreign policy challenges of his generation. The son of a foreign service officer, he spent much of his childhood in the divided Cold War city of Berlin. Boyish mischief for him was riding his bike into the Soviet-controlled sector of the city. As a young man, recently graduated from Yale University, Kerry enlisted in the Navy and probed the rivers of Vietnam in enemy territory. The haunting memories of that war compelled him to wrestle at a young age with existential questions about the use of American military power. As a 28-year-old, during the height of the tumult over the Vietnam War, he gave dignified voice to misgivings about the war, famously asking in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Kerry has grappled with those questions of war and peace, confrontation and compromise, and occupation and abandonment ever since, perhaps most notably as a presidential nominee during some of the darkest days of the war in Iraq. Few in Washington share his depth and breadth of foreign experience. At age 69, he has spent nearly half his life — 27 years — on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is, in short, eminently qualified to be secretary of state, and he should be quickly confirmed by his former Senate colleagues. He’ll be an able replacement for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served as President Obama’s partner in the major diplomatic challenges of his first term.
Kerry brings a long list of his own achivements in foreign policy. They include coaxing Vietnam to provide unprecedented access to files to determine the fate of Americans missing in action, negotiating an end to the impasse over the election results in Afghanistan with Hamid Karzai, keeping the lines of dialogue open with key figures in Pakistan at a time of worsening relations, and successful shuttle diplomacy to prevent Sudan from sliding back into civil war.
Kerry shares Obama’s willingness to engage America’s enemies. He was the first senior American government official to meet with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Although his tendency towards dialogue has sparked some criticisim — notably for his friendly dinners with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus before the current turmoil — US interests are better served by leaders who are willing to test the possibility of improved relations rather than those who are unwilling to think outside the status quo.
Kerry takes the helm of US foreign policy in what is arguably the most challenging foreign policy environment in recent memory. Intractable conflicts drag on in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program is looming. The Arab world is in turmoil. The European Union teeters on the edge of economic dissolution.
But Kerry, who has coveted this assignment for years, bring priceless assets. At a time of budget cuts, his experience navigating Capitol Hill will prove crucial for obtaining financial support for missions abroad. At a time of instability in the Muslim world, his reputation as a nuanced, open-minded thinker will help craft a US image as a honest broker. At a time of continuing danger, his six years on the Senate Intelligence Committee will ensure that his diplomatic outreach will be done with full appreciation of what traps could lie ahead. All this makes Kerry the right person for this job at this moment in history.