WASHINGTON—By a number of traditional measures, John F. Kerry, a decorated veteran and long-serving senator, is qualified to be secretary of defense.
But recent reports that President Obama is considering the Bay State’s senior senator to run the Pentagon during his second term puzzled many longtime defense watchers and political analysts who assumed Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was on a very short list to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“He has a lot of international experience, but defense experience is another matter,” said David Schenker, a Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration and now a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think it is an odd choice.”
Kerry himself, according to a former aide, was not expecting his name to be in placed in the running for secretary of defense, nor has he mentioned the desire to be in charge of the armed forces. The former aide asked to not be identified in order to freely discuss any possible nomination.
The reports baffled some of Kerry’s fellow senators.
“I certainly was surprised about hearing it,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican of New Hampshire and member of the Armed Services Committee, which would oversee any nomination for defense secretary. “I thought he was being talked about for secretary of state. We’re just going to have to wait to see what the president does.”
Reports by NBC News and the Washington Post, citing unnamed White House officials, say Kerry is being considered to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who is expected to leave next year. Meanwhile, the reports said UN Ambassador Susan Rice is Obama’s likely choice to replace Clinton.
Rice, a longtime Obama confidante, has become a lightning rod for Republicans demanding more answers about the attack on the US consulate in Libya in September. Rice gave conflicting public explanations about the attack that killed the American ambassador and three others—first describing it as a response to an anti-Muslim video before calling it an unprovoked terrorist attack.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned on Sunday that GOP senators would use a Rice nomination to investigate the Benghazi affair and whether the Obama administration sought to cover up information that could have hurt his reelection chances.
Some say the reports could be a way to gauge the reaction to a Rice nomination.
“They don’t want to be seen throwing Susan Rice under the bus. They want to give a clear message that she is not being ruled out,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a 2004 biography of Kerry. “It keep both their names out there in a positive way.”
Kerry has been a prominent advocate for the White House in diplomatic visits to several world hot-spots, including Afghanistan. He has not, however, had such deep ties with the Pentagon.
“Kerry has not been involved in any significant way on defense issues for the past 20 years,” said a long-serving senior department official who asked not to be named. “I never met with him or received a call—or placed a call—to him.”
The official said that confirmation hearings for any nomination of Kerry as defense secretary would be ugly, dredging up the divisiveness that characterized his run for the presidency in 2004, when some of his fellow Vietnam veterans attacked him for later protesting the war, accusing the military of war crimes, and throwing his medals away on the Capitol grounds.
Some supporters of his rival in 2004, President Bush, organized an advertising campaign that questioned Kerry’s service and exploits as a Navy officer.
“It will ignite all the ‘swift boat’ people and bring that squarely into defense issues,” the official added. “The president may feel this is a way to vindicate Senator Kerry and clear that record, but I suspect it will be stormy and difficult.”
Other commentators were more flippant in their criticism of the possible posting.
Michael Yon, a former special forces soldier now serving as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, remarked, “John Kerry Eyed for [Secretary of Defense]... What next? Michael Moore for Director of CIA?”
But Kerry is seen as a shoe-in for the State Department job if Obama if forced to pass over Rice, his apparent favorite.
“I still think Kerry is aiming to be secretary of state,” Brinkley added. “It seems to me at a time when you are placing Hillary Clinton, a figure of such world renown, you want to replace her with someone with a deeply credentialed reputation and can work with Congress.”
Others said Kerry would be highly qualified for either position.
“He has been in this arena for a long time,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama and member of the Armed Services Committee.
When the Senate Armed Services chairman, Carl Levin of Michigan, was asked whether he preferred Kerry at state or defense, he replied. “Yes.”
As Kerry passed through a throng of reporters on the way to hearings he’s holding on the Benghazi attack at the Foreign Relations Committee, he declined to answer questions and an aide shooed the press away.