National Security

Secretary Of State Role A Natural Fit For John Kerry

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President Obama is nominating Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Already a seasoned diplomat, he has been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has frequently jetted off to Afghanistan and Pakistan whenever the Obama administration needed him.


President Obama is beginning to assemble a national security team for his second term. And he's nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to be the next secretary of State. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Mr. Kerry is likely to sail through his confirmation process.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As President Obama points out, John Kerry won't need a lot of on-the-job training.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In a sense, John's entire life has prepared him for this role. As the son of a foreign service officer, he has a deep respect for the men and women of the State Department, the role they play in advancing our interests and values, the risks that they undertake.

KELEMEN: Kerry didn't speak during that White House announcement, but a day earlier he chaired a hearing on Benghazi, and of the scathing report about the security failings the night the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others were killed. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, says diplomats need to be safe but can't be walled off in fortress embassies.

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: I distinctly remember feeling and seeing the difficulty of this in Vietnam where villagers would examine us suspiciously and give us a stare, an unmistakable stare.

KELEMEN: And he says he has seen that stare more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. officials rumble through villages in Humvees with heavily armed guards.

KERRY: I'll tell you, every diplomat worth their salt feels this tension and worries about the misimpression our security footprint can create in the minds of the very people that we're trying to reach; an impression that is starkly revealed on their faces when you're surrounded by gun-toting security personnel.

KELEMEN: Kerry has been grooming himself for this job. He's taken numerous trips to help the Obama administration smooth over tensions with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan, but critics, including Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution says Kerry has been a bit too eager to engage the likes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

FOUAD AJAMI: Since America in the era of Obama wanted to court the Iranians and wanted to court the Syrians, basically, John Kerry gave himself the assignment of being the link to Damascus.

KELEMEN: And Ajami thinks Kerry was snookered into believing that the Syrian leader was a reformer. It took many months into Assad's brutal crackdown before Kerry and the administration made clear that Assad had lost his legitimacy to rule Syria. But engaging with governments, even bad ones, is the job of American's top diplomat, says Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And he says world leaders appreciate Kerry because he listens.

VALI NASR: And those are the qualities they want to see in an American interlocutor. They want to see somebody who's going to come and get off the plane, dictate terms to them, not listen and leave, who is unsympathetic to their problems. I think in him they correctly see an American diplomat.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Clinton, who's recovering from a concussion, was not at the White House for the announcement. She issued a statement calling Kerry an excellent choice, who has helped the administration navigate a fast-changing Middle East. While analysts debate Clinton's legacy, Nasr credits her with generating momentum in foreign policy.

NASR: Kerry has some hard shoes to fill, but I think he's the person who's closest to being able to carry the momentum that she's created.

KELEMEN: And it will be good to have someone with Kerry's stature, he says, because President Obama has a long list of domestic issues on his agenda.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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