Kerry, a Strong Choice for Diplomacy

President Obama’s choice of Sen. John Kerry to be Secretary of State puts a former Vietnam veteran who spoke out against the war in a key U.S. foreign policy position. Kerry’s long career also suggests Obama wants the world to know that he will emphasize diplomacy in his second term, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Time was when the position of Secretary of State was regarded as so important in the American political scheme of things that it was the best stepping-stone to the presidency. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth presidents of the United States had all been secretaries of state, with the last three of them moving directly from that job to the White House.

When the last one in that series, John Quincy Adams, became president, the job that he gave to the presidential aspirant, Henry Clay, whose eventual support was critical in Adams winning the confusing election of 1824 was that of Secretary of State.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, nominee to be Secretary of State.

Having such high political significance attached to this particular Cabinet position was mainly a feature of the early decades of the Republic. The only other secretaries of state who would later ascend to the presidency were Martin Van Buren (who besides being Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson, the man who would defeat Adams in 1828, was also his political manager, second vice president, and successor) and James Buchanan (who was Secretary under James Polk in the 1840s).

That pattern ended not so much because the job of Secretary of State changed but rather because the process and politics of presidential selection changed. Jackson’s defeat of Adams marked the beginning of an era of modern politicking in which simple themes with popular resonance beat out brilliance and accomplishment, especially accomplishment in foreign affairs.

Perhaps the job of Secretary of State is nonetheless in the process of regaining a bit of its old political standing. John Kerry, whose confirmation as Secretary of State seems highly likely, will never become president but has already been the presidential nominee of one of the two major parties. He has the most national and international political stature of anyone who was seriously considered to succeed Hillary Clinton.

Clinton herself came close to being a national presidential nominee and is now one of the first names mentioned in the early betting on the election of 2016. Go back two predecessors before Clinton and you have Colin Powell, who would have made an excellent president and certainly was frequently mentioned as such, although he probably recognized that he did not have the traits of a good presidential candidate, which, unfortunately for us, are not the same as the traits of a good president.

Three of the last four secretaries of state being presidential timber may be enough to be called a new pattern.

People who will support Kerry’s nomination will have various reasons for doing so, including the Republicans who want to get Scott Brown back in the Senate. And of course there will be widely varying opinions about the policies he will initiate and execute as Secretary. But the restoration of some of the political standing of the position of Secretary of State has at least three advantages.

One, it tells the rest of the world that the United States considers its relations with the rest of the world to be important.

Two, it tells the American people that relations with the rest of the world are important.

Three, with the person in the highest councils of government having responsibility for foreign relations being someone of political stature and clout, this increases the chance that the foreign implications and repercussions of everything the United States does will be sufficiently taken into account before it does them.

There is no guarantee this will happen, we should remember Powell’s sad relationship with the White House during the George W. Bush administration, but the chance is greater than it otherwise would be.

And this is important because U.S. interests are affected in significant ways by foreign repercussions and reactions to many things the United States does that are not ostensibly part of foreign policy, from homeland security measures to presidential speeches intended for domestic audiences.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


6 comments for “Kerry, a Strong Choice for Diplomacy

  1. Vivek Jain
    December 27, 2012 at 16:03

    Paul Pillar writes “Colin Powell…would have made an excellent president”

    You discredit yourself, Mr. Pillar.

    Have you not read the series on Colin Powell available at Consortiumnews?
    Check it out:

  2. Vivek Jain
    December 27, 2012 at 15:56

    Mr. Pillar:

    the anti-war John Kerry of the 70s is not the same John Kerry of today. Please don’t have such disrespect for your readers.

    In the following article from 2004, Arundhati Roy exposed Kerry to be Bush-Lite.â„¢

  3. Philip Feeley
    December 25, 2012 at 09:09

    Colin Powell “would have made an excellent president” ?? Really? The guy who lied to the UN about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”? That guy?

    You’re delusional if you think any of these elitists make good presidents. They make good lackeys just wanting to grab more profit by gradually increasing the number of citizens with less.

    Go back and think again. This simply will not do.

  4. Paul G.
    December 24, 2012 at 15:28

    This is most unfortunate. According to Israel Hayom, the Israeli Prime Minister has given his blessing to the choice “I welcome the nomination of John Kerry to the post of U.S. secretary of state. Kerry has considerable experience and is a known supporter of the security of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

    This says it all. On the other hand he did not join 73 other Senators by signing an AIPAC statement urging a continuation of pressure on Iran. So he might be the perfect person to set limits on Netanyahu-not holding my breath though as it would be totally shocking for any recent US administration to stand up to Israel. Can’t expect much more. The last President who really stood up to Israel(and the MIC) was JFK, look what happened to him

    Kerry’s Vietnam experience(not the Swifters’ version) is odd or maybe opportunistic. In Yale he was against the war but did not want to resist the draft- not good for a future political career- and signed up for Naval Reserve. He was assigned to a Frigate off the coast of Vietnam, nice and safe, minimum involvement; but then requested assignment to the Swift boats which ended up in the thick of it. Some think he saw the little patrol boats and thought he could pull a JFK PT 109. While commanding he beached the boat and ran off into the jungle and killed a Vietnamese who had pointed a rpg at them but didn’t fire. Captains are not supposed to abandon their ship, luckily for him and his crew he wasn’t being suckered into an ambush.

    He did do good service speaking out and testifying before Congress against the war afterwards.

    On a positive note he is head and shoulders above that career climber Susan Rice, and a vast improvement in stature, experience and style to Hillary. But with Congressional gridlock and his seniority he would be much more useful and moral staying in the Senate with Elizabeth Warren.

  5. norskmann
    December 23, 2012 at 15:55

    Numerous problems contained within this article… perhaps the most egregious being:

    “Go back two predecessors before Clinton and you have Colin Powell, who would have made an excellent president and certainly was frequently mentioned as such, although he probably recognized that he did not have the traits of a good presidential candidate — which, unfortunately for us, are not the same as the traits of a good president.” Paul R. Pillar

    No doubt that the psychopath, war criminal and apologist for empire and its crimes against humanity Colin Powell would fulfill the role of the US CEO in making the world safe for corrupt, crony, predatory capitalism on the backs, bodies and misery of the peoples of the world… as has become the norm for ALL US CEOs…

  6. Peter Loeb
    December 23, 2012 at 07:41

    What is significant is the assertion by the second Obama administration that its pro-Israeli and anti-resistance policies so firmly established during the
    reign of the previous Secretary shall continue. Kerry’s youthful criticism
    of the War in Vietnam is no longer relevant if it ever was. Kerry, known as “the Senator from AIPAC” and to the current PM of Israel as a “personal
    friend”, will not put himself in position to engage in serious diplomacy with
    Iran, with Egypt’s new government, with Syria, with Russia and China and the nations of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization(SCO) whose nations come from one half of the planet, with Syria and in opposition to the terrorists currently supported by the United States Government. It will be the “same old,same old.”

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