The more I think about it, the more I think John Kerry was a great choice for Obama's second-term secretary of state. Granted, he wasn't the president's first choice. But Obama may have stumbled into a pretty good decision.
The main reason is that Obama's second term is going to involve a number of lines of sensitive, patient diplomacy that could be politically unpopular at home, or at least easy to attack. Let's take them one by one.
First, there's the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which may or may not involve serious discussions with the Taliban. If it happens, and depending on the parameters of that conversation, that's going to be hugely politically risky, and controversial even within the Obama administration itself. I'm not as optimistic as David Ignatius, but there are already signs that at least some factions of the Taliban are willing to come to the table, if only to explore their options. Kerry knows this terrain well, having managed to develop good relations with both Karzai and the Pakistani leadership.
Second, Iran. Kerry has long thought that the United States needed to find a way to strike a deal. He's skeptical that military action will work. He understands all too well the limits of sanctions. I think he's willing to get creative, and really try to exhaust all options before he signs on for a bombing campaign. He won't just check the diplomacy box -- I think he will really give negotiations a chance to play out.
Third, North Korea. The Obama administration's approach has been "strategic patience" -- a fancy way of saying do little and hope for the best. There were some good arguments for waiting out the North Koreans, chief among them that the South Koreans wanted to take a different tack. But it hasn't worked, and now even the conservative president-elect, Park Geun-hye, wants to explore engagement once again. The United States will be under pressure to join in.
Fourth, Syria. If the administration is serious about brokering some kind of negotiated solution (and it's far from clear this is the case), it will require some pretty deft multidimensional diplomacy with the regime, various factions of rebels, the neighbors, the Europeans, the Iranians, and the Russians. File this one under "mission impossible." But Kerry has been out ahead of the administration on Syria, at least. Maybe he'll be able to make the case for a more less terrible strategy.
Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a dog of an issue, and it seems very far from solvable at the moment. Obama would be foolish to have another tilt at a peace deal. But the Middle East has a way of dragging you in against your will. As long as it is propping up the Palestinian Authority and sending hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Israel, the United States won't be able to walk away from this mess. Kerry will need to find a way to at least credibly pretend that the Obama administration has a strategy -- and above all, work to prevent things from getting worse.
These are hard problems, and they are exactly the sorts of thankless tasks that Kerry excels at -- the kind that Hillary Clinton was either too busy thinking about 2016, spread too thin, or too disempowered by the White House to do much about. Remember: She wasn't a diplomat when she took the Foggy Bottom job; she was a politician. Yes, she has excelled at public diplomacy -- "townterviews" and the like. That was important in the wake of the Bush years. And yes, the State Department has done some solid diplomatic work in Asia under Clinton's watch. But there are only a few episodes (that we know of) where the secretary's personal, private involvement was crucial to a deal. In one of these cases, the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, she had a strong incentive to get involved -- because not to give her all to get Chen released would have been a stain on her legacy. But on the really tough issues, she's worked through envoys, a tactic that minimized the risks to Clinton herself. (And it worked: Nobody, for instance, seems to blame her for the administration's spectacular failures on the Israel-Palestinian front, or for its less than vigorous Syria policy. Even Benghazi hasn't really affected her reputation.)
Kerry is of course also a pol, but he has nothing left to lose. He's already run for presidency and lost. He seems at peace with himself. He'll shrug off personal attacks. Yes, he can be pompous and long-winded at times. But I think he's going to throw himself into this task, and the arc of his career shows a man willing to take risks when the moment demands it. And the moment certainly demands it now.
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