The writer is a Bloomberg View columnist.
For all the talk of tax increases and debt-cutting, President Barack Obama’s biggest and most revealing decision this year may be which candidate he chooses as his new secretary of state. It will tell us whether the president allows comfort to trump qualification.
The two candidates are Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both would be impressive, though they bring different strengths.
Rice’s advantage is that she has a closer personal relationship with the president, making her better integrated in the administration’s policy-making apparatus. Kerry’s edge is that he’s a heavyweight who would be more effective representing the United States around the world.
Rice has the inside track for now. Her only sin was that on the Sunday news shows in September she conveyed exactly what she was told by the Central Intelligence Agency about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama says he hasn’t made a decision. But rejecting Rice in favor of Kerry would make the president look like he’s buckling to pressure from Sen. John McCain, the Republican opponent he defeated in the 2008 election who has hounded Rice mercilessly over the tragedy in Libya. And yet, if how something looks is the issue — and appearances are critical in diplomacy — then Obama should choose Kerry.
Kerry, a prominent senator for 28 years, would sail through his Senate confirmation hearings. Rice would be pinned down by Benghazi.
Kerry would be much better received than Rice not just in the Senate but in the rest of the world — which should be more than a little relevant in this decision. After 27 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he knows every player of consequence. His on-the-job training would be minimal.
Lest we forget, Obama probably wouldn’t be president without Kerry, who asked him to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that started his career.
In 2008, Kerry gave then-Sen. Obama critical early support in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. When Obama picked Clinton over him as secretary of state, Kerry was a loyal soldier. He helped persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold elections, smoothed over tense relations with Pakistan and shepherded the START treaty through the Senate. He even played Mitt Romney in the mock debates this year.
Gratitude, loyalty and experience shouldn’t be the only factors in the president’s decision, but don’t they count for something?
If Kerry giving up his Senate seat jeopardized Democratic control of the Senate, the appointment would be too risky. But Democrats in the new Congress will have a five-vote margin in the upper chamber, and it’s unlikely a Republican could win a special election next year in Massachusetts.
This decision isn’t as much about Rice, Kerry and the political angles as it is about Obama and how he views governing.
We know that the president is often leery of having other big fish in his administration, less because of ego or insecurity than his insistence on harmonious policy-making, free of turf fights. But comfort is overrated; Obama needs more “principals” (officials with their own power bases) to challenge him.
Before the United Nations, Rice’s experience consisted of being assistant secretary of state for Africa, which is important but not central to U.S. foreign policy. More recently, she won credit for helping to convince Russia and China to back sanctions against Iran and not oppose the bombing campaign against Libya. Yet when Russia and China vetoed a resolution aimed at Syria, Rice called the action “disgusting” and “shameful,” which was stronger than the White House’s “regrettable.” Diplomacy is all about word choice.
The next secretary of state may be called on to broker Middle East peace talks between Israel and Hamas or conduct high-stakes talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Wouldn’t it be better to have someone at the table with wide experience and the political clout to make things happen?
In 2008, Obama’s staff was dead-set against Clinton getting secretary of state. Finally, Obama broke in sharply and said, “You guys are missing the fundamental point — she’s the most-qualified candidate.”
This time, Kerry is.
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