As widely expected, President Obama has nominated John Kerry, Massachusetts' senior senator and the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of State in Obama's second term.
Kerry's confirmation shouldn't be a problem. He is popular in the Senate and has already gone through the severe vetting process of an intense presidential race.
And because of his detailed knowledge of many foreign policy issues, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not to mention his presidential aspirations and his Vietnam military service, he is well placed to ensure thoughtfulness and continuity in American foreign policy in the months ahead.
Like Clinton, Kerry is hard-working, patient and pragmatic. Like her, while not necessarily personally close to President Obama, he is certainly on friendly terms with the commander in chief.
Kerry has been seasoned by the frustrations of dealing in intractable foreign policy issues for many years, yet he is still idealistic and visionary on issues ranging from climate change to Middle East peace to global development.
Once confirmed, Kerry's challenge will be to help the president navigate some very demanding shoals in the four years ahead. They might be tougher than those the president had to face in his first four years.
Successful first term
In Obama's first term, there were big decisions to be sure, and the administration handled most of them reasonably well. Even though Afghanistan has proved frustrating, Obama showed tenacity in tripling U.S. combat forces there for a time, and expanding aid to neighboring Pakistan (through a law that Kerry co-sponsored). Even though Obama failed to negotiate a way to keep U.S. forces in Iraq a little longer as desired, the president and his team were still careful in executing America's departure from that conflict.
Meanwhile, relations with Russia were improved, at least somewhat, a welcome development. In turn, the U.S. stance towards China toughened, a necessary development. Policies that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya were handled well, too.
But harder choices loom, presenting complex problems:
Syria represents a deadlier and more intractable conflict than Libya, and it is not clear that we can continue to keep our hands largely off this mess, given its importance in the Middle East. Nor will the Libya model of intervention work in this much more populous country.
A tougher stance with China through the Asia "rebalancing" was the right first-term policy, as Beijing had become too assertive. But now is the time to make sure this firmer line does not lead to another Cold War.
With Vladimir Putin back in the Kremlin, finding a way to work with him again will be harder than Obama's success at repairing relations with President Dmitry Medvedev.
In Iraq, we could afford to leave (even if it might have been better that we stayed with a modest presence) because Iraqis have formed a strong state. But in Afghanistan, we probably need to find a way to stay (with 10-15,000 troops for a stretch after 2014), as it is doubtful the weak Afghan state can survive on its own.
When it came to the budget, predecessors Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton had it easy. They presided over diplomacy and development budgets when federal spending was rising. Kerry will have to protect core capabilities as his budgets are cut.
Most of all, possible war looms with Iran. Attacking Iran's nuclear facilities (with or without Israeli participation) would be a more monumental decision than tripling combat forces in Afghanistan, authorizing the raid against bin Laden, using force against Gadhafi in Libya or leaving Iraq.
Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran who is tough but who also knows firsthand the horrors of war, will be an important adviser to Obama as this choice is perhaps directly confronted in the year or two ahead.
Alas, at that point the honeymoon with his Senate colleagues could be over, the politics could be rougher and the stakes will be very high. All the more reason why someone with Kerry's stature and experience are needed. The president has found a good man for a very difficult job.
Michael O'Hanlon is co-author with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy.
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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