TOPICS > World

The Remaking of Obama Foreign Policy Team: Sen. John Kerry Up for Sec. of State

December 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The announcement came after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name after some political contention. Jeffrey Brown discusses the upcoming Cabinet changes with journalist James Mann and The Washington Post's David Ignatius.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: The remaking of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy team began today, as the president nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The former presidential candidate, who lost to George W. Bush in 2004, got the nod after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name. She’d faced Republican criticisms over the Benghazi terrorist attack.

President Obama made the announcement this afternoon at the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am very proud to announce my choice for America’s next Secretary of State, John Kerry.

In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role. Having served with valor in Vietnam, he understands that we have a responsibility to use American power wisely, especially our military power. And he knows, from personal experience, that when we send our troops into harm’s way, we must give them the sound strategy, a clear mission, and the resources that they need to get the job done.

In an extraordinarily distinguished Senate career, and as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, John’s played a central role in every major foreign policy debate for nearly 30 years. As we turn the page on a decade of war, he understands that we’ve got to harness all elements of American power and ensure that they’re working together, diplomatic and development, economic and political, military and intelligence, as well as the power of our values, which inspire so many people around the world.

He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training. He has earned the respect and trust of his Senate colleagues, Democrats and Republicans. I think it’s fair to say that few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers or grasp our foreign policies as firmly as John Kerry.

And this makes him a perfect choice to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kerry himself didn’t speak. There was also no announcement today on a nominee to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Joining me now to look at all this, James Mann, longtime journalist and author of “The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power, and David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post.

David, as we heard the president say, a well-known man around Washington and foreign policy circles. What strengths does John Kerry bring here?

DAVID IGNATIUS, columnist, The Washington Post: Well, the first is the one the president mentioned.

He has stature. He’s well-known. He’s been doing foreign policy from the Senate for almost three decades. He’s a person well-known to leaders around the world. The second thing that people don’t know as much about is that he served as an emissary for President Obama in some very delicate situations.

The president sent him to Afghanistan to try to make a better relationship with President Karzai there. Kerry is widely believed to have been a success in that. He was sent to Pakistan for a similar mission to deal with President Zardari. It’s less well-known that he conveyed a message, a written message to Hamas to try to see what might be there. And. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: These were all quiet, secret, back-channel-type things?

DAVID IGNATIUS: These were back-channel efforts.

And the point, though, I would make is that Kerry not only has experience doing this, but he believes, I think correctly, that this is a time in which quiet diplomacy, back-channel communication, out of the headlines is going to be essential in dealing with the big diplomatic challenges.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Mann, what would you add to that? And you can start to bring in any weaknesses you might find in Senator Kerry as well.

JAMES MANN, author/journalist: Yes, I have to be honest and say I’m not completely bowled over by the appointment.

This was a safe second choice. Certainly, Kerry is experienced in foreign policy. But the other side of that is that he is not a man with new and bold ideas. This is not really a new face in foreign policy. And, actually, if you go back six or eight months, the Obama team was saying, don’t assume that the new secretary of state will be one of two or three known names, not Susan Rice or John Kerry necessarily, but maybe someone new and from outside.

And John Kerry is certainly not a new face. In a way, it’s a throwback to foreign policy of past decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of new ideas, or what are you referring to that he would lack in terms of certain experience or ideas about how to cope with current problems or future problems?

JAMES MANN: No, he — as a matter of experience, he certainly has lots of experience. In that sense, that is a strength for him.

But I think he hasn’t over the years been an originator of new kinds of policies. If you take, for example, China policy, I think that he may be reluctant to react to a China which is very different from the way it was in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me bring David Ignatius back.

JAMES MANN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess it depends on how — what you think is needed right now, right?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I think the world’s a mess, as Kerry believes — he’s right — and needs a strong American voice, needs the sort of steady hand that somebody who is experienced can bring.

A point I would make about Kerry is that, although he often comes across as a stiff, as an establishment figure, very formulaic, in terms of ideas and willingness to engage adversaries, reach out and try to find a channel to Iran, for example, reach out to the Palestinians, try to think of new ways to deal with the Arab world, Kerry is on the more innovative side.

So I think he is not going to be a wild radical. The country will miss having someone like Susan Rice, who is a younger, different voice. But I think that Kerry — it’s wrong to think of Kerry as just being a throwback to 30 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it clear still that this is a second choice to Susan Rice?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think that President Obama felt a deep personal bond with Susan — Susan Rice. And Susan Rice speaks the things, the lines that he would love to say out loud sometimes. And the fact that she is very in-your-face, where the president is so reserved and reticent, I think he would have loved to have that.

I think Susan Rice decided in the end that it was going to be too costly for her and for Obama if she went through this bruising confirmation fight. So, they decided to duck that fight, and she’s going back to New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, James Mann, in the meantime, as we said, there was no nomination put forward for a next secretary of defense. And I think there had been an expectation that they would kind of be rolled out, the whole team, at one time.

What can you tell us about what is going on, particularly with one of the front-runners, Chuck Hagel?

JAMES MANN: Well, I did expect a couple of days ago that there would be an appointment for secretary of defense as well, and that it would be Chuck Hagel.

The fact that they didn’t do that could mean that they are taking more time to line things up politically, or it could mean they are having second thoughts. Politically, there are really two issues. One, there is criticism of Hagel, I think largely unjustified, for not being supportive of Israel.

The one that you see less of has to do with the fact that, if Kerry is secretary of state and Hagel is secretary of defense, is there a job for a senior woman at the top levels of the foreign policy team?

JEFFREY BROWN: David Ignatius, what do you see going on?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I think President Obama has not yet made up his mind. I think this — they got out ahead of themselves in a sense. They were floating Hagel as if it was a done deal, when it really wasn’t.

There’s been intense criticism. And I think for Obama to pull back on Hagel after appearing to have done that on Susan Rice would present at the beginning of his second term an image of weakness domestically and also internationally. So, it’s a lot of different factors to balance.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Hagel, we should say, a former Republican senator. So we’re looking. . .

DAVID IGNATIUS: Yes. There is the bipartisan element, although — although Sen. Hagel didn’t have a lot of allies left in the Republican Party when he left.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Ignatius, James Mann, thank you both very much.

JAMES MANN: Thank you.