TAUBE: A better choice for Obama’s secretary of state

Kerry more qualified than Rice for top position

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Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently withdrew her name from consideration as President Obama’s next secretary of state. This paves the way for Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry to assume the role.

This probably is the best scenario that could have happened.

Regardless of your political affiliation, it boils down to a choice of the lesser of two liberal evils: Who is better suited for this role, and who would provide stronger leadership on the international stage? Using those criteria, Mr. Kerry is more qualified than Mrs. Rice ever could dream of being.

Certainly, Mrs. Rice has solid experience. She worked in the White House under President Clinton in various roles, including on the National Security Council and as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She was a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. She also served as a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign and to Mr. Kerry during his 2004 presidential run.

Those are impressive credentials. That being said, they haven’t translated into strong political acumen or a proper balance between leadership and diplomacy.

In 2008, Mrs. Rice attacked then-GOP presidential candidate John McCain for being “reckless” on foreign policy matters, claiming “his tendency is to shoot first and ask questions later.” When Mr. McCain went to Iraq, she mocked his fact-finding mission as one in which he strolled “around the market in a flak jacket.”

Mrs. Rice also used colorful language to publicly criticize foreign policy positions held by President George W. Bush and her former boss, Mr. Clinton. As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote, she also “appalled colleagues by flipping her middle finger at Richard Holbrooke during a meeting with senior staff at the State Department.”

The worst was yet to come, in the form of Mrs. Rice’s troubling comments about the attack in Benghazi, Libya. First she told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sept. 16, “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude” that the attack “was premeditated or preplanned.” Then she went on ABC’s “This Week” the same day and proclaimed the attack was “hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons.” As the motives for Benghazi became clearer, many prominent Republicans, including Mr. McCain, correctly claimed Mrs. Rice had misled the American people.

In spite of all this, Mr. Obama fiercely defended Mrs. Rice as his top choice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. It quickly became obvious, however, that a Senate confirmation would have been very messy. While the White House publicly expressed disappointment when Mrs. Rice withdrew her name, I would guess the president breathed a heavy sigh of relief in private.

This brings us to Mr. Kerry. He has an extensive military background, having served in the U.S. Navy, including in Vietnam. (Alas, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War upon his return to civilian life.) He has served in the U.S. Senate since 1985 and ran for president in 2004. He played an active role in the Iran-Contra hearings, served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and called for a no-fly zone in Libya last year.

Most important, he was an envoy in Afghanistan and Pakistan during heightened periods of tension in that part of the world.

Mr. Kerry was a visible and confident presence on the scene. He used his political skills to sell the Obama administration’s message after the assassination of al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. He told The Washington Post, “We are at a moment where we have to resolve some very serious issues. This is not a moment for anything except very sober, serious discussion with an understanding that there’s a lot at stake. There’s no other way to put it.”

Sure, Republicans don’t care for Mr. Kerry’s political ideas. Yet they know they can work with him when it comes to war, terrorism and international relations. Unlike Mrs. Rice, he’s a person who knows how to work properly with people across party lines and what it takes to get things done.

That’s why Mr. Kerry is a better choice than Mrs. Rice to be the next secretary of state. In time, Mr. Obama may come to realize this, too.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.

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