As the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry denounced the war in Iraq as a “profound diversion” and asserted that without a serious change of course, America faced “the prospect of a war with no end in sight.”
While the course of the war had changed dramatically by 2009, Mr. Kerry’s cautionary tone could still be felt in an op-ed he penned for The Wall Streel Journal urging the Obama White House against moving too quickly to send more troops to America’s other shooting war in Afghanistan.
With President Obama having now tapped Mr. Kerry to become America’s next secretary of state, foreign policy insiders say the five-term senator from Massachusetts is unlikely to stray from his record as a liberal who favors assiduous debate and analysis before committing to any kind of engagement overseas.
Mr. Kerry, whose confirmation hearings begin Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he has chaired since 2009, is expected to win easy confirmation by the Senate, where Democrats enjoy a majority.
But on the move to Foggy Bottom, he immediately will confront a broadening slate of foreign policy challenges — from the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran and Washington’s deteriorating relations with Moscow, to the rise of China, Syria’s bloody civil war and the proliferation of al Qaeda-linked militancy in North Africa.
“Whether it was with Vietnam decades ago, or Iraq and Afghanistan today, I think he is going to be very cautious and careful about overinvolvement, or overextension in U.S. foreign policy,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, who served as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs during President George W. Bush’s second term.
“He’s been consistent about wanting to make sure all questions are asked and answered as fully as possible before the U.S. commits itself to overseas involvements,” said Mr. Inderfurth, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington. “If neocons are those who seek greater involvement in other nations’ affairs, including up to military involvement, then I think in that sense John Kerry would be the anti-neocon.”
Richard Williamson, who served key positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and often wears the “neocon” label in the mainstream media, said Mr. Kerry’s “posture has been that we should be reluctant and hypercautious in the world and reluctant to lead.”
“Throughout his public career, from the time when he came back from Vietnam, he’s been a ‘Bring home America’ kind of guy,” Mr. Williamson said.
But Mr. Kerry, a Vietnam vet first elected to Congress in 1984, enjoys broad support from Democrats and, with a long record as an international operator on Capitol Hill, can list among his friends such key Republican voices on foreign policy and national security as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
And Mr. Kerry garners a guarded kind of praise from centrist geopolitical analysts, who seem anything but perturbed by the likelihood that a Kerry State Department will follow the pattern set fourth by Hillary Rodham Clinton during Mr. Obama’s first term, adhering carefully to the “lead from behind” dogma of the White House.
“Kerry will work closely with President Obama, but the president and the national security staff will set the tone,” said Gordon Adams, who worked on President Clinton’s national security staff and now teaches foreign affairs at American University.
If anything, remarks he’s made during the past year show how closely aligned his positions are to those of the president.