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Mr. Kerry may well have been reading from the White House playbook on Iran and its suspect nuclear programs last March when he said “we need an approach that gives diplomatic engagement space to breath, without allowing Iran to play for time and drag us into a drawn-out process.”

Before the outbreak of a civil war in Syria in 2011, Mr. Kerry was known to promote — albeit carefully — the view that Syrian President Bashir Assad could be a force for reform in the rapidly changing Middle East political landscape.

Mr. Kerry visited Syria and met with Mr. Assad six times from 2009 to 2011. His position toward Mr. Assad changed, however, after military forces loyal to the Syrian dictator began targeting pro-democracy activists in the nation where a total collapse in security has since resulted in the deaths of 60,000 people.

In a May 2011 interview with the journal Foreign Policy, Mr. Kerry denied having ever expected the Assad government to turn toward a favorable relationship with the United States.

“I said there was a chance he could be a reformer if certain things were done. I wasn’t wrong about if those things were done. They weren’t done,” Mr. Kerry said. “I didn’t hold out hope. I said there were a series of things that if he engaged in them, there was a chance he would be able to produce a different paradigm. But he didn’t.”

Tough on Beijing

On China, however, Mr. Kerry has been notably tougher than many Republicans. He was part of a bipartisan group that passed a Senate bill in October 2011 seeking to place new duties on imports from Beijing on grounds that its communist leaders had intentionally undervalued the nation’s currency.

The Republican-controlled House refused to take up the measure, which Mr. Kerry described during an appearance on the Senate floor as necessary to “send a message to the Chinese.”

Mr. Kerry’s confirmation hearing is set for Thursday morning. It will be led by Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, who is succeeding Mr. Kerry as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Away from the hard policy issues, observers are eager to see how Mr. Kerry may — or may not — manage day-to-day operations inside the State Department bureaucracy. Mr. Adams said fiscal strain from the nation’s climbing deficit could create an opening for the incoming secretary to revise overall strategies and reform management structures in the face of shrinking budgets.

“For me, the real question is whether [Mr. Kerry] cares at all about empowering and reforming [the State Department],” Mr. Adams said. “I see no evidence that he does.

“There have been only two secretaries of state since the end of World War II who really tackled the capabilities of the department,” he added. “One was Larry Eagleburger and the other was Colin Powell, who was really liked at State because he worked really hard to strengthen the capabilities of the institution.”

Mr. Adams predicts that Mr. Kerry is more likely to take on a personal style comparable to former Secretaries of State James A. Baker and Dean Rusk, who “loved the business of diplomacy but left management to others within the State Department.”

“And this doesn’t serve the department well,” he said.