Kerry: A State nominee skeptical about overseas activism

Committee must grill one of its own

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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.

Broad support

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.

“I do not expect Kerry to develop an independent posture from the White House,” Mr. Adams said.

If anything, remarks he’s made during the past year show how closely aligned his positions are to those of the president.

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.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor is the National Security Team Leader at The Washington Times, overseeing the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage. He’s also a frequent guest on The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN.

His series on political, economic and security developments in Mexico won a 2012 Virginia Press Association award.

Prior to rejoining The Times in 2011, his work was ...

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