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What kind of secretary of state would Sen. John Kerry make? That's the question of the moment after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's surprise decision Thursday to withdraw her name from consideration, making Kerry the likely nominee.
Kerry is a familiar figure to America and the world. He has been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for nearly three decades. This very familiarity can seem something of a liability: the lean face, the patrician bearing, the status as a presidential also-ran. But the fact that Kerry is a known commodity, with a predictable, reliable persona, is one of his strengths.
Three qualities make Kerry a good fit for this moment.
First, he recognizes that the world is a mess, starting with the chaotic Arab nations, and that it needs stronger American diplomatic leadership. When the Arab revolutions began in 2011, President Obama rightly decided not to try to contain the explosion. But we're entering a new period when Arabs need more U.S. help in consolidating their gains. Kerry, who has been traveling in the Middle East long enough to develop a genuine feel for the region, would be a good and steadying partner for the Arab transformation.
Second, Kerry appreciates the importance of quiet diplomacy, especially now. To make progress in brokering a Syrian political transition, exploring negotiating options with Iran, and assessing prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Obama will need a confidential emissary. Kerry has played that role successfully for him already, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's hard for a secretary of state to operate in "quiet mode," but Kerry understands that's important now. He's well-traveled enough that he could skip the get-acquainted tours.
Third, while Kerry sometimes comes across as stiff, he's surprisingly willing to challenge conventional wisdom, especially about engaging America's adversaries. This unlikely contrarian streak would be an advantage, especially because it's so well disguised: With his stolid demeanor, Kerry would find it easier to take diplomatic chances than other potential nominees, especially the younger, less experienced Rice.
Kerry's weakness is that, like Hillary Clinton, he lacks a close personal relationship with Obama. To understand the benefits of being a presidential confidante, think about the George W. Bush administration. Colin Powell was a distinguished, experienced soldier, but he couldn't represent the president with the same authority as his successor, Condoleezza Rice, who had Bush's ear.
If Obama does what White House sources predict and nominates Kerry for State, the two will need to establish a better bond. Washington gossips report that Obama sometimes found Kerry long-winded during the hours of debate preparation when Kerry played the role of Mitt Romney. Maybe Obama and Kerry need to play basketball together, or go windsurfing, or just have a beer.
Over the past several weeks, I have been asking foreign-policy experts and foreign diplomats whom they favor for State. With the exception of White House officials and a few diplomats, my straw poll showed Kerry as the overwhelming favorite. Partly this reflects trust in Kerry; partly it showed wariness about Rice, who's less well-known and has made some enemies. These comments may have reflected hidden biases against Rice, but there's also genuine confidence in Kerry.
Rice's letter withdrawing her nomination was admirably blunt. The Republican campaign against her, centered on her role as administration spokesman about the Benghazi consulate attack, was, as she said, an "irresponsible distraction." But she was also right that it would have created a "lengthy, disruptive and costly" confirmation fight. She did the unthinkable Washington thing, which was to put the country first and step aside.
Perhaps the best thing about Kerry is that he's safe. Sometimes it makes sense to choose a high-risk, high-reward candidate, which Rice would have been. But now isn't one of those moments. The world is unsteady; America's friends and adversaries need a reminder of its power and persistence. Ahead is the prospect of intense diplomacy with Iran, Syria, Egypt, Russia, Israel and the Palestinians.
Kerry may be that rare politician who is a late bloomer. The awkwardness many saw when he was the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 is largely gone; he has the advantage of having been disappointed in life, losing the presidential race, getting passed over for vice president and secretary of state in 2008. He wants to lead the State Department now, not just in the sense that an ambitious person wants another life trophy, but because he thinks he could do the job well.
He may seem a conventional choice for State, but he could be a very successful one.