4 Things You Need to Know About Secretary of State Nominee John Kerry

Don't let his reputation as a peacenik fool you. John Kerry is no anti-interventionist.


On Dec. 21, President Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. The move was widely expected after Susan Rice, the only other prominent candidate, dropped out of consideration when the Obama administration's response to a terror attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya promised to derail her nomination.

Now serving his fifth term in the Senate, Kerry is best known for his failed 2004 presidential run, and the "swift boat" attacks he suffered during it. While America may never know a President Kerry, his likely confirmation as secretary of state means the man America almost elected in 2004 will have a chance to put some of his ideas into action. So what might we expect from Kerry at State?

1. He's an Interventionist

When Kerry ran for president, Republican operatives tried to paint him as unpatriotic due to his opposition to the Vietnam War (in which he fought). The Swift Boat campaign, coupled with Kerry's speech about the 1991 Gulf War (which he opposed on the grounds that "there is no consensus in America for war") created the impression that Kerry believes in a smaller international footprint. 

He doesn't. Kerry raised no objection to the Senate's unanimous passage of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which made regime change in Iraq official U.S. policy. After 9/11, he voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. This second vote he would attempt to recast during his presidential campaign—claiming during his candidacy announcement that the vote was meant merely to threaten the use of force; then owning it later in the campaign.

In addition to being for the war in Iraq before he was against it (wording he used to explain voting for, then against supplemental funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), Kerry has also been a proponent of Obama-era interventions. He was one of the first advocates for an intervention in the Libyan civil war in 2011, which received no congressional authorization. The most support Kerry could muster for U.S. military involvement in the Libyan civil war was a "Sense of the Senate" resolution co-sponsored by Arizona Republican John McCain.

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2. He's a Shameless Obama Booster

The Huffington Post described John Kerry as "Obama's good soldier on foreign policy," which is why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman is now on his way to running the State Department.

In plain English, that means Kerry's been on the front lines of the bureaucratic bungling in Afghanistan, helping to shore up the kleptocratic regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It also means he helped shepherd the U.S. intervention in Libya, and that he's the first person to offer a simplistic version of Obama's foreign policy for public consumption, repeatedly heralding the death of Osama bin Laden (something Paul Wolfowitz speculated may have contributed to Al-Qaeda's determination to present a resurgence). 

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3. His Vietnam Experience Does Not Inform His Position on Afghanistan

John Kerry was one of only three major party presidential candidates to have served in the Vietnam war (the others being Al Gore in 2000 and John McCain in 2008). Kerry enlisted in 1966 and was deployed to Vietnam in 1968. After returning in 1970 he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an anti-war organization targeted by President Richard Nixon. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Kerry famously asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during testimony in 1971. The question was invoked at the conclusion of the Iraq war in December 2011.

Yet Kerry was not against the Iraq war or the Afghanistan war. Instead, he joined a chorus of liberals in criticizing President Bush for the way the wars were handled.

By the time the 2008 election was in full swing, the process of ending the war in Iraq had begun, and Democrats, led by Obama, had pivoted to Afghanistan, his "good war," even though the news from Afghanistan under Obama, like the news from Afghanistan under Bush, hasn't been good.

And while the 11-year-old war is now at Vietnam length, Vietnam veteran Kerry sees no connection. "In my judgement, Afghanistan is just not Vietnam," Kerry said on Meet the Press in 2010, in support of the tack Obama was then taking on Afghanistan. "We shouldn't have been in Vietnam. It was a surrogate war, it was a cold war. There are any number of reasons it was a gigantic mistake. In Afghanistan, we're there for a purpose. I don't believe the size of the footprint we have doing everything we're doing, as I've said publicly many times, and I don't think the president, in the long run, wants to do that, which is why he has committed to this transition." That transition envisioned the Afghans taking over the Afghanistan war by 2014. Since the election, that date's been all but jettisoned.

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4. The Russia Problem

Like a good surrogate, Kerry went after Mitt Romney on the campaign trail, often focusing on the Republican candidate's perceived weakness on foreign policy.

In his most memorable speech, which the Obama campaign actually turned into a poster, Kerry responded to Romney's claim that Russia is America's "number one geopolitical foe" by saying, "Palin said she could see Russia from Alaska; Mitt Romney talks like he's only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV."

Setting aside that you can actually see Russia from an Alaskan island (and it was Tina Fey, not Palin, who said she could see it from her house), Russia can in fact be considered a "geopolitical foe." The complex relationship between the U.S. and Russia is best illuminated in the international machinations around Syria. The U.S. and its Western allies have been thwarted in their years-long attempt to get the United Nations to take stronger action on Syria. By whom? Russia and China, who have vetoed all efforts. The two even helped found, in 2001, a NATO-like clone of their own, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, meant to counterbalance American hegemony. The Russians, for their part, welcomed Kerry before he was even officially nominated, stating their preference for him over Susan Rice, who as UN ambassador has tangled with Russia over Syria throughout the crisis. Kerry, on the other hand, while doing his part to support the possibility of U.S. intervention in Syria, also visited Syria five times in the two years before the rebellion started, praising Assad and expressing confidence that Syria would move forward toward "a legitimate relationship with the United States" under the dictator's rule.

Nevertheless, the interventionist fervor which Obama, Clinton, Rice, and Kerry all share will continue to fuel an adversarial relationship with countries like Russia and China, which have no interest in acceding to the goals of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, no matter how dressed those goals might be in the language of accomodation. Not acknowledging geopolitical foes won't make them disappear when the fundamentals of U.S. interventionism breed them, irrespective of any rhetoric.