Peter Canellos

Convention Perspective: Room for Kerry at State Department

By Peter Canellos
Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief / August 27, 2008
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DENVER -- The selection of Joe Biden as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, to be made official tonight, leaves an opening in Barack Obama's prospective cabinet, where Biden had been staking his claim to be Secretary of State.

Biden wasn't the only senior Democrat to be mentioned for the nation's top diplomatic post, but the idea of having a long-serving senator in the post made some sense. With Obama emphasizing direct diplomacy over grand strategic thinking, a senior politician would presumably bring expertise both in deal-making (from those long nights hashing out compromises) and in familiarity with world leaders.

With Biden, the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, out of the running, John Kerry almost certainly becomes the most likely Democratic senator in the running to be Secretary of State. Kerry, in Globe interviews, has disclaimed any interest in the post. This is to be expected of a senator running aggressively for re-election, as Kerry is in Massachusetts.

But Kerry has a longstanding interest in foreign policy, having punched almost as many stamps on his passport as Biden and John McCain on fact-finding missions abroad. In recent years, with his international profile enhanced by having been his party's 2004 presidential nominee, Kerry has enjoyed even greater cachet in meetings with world leaders and struggling liberation movements alike.

Perhaps more significantly, he feels an intense personal involvement in Iraq -- an issue that will dominate much of the next presidential term.

In the midst of Britain's Suez crisis, a 1950s foreign-policy debacle that is sometimes compared to the current US war in Iraq, the wife of Prime Minister Anthony Eden memorably declared that "In the past few weeks, I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room."

The Tigris River has been flowing through John Kerry's drawing room since 2002, when he voted to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq. It was a fateful decision. Many of Kerry's liberal supporters, noting that he had voted against authorizing the 1991 Gulf War, thought he was caving in to political expediency. He has claimed the opposite -- that he knew the vote would hurt him among anti-war Democrats but believed it was necessary to get tough with Saddam Hussein.

Whatever Kerry's ultimate motivation, the vote probably cost him the presidency in 2004, not because anti-war Democrats opposed him, but because Republicans used it to cast him as a flip-flopper, an uncertain figure in a time of war.

Nothing infuriates Kerry more than that charge, but like many candidates who've narrowly lost the presidency, he takes some of the blame on himself: If only he had devised a better response, he -- and not George W. Bush -- would have been in the White House these last four years working to bring about a peaceful end to the war.

As a Vietnam veteran who ended up protesting that war, Kerry remains attuned to the plight of soldiers endangering their lives for an uncertain cause. The fate of people in Iraq is, at this point, a personal issue for him. Whether he feels responsible, or merely sympathetic, or some combination of both, nothing would satisfy him more than to be able to bring the war to a smooth ending.

There are, of course, other Democrats being mentioned for Secretary of State. Richard Holbrooke, the former United Nations ambassador, has long coveted the post, but he backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries; it is not clear whether Obama would hold it against him.

Anthony Lake, the former national security adviser under President Clinton, backed Obama early. He's clearly qualified to be Secretary of State, but he has a low-key presence that might be better suited to the back rooms of power.

Kerry has a long history of his own with Obama, having given him his big break in the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention. And now he may fit Obama's need for a chief diplomat with political experience.

Kerry can look forward to some benefits of rising seniority if he stays in the Senate. But if Obama asked him to join the administration to help end the Iraq War, it's hard to envision him saying no.

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