Commentary Magazine


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Would John Kerry Be a Suitable Secretary of Anything?

Senator John McCain’s quip yesterday pushed his colleague Senator John Kerry’s ambitions back in the limelight. If President Barack Obama nominates Kerry to be secretary of state or defense, chances are his nomination would sail through the senate. The Senate is a club, and many members would consider it professional courtesy to give one of their own a pass. Ignore his positions and his track record for a moment: personality matters, and Kerry is perhaps the one senator least suited for any executive position.

The problem is, according to some of Kerry’s former staffers, that he is serially indecisive. Simple decisions regarding which of two candidates should receive a promotion on his staff could take six months. The problem was not Kerry’s busy schedule or his frequent travels, or that the memo got lost on his desk. Rather, it was that Kerry simply could not determine which candidate should get his blessing. In the end, he split the difference and announced co-directors. The result was predictable: turf wars and confusion as each sought to negate the other. Running a bureaucracy is not like attending a Quaker meeting; sometimes consensus is not the least-bad option. The example his own staffers gave was the rule, not the exception. They complained they would be waiting for Kerry’s decisions long after others on both side of the aisle had made up their minds.

Instincts also matter. Kerry’s public posture toward Syria has been embarrassing enough; his judgment with regard to Syria has come at a far higher cost than Susan Rice’s poor judgment in the aftermath of Benghazi has. And on the peace process, he has already dug himself a deep hole by frequently telling his interlocutors what they want to hear, regardless of the entanglements that leaves behind. The problem is not only his public policy, but also his private: Staffers describe their collective cringe when, after a motorcycle ride with Bashar al-Assad, he returned to Washington referring to Bashar as “my dear friend.” Bashar may be a lot of things, but “my dear friend”—an address Kerry used only with a select few, such as the late Ted Kennedy—should not have been one.

Arrogance may also get the best of Kerry. Should he carry such attitudes to the Defense Department, he may be lampooned worse than this and this. But senior Afghan ministers also lambaste the Massachusetts senator. During a trip to Afghanistan, one related over breakfast how Kerry arrived in Afghanistan, was shuttled from high-level meeting to high-level meeting, struggling to keep awake. Only in his last meeting before departure did he ask the Afghan minister, “Who’s this Marshal Fahim everyone keeps talking about?” Fahim, of course, is one of the most powerful warlords in the country and, since 2009, a vice president as well. It seems Kerry had not read—or had not understood—his background briefings and then was too proud to ask any of his entourage.

Some men and women thrive as senators, and some work best as mayors and governors. Being in charge of an agency is not as easy as simply casting votes and opining on the Sunday talk shows. It is doubtful that anyone will tell the Massachusetts senator that the emperor has no clothes. That is too bad, because the damage an indecisive and arrogant executive can do to the policy and practice of U.S. foreign policy is immense.