Commentary Magazine


John Kerry, Secretary of Retrenchment

An admiring portrait of now-former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New York Times (is there any other kind of portrait of Clinton in the Times?) over the weekend is in some ways a follow-up to a comment let slip by Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, last week. Kerry told the Boston Globe that President Obama called and offered him the job a full week before Susan Rice dropped her embattled bid for the post and withdrew her name from consideration.

If that’s true–if Obama really always wanted the dour and pliable Kerry over the sharp, independent and tough Rice–the Times profile of Clinton helps explain why. Clinton, according to the Times, was too much of an interventionist for the Obama White House. This insight illuminates the Kerry selection: John Kerry can give you a thousand reasons not to do something. Kerry and Obama both believe it looks thoughtful to appear aloof, uninterested, bored. Clinton and Rice, on the other hand, are always in motion. Kerry will be quite the change of pace, if his statements during his confirmation hearings are any indication, as the Washington Times notes:

“I’ve had personal conversations prior to being nominated as secretary with [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov, which indicated a Russian willingness to in fact see President Assad leave, but they have a different sense of the timing and manner of that.”

He added that he hopes to use his new stature as secretary of state “to really take the temperature of these different players.”…

“China is cooperating with us now on Iran,” Mr. Kerry said. “I think there might be more we could perhaps do with respect to North Korea.”

“There could be more we could do in other parts of the Far East, and hopefully we can build those relationships that will further that transformation,” he added. “We make progress. It’s incremental. You know, it’s a tough slog. And there just isn’t any single magic way to approach it.”

As this shows, Kerry has great plans to tell you about progress you didn’t know we were making at the State Department. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. In fact, Kerry believes this of his time in Washington, too. “I accomplished a lot,” Kerry told the Globe. “A lot more than people know.” And his assurance that the Russian government wants Assad out also, but they just have a “different sense of the timing” is classic Kerry; it’s not technically untrue to say that that the difference between now and never is a “sense of the timing.” But that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.

Yet there is an argument to be made that Kerry is simply being realistic, and will actually helm a much diminished foreign policy apparatus. If diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had some sobering words about that rock:

The Army would be forced to slash its ranks by an additional 100,000 soldiers over 10 years if the process called sequestration went into effect, Panetta said in an interview with USA TODAY. That reduction would be in addition to the 80,000 soldiers it plans to shed over the next five years to a force of about 490,000. The Marine Corps will drop about 20,000 troops under the current plan, which calls on the Pentagon to reduce spending by $487 billion over the next decade.

Congress has until March 1 to reach a deal to stop the cuts, which were created in a summer 2011 deal between Congress and President Obama to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

“We are the world’s most powerful military, and we use that to promote peace and stability in the world,” Panetta said. “It would be a shameful act of irresponsibility if Congress just stood to the side and let sequester take place. It would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power.”

The story doesn’t make it clear, but that sequester, and its attendant cuts to the military, was an idea cooked up by the Obama White House during negotiations with GOP leadership. Consequently, Hillary Clinton’s interventionist advocacy might have done much to elevate Kerry as Obama’s preferred second-term secretary of state.

Obama, it seems, was tired of being challenged for his inaction, and tired of having people around him who saw the world differently. But even more so, Obama understood he might have had more use for an active secretary of state if he were going to give the military the tools to back up the sense of idealism about American’s role in the world that a Hillary Clinton or a Susan Rice values, but which someone like John Kerry is happy to make do without.

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