Long before President Obama nominated John Kerry as the country’s top diplomat, the Massachusetts senator was seen as a secretary of state in waiting.
He has chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has frequently jetted off to Afghanistan and Pakistan whenever the Obama administration needed him.
In an interview on Morning Edition back in 2009, he described the hours he spent with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, having tea and strolling through the presidential gardens. Kerry was working to persuade Karzai to agree to a runoff presidential election, something Karzai was reluctant to do.
“We talked about family, about history, about culture, about Afghanistan, about his own journey to the presidency,” Kerry said. “He actually showed me through the old palace. You know, we got to know each other and spend a lot of time with each other, and I think have a certain respect for the effort that we were engaged in.”
Vali Nasr, a former State Department official who’s now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says Kerry is the sort of diplomat that Obama needs now.
“Given that he was previously a presidential candidate, that he’s one of the most senior statesmen in the Democratic Party also gives him the kind of stature around the world that is necessary when an American secretary of state arrives,” Nasr said.
Nasr has seen Kerry in action and heard from world leaders that they appreciate the senator’s knowledge of their countries and their issues.
“The fact that he has been in the Senate and has known Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iran or Israel or Egypt for over two decades is quite important,” Nasr says. “And they also think that he is a good listener, he’s able to think through problems and he’s willing to engage them in a constructive way to build bridges and to arrive at a constructive solution.”
Dealings With Syria’s Leader
But some critics say he’s too willing to engage some foreign leaders, such as Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In March 2011, as the Syrian uprising was gathering steam, Kerry described Assad as someone the U.S. could do business with.
“I mean, this is my belief, OK? But president Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we’ve had,” Kerry told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The last several trips to Syria, I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States.”
Kerry said Assad delivered on the requests he made. But Fouad Ajami of Stanford’s Hoover Institution says Kerry was “snookered.”
“Bashar was a very very talented man with his lovely lady, with his Lady Macbeth, with his wife, at charming foreign visitors and I think the charm worked on John Kerry.”
Ajami doesn’t fault Kerry alone for this, though. Ajami says plenty of foreign policy thinkers in Washington believed Assad was a reformer, and the Obama administration initially wanted to test the waters both with Syria and Iran.
Kerry, he says, just positioned himself to be useful to the Obama adminsitration’s outreach effort.
“And it is an illusion that men like Kerry have, that you can go to a place like Damascus or somewhere else and you can bond with the big man out there and you can return with this accommodation and this prize,” Ajami says.
Kerry’s supporters say that was a different period with Syria — when the U.S. was trying to promote peace talks between Israel and Syria and encourage Assad to break his alliance with Iran.
As a senator for 28 years, Kerry is expected to sail through the Senate confirmation process.