Senator John Kerry is now President Obama's nominee to be the next Secretary of State, and Hillary Clinton's successor after the president's first choice, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, was forced to withdraw her candidacy for this critical position on Obama's foreign policy team. Kerry is widely regarded as a safe pick as a second choice and a respectable one given his track record in U.S. foreign policy during his long tenure in the Senate — all of which make him a well-suited candidate for becoming America's diplomat-in-chief.
This "safe" route seems to be a growing trend for Obama's strategy for assembling his new foreign policy team in 2013, when four of his principal team members — including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner will likely take their bow to pursue other ventures. We may well see a similar pattern in Obama's nomination for the other coming vacancies on his foreign policy team.
As a result of this safe pick, policy wonks, pundits, and international observers have noted that Obama is moving a safe pick track in his urgent need to build a new line-up for U.S. Foreign Policy. But many critics are also saying that this trend lacks "boldness" and "creativity."
These criticisms of Obama fall short of being substantive problems as Obama seems to be determined to be focused on leaving a legacy of practical foreign policy in his second term, whereas his first term was marked by controversy and turbulence — particularly during the Arab Spring.
Unpalatable Rice Swapped for Affable Kerry
As foreign policy figures, both Susan Rice and John Kerry are practical choices in their own way. Obama has shown progress in his political acumen by being able to be flexible and pragmatic in dealing with the flak from the GOP's politicking. Obama wins either way.
As an outspoken political figure and close confidant to President Obama, Susan Rice seemed to be the most ideal candidate that would closely adhere to the beliefs, style, and principles of the president as she has been a close consular during the past four years. The president approved of Rice's blunt approach to the business of statecraft, which may have been what cost her the chance to become the leading U.S. diplomat.
She is described, by the New York Times, as a "unusually undiplomatic diplomat," who operates as a no-holds-barred individual, who isn't afraid to push the boundaries of diplomatic courtesies like being polite to the point of being excessive.
This is not what cost Rice here candidacy, but it seems that her brusque attitude during the aftermath of the deadly Benghazi incident on September 11, was what cost her the job. It is unclear if Rice was part of a cover-up by the White House to limit the fallout from the episode, during which an organized assault resulted in the loss of four State Department personnel, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
With the heavy flak from Republicans, Rice was likely going to face a uphill battle in her nomination process. The brewing political brouhaha over the nomination of Rice would have likely cost Obama valuable time and political capital.
The move to substitute Rice with Senator Kerry was, therefore, an imminently practical move and demonstrates a more mature approach by our Commander-in-Chief.
After all Kerry is, by contrast less controversial and just as dedicated to U.S. national interests as Rice, and most importantly not likely to face a difficult nomination process. Even Ambassador Rice approves of Kerry as she noted that "America is fortunate" to have Kerry at the helms of the State Department.
Some critics say that Kerry is too safe and lacks the "creativity" and "fresh" attitude needed in U.S. Foreign Policy:
Despite what critics say about Kerry, they cannot come up with an satisfactory answer on what they mean by being "creative" under current circumstances in the international system.
Given hat the foreign adventures that Obama has already led in the Middle East — particularly the U.S. role in Egypt and Libya — remain in flux, and the investments in these revolutions have yet to bear fruit, the U.S. needs to pursue a steady course in the next four years. Pragmatism is what the U.S. needs now.
Pragmatism is Key for Obama's New Team
When Obama ran to be the Commander-in-Chief during the 2008 presidential election, he cited Abraham Lincoln as the model of his presidency, which was based the notion that a "team of rivals" could work on big issues — like securing U.S. national security — and brush aside petty or lesser political obstacles to make a breakthrough on the priority issues.
Now it appears Obama has learned to practically cash in on this nugget of political gold with the daunting task of painstakingly choosing his inner circle for directing U.S. foreign policy for the next four years — which will require Obama to compromise on his list of candidates for the remaining slots on the team.
This seems to be case for former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who was a frontrunner to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, as Hagel appears to be facing an uphill battle during his upcoming nomination process.
This time the problem appears to be coming from the Democratic side through Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who accused Hagel of being "anti-Israel." Hagel has criticized Israeli government policy in the past, like other U.S. policymakers, and has not supported the sanctions against Iran, which Israel sees as vital to its security. Hence, some critics have accused him of being antisemitic.
Hagel's pros and cons are being put up like his laundry for the world to review. Former U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel complained that Hagel once challenged his confirmation, in 1998, to become ambassador for being "aggressively homosexual" and suggesting that he still doubted Hagel's views on the LGBT community given that sexual orientation has been reformed at the Department of Defense.
Liberals also bemoan the nomination of another Republican for next Secretary of Defense, including Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation, who said:
"It's a sad commentary on both Barack Obama and the state of Democratic Party politics and its national security wing that the president, once again, is considering naming another Republican as secretary of defense. You'll recall that in 2009, Obama let Robert Gates, the Republican who served George W. Bush, stay on at the Department of Defense. Not that Gates was a neocon — no, far from it. But he was certainly drawn from the center-hawkish part of the American national security establishment, whose Democratic ranks include such execrable luminaries as Sam Nunn and Zbigniew Brzezinski."
Ironically, Brzezinski is among the defenders of Hagel and is nomination, who believe him to be an upstanding individual who is sensitive to the risks and costs of war and not afraid to buck political convention. Four former National Security Advisors, including James L. Jones, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Frank Carlucci, have come out to defend Hagel for standing up for what he believes in and not giving in to pressure.
Where does this leave President Obama? The path of pragmatism. Obama will need to weigh the costs and benefits of waging an uphill battle, if it indeed manifests. The influential American Israeli Public Affairs Committee will certainly play a significant factor as the opposing force to Hagel's nomination, but the advice for the president is still the same: don't fight unnecessary political battles that will cost you serious political capital.
Though one can speculate on alternatives, it's clear that Obama needs to be flexible and adaptive to get the talented staff he obviously needs with so many vacancies opening up on his foreign policy team.