Obama wants Kerry as top diplomat

Obama wants Kerry as top diplomat

President Barack Obama has nominated Senator John Kerry, one of Washington’s most respected voices on foreign policy, as his next secretary of state.

The move is the first in an expected overhaul of Mr Obama’s national security team heading into his second term.

As the nation’s top diplomat, Mr Kerry will not only be tasked with executing the president’s foreign policy objectives, but will also have a hand in shaping them.

The long-time politician has been in lockstep with Mr Obama on issues like nuclear non-proliferation, but ahead of the White House in advocating aggressive policies in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere that the president later embraced.

“He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training,” Mr Obama said, standing alongside Mr Kerry, 69, in a White House ceremony.

“Few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers or grasp our foreign policies as firmly as John Kerry.”

He is expected to win confirmation easily in the Senate, where he has served since 1985, the last six years as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr Kerry would take the helm at the State Department from Hillary Clinton, who plans to leave the administration early next year. Mrs Clinton, recovering from concussion sustained in a fall, did not attend the White House event.

In a statement she said, “John Kerry has been tested – in war, in government, and in diplomacy. Time and again, he has proven his mettle.”

Mr Obama settled on Mr Kerry for the job even though it could cause a political problem for Democrats in Massachusetts. Mr Kerry’s move to State would open the Senate seat he has held for five terms, giving Republicans an opportunity to take advantage.

Mr Kerry would join a national security team in flux, with Obama expected to choose a new defence secretary and director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the coming weeks.

He already has deep relationships with many world leaders, formed both during his Senate travels and as an unofficial envoy for Mr Obama.

The president has called upon him in particular to defuse diplomatic disputes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries that will be at the forefront of Mr Obama’s foreign policy agenda early in his second term.

At times, Mr Kerry has been more forward-leaning than Mr Obama on foreign policy issues. He was an early advocate of an international “no-fly zone” over Libya in 2011 and among the first US politicians to call for Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak to leave power as pro-democracy protests grew. Mr Obama later backed both positions.

Mr Kerry would take over at a State Department grappling with the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans during a September attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. During a hearing on the attacks on Thursday, Mr Kerry hinted at how he would manage US diplomatic personnel working in unstable regions.

“There will always be a tension between the diplomatic imperative to get ’outside the wire’ and the security standards that require our diplomats to work behind high walls,” he said.

“Our challenge is to strike a balance between the necessity of the mission, available resources and tolerance for risk.”

His only other rival for the job, United Nations ambassador Susan Rice, faced harsh criticism from congressional Republicans for her initial accounting of the consulate attack.

Mr Obama vigorously defended Ms Rice, a close friend and long-time adviser, but Republican senators dug in, threatening to hold up her nomination if the president proposed her for the post.

Ms Rice withdrew her name from consideration last week, making Mr Kerry all but certain to become the nominee.

The son of a diplomat, Mr Kerry was first elected to the Senate in 1984. He is also a decorated Vietnam veteran who was critical of the war effort when he returned to the US. He ran for president in 2004, losing a close race to incumbent Republican president George Bush.

Mr Kerry is Mr Obama’s first Cabinet appointee following the November election. The president is also mulling replacements for retiring defence secretary Leon Panetta and former CIA director David Petraeus, who resigned last month after admitting to an affair with his biographer.

Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel is a front-runner for the Pentagon post, but has been dogged by questions about his support for Israel and where he stands on gay rights, with critics calling on him to repudiate a comment in 1998 that a former ambassadorial nominee was “openly, aggressively gay”. Mr Hagel apologised for that comment yesterday.

Former Pentagon official Michele Flournoy and current deputy defence secretary Ashton Carter are also being considered to replace Mr Panetta and acting CIA director Michael Morell and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan are also in the frame.

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