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Deconstructing Obama’s nomination of Kerry

The Russian friends sometimes voiced skepticism during quiet asides that when it came to Russian-American relations, the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton represented more the past administration of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton administration relentlessly sought unilateral advantages from a weak Russia struggling to rise out of the debris of the former Soviet Union and was rather pitiless. 

Key policymakers like Strobe Talbott with their baggage of cold-war thinking couldn’t graduate out of their sense of triumphalism that they sent the USSR down the chute of history. Hillary Clinton also lacked an empathy toward Russia and in many ways picked up the thread from Bill Clinton administration. People like Talbott probably played a role behind-the-scenes. 
But Obama gave away hints at times that he had a different perception of Russia and the US’s ties with that country. Actually, we come back to the question: Does Obama have a transformational agenda for the US foreign policy during his second term in office? His cabinet appointments would give some clue. 

That is why, the nomination of Senator John Kerry to the post of secretary of state assumes interest. Kerry’s ‘popularity’ among the US Congressmen is an asset for Obama while steering innovative ideas in foreign policy. This is the first thing. 

Second, Kerry is a known figure in the international community. Third, he is no novice in the world of diplomacy, having presided over the senate foreign relations committee and having been a ‘hands-on’ diplomat such as when he was repeatedly deputed as a ‘firefighter’ to Kabul and Islamabad when the going got tough with a moody Hamid Karzai or the recalcitrant Pakistani generals. 

But the most important aspect of Kerry’s nomination is that Obama is closing the gap between the White House and Faggy Bottom that existed during Hillary Clinton’s tenure. Kerry is a quintessential team player (being a soldier once, after all), whereas, as a politician with unsatiated presidential ambitions, Clinton also worked for herself during these past 4 years. Obama is bound to say some very fine words and let Clinton depart, given their uneasy relationship. 

What sort of secretary of state Kerry would be? Of course, he is a cautious man and is in the Obama mould. As he explained in detail in a revealing article in the Foreign Policy magazine in September, he takes ‘R’ for ‘Reckless’.

He also subscribes to Obama’s disposition on climate change as a top priority for US diplomacy. He is undoubtedly one of the most ‘pro-Israel’ senators. Clearly, Obama is signaling to Israel his administration’s continued strong support for the centrality of the US-Israel strategic partnership in America’s Middle East strategy. 

When it comes to the burning Iran question, Kerry has a nuanced opinion — vehement opposition to any nuclear weapon program by Iran while also harboring an aversion to ‘saber-rattling’. He regards the Iranian leaders as rational people with whom the US can do business and he considers military option as the very last, remote option.

Kerry has an even more nuanced view of Sino-American relationship — placing store on broad commonalities for cooperation and long-term beneficial trade ties. Interestingly, he voted against tying the trade with China’s human rights record. 

He sees that the US is best advised to tackle the challenge of China’s rise by competing with the assets of an economic resurgence by America rather than through military confrontation — he is on record that “economics is not war. We [US and China] can both come out well ahead of where we are now.” 

In sum, as David Ignatius of Washington Post wrote recently, we have someone in Kerry who “appreciated the importance of quiet diplomacy, especially now.” He will be a trusted emissary for Obama for brokering a political transition in Syria, exploring a dismantling of the US’s historic standoff with Iran, winding down the Afghan war and cementing the mutual trust between the US and Pakistan (which is a crucial prerequisite for the Afghan settlement.) 

At the end of the day, however, Obama is an intriguing man of many parts — and a clever  politician. The full range of his motivations in zeroing in on Kerry can only be fathomed after Obama’s choice for the post of defence secretary is known. If it’s indeed going to be Senator Chuck Hagel (who is reportedly the front-runner at the moment), Obama is sending out a big message by thoughtfully filling the two most important cabinet posts touching on US foreign policy. 

What does Hagel mean? Suffice to say, here is someone who tooth and nail opposes any form of military attack on Iran; who wants the troops back from Afghanistan now; who advocates deep cuts in Pentagon spending (despite Syria, Iran, North Korea, ‘rebalancing’ to Asia, et al); who abhors all wars (because he is also like Kerry a war veteran who fought in Vietnam); and, who wants to accommodate the rise of emerging powers like China, India and Brazil by the US taking the lead to create a new world order based on reforming the international organizations. 

In a nutshell, Hagel symbolizes the audacity of hope with which one associated Obama himself at one point.

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.

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