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Nov 29 2012

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Give John Kerry the Job

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He Earned It...

 In November 1994 I was living and working in Hanoi, Vietnam.

About mid-month, the US government’s Liaison Office invited members of the still-small US business community to meet with a bipartisan delegation of US Senators, then in Hanoi on a “fact-finding” trip.

At the time, US companies were struggling in the Vietnam market against foreign competitors who enjoyed the full diplomatic and financial support of their national governments. It was a deeply uneven playing field. For us, the export promotion and advocacy programs of the US government were unavailable, pending full diplomatic relations that was still 18 months away. So as we met with the Senators, diplomatic and trade promotion support dominated the discussion.

One Senator was missing from that opening of the meeting – Senator John Kerry. In fact, he only showed up near the end, rushing in and taking his place on the dais, blaming his absence on a meeting with the Ministry of Defense that had run over time. To me, Kerry seemed a bit harried and not just a little unhappy that he had to spend time listening to the complaints of the American business community.

My colleagues and I, seeing Kerry (and his Republican partner John McCain) as the architect(s) of normalization of relations with Vietnam, considered him a unique conduit, someone who might be able to speak on our behalf at the highest levels of the US government. For the Senator’s benefit, we repeated stories of a trade deck stacked against us.

Kerry seemed both irritated and impatient, at one point almost cutting off one of my colleagues mid-sentence. In an almost lecturing tone, Kerry spoke about the larger framework of the US-Vietnam relationship, the diplomatic, cultural and security components of the nascent reconciliation. Trade was an important element of the relationship, but only one element.

There was a “sit down and shut up” quality to Kerry’s monologue.

It was the quintessential Kerry that would inform his later caricature; arrogant, disdainful, overbearing and imperious. I formed a negative opinion of him on the spot; an opinion that I carried with me in the years ahead that found full expression in the 2004 campaign, when Kerry was the Democratic nominee.

But time is nature’s lens of clarity, allowing for perspective and reflection. Nearly 20 years after first seeing Kerry in person I look back on that day in Hanoi and realize that despite his off-putting manner, Kerry was spot on with his comments. Indeed, he was far ahead of his time.

 It may seem odd to younger Americans today how emotional and controversial the issue of normalized relations with Vietnam was in the early 90s. Indeed, it was a significant act of political courage for President Clinton – a man with his own legacy problems with Vietnam – to restore diplomatic ties with Hanoi.

But in ’94, Kerry clearly saw the potential in a strong US-Vietnam relationship that would be set against the dramatically changing balance of power in Asia and the emergence of China, and he worked hard to nurture that collaboration.

Today, Vietnam and the US trade over $18 billion annually. Diplomatically, the US and Vietnam are politically aligned with other ASEAN nations against China’s move to claim the entire South China Sea for itself. And perhaps most unthinkable two decades ago, US warships are doing port calls in Vietnam, and there are regular, high ranking military exchanges. In short, Vietnam has become an integral – and beneficial – partner and a component of US strategic planning in the Pacific.

In the process that brought us to this point today, John Kerry was among a small group of far-sighted people who saw reconciliation and diplomatic recognition, not simply as symbolic acts in themselves, but the first steps in forming a foundation for a new, stronger, and multi-faceted relationship between the US and Vietnam; something that would be increasingly important to the US in the 21st century.

Kerry’s story on Vietnam is relevant here, given the current imbroglio concern UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Benghazi and the question of who will be the next Secretary of State.

By all accounts, Rice appears to be President Obama’s pick to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

He hasn’t actually explicitly stated that Rice is his nominee, but POTUS’ unusually robust public defense of Rice stands in stark contrast to the Administration’s normal operating procedure of throwing officials under the bus when the politics gets too hot. Despite some formidable opposition among senior GOP Senators to Rice as SecState, the President has stood his ground in her defense.

But this is the wrong fight, at the wrong time on the wrong subject. Simply put, a fight to install Rice at State is a political loser for the Administration in every way – even if he somehow gets her confirmed.

No matter what diplomatic gifts the President believes Rice possesses – and her record as UN Ambassador is underwhelming – the controversial statements that Rice made about the Benghazi terror attack should simply disqualify her as a potential SecState.

Aware of the true nature of the Libyan attack – that it was a coordinated terrorist strike and not a random protest that became violent – Rice made a conscious decision to go on all the Sunday network shows and spout talking points that she knew were untrue.

This is as simple and it is crucial.

That the President, or anyone else, ordered Rice to take that action is hardly a satisfactory, mitigating defense. Colin Powell pored over intelligence documents and agonized over taking the US case on Iraqi WMD to the UN for the very understandable reason that his personal credibility was on the line. No less is true for Rice, who not only vigorously repeated falsehoods on national TV, but did so in the heat of a presidential race where the purported decline of Al Qaeda was a key argument in the President’s reelection strategy. News of Al Qaeda’s franchise role in Benghazi would have been a dilemma for Team Obama which spent a good part of the Charlotte convention lauding the President’s anti-terror bone fides.

At its most charitable, we may be able to parse actions to the point where it is one thing to provide “incomplete” information. It is, however, quite another for a US diplomat to run political interference for an incumbent president in the midst of a national campaign.

The truth is that no matter how you dress it up, Rice is damaged goods.

Given that the President’s political capital is limited and fleeting, its use in a protracted fight over Rice is foolhardy given the monumental problems that will require bipartisan solutions in the coming weeks and months. Insisting in Rice will only complicate a delicate political situation in the capital.

And the absence of Rice does not deprive the President of a far more superbly qualified candidate for the SecState job – John Kerry.

Kerry has decades of experience in foreign policy. The Vietnam example is but one where Kerry has proven instrumental in moving US foreign policy in the right direction. His tenure as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been constructive, bipartisan and pragmatic. More recently, Kerry has been the “go-to” Senator on questions regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of our nation’s most sensitive and volatile relationships.

You do not have to be a fan of Kerry’s domestic politics, ideological bent or his personal demeanor to recognize the qualities that make him an excellent candidate for State.

While the President and Congress tussle over the fiscal cliff and domestic issues, foreign policy will remain enormously important. The totalitarian power grab by Egypt’s president; the Syrian civil war and the possible rise of jihadists in a post-Assad world; the Israeli-Hamas stalemate; the Afghan drawdown; an emerging nuclear Iran; the growth of Al Qaeda franchises in North Africa since the Arab Spring. North Korea will likely again be in the news with a missile test later in December/January, and the EU sovereign debt crisis shows no signs of abating, generating both economic as well as foreign policy challenges.

This is not the time for an untested rookie suffering from excessive ambition. This is not the time to elevate  someone who abandoned basic critical thinking in the midst of a foreign policy crisis.  And surely this is not the time for a partisan food fight on foreign policy when the economy is in the balance.

The nation needs someone who not only understands the highly complex and technical issues in the different regions of the world, but also knows all the players on Day #1. Someone willing to speak honestly and candidly – to the President and to the public.

Kerry knows it and will do it.

To deal with the multitude of daunting issues the US faces abroad, the President needs a work horse, not a show horse. Having served in the Senate for 27 years and been the Party’s nominee for President, Kerry has no remaining political ambition. SecState would be the capstone of his career, an opportunity to use a generation’s worth of experience in one final act of service for the nation.

The decision is a no-brainer. Save your political capital for the important fights, get someone into State quickly, with strong bipartisan support, that will have your back while you are trying to sort out the economy.

It is a win-win for POTUS.

The jury is still out on whether President Obama gets it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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