John Kerry first became a household name when he had the courage to come home from Vietnam, a decorated hero, and tell the truth about what was happening there. Protesting a meaningless war, he helped form “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” which included testimony to Congress and a protest wherein veterans including himself threw their medals over a fence at the Capital building. Kerry said: “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all. “
Later, of course, he went into politics and became a highly regarded Massachusetts Senator, and the 2004 Democratic candidate for President. Though he was slandered in that campaign with false allegations about his military service, he fought a close election, losing to President George W. Bush 50.7% to 48.3%. In losing, he still garnered more votes than anyone else in history at the time, except for President Bush.
Kerry was active in the Senate, maintaining his principles. He and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin flew to Nicaragua shortly after his 1984 election to the Senate, visiting Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The US was actively engaged in policies against Nicaragua, and Kerry along with Christopher Dodd investigated and helped bring to light the illegal activities of the Iran-Contra affair. He did vote to authorize military force against Iraq, but was critical of the way President Bush handled the war. Still, that vote represents a blemish on his career.
On February 1, 2013 Senator Kerry became Secretary of State Kerry. The man who was once seen as a dangerous critic of US foreign policy is now the primary architect of that policy. He has shown that he intends to be active and true to his principles.
This has generated criticism. His efforts to broker a deal with Iran have been criticized in France and Israel. His work with Russia has been dismissed as being naive. But the critics all share one trait: they assume diplomacy can’t work. Many people have a very black and white view of reality. Certain countries are the “bad guys” and “our enemies,” so only naive fools will engage them.
Such a view is absurd. Mao Zedong was vehement in his hatred for the US and threats against American hegemony. His rhetoric made the anti-Israel barbs of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad look mild. Yet President Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with China, allowing China to replace Taiwan on the UN Security Council, which helped lead to positive change in China. That was heavily criticized, but Nixon’s credentials as an anti-Communist helped him mollify the critics (hence the colloquialism ‘only Nixon could go to China’).
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was once the most hated man on the planet by the American government. He masterminded terrorist attacks which killed Americans, and the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate him in an attack on his house. Later, though, diplomacy led him to abandon his nuclear program and try to get on the good side of the West. Many on the right were critical of UN efforts to help the Libyan rebels, preferring Gaddafi stay in power.
The point: diplomacy is about trying to turn enemies into, if not friends, at least people we can deal with.
John Kerry has logged 250,000 miles as Secretary of State, visiting 35 countries. His desire to try to find solutions to long standing problems in the Mideast and elsewhere have caused many in Washington to criticize him. Unlike his predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry goes less for the showy displays and more for substance. One gets the sense that she never wanted to do anything that would later harm a Presidential bid, such as being seen as too open to an agreement with Iran. Kerry is not limited by political ambition, he can go where his principles lead.
President Obama has given Kerry considerable latitude in pursuing his foreign policy goals, largely because the two share similar principles. Since Kerry doesn’t have to worry about what Washington insiders say, he can take their shots, working on extremely complex issues. If he can’t succeed, he gets blamed. If he does manage to reach agreements, the President can step in and get the glory. That’s the job of a Secretary of State, and Kerry understands it.
Yet while his efforts have been rather quiet, mostly underneath the media radar screen, he appears to be on a mission to do good – to be true to the principles that led him to speak out against atrocities taking place in Vietnam. Who knows? In the next three years he might be able to accomplish more as a hard working Secretary of State getting into the diplomatic trenches than he would have as President had he won in 2004.
And if so that would be fitting closure to his career. His began by protesting against a pointless war that killed over a million people, with the major consequence being a decline in US power and moral authority. Perhaps it might end with him guiding US foreign policy in a way that promotes peace and works to limit human suffering. At this point in time John Kerry is the right man for the job.