Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will almost certainly be going to Foggy Bottom as secretary of state. He will have his work cut out for him, given the Syrian bloodbath, the Benghazi fiasco, the Iranian nuclear threat and the potential for serious budget cuts. Here’s a helpful to do list for him:
1. Get Benghazi off his watch. Throw open the files, let Congress have a field day with the Clinton era and suffer no blame for what occurred on her watch. He’ll get points for openness.
2. Make a pact with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu: No arguing in public. No surprises in public. It will be good for both of them.
3. Apologize for courting Bashar al-Assad. He and many other foreign policy establishment types were wrong. Assad was not a “reformer” and could not be lured away from Syria. We waited far too long before calling for his removal, and frankly we still haven’t done much to bring that around. Admit error and personally reach out to Syrian opposition leaders. Otherwise, Assad’s BFF will have a rocky relationship with whatever government follows Assad.
4. Don’t compete with Hillary Clinton for frequent-flyer miles. Her excessive travel was not a sign of strength, but a symptom of her tendency to get immersed in minutiae and miss the big picture. When the secretary of state travels, it should be for an important purpose. Competent underlings can do much of this leg work, leaving big-picture issues for Kerry.
5. Figure out how to charm Republicans. Granted, Clinton didn’t do a very good job while in the Senate, but part of the key to her ability to deflect blame and stave off scandal was the absence of congressional venom. In fact, she played Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) like a fiddle. Kerry needs to learn to solicit advice (he doesn’t have to take it), share information and flatter his former colleagues. That’s what the job is about, in part. It was in large measure the reason Clinton’s reputation survived as long as it did.
6. Make peace with the career service people. They have every reason to be really mad that only non-political appointees took the blame for Benghazi. Unless he wants to spend four years being undermined, if not sabotaged, he and whoever he appoints to top spots better figure out how to be ingratiating with the people who can do him the most harm (no, not the Pentagon, but that would be another “do not get on their bad side” organization).
7. Say up front that there is no “pivot.” There is no phrase that rankled more domestic critics or alarmed our allies than the notion that we are going to “pivot from the Middle East to Asia.” Kerry would earn some quick brownie points simply by stating that the United States intends to be fully engaged in the Middle East and use all its available diplomatic, military and economic tools to promote stability and the peaceful transition to democracy. He can add that of course we think Asia is important, too, but Kerry is capable (so he can say) of talking and chewing gum at the same time (particularly if he doesn’t waste his time on small ball stuff).
8. Trade, trade and more trade. This is a no-brainer for the American economy. By promoting more free-trade agreements and zones, Kerry can shed the image of a Democratic pol who is essentially in the pocket of Big Labor.
I have not included major, controversial policy items (make the military threat credible to the mullah, actually align our behavior with our rhetoric on human rights, etc.) because I am under no illusion Kerry will make foreign policy. The White House is where the policy action is, but Kerry can gain credibility with foreign leaders, Congress and the media by avoiding some of the potholes Clinton stepped in. He can help himself and the administration by trying to increase the competence level in execution of policy. That might be a pipe dream too, but it’s a more realistic goal than actually making the United States more respected and influential in the world. That will have to wait for a new president.