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For Kerry, a growing prominence on foreign policy stage

Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) presides over a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on NATO expansion.
Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) presides over a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on NATO expansion. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/associated Press)

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

Five years after his painful loss to George W. Bush, ending a presidential campaign in which he was accused of being an Iraq war defeatist who was too willing to talk to America's adversaries, Sen. John F. Kerry has finally found his place in the foreign policy spotlight.

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Not only has President Obama advanced many of the Massachusetts Democrat's ideas but Vice President Biden's election vacated for Kerry the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the legislative branch's leading foreign policy pulpit.

Kerry's role over the past week in resolving, at least temporarily, the political turmoil in Afghanistan brought him kudos from Obama, who thanked him publicly and called his successful efforts to persuade President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff election "extraordinarily constructive." It was Kerry -- pressed into action by the Obama administration while on an unrelated trip to Afghanistan -- who stood by Karzai's side in Kabul on Wednesday when the announcement about the runoff was made. For the first time since 2004, Kerry's face appeared on front pages across the country.

But the senator has been careful to draw back before the administration grows wary of his prominence on such a hot-button issue. When a reporter suggested that he had become the "de facto secretary of state," Kerry grew flustered, sputtering, "I don't want -- you know, I don't even -- I don't think that's appropriate, de facto, whatever, whatever."

Scheduled weeks ago to give a major speech on Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday, Kerry postponed it at the last minute so that he could attend an Obama address, also Friday, with more compelling imperatives -- Obama will speak in Boston, in Kerry's home state, and the subject is climate change, the senator's other passion along with foreign policy. Kerry's speech has been rescheduled for Monday.

Neither Kerry nor his staff members would comment for this article, lest he be accused of what one of his Senate staffers called "self-aggrandizement." Perceptions of presidential ambitions long before he actually ran for the office, along with his patrician appearance and stiff demeanor, have always brought Kerry close, often negative, scrutiny.

For its part, the administration says it is more than happy to have Kerry aboard, especially to the extent that he hews to White House policy. He was extensively briefed before his Afghanistan trip by special administration representative Richard C. Holbrooke, who was a top foreign policy adviser to Kerry in 2004. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "talked to him multiple times over the weekend" during the Karzai negotiations, a senior administration official said, adding, "In fact, she called [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid to get Harry to bless Kerry staying in the region for an extra day."

"Rightly or wrongly," the official said, "Congress is engaged in foreign policy. You can debate where the boundaries of that should be . . . [but] we'd much rather have people who have engaged around the world where the United States is sending a consistent message."

Kerry, he said, "is finally in a position where he can take what he learned on the campaign trail and apply it in a real-world situation. And he's doing it extraordinarily."

With his first chairmanship of a frontline committee, Kerry, 65, seems to have struck a balance. By most accounts, his tenure as head of the panel on which he has served since he arrived in the Senate in 1985 has been successful. He works closely with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican, most recently on the administration-backed bill authorizing $7.5 billion in economic assistance to Pakistan that bears both their names.

During a Thursday hearing on NATO expansion, committee colleagues praised Kerry's efforts in Afghanistan. "There are times when preparation and opportunity meet, and I think that very much occurred over the last week in Kabul," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

"He's somebody that has a passion" for foreign policy, Corker said in an interview. "It's something that he's invested years and years into. I'd much rather have a chairman that wants to be fully engaged in the issues the committee is dealing with. . . . I think he's doing a fine job." Kerry arranged the NATO hearing, Corker said, after the Republican raised questions recently about the apparent haste to bring new members into the Atlantic alliance.

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