Kerry’s three challenges as secretary of statec - The Daily Progress: Opinion

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Kerry’s three challenges as secretary of statec

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Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 8:06 am


Secretary of State John Kerry faces three major challenges as he takes over the role of chief negotiator and spokesman for U.S. foreign policy.

 » Obtain adequate funding from Congress.

A primary task for Kerry is securing increased congressional support so the State Department can carry out increased diplomatic missions and the economic aid programs that are essential to sustain a viable foreign policy.

He launched that effort with a major speech at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Feb. 20, calling on Congress to reverse the cuts that the department and its foreign assistance programs sustained under the sequestration reductions.

Without adequate funding, American foreign policy will fail to achieve its objectives.

 » Avoid war in the Middle East.

Kerry’s first diplomatic mission abroad was to the Middle East, with visits to Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several Gulf states. His agenda: how to prevent Syria’s civil war from escalating into a major Middle East conflict; how to reassure Persian Gulf countries that Washington will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran; how to bolster Egypt’s faltering economy and political stability.

Kerry’s Middle East foray was preceded by visits to London, Paris, Berlin and Rome where he urged NATO allies to join in assisting opposition forces in Syria without getting directly involved in its civil war. His announcement about increased economic aid and non-lethal equipment was greeted with disappointment by rebel leaders, who want more direct U.S. military assistance in ousting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Kerry also laid the groundwork for President Obama’s upcoming visit to the region, when he will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and urge them to restart peace talks leading to Palestinian statehood.

The most urgent Middle East danger is preventing the disintegration of Syria, which the Economist labeled “The Death of a Country” (cover story, Jan. 23). Its civil war now claims nearly 70,000 lives, and it has become a magnet for Islamic radicals from abroad. They get their arms from outside forces and are gaining in their fight to unseat Assad and replace him with a radical, anti-western Islamic leader.

Can the United States and allied governments engender a favorable outcome in Syria? Only marginally, in my view, unless President Obama is prepared to lead an intervention with major ground forces, and support a friendly government with help from Arab states. The U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan does not inspire confidence.

Those who urge Obama to impose a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas ignore the failure of a years-long no-fly effort in Iraq in the 1990s. The lesson? Air power will not alter the political outcome in Syria; only some level of “boots on the ground” stands a chance of success militarily. Congressional leaders and the president oppose that course.

 » Build support in the White House.

Kerry knows that his success as secretary depends heavily on his relationship with the president and that many of his predecessors failed in that regard.

An obvious example is President Franklin Roosevelt’s ignoring of Secretary of State Cordell Hull and relying instead on Harry Hopkins, his trusted White House aide.

One secretary of state who was successful was George C. Marshall. His State Department organized the famous Marshall Plan that helped save Europe’s economy after World War II. He had President Harry Truman’s full support for this major project.

Another successful secretary was Dean Rusk, who served as both John Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s principal foreign policy adviser in the 1960s. This contrasted with Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, who largely ignored Secretary William P. Rogers and relied instead on Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser. In 1973 Nixon made him secretary of state after he negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam,

Kerry faces a major challenge in working with Obama’s White House aides, because their primary objective is ensuring that Obama’s foreign policy preferences are implemented. Denis McDonough, the new White House chief of staff, was promoted from a senior position on the National Security Council staff. He and Thomas Donilon, Obama’s top national security adviser (the post Kissinger occupied), have long been confidantes of Obama and will keep a check on the state department’s operations in foreign policy.

Relations between the state department and defense department have often been contentious, depending on the personalities of their secretaries. When Donald Rumsfeld ran the defense department under George W. Bush, the role of Secretary of State Colin Powell was circumscribed both by Rumsfeld’s domineering personality and Bush’s emphasis on military action after the events of September 2001. In contrast, relations between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and two defense secretaries, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, in Obama’s first term were good.

Kerry is well-qualified to serve as Obama’s secretary of state, but he needs to have the president’s confidence as he works to restore America’s diminished influence abroad.


Donald Nuechterlein, a political scientist and lecturer, lives near Charlottesville and is the author of “National Interests and Presidential Leadership: The Setting of Priorities.” E-mail him at


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