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The Boston Globe

Opinion

joan vennochi

John Kerry should be secretary of state

Senator John Kerry deserves to be the next secretary of state because he is the best person for the job.

The longtime Massachusetts senator who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has the background and experience required for the nation’s top diplomatic post. He has also been a good and loyal soldier for President Obama.

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But the president seems to prefer Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, for the secretary of state position. In light of that preference, Kerry’s name has surfaced as a potential nominee for secretary of defense. As a consolation prize, it isn’t shabby. But the State Department is what Kerry should get.

The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi is a serious problem for Rice, following comments she made five days after the Sept. 11 attack that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

During multiple media appearances, Rice linked the attack to an anti-Muslim video, and downplayed suggestions it was a premeditated terrorist attack. Critics say she was echoing the prevailing White House spin.

Obama fiercely defended Rice after several influential Republican senators said they opposed her nomination. If Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina “want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” said Obama during Wednesday’s press conference. If he decides Rice is the best choice to be secretary of state, “I will nominate her,” the president insisted.

Whether Obama likes it or not, Rice isn’t the best choice. The Benghazi controversy weakens her. Why get into a fight on her behalf when there are fiscal policy clashes ahead — especially when Kerry’s a better and more politically palatable alternative?

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“I think he’d be much more easily confirmed in the Senate than Susan Rice,” Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming told Politico.

Kerry isn’t responding to questions about his future, and aides close to him refuse to discuss any Cabinet speculation. But you don’t need confirmation from Kerry’s inner circle to understand the senator’s value over time to Obama.

He played a key role in launching Obama as a national political figure. In 2004, as Kerry prepared to accept his party’s presidential nomination, he chose Obama, then a little-known candidate for US Senate in Illinois, to deliver the keynote convention address in Boston. The speech galvanized Democrats in the hall and beyond. It started immediate buzz about the presidential potential of a community organizer turned state senator turned rookie US senator.

Up against Hillary Clinton, the favorite of the Democratic establishment, Obama was a long shot to win the 2008 nomination. Kerry got over the disappointment of his own loss to recognize Obama’s potential for winning the White House for Democrats. His early endorsement, which came even before Ted Kennedy’s, gave Obama much-needed credibility in the run-up to primary season.

Kerry was in the running to become secretary of state after Obama’s 2008 victory. Instead, the job went to Clinton. But Kerry didn’t sulk. He stood by Obama and backed him up when he needed support on a troop surge in Afghanistan. Last July, a New York Times Magazine article by James Traub described Kerry as “a kind of ex-officio member of Obama’s national security team, which has dispatched him to face one crisis after another in danger zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan.”

Kerry paved the way for Obama by calling upon Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to “step aside gracefully.” He has been criticized for buying into the notion of Syrian President Bashar Assad as reformer. But as Kerry told Traub, “Countries and people and leaders of countries act out of self-interest. Foreign policy is the art of finding those interests and seeing what serves your nation and trying to marry them.” Sometimes, divorce is the end result, but diplomats have to be open to marriage, too.

This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee begins closed hearings on the Benghazi attack. It’s a new window of opportunity for Kerry.

Unlike Rice, Kerry has credibility on Benghazi. Kerry would never publicly criticize the White House. But, according to a Sept. 27 post in The Cable, a foreign policy blog, Kerry, has privately “been pressing the administration for answers” about what happened in Benghazi.

Good for Kerry. The country deserves answers — and it also deserves a secretary of state who understands that loyalty is important, but so is truth.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at Joan_Vennochi.
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