WASHINGTON — By traditional measures, John F. Kerry, decorated veteran and a senator well regarded on the international stage, is more than qualified to be secretary of defense.
Yet news reports that President Obama is considering Massachusetts’ senior senator to oversee the armed forces sparked a range of reactions Tuesday, from full-throated support to bewilderment. Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has been instead considered a leading candidate to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Kerry would be “superbly well qualified for secretary of state or secretary of defense,’’ said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs with President George W. Bush and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “There are very few people more experienced than he is.”
One analyst cautioned that the criteria for effectively leading the two departments can be vastly different.
“He has a lot of international experience, but defense experience is another matter,” said David Schenker, a Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration and now a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think it is an odd choice.”
The reports by NBC News and the Washington Post, citing unnamed White House officials, say Kerry is being considered to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who revealed he would be leaving next year. The reports also said UN Ambassador Susan Rice is Obama’s likely choice to replace Clinton.
White House or Pentagon spokesmen have not commented on the speculation.
Any nomination would include confirmation hearings before the Armed Services Committee, chaired by Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan. Asked whether Levin thought Kerry, 68, was a good choice for the Pentagon, his spokeswoman responded: “He thinks he absolutely is.”
Others agreed. “The man has been a United States senator for years. He knows the political process. He actually served in the military, with distinction. He has the kind of credibility dealing with the military leadership that many civilians would not,” said Loren Thompson, a defense specialist at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
Thompson has close ties to the Pentagon and advises defense companies.
“He is also very much on the same page as the administration on many issues,” he added, including ending the war in Afghanistan, improving care for combat veterans, and reducing the size of the armed forces.
But Kerry himself, according to a former aide, was not expecting his name to be placed in the running for secretary of defense, nor has he mentioned the desire to be in charge of the armed forces. The former aide asked to not be identified in order to freely discuss any possible nomination.
Kerry declined to answer questions on his way to a session of the Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.
Considered a hero of the Vietnam War, Kerry returned from his Navy service there to become one of the nation’s best-known antiwar leaders. Since becoming a senator in 1985, he has faced questions about his view of the military and his thinking about when to use force.
He once summed up his view this way: “I believe the military is an arm of the tool of foreign policy and, at the most appropriate moments, it may be legitimate to be used.” He said his bitter experience in Vietnam had taught him to be cautious and questioning whenever someone proposed sending Americans into battle.
“We should go to war when our vital interests are at stake in a way that the majority of Americans have identified and are agreed upon, and when we have exhausted all peaceful alternatives,” he said.
Kerry’s positions have reflected that cautiousness. He voted against the use of force in Iraq in 1990 but backed the invasion to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2002, as he was preparing to run for president. That campaign, however, featured his call to end US involvement in Iraq.
On Afghanistan, Kerry has supported Obama’s stepped-up war against the Taliban but has also expressed growing concern that the strategy may not be working and could require adjustments.
Kerry has little history managing a large organization; the Pentagon is the world’s biggest bureaucracy. Yet, Thompson said, he could rely on a strong deputy to manage the day-to-day operations. That position is now filled by Ashton B. Carter, a former Harvard Kennedy School professor who is also believed to be on Obama’s short list for the top job.
Some close observers questioned whether Kerry had the right experience to lead the military.
“Kerry has not been involved in any significant way on defense issues for the past 20 years,” said a long-serving senior defense department official who asked not to be named. “I never met with him or received a call — or placed a call — to him.”
The official said a nomination of Kerry as defense secretary could get ugly, dredging up the divisiveness that characterized his run for the presidency in 2004, when some of his fellow Vietnam veterans attacked him for protesting the war, accusing the military of war crimes, and throwing some of his medals away on the Capitol grounds.
Some opponents organized an advertising campaign that questioned Kerry’s service and exploits as a Navy officer.
“It will ignite all the ‘swift boat’ people and bring that squarely into defense issues,” the official added. “The president may feel this is a way to vindicate Senator Kerry and clear that record, but I suspect it will be stormy and difficult.”
Rice’s nomination would probably be even more difficult. The longtime Obama confidante has become a lightning rod for Republicans demanding more answers about the attack on the US consulate in Libya in September. Rice gave conflicting public explanations about the attack that killed the American ambassador and three others — first describing it as a response to an anti-Muslim video before calling it a plot of terrorists.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned on Sunday that GOP senators would use a Rice nomination to investigate the Benghazi affair and whether the Obama administration sought to cover up information that could have hurt his reelection chances.
Some say the Post and NBC reports could be a way to gauge the reaction to a Rice nomination.
“They don’t want to be seen throwing Susan Rice under the bus. They want to give a clear message that she is not being ruled out,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a 2004 biography of Kerry. “It keeps both their names out there in a positive way.”
If Rice is passed over, Brinkley said, Kerry would be good fit to lead the State Department.
“It seems to me at a time when you are replacing Hillary Clinton, a figure of such world renown, you want to replace her with someone with a deeply credentialed reputation and can work with Congress,” he said.