Sen. John Kerry, the president's pick for secretary of state, is as prepared for the tough job of the nation's top diplomat as anyone can be.
The five-term U.S. senator from Massachusetts is the son of a U.S. foreign service officer and also a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has played a role in the nation's major foreign policy debates since 1971 when, as a young veteran with three Purple Hearts and other medals, he pushed for an end to that war in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
When Kerry was the Democratic candidate for president in 2004, Republicans vilified him as a waffler who tried to have it both ways on the Iraq War. But now there is wide, bipartisan Senate support for his confirmation as secretary of state, with many Republicans lauding him as a hardworking, savvy foreign affairs expert. That GOP support is significant. It means Kerry should be confirmed quickly and, we can be thankful, with a rare minimum of acrimony.
In announcing the nomination Dec. 21, President Barack Obama said his choice "is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training. Few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers, or grasp our foreign policy as firmly, as John Kerry." That's important. Events in the world won't wait. During his first term, Obama used Kerry to send "unofficial messages to world leaders, especially in Afghanistan.
Kerry should first focus on the explosive changes in the Middle East, where Egypt and Libya are lurching uncertainly toward democracy and civil war raging in Syria. Kerry, like Obama, was too optimistic that having a dialogue with brutal Syrian ruler Bashar Assad would be productive. That's a lesson that should make the two of them wiser in the second term. Meanwhile, the prospect of a two-state solution in the standoff between Israel and Palestinians needs to be resuscitated. And Iran must be persuaded, or coerced, to abandon its drive toward nuclear weapons. The threat that prospect poses for Israel could ignite yet another war in the region.
Nurturing productive relationships with the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan in the volatile aftermath of those long wars will be a delicate proposition. And maintaining a workable partnership with Pakistan -- which has been an ambivalent ally at best, a treacherous one at worst -- is critical to continued success in defanging al-Qaida and denying terrorists a new foothold in the region.
If Kerry is confirmed as the next secretary of state, he will have to manage all that while also working to increase the nation's influence in Asia, where China's importance as an economic and strategic player continues to grow. And as a longtime voice for action on climate change, Kerry, if confirmed, should use the position to push that important issue internationally.
With other challenges, such as bolstering security at U.S. embassies around the world after the deadly attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the next secretary of state will have a very full plate.
The Senate should confirm Kerry quickly so he can get to work.