Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
The parlor game has begun, and according to the grapevine John Kerry will be Hillary Clinton's replacement.
"John Kerry Is Top Prospect for Next Secretary of State," reads the headline of a Boston Globe article that has Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Thomas Donilon, President Obama's national security adviser, as his closest competitors.
How will Kerry serve in his position, if chosen? Probably cautiously, and with little rocking of the boat.
Certainly, Kerry has shown political daring at various times in his life. The most famous example was early on when as a returning (and highly decorated) Vietnam vet he gave an impassioned speech that called into question the wisdom of the war.
"We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to dies in Vietnam?" he famously asked Congress. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
On other occasions later during his career as a Senator, he exhibited flashes of the same boldness. He was the chair of the Senate committee looking into the Iran/Contra scandal and played a major role in unearthing many of its misdeeds, including official U.S. tolerance of drug dealing.
"It is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking ... and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers," the Kerry Committee stated.
Kerry also headed an investigation that exposed massive skullduggery at BCCI, a bank that was involved in every sort of illegal activity possible.
"Kerry fought against intense opposition from vested interests at home and abroad, from senior members of his own party; and from the Reagan and Bush Administrations, none of whom were eager to see him succeed," David Sirota and Jonathan Baskin wrote in 2004 in the Washington Monthly. "By the end, Kerry had helped dismantle a massive criminal enterprise and exposed the infrastructure of BCCI and its affiliated institutions, a web that law enforcement officials today acknowledge would become a model for international terrorist financing."
But these displays of courage have been few and far in between. Much of his career has been marked by excessive prudence. So much so that when David Corn of The Nation asked him in 2001 whether he was a liberal, Kerry answered, "Not really, no" and instead called himself a "moderate."
This character trait showed up most glaringly during the Iraq War. Along with much of the Democratic Party (including the current Secretary of State), Kerry displayed a willingness to believe all the lies that the Bush Administration was then hurling at the country. "I will be voting to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security," he said. Later on, when Bush's disingenuousness became obvious to everyone, Kerry pulled back support, a flip-flop that the Bush campaign mercilessly used against him in 2004.
The Iraq War fiasco exemplified a major characteristic of Kerry: a general reticence to take political risks. With Kerry at the helm, Foggy Bottom will continue to implement Obama's centrist foreign policy with quite remarkable continuity. There'll be the same fetish for free trade agreements, the same grand strategizing to maintain U.S. dominance, and the same overreliance on drones.
The faces can change. The policy remains.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Foreign Policy Consensus in Obama-Romney Debate Depressing."
Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter.
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