If the insiders are to be believed, President Obama will nominate Massachusetts Senator John Kerry for secretary of state following UN Ambassador Susan Rice's inauspicious exit from the running. In doing so, he will senselessly hand the Republicans a chance at winning Kerry’s seat in a special election that could potentially feature former Senator Scott Brown.
Kerry, though certainly well qualified, is far from the only viable candidate for the post. Contrary to the tired narrative of the past few weeks, the president has plenty of less risky options. Here are four:
1. William J. Burns: Why not draw from the agency itself? A cursory look at the biographies of some of their top officials is evidence enough that the State Department has no shortage of experienced and dedicated analysts who'd fit the bill for the top job. Current Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns is one of them. As a member of the Foreign Service for over 30 years, he’s held a number of highly distinguished and dynamic positions: ambassador to both Russia and Jordan, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, special assistant to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeline Albright during the Clinton Administration, director of the department's Policy Planning Staff – the list goes on. In 1994, TIME named Burns one of the "50 Most Promising American Leaders Under 40." He might not be young anymore, but he certainly doesn't seem any less promising as a harbinger of big things in American foreign policy.
2. Samantha Power: This senior Obama adviser is known by many as the woman who called outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "a monster" during the 2008 campaign and by far too few as one of the most influential voices in American foreign policy today. Power, a former journalist, scholar (she is currently the Anna Lindh Professor of Practice and Global Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government), and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, has been an outspoken advocate for humanitarian intervention and has been credited by some insiders for prodding the Obama administration into taking action in Libya. Her hawkishness and, to some conservatives, her alleged hostility towards Israel, have made her more than a few enemies. Still, the course of her career, launched while reporting on the Bosnian conflicts in the midst of ethnic cleansing and humanitarian crises, evinces a sincere dedication to the promotion of human rights that may well be unparalleled among the country's top foreign policy analysts. As the Syrian debacle wears on with 40,000 already dead and as nascent rights crises emerge in African hotspots (Mali, Congo, Nigeria, Sudan & South Sudan, etc), Power may be just the person we need to ensure our rhetoric about high democratic ideals and human dignity are backed by sharp and impelling diplomacy.
3. Richard N. Haass: Richard Haass has been the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the nation's most influential think tanks, for nearly a decade. He has previously served as the director of Policy Planning for the State Department, an adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell, the U.S. coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan, and as the United States special envoy for Northern Ireland. The latter position earned him the State Department's Distinguished Service Award for his work on the fractious Irish peace process. Additionally, he's written eleven books on foreign policy. As with the other candidates already mentioned, these credentials arguably give him more heft as a candidate than Hillary Clinton had when she landed the position. It makes a good deal of sense for him to be in the running.
4. Jon Huntsman: This pick is for the politicos. Huntsman could be running for president again in 2016 and it’s not at all clear how receptive he'd be to being tapped for the job (or whether the president even likes him enough to offer it). If a nomination came, the pundits would have a field day — perhaps more drama than either of them would be willing to go through. In any case, the former governor of Utah certainly seems qualified. He’s served as ambassador to Singapore and China as well as a United States Trade Representative. He won attention during the Republican primaries for embodying a kind of post-partisan, even-keeled pragmatism. This was accomplished despite swinging wildly to the right from previously centrist positions on a number of issues. In short, he proved to be a master of controlling perceptions and using a trustworthy public face to mask sharp internal contradictions. Call me a cynic, but isn’t this what American diplomacy is really all about?
There are plenty more where these four came from. The idea that Kerry is so uniquely qualified that his appointment is worth losing a Democratic seat in a closely divided senate is positively risible. The president should cast a wide net and think long and hard about this. We’re fortunate enough to have legions of dedicated foreign policy experts and practitioners, inside and outside of Washington, in this country. Many deserve and would gladly answer the call to serve as our nation's top diplomat.