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Innocents Abroad

Clinton Out, Kerry In

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at her final press interview in the Benjamin Franklin room of the State Deptartment on January 31,  2013.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at her final press interview in the Benjamin Franklin room of the State Deptartment on January 31, 2013.

It is unlikely that anything will really change in US foreign policy with the departure of Hillary Clinton and the arrival of Senator John Kerry as the new secretary of State today. It is impossible to deny that Kerry’s qualifications are impeccable: he is deeply familiar with the making of American foreign policy and diplomacy in general, having served on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee for almost thirty years, and as its chairman throughout President Obama’s first term. He has also reportedly acted as an envoy for Obama on various behind-the-scenes diplomatic missions. As a result, the new secretary sailed through the approval process in the Senate—in contrast with Chuck Hagel, the nominee for secretary of Defence, who faced several pointed questions about his views on Iran and Iraq on Thursday.

This also makes Senator Kerry the polar opposite of Obama’s first choice for the role: Susan Rice, the current US representative to the UN, who withdrew her candidacy in December after attacks from congressional Republicans. She told an interviewer from a US TV channel that “I didn’t want to see a confirmation process that was very prolonged, very politicized, very distracting and very disruptive.” If Obama wanted somebody who could avoid a similar fate, his wish was granted with Senator Kerry.

However, Kerry’s smooth elevation indicates the absence of any controversial opinions, and that most of his views are thoroughly within the Washington mainstream. Together with the fact that he was the Democratic candidate for the 2004 presidential election, he appears to be the quintessential patrician insider, despite his outspoken public opposition to the Vietnam War as a young man. Completing the picture is the fact that he is a child of the East Coast establishment, the son of a State Department diplomat with an Ivy-League education (law school at Yale). All told, he seems a man likely to resist any urges to rock the boat.

In terms of his personal approach to the job, Kerry, lacking Hillary Clinton’s charisma, will probably adopt a lower public profile than his predecessor. This fact will make it harder for him to make any major changes if he does feel the urge, and taken together with the domination of foreign policy by the White House it appears that American policy abroad will probably travel in much the same direction as before, barring any changes in presidential opinion.

As for Hillary, it remains to be seen what her first weeks and months as a private citizen will reveal about her plans for the future. She is famously focused and driven, with a combative streak that was most recently revealed in the congressional hearing into last year’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

As an unbroken stint in the public eye as first lady, senator for New York, presidential candidate and secretary of State ends, she may find life as a campaigner for women’s rights (a role she has dropped hints that she is interested in) may not be as fulfilling as she had hoped. Most observers agree that she is at least likely to mull over the option to run for president again in four years, despite her earlier denials and her recent health problems.

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Alex Edwards
Alex Edwards is a desk editor at The Majalla and Asharq Al-Awsat's English editions. He trained as a journalist before receiving his PhD from the London School of Economics, where he researched American foreign policy in the Gulf.

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