NEW YORK — America’s policy toward Israel and the Middle East was front and center in the political debate this election year, from Iran’s nuclear program to Israeli-Arab peacemaking to America’s response to the Arab Spring. And American Jews decided resoundingly — by 70 percent to 30 percent — that Barack Obama was the right man for the job of commander in chief.
Now, the president needs to pick a new secretary of state, one who will have big shoes — or, as my wife would say, pumps — to fill. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a superb secretary of state, not only leading but also managing to be a great teammate. Her approval ratings are as sky-high as her effectiveness.
John Kerry, the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who was officially nominated Friday, would be a great pick to succeed her.
I interned for Kerry back in the 1990s as an undergraduate student at Brandeis University, perhaps the most pro-Israel college in the country. To me, Kerry seemed larger than life, a passionate man who could command a room without effort, and who had an extraordinary grasp of the issues, domestic and foreign. I saw Kerry’s passion again, more than a decade later, when I worked at the Middle East desk at the State Department and later in the Senate as a foreign policy aide. I witnessed how Kerry made the tough calls and led by example, just as he had done when he spoke out against the Vietnam War as a young man and combat veteran.
Kerry understands how to use these formidable skills to strengthen our country’s relations with close allies like Israel. He is a longtime advocate for an ironclad defense partnership between Israel and the United States, and a vigorous American diplomatic role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He understands the challenge from Iran and is a ruling voice for active American global leadership to resolve the crisis over its nuclear program. Kerry has directed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he leads to take on each of these issues, ensuring that Israel gets the defense aid it needs and the diplomatic support it depends on, and that Iran gets the penalizing sanctions it deserves.
And Kerry understands that the Middle East is changing in ways that we can’t predict, with ramifications for both the United States and Israel. He has led the Senate’s efforts to engage this new Middle East, including being the Senate’s leading voice for new relations with Egypt and post-Qaddafi Libya. Both Israel and America will benefit from his ability to build new alliances in this turbulent region.
Yet being a strong secretary of state is about much more than just foreign policy smarts. Outside of the president, the secretary of state is the most prominent American face to the world. Doing the job well requires vision, gravitas and the full backing of the president. John Kerry possesses these qualities in spades.
Kerry has the vision, having been a Senate leader on efforts to combat climate change, to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars responsibly, and to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used again. He knows how to implement that vision, having guided through the Senate in 2010 a strategic nuclear arms control treaty with Russia that passed with bipartisan support during partisan times.
He likewise has the gravitas, having nearly been elected president in 2004, garnering more than 59 million votes, and having served prominently in the Senate for nearly three decades. For this he is frequently called upon to travel to global hotspots such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt to smooth out relations during crisis moments. Kerry has proved that he commands the respect of America’s adversaries and allies alike before even entering the room.
Perhaps most important, he has the trust of the president. In 2004, Kerry gave then-Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama his first national platform as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. Obama returned the favor this year, inviting Kerry to deliver the main foreign policy address at the 2012 DNC. If selected for secretary of state, there would be no doubt around the world that Kerry has a direct line to, and the full confidence of, the president.
American Jews overwhelmingly voted for President Obama, and now they want this president to lead. John Kerry as secretary of state would help Obama do just that — as a powerful voice for America on the world stage, a visionary leader who understands how to deal with complex challenges and a staunch friend of close allies like Israel.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund. This column first appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward.)