Should John Kerry be Obama's next secretary of defense?

The Week's Editorial Staff
The Week
The Democratic senator from Massachusetts would reportedly prefer to be President Obama's secretary of state — though he may wind up leading the Defense Department instead.

The former presidential candidate and Vietnam War vet is reportedly being considered for the post — even though he'd rather be secretary of state

"I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty." That's how the senator from Massachusetts opened his speech to the Democratic National Convention during his failed presidential run in 2004, offering a pointed reminder that the decorated veteran of the Vietnam War had far more military experience than George W. Bush. The campaign didn't work out so well for Kerry, whose sterling war record was sunk by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but he may have another shot at leading on national security issues. Obama is considering Kerry to serve as his next defense secretary, "part of an extensive rearrangement of his national security team that will include a permanent replacement for former CIA Director David H. Petraeus," say Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller at The Washington Post:

Administration officials, one of whom described Kerry as a “war hero,” said his qualifications for the defense job included not only his naval service in Vietnam but also his knowledge of the budget and experience in the diplomacy that has increasingly become a part of the defense portfolio.

However, defense secretary is not the only cabinet position Kerry is being considered for. His heart's true desire is reportedly to become secretary of state, a nomination that "will almost certainly go to Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations," say DeYoung and Miller. Here's the rub: Rice has become a lightning rod for Republican criticism over the Obama administration's response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, after she suggested that the attack stemmed from a spontaneous riot against an anti-Muslim video. Administration officials say Rice was merely relaying what intelligence officials had told her, but Republicans have accused Rice of participating in the equivalent of a cover-up. A Rice nomination would inevitably entail a vicious confirmation process, say Zeke Miler and John Stanton at BuzzFeed:

A senior Republican leadership aide expressed shock at the possibility that Rice would be nominated for the State Department slot and said it would almost [certainly] go poorly for the ambassador.

"Lindsey Graham is perhaps to most accommodating Republican in the Senate to presidential nominations and he's 24 hours removed from saying he would oppose her. It's unclear whether her nomination would be blocked entirely but what is clear is that she would not be confirmed until the entire Benghazi situation has been fully litigated, which has been something the administration has meticulously avoided," the leadership aide said.

Whether Rice gets the State Department nod depends on how much appetite Obama has for a bitter fight with Congress. So for now, at least, Kerry's name is being thrown around for both positions, an enviable situation for the senator, says Mark Landler at The New York Times:

In the unforgiving climate of Washington, though, Mr. Kerry might profit from Ms. Rice’s misfortune. He would likely breeze through a confirmation hearing with his Senate colleagues. And he has been a loyal soldier for the administration on a variety of issues. In 2009, the White House dispatched Mr. Kerry to Afghanistan, where he helped talk President Hamid Karzai into accepting a runoff election. In the Senate, Mr. Kerry has pushed for Obama initiatives like the New Start treaty with Russia.

And one last key point to keep in mind: If Kerry gets either job, says Landler, it would trigger a special election for his Senate seat, which "the White House worries could fall into Republican hands." Moderate Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who just lost his own Massachusetts seat to progressive hero Elizabeth Warren, might run for Kerry's open seat. But he'd "face a robust bench of Democrats" that includes Obama ally Gov. Deval Patrick, Rep. Michael E. Capuano, and former state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who lost to Brown in 2010.

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