I'd like to tell you who's going to be the next secretary of state. But I can't. It's a secret.
Still, I'm not the only one who knows. One very plugged-in friend of mine says that she's talked to Pete Rouse, the Obama advisor now assembling lists of names for President Barack Obama's second-term cabinet, and he says that Senator John Kerry has the short odds. But a White House correspondent responded by e-mail that, in fact, Kerry is "a long shot," since Obama won't want to risk losing a Senate seat, that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is still the leading candidate, but that national security advisor Tom Donilon "REALLY wants it." Then, the New York Times reports that Donilon doesn't want it, and that Rice is "crippled" because GOP senators will use the confirmation hearing to torture the administration over Benghazi. That's the problem with rumors: Knowledgeable people know things that contradict what other knowledgeable people know.
Since, to be honest, I don't know what Obama is thinking -- and neither does anybody else I've talked to -- let me try to answer instead the question of who it would make the most sense for him to appoint. I think the answer is pretty clearly John Kerry. Tom Donilon is a highly competent administrator who would die of impatience halfway through an interminable lunch with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Susan Rice is a pugnacious team player who, like Donilon, is more insider than outsider, and is notably deficient in that unctuous fluid which issues from the pores of professional diplomats. She would make a very good national security advisor if Donilon goes elsewhere. Obama, by all accounts, trusts Rice's judgment and is very fond of her; but he may be penetrating enough to see her shortcomings.
John Kerry is Hillary Clinton in pants. (Yes, I know, Secretary Clinton also wears pants.) He came within a whisker of being president -- much closer than she did -- and thus enjoys the aura of the almost-commander in chief. He is, like Clinton, a kind of living embodiment of America. He is immensely solemn and judicious, like her, but, unlike her, immensely tall. He is a decorated veteran with the iron grip of the ex-athlete. His baritone voice bespeaks bottomless gravitas. The man looks and acts more like a secretary of state than anyone since George Marshall. As a casting decision, it's a no-brainer.
It's important to understand what space Kerry, or someone else, would be seeking to fill. With a few important exceptions, Hillary Clinton has not been asked to formulate America foreign policy but rather to represent it, to talk about it, and to execute it. And she has done so almost flawlessly. If she is a conceptual thinker, she has kept her vision to herself. The big thinking in this administration comes from the Big Thinker in the White House, and a very small circle of aides. That is unlikely to change. And Kerry, though deeply familiar with everything and everyone, poses no danger of trying to impose a worldview of his own. He is an implementer, not a thinker. Tell John Kerry to take that hill, and he will take that hill or die trying.
Then there's the foreign policy work that needs to be done. The Obama administration will spend the next few years trying to extricate itself from Afghanistan -- and, collaterally, Pakistan -- with the least possible risk to America's reputation or national security. Kerry has been the White House's designated placater of Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's military chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. He visited Pakistan in the aftermath of the arrest of CIA agent Raymond Davis, and the killing of Osama bin Laden; and both times he left cooler tempers in his wake (though the effect didn't last). In 2009, he listened to Hamid Karzai rant for hours about how the world was shafting him before finally persuading Karzai that it was not in his own interest to accept the outcome of the transparently rigged election which had just won him a second term as president. If anyone can talk those guys off a ledge, it's Kerry.