Kerry's life had come full circle. Inside the Senate, the former outsider at times bristled inside clubby Washington. Unusual for a Senator, let alone a freshman, he gravitated toward difficult foreign-policy assignments. In 1991, Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) tapped Kerry to chair an investigation into the fate of Americans missing in Vietnam. Kerry seized an opportunity to begin to heal the wounds of the war in which he'd served. He became unlikely friends with Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of the North Vietnamese, and together they unified a diverse and ideologically disparate Senate Select Committee behind the investigation's historic finding that there were no living American POWs left in Vietnam. In so doing, Kerry demonstrated an intensity rarely seen on Capitol Hill, making 14 trips to Vietnam -- fourteen! -- searching for answers and securing the Vietnamese government's cooperation.
Kerry's engagement with Vietnam didn't stop there. He partnered again with McCain and President George Herbert Walker Bush's national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, and later with President Bill Clinton, to lift the trade embargo with Vietnam and normalize relations. One wonders if, standing in Hanoi as Clinton in 2000 became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the end of the war, Kerry wistfully harkened back to his own antiwar testimony -- and his hopes then that one day "small boys" would talk about Vietnam and think not of a war but of "the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning." Indeed, Kerry had done exactly that. He had achieved in the reconciliation process what had so eluded him both in the war and in the antiwar movement: a place of comfort and peace.
Over the years, his closest Senate friends became men like John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Max Cleland, Bob Kerrey, and Chuck Robb -- all Vietnam vets. They shared the same high-minded covenant, you might say: a willingness to serve America in any capacity. Kerry was attracted to other diplomatic assignments unusual for a senator. He amended U.S. policy to press for free elections in the Philippines, was appointed by President Reagan along with Sen. Richard Lugar to observe that election, and helped exposed Ferdinand Marcos's voter fraud, leading to the United States separating itself from its corrupt Cold War ally and ushering in a democratic Philippines. During the Clinton administration, he revived the U.N.'s moribund genocide tribunal effort with Cambodia and over successive weekends in 2000 flew to both Phnom Penh and Havana to negotiate with Prime Minister Hun Sen the very genocide tribunal structure that has in recent years led to trials and convictions for war crimes of former Khmer Rouge officials. He had learned -- and applied -- a lesson his father had taught him: that a good American diplomat is one who "advances America's interests by learning to see the issues through the eyes of another country."
Now that it looks like Kerry will be President Obama's nominee for secretary of state, it's worth pondering his record to understand his intellectual predisposition and modus operandi. While Hillary Clinton, the current occupant of Foggy Bottom, earned her Senate spurs on the Armed Services Committee, Kerry has been on the Foreign Relations Committee since 1985. His orientation tilts toward the art of diplomacy even as he understands war in personal ways. He has championed free trade, supported U.S. intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia, partnered with Sen. Bill Frist to write and pass the first global AIDS bill (which President George W. Bush turned into PEPFAR), fought against the trafficking of persons, led relentless investigations into Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega's involvement in illegal narcotics that laid the predicate for the invasion of Panama and Noriega's arrest, exposed the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) for illegal money laundering that funded global criminal activities including Osama bin Laden's former base in Sudan, and earned his spurs on global climate change as Al Gore labeled him "the Senate's best environmentalist."
If there is such a thing as a Kerry Doctrine, it is a clear-eyed willingness to pursue engagement and test the intentions of other countries, even present and former enemies or difficult partners on the world stage. Just as Kerry used to journey to Vietnam searching for POWs, he now regularly travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan as a high-octane negotiator for the White House. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee since 2009, he played a trouble-shooting role for President Obama in reaching agreement with President Karzai on a run-off election in Afghanistan to avert a constitutional crisis, negotiated with Pakistan's President Asef Ali Zardari and General Ashfaq Kayani on the release of American contractor Ray Davis and the return of the American helicopter's tail following the Osama bin Laden raid. On Sudan, Kerry parlayed several trips to the region into a special easing the peaceful and successful independence referendum in the south. He is committed to the Middle East peace process and America's special relationship with Israel, a country he feels deeply about as someone whose grandparents were Jews and whose own brother converted to Judaism. On Iran, he is a hawk. (There is no such a thing as containment, Kerry says: Tehran simply won't be allowed to have nuclear weapon.) Quite unusual for a Washington insider, Kerry flat out refuses to use the phrase "Arab Spring." He prefers "Arab Awakening." His reasoning is simple: Seasons like spring come and go. An "awakening" is the beginning of a true democratic reform movement that is just getting started.
Kerry -- patient but quick to see opportunities -- has a negotiator's mindset. Working on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 27 years has honed his skills as a dealmaker -- and a legislator in a Senate where those skills are now in short supply. After Democrats were walloped and Obama's agenda endangered by the 2010 midterm elections, with steely determination Kerry led the improbable fight to ratify New START, the president's nuclear arms treaty with Russia, in 2010 even as others urged Kerry to wait for a smoother legislative calendar. He got 71 votes.
As secretary of state, Kerry would no doubt invest enormous time leveraging his relationships on Capitol Hill and selling the president's agenda in the Senate and on the committee he now chairs. And he would make great use of the friends and contacts he's made around the world in his three decades quietly and diligently working on foreign policy. There is no learning curve for Kerry at Foggy Bottom.
And Kerry would be a great pick to lead the State Department at this specific moment in time. Just as he learned everything he could about Southeast Asia from the 1960s to the 1990s, Kerry has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East -- often putting him ahead of his potential future boss on the region's urgent crises. He was the first senator to call for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down, pressed the administration to create a no-fly zone in Libya to topple Muammar al-Qaddafi, and has been a sharp critic of Syria's murdering of its own citizens, having meticulously tested Bashar al-Assad's willingness to change his ways in 2009 and come away unimpressed. Consider the grace with which Kerry has handled his 2004 presidential defeat. Instead of retreating into bitterness and self-doubt, he put his shoulder to the wheel and worked. Much like his evergreen heroes of the early Cold War -- Eisenhower, Kennan, Acheson, and Marshall -- Kerry exudes noblesse oblige. But his courtesy and diplomatic finesse can mask a toughness and a willingness to speak hard truths. That's what he learned all those years ago in Vietnam: that loving his country could mean both picking up arms and speaking out against a failing war. And that's why America needs him as its top diplomat today.