To: John Kerry
From: Aaron David Miller
So, you probably weren't the president's first choice for the position. But forget that -- it really doesn't matter now. You're going to be secretary of state. The only thing that counts is what you're going to do with the job.
And make no mistake, it's quite a prize -- the second-best job in government, maybe even the best.
Can there be a greater high in government than disembarking in some foreign land from an aircraft embossed with the words "United States of America" on the fuselage and the American flag on its tail?
And could there be more honor and privilege in knowing that -- no matter how tough, even hopeless, the task -- you're charged with representing America abroad? As secretary of state, you are a minority of one in American political life today -- a non-partisan bipartisan partisan, often untouchable in the catty corridors of Washington.
So What Is a Great Secretary of State?
I've written about what it takes to do the job well, to be consequential, even great. So how do you measure up?
The right presence: You've got the physical persona. And while it may be politically incorrect to say it, no secretary of state in the modern period -- with the possible exception of Dean Acheson -- does a better job in looking the part. And trust me, presence, charisma, and image count. When Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton walked into the room, people noticed. It often had nothing to do with physical size, gender, hair, or clothes. Each had a certain presence, persona, spark, moxie, and spunk that made an impression.
You've got that exterior. But what's on the inside? Do you have the persona -- the combination of charm, guile, and toughness that's required for real success? The latter is really critical. Applying honey is required too, but that's easy. Using the vinegar is the hard part. Shultz had his stare and glare that could cut an interlocutor to the bone, Baker had his "I'm out of here" slammed notebook routine. Albright was plenty tough when she needed to be, especially in the Balkans and with Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat.
Bottom line: Are you a son of a bitch with an instrumental and manipulative edge? Are you prepared, as Kissinger and Baker did, to trash the Arabs in front of the Israelis and vice versa in an effort to gain the confidence of both? Or are you a diplomat's diplomat -- nice, balanced, and always coloring between the lines? If it's only the latter, you'll bag a lot of frequent flyer miles but not much else.
The negotiator's mindset: We really don't know what kind of negotiator you'd be. You've had more experience than some of your predecessors in the Senate, and as a kind of shadow envoy for the president, you've undertaken missions to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We already know you're well-versed in international relations, pragmatic, non-ideological, and patient. Above all, you really do believe in the power of engagement and diplomacy -- perhaps to a fault. Kissinger and Baker -- the two best negotiators and manipulators in recent times -- never felt quite the same.
Whether you have the intuitive skills to see how the pieces fit together and the sense of timing, theatrics, and leverage to assemble them is another matter. You won't know until you're in the middle of a hot negotiating moment. Indeed, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, do you have the sense of when to hold ‘em, fold ‘em, or threaten to and actually walk away from ‘em if need be?