The Buzz

A Subtle Shift at Foggy Bottom

Over at National Journal, Matt Vasilogambros looks at secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and asks what the transition from the former to the latter will mean for U.S. foreign policy. He concludes that the differences between the two are chiefly ones of tone and style rather than substance. In his words:

While observers have been quick to point to the stark differences in Kerry and Clinton’s personalities—the international superstar Clinton and the sometimes monotone Kerry—his tenure as secretary might not be as dissimilar from hers as they think.

There is some level of truth to this, and Vasilogambros is right that nobody should be expecting a major overhaul at the State Department as President Obama heads into his second term. But there is at least one significant policy difference between Clinton and Kerry that he misses: the two leaders’ beliefs on military intervention and the use of force. That is, where Clinton has been more of a hawk, more willing to employ military force in the service of American interests and ideals, Kerry has generally been more restrained and skeptical about what that force can accomplish.

Consider two examples from Obama’s first term: Afghanistan and Syria. Recall that during the 2009 Afghan strategy review, Clinton was a strong and vocal advocate for the “surge” recommended by the Pentagon and the military commanders. Conversely, Kerry was a critic of this plan. As he said in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing after Obama announced his new policy in December 2009:

Absent an urgent security need, we should not send American troops in to clear places unless we are confident that we have the Afghan partners and resources in place to build on our victories and transfer both security and government functions to legitimate Afghan leaders. Frankly, I am concerned that additional troops will tempt us beyond a narrow and focused mission. And, with 30,000 troops rushing into Afghanistan, I believe we will be challenged to have the civilian and governance capacity in place quickly enough to translate their sacrifice into lasting gains.

Likewise, as the administration debated what to do about the ongoing slaughter in Syria, Clinton proposed arming the Syrian rebels. Upon taking office recently, Kerry distanced himself from this idea, saying, “I'm not going to go backwards,” and stressing that the steps he and the administration were contemplating toward Syria were primarily “diplomatic.”

This is not to suggest that Kerry is a peacenik. Indeed, Kerry supported the 2011 Libya intervention (as did Clinton), and back in May 2012 he said that it might be time to consider establishing safe zones and arming the opposition in Syria, though he did not actually recommend doing so then. Both secretaries of state are well within the boundaries of mainstream Democratic Party thinking. Yet within those boundaries, Kerry has been noticeably more reluctant to recommend using military force abroad or taking steps that might invite future interventions. It’s a subtle but meaningful difference that seems to be in line with the administration’s broader evolution in its approach to foreign and defense policy.