John Kerry did not accept the job of U.S. secretary of state to advance his personal career. Kerry, who narrowly lost to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election and has served in the Senate for nearly two decades (recently as chairman of the prestigious Foreign Affairs Committee), took the job because he believes that he has the ability to help find solutions for a number of tough challenges that his country faces. Kerry is a rare individual, whose leadership Americans missed out on when they re-elected Bush eight years ago. He comes into what will probably be the last political role of his life with unique experience in foreign relations and with a great love for diplomacy.
In conversations that I have had with Kerry over the years, I have been very impressed by his knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs. But he also displayed equal expertise when talk shifted to other regions of the world. Kerry comes into the role of secretary of state, taking Hillary Clinton's place, with considerable intelligence and a feeling that he has the ability to solve problems, even long-standing ones that have been passed down from one presidential administration to the next. As the son of a diplomat, Kerry travelled the world, was exposed to education in several countries and learned to speak five languages. Becoming secretary of state is a dream come true for Kerry, even though his bigger dream of being elected president went unfulfilled.
Kerry's formative life experience was the Vietnam War. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kerry's worldview was shaped by his service as a U.S. Navy officer. He received a number of military honors in recognition of his valor. On one hand, Kerry was a courageous and disciplined soldier who did not shy away from the battlefields of southeastern Asia. On the other hand, once Kerry finished his service, he joined the anti-war movement. Kerry had come to see the Vietnam War as misguided and unnecessary, both militarily and politically. Kerry was different from many others in the anti-war movement because he had actually served in Vietnam for several years. No one could accuse a decorated officer of fear or weakness. It was Kerry's opposition to the Vietnam War that led him into politics at an early age.
The interminable Israel-Palestinian conflict is of great interest to Kerry. This is due both to the Middle East's strategic importance to the U.S. and Kerry's full-hearted faith in the special relationship between the world's sole superpower and the Jewish state. It may also have something to do with something that I admit I never talked with Kerry about — his Jewish ancestry. Under the Law of Return, Kerry would be entitled to Israeli citizenship since his father's parents were Jewish. Kerry's brother converted to Judaism. Kerry's closeness with Israel and Judaism is why he cares about the country so much and has visited often. The claims that Kerry is allegedly anti-Israel bring a smile to his face. Kerry is concerned about Israeli government policies and fears for the future of the country. He does not understand what those who oppose dividing the land plan to do once Jews become a minority ruling a Palestinian majority. He believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solvable. Kerry also knows in his mind what solution that is needed.
As secretary of state, Kerry will not wash his hands clean of the Middle East. He will try, in all likelihood, to act on his own to determine what practical diplomatic step can be taken at this time. Kerry may become a ray of light in an American government that has apparently given up on finding a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.