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Secretary of State Kerry?

The news feeds are buzzing right before the holidays about the nomination of John Kerry as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton prepares to step down. The one-time presidential candidate will most likely face many questions from both the Democrat and Republican parties.

What could this mean for Lao Americans who are interested in issues overseas in Southeast Asia, particularly Laos?

While many might be disappointed that former US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice will not be Secretary of State, she also did not have an extensive history with Laos or Southeast Asian sociopolitics. That could have made an opportunity for us to be proactive in briefing her without a lot of baggage, but we could also argue that it could be a handicap. It’s often difficult to get traction without at least some prior relationship or network of personal contacts in Southeast Asia, especially Laos.

If John Kerry should succeed Secretary of State Clinton, Lao Americans would have good reasons to watch closely.

President Obama recently took a trip to Southeast Asia, but bypassed Laos, even as Secretary of State Clinton visited Laos earlier this summer. As we’ve been saying at Little Laos on the Prairie, this is the the first time in 57 years a Secretary of State has done so. That’s almost 6/10ths of a century. While Laos was recently inducted into the World Trade Organization, its relationship with the United States is not set in stone.

No one expects John Kerry to make Laos the center of the world as we negotiate policies in the Pacific Rim. But there are still some interesting possibilities were he to become the next Secretary of State.

Would he build on his predecessor’s visit this year? As 2013 marks the 40th year since the end of the bombing of Laos, a visit, or a lack of a visit could be a very interesting signal. He would also still be serving in 2015, which is the anniversary of the end of the war for Laos. Both are arguable as compelling occasions to visit and build policy over.

It’s also entirely possible that because of the political sensitivity of the US history with Laos, despite ongoing concerns regarding the environment, UXO, MIAs, and regional politics and stability questions, Laos might simply get cut out of discussions for another half-decade.

What do we know from his record that might provide a reasonable insight?

Since 2009 he has been Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. This is the committee generally responsible for funding foreign aid programs as well as funding arms sales and training for allies of the United States.  During this time, Laos has seen a positive uptick in the amount of US foreign aid provided for issues of UXO clearance. Would it be reasonable for us to see more increases to encourage Lao development and reconstruction, or has it peaked, and we’ll watch our aid to Laos plateau for the next four years?

For Southeast Asian American interests, it’s interesting and complex. In his four months of service in South Vietnam as an Officer in Charge of a Swift Boat on the Mekong, he earned numerous medals: The Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, which are issued for being wounded in combat, although he later effectively disavowed them. Upon returning to the US, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and became a spokesman opposing US involvement in the conflict. It’s notable that he felt free-fire zones and burning the homes of noncombatants’ were contrary to the laws of war, and he was willing to put his reputation on the line for that.

In his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, he pointed out “In our opinion and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America.” He also rejected attempts to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos.

That’s 40 years ago, so we can reasonably wonder if his position has changed, especially in the wake of his famous “I was for the war before I was against it” statement. Some might raise an eyebrow at his statement “”Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago.” That is no doubt a good thing, but many of us still remember the complications that came up when Congress pushed through the PATRIOT Act and provisions that could have labeled many former US allies as terrorists.

The Huffington Post pointed out “Kerry has pushed the White House’s national security agenda in the Senate with mixed results. He ensured ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty in 2010 and most recently failed to persuade Republicans to back a U.N. pact on the rights of the disabled.”

Overall, we would wonder, would John Kerry’s experiences and insight into Southeast Asia be outdated? 

In all likelihood, his nomination will be accepted.

And for many, his approach to working with Laos will not be a pressing concern. But for the 400,000 Lao, Hmong, Mien, Tai Dam, Khmu and others in America with ties to Laos, it’s a moment to be watched with interest. It is definitely a time where we should express our opinions constructively over the next four years ahead, if we are to build meaningful opportunities for all.

~Bryan

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