She has spent years living in California, Texas and Florida—and that was before she joined the US State Department and moved to Washington, DC.—but Cheryl Benton is just “a girl from Homewood” who is now adjusting to her new boss Secretary of State John Kerry.
While in town Feb. 15 to brief the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh on the challenges Kerry faces in his new position, Benton, the deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, met with the New Pittsburgh Courier editorial board.
“You know, when I say that people go, ‘Pittsburgh has a world affairs council?’ And some think the state department means Pennsylvania. So part of what I do is making people aware of what we do,” she said.
Benton said having a ‘celebrity’ secretary in former US Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton helped raise public awareness about the department, and she expects Kerry will do the same.
“Mrs. Clinton did, I think, a lot to repair our image around the world,” she said. “Secretary Kerry has only been on the job three weeks, but has chaired the senate armed services committee for years, so he brings a different perspective. He’s meeting with the European Union this week and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the topic of Syria came up.”
Benton said President Obama is committed to seeing Bashar Al-Assad removed from power in Syria, despite resistance from Russia, because people should be free from dictators and have the right to choose their government, even if, as in Egypt and Libya, they vote in totalitarian regimes.
“Benghazi, lapses, who’s to blame? When dealing with an unsettled area of the globe like that, even with an election, not everyone is happy,” she said. “Sept. 11 was just too good an opportunity (for the embassy attackers) to resist. And now there’s pushback from the people against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But you have to help people choose, even if they make bad choices.”
Benton said Kerry must also deal with saber rattling of Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons and Korea again testing nuclear devices and new rocket systems that could carry them. There is also China, and its recent belligerence toward Japan, and against all that, she said, Kerry will be attempting a diplomatic repositioning.
“That’s probably our biggest challenge, to position the US to leave behind a decade of war, and to lead on issues like fighting disease, the new strategic arms treaty and stopping human trafficking,” she said. “We do a lot more at the state department than try to put out fires.”
And in these days of astronomical budgets, they do it with less than one might think.
“We have 70,000 people working world wide to address AIDS. Famine, foreign exchange and talent retention, disaster relief, and we do it with one percent of the federal budget,” she said. “And you know what, it’s a great job.”
That message, Benton said wrapping up her chat, is the one she tries to present to young people in her weekly Webcast, “Conversations With America” that promotes the department’s career opportunities while also addressing resources available to address issues confronted by refugees and immigrants of the African Diaspora.