Sen. John Kerry used his confirmation hearing Thursday to paint an expansive picture of the foreign policy he would promote as the next secretary of State – saying economic development, climate change, and human rights must be as much a part of America’s role in the world as “drones and deployment.”
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he still chairs, Senator Kerry (D) of Massachusetts said, “This really is a time for American leadership.” But, he warned, the US would be unable to continue its “essential” role in the world if it does not first “put its own [fiscal] house in order.”
“We can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home,” he said.
Yet even as he emphasized the importance he would place on soft-power issues like development and democracy promotion, Kerry made a point of reiterating President Obama’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“Our policy is not containment. It is prevention,” he said, underscoring an issue that could very well dominate the initial months of his presumed tenure at the State Department. “No one should mistake our resolve” to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, he added.
Kerry, accompanied by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and one of his two daughters, bathed in the accolades and good wishes of his committee colleagues from both sides of the aisle. The hearing’s overall tone left little doubt that Kerry can anticipate easy confirmation.
Despite the warm atmosphere, however, several senators made it clear that their respect for Kerry does not extend to Mr. Obama’s foreign policy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida said he has “struggled to fully understand what President Obama’s vision for the world is,” while other Republicans focused their criticism on the administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the civil war in Syria.
Even the Democratic senator who presided over the hearing, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, took a moment to outline his opposition to some of Obama’s Cuba policy – suggesting how Congress and the White House will remain at odds on certain foreign-policy issues.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona – who joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Massachusetts’ other Democratic senator, Elizabeth Warren, in introducing Kerry – concluded his endorsement of Kerry’s confirmation by saying he recommended him “without reservation.”
But later in the four-hour-long hearing, Senator McCain turned more combative as he took up two divisive issues. McCain repeated his view that the administration “misled” the American people on what happened in Benghazi, and he seemed to put Kerry on notice when he said, “Some of us will not give up on this.”
McCain then blasted the administration’s lack of intervention in the Syria conflict. Saying, “We can do a lot more without putting American boots on the ground,” he reiterated his support for a no-fly zone and for arming the rebels fighting to depose President Bashar al-Assad.
Kerry responded by outlining the factors underpinning the administration’s reluctance to take more forceful steps: the growing role of anti-Western Islamists in the fight, the dangers that a splintering Syria would pose to the region, and the threat of chemical weapons no longer under the central government’s control.
In response to McCain’s assertion that “every day that goes by it gets worse” in Syria, Kerry said the US had to be sure that the steps it does take “have to make things better” and not worse.
Kerry, the son of a Foreign Service officer, said he was proud to have Senate experience, but he choked up when he said he was also proud to have “foreign service in my blood.”
Kerry honed his diplomatic skills over more than two decades of traveling the world as a senator and foreign-policy specialist. More recently he became Obama’s go-to guy for sensitive diplomatic missions to the difficult leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also carried out delicate assignments to Egypt and Syria.
Indeed, it is Kerry’s knack for building relationships with some of the world’s more troublesome leaders that led some foreign-policy experts to question Kerry’s nomination. For example, Kerry developed a relationship with Mr. Assad, saying as recently as March 2011, “My judgment is that Syria will move, Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West.”
Kerry addressed his past views on Assad, saying he is convinced the Syrian leader “did want to move” his country forward. But “since then he had made a set of judgments that are inexcusable and reprehensible,” Kerry said, adding he now believes that “time is ticking” on Assad’s time in power.
The hearing was interrupted once by a heckler in the back of the room, a woman in a pink hat who followed Kerry’s tough stand on Iran with shouts about friends dying in the Middle East and “make peace with Iran!”
Kerry handled the boisterous protest with aplomb, noting that he, as a young Vietnam veteran, had also come to Congress to make his opposition to US policy known.