John Kerry to Congress: Middle East peace effort is urgent

In his first congressional hearing as secretary of State, John Kerry tells lawmakers that, after the Benghazi attacks, the US must fortify security for diplomats, press for a two-state solution in the Middle East.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a hearing on the State Department's fiscal 2014 foreign affairs budget on Wednesday.

Seven months after the deadly terrorist attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, the State Department is proposing hundreds of millions of dollars in new security spending – tacit acknowledgment that some of the most effective security enhancements for America’s overseas diplomats are still months or years away.

Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday that the department’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget calls for $4.4 billion “to fortify our worldwide security protection and improve our overseas infrastructure.”

In his first congressional testimony as secretary of State, Mr. Kerry also underscored his commitment to pressing forward in the decades-old quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unlike his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kerry has made reaching a peace accord a top goal of his tenure. “We have some period of time – a year to year-and-a-half to two years – or it’s over," he said, underscoring the urgency of his Middle East effort.

On the proposed budget, about half of the amount set aside for security is earmarked for construction of more secure facilities. The goal? That diplomats might no longer find themselves trapped in exposed, poorly guarded facilities like the Benghazi mission, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans lost their lives in a missile and fire-bombing attack last September.

While the State Department’s schedule of overseas construction projects has been revamped since Benghazi to give priority to what are deemed to be the most vulnerable facilities, construction still takes time.

In addition to construction, the State Department is also moving to add more Marine guards to at-risk embassies and to step up the training and vetting of locally hired security guards.

But all of those measures take time, too. For example, the State Department can request but can’t order the deployment of additional Marine guards – it can only make a request with the Pentagon.

In January, Mrs. Clinton said in her last congressional testimony as secretary of State that Benghazi had prompted her to ask the Defense Department “to dispatch hundreds of additional Marine guards” to “high-risk” embassies. The Pentagon says it is evaluating the request.

Kerry’s appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday provided House Republicans, in particular, the opportunity to renew their criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack and its aftermath.

Coming two days after the Boston Marathon bombing, which President Obama has called an “act of terror” while pledging to find whoever carried out the attack, Kerry's testimony was also an opportunity for critics to allude to Mr. Obama’s almost identical pledge in September concerning the Benghazi attackers.

“Seven months after Benghazi, the terrorists are still alive and free,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R) of California in his opening statement.

In his statement, Kerry said it had been a “hard year for the State Department family,” noting the loss of foreign service officer Anne Smedinghoff in a bombing in Afghanistan earlier this month.

Saying diplomats like Ms. Smedinghoff and Ambassador Stevens “understand how risky the work we signed up for can be,” he added that the two were “cut from the same cloth” and that their qualities “made them such outstanding Americans as well as members of the State Department family.”

Smedinghoff was walking to deliver books to an Afghan school when she and four other Americans were killed by two bomb blasts. Stevens had been scheduled to open an American cultural center in Benghazi the day after the mission attack.  

Kerry said the proposed State Department budget takes into account federal budget realities – the 2014 budget would actually be a 6 percent drop from current spending – as well as shifting diplomatic priorities.

In addition to stepped-up security spending, the budget sets aside $580 million for a “Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund” to encourage countries in the region to move forward on economic and political reforms.

The fund would tell the leaders of countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya that, “If you’re willing to take on the deep-rooted challenges and make the tough choices, we are here for you,” Kerry said.

The budget also includes some shifting of resources to allow for new diplomatic posts in the Asia-Pacific region, according to State Department officials, reflecting an effort to make good on Obama’s commitment to a “rebalancing” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region.

On Israeli-Palestinian peace, Kerry said his three trips to the region in less than three months have convinced him that “the window for a two-state solution is shutting.”

Kerry signaled a determination to keep the ball moving downfield despite difficult and mounting obstacles, saying the world is looking to the US to pursue an accord.

“Everybody I talk to in the region and all of the supporters globally who care,” he said, “want us to move forward on a peace effort.”

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