U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of State, testifies Jan. 24 before the Senate Foreign Relations committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
Sen. John Kerry, President Obama’s pick to become U.S. secretary of state, struck a surprisingly hawkish tone Jan. 24 on confronting Iran over its nuclear arms program.
The nominee, during more than two hours of testimony, stated the biggest global threat to the United States lies here at home: Washington’s inability to remedy its fiscal woes and avoid self-invented economic crises.
In his prepared remarks, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “in many ways, the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy will be in your hands, not mine — because while it’s often said that we can’t be strong at home if we’re not strong in the world … I am especially cognizant of the fact that we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home.”
Kerry urged lawmakers to ensure “America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.” The nominee said, “it is urgent that we show people we can get our business done in an effective and timely way.”
Those comments led Republicans to join Democratic panel members in declaring they wished Kerry had been nominated for an economic-focused post. One GOP senator even said he wished Kerry had been nominated for treasury secretary. His nomination is expected to be quickly confirmed by the full Senate, as several committee members mentioned during the hearing.
Kerry also continued the break from the post-9/11 era that Obama seemed to accelerate in his Jan. 21 inaugural address. U.S. national security can be maintained without “perpetual war” and with “the rule of law,” Obama declared.
More from the Kerry hearing
To that end, Kerry offered this: “President Obama and every one of us here knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.”
Though Kerry was hawkish on Iran, the foreign policy approach he somewhat vaguely described for his likely tenure as secretary of state and for Obama’s second term sounded similar to the approach the president alluded to three days prior.
“We need to be thoughtful … of the history and culture of the places we’re dealing with,” Kerry told Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate. “We cannot just take the American [government model] and plunk it down.”
Kerry also said, “we can’t just rely on drones” and other so-called hard power tools. Rather, the U.S. must increasingly use “other kinds of fora and initiatives.”
A Different Era
That comment and Obama’s inaugural remarks, at least rhetorically, signal a clean break from the muscular George W. Bush era and, in some regards, Obama’s heavy use of drone strikes in his first term.
Some pundits said Obama, in that second inaugural address, was sending a message to Tehran when he talked of increasing U.S. diplomatic engagement with its would-be foes to defuse global tensions.
“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” Obama said. “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
But during his confirmation hearing, Kerry put Iran on notice that while he and Obama want to find a resolution without war, both are ready to use military force if other approaches fail.
“The president has made it definitive — we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said in his prepared remarks.
“Our policy is not containment. It is prevention and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.”
Kerry said Obama and the administration prefer a diplomatic resolution to the Iran situation, but concluded with this: “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.”
As he read the statement aloud, Kerry seemed to also be talking directly to Iran’s defiant leaders. “I want to emphasize this: [Obama] and I prefer a diplomatic [resolution].”
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who served as the Foreign Relations Committee’s acting chairman for the hearing for a second day, said he hopes stiff sanctions will peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear threat.
“It is imperative they come into full compliance” with U.N. provisions, Kerry said of Iran.
Regarding ongoing multilateral negotiations, Kerry said the handful of nations, including the U.S., that have held several rounds of talks with Iran with more expected, are hopeful progress can be made.
Kerry also took a moment to speak “directly to the Iranians,” saying, “They have continually professed the peacefulness of their program. It is not hard to prove a peaceful program. Other nations have done that — and do that every day.
The U.S. and others involved in the so-called “P5+1 talks” “have made it clear ... we are committed to full compliance,” Kerry said. “The Iranians need to understand ... if their program is peaceful, they can prove that.
Back Seat in Afghanistan
On Afghanistan, Kerry told the panel that U.S. troops later this year will step back, allowing the Afghan National Security Force to take full control over security. Kerry told Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., that Washington must quickly negotiate a number of outstanding legal matters with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai because “after the election, I’m not sure” such compromise “will be possible.” A new government is expected to emerge in the next national election.
Also rearing its head at the hearing was sequestration, the pending twin $500 billion, 10-year cut to planned defense and domestic spending that will kick in March 1 unless Congress and the White House reach accord on $1.2 trillion in further deficit-reduction measures.
Rubio, breaking with some of his congressional Republican colleagues, signaled his support to the Obama administration’s foreign policy “pivot” to Asia. Yet, Rubio wondered aloud, “if this sequestration goes through, what are we going to pivot to Asia with?” Kerry did not address the issue in his answer to what was a multipronged Rubio question.
On that pivot, Kerry was asked how the U.S. should shape a military buildup in the Asia-Pacific region. Kerry responded he “is not convinced an increased military ramp up is necessary yet.
“We have more bases out there than any other nation, including China. We have a lot more forces than any other nation, including China,” he said.
Kerry also struck a cautionary tone, saying if the U.S. places too many bases or troops in Beijing’s backyard, “China will wonder whether the U.S. is trying to circle us.”
And “pivot” is not an accurate description of the administration’s foreign policy shift toward Asia, he said, because “we are not turning away” from any other region.
Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., asked Kerry to provide data spelling out just how hard the State Department would be hit under sequestration. Under terms of the 2011 Budget Control Act, State’s spending is grouped with the Pentagon and some other national security spending in the same sequestration-eligible pool of federal funds.
Kerry also noted that an independent review panel of the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, determined the State Department needs an additional $1.2 billion for security measures at diplomatic facilities around the globe.
Dealing With Syria
Several senators asked Kerry for his views on what, if anything, Washington should do to assist opposition forces in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Under questioning from Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., Kerry gave a nuanced view.
“We need to change [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad’s calculation,” Kerry said. “He thinks he’s winning and the opposition is losing.” Kerry told the panel the Obama administration’s overall goal on Syria is to “effect some kind of orderly transition.”
Kerry did reveal senior Russian officials, in private talks, have indicated to him that they are ready to “see President Assad leave — but they have different ideas about the timing and manner of that” than do U.S. officials.
“We have to increase the readiness of President Assad to see the die is cast,” Kerry said, while also doing things to “hold the state together in a transition.”
Kerry and McCain engaged in some friendly sparring over Syria minutes later. McCain continues to press the Obama administration to act because “everyday that passes, it gets worse in Syria.” Kerry gave no indication that the U.S. intends to get directly involved militarily in that nation’s civil war. He told McCain that as the White House and Congress discuss options, anything that Washington does must be measured to ensure “that it will make things better.”
Receiving less attention than at previous confirmation hearings for national security nominees were al-Qaida and America’s post-9/11 war against it.
Kerry told the panel al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, now deceased, urged his operatives “to disperse” and “to get away from the drones,” citing documents taken from bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout.
Kerry told the committee that Obama, realizing this dispersal has occurred and those operatives are now organized, is taking steps such as supporting the French military intervention against extremist fighters in Mali.
Echoing outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments in House and Senate testimony the previous day that past military and CIA efforts against the al-Shabab group in Somalia offers a blueprint for targeting al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa, Kerry said, “It takes more than just a drone effort.”