The U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly approved Sen. John Kerry to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the latest upper chamber veteran to join President Barack Obama's national security team. (AFP)
The U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly approved Sen. John Kerry to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the latest upper chamber veteran to join President Barack Obama’s national security team.
The Massachusetts Democrat’s nomination, approved with only three GOP “nay” votes, moved through what has become a legislatively plodding chamber with remarkable speed. It also delivered rare — and temporary — cross-party goodwill to at least one side of the Capitol campus.
But that bipartisan goodwill almost immediately will evaporate as the Senate gears up for an expected political fight over another of Obama’s national security nominees.
The Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chaired until this week, held his non-contentious confirmation hearing during which Republicans and Democrats showered him with platitudes just five days ago. And the same panel unanimously approved Kerry earlier on Jan. 29; members and staff applauded when their former chairman entered the hearing room following the vote.
The incoming secretary of state’s late-December nomination and subsequent confirmation brought something rare to Capitol Hill: A general air of bipartisan respect and hope.
Since Obama tapped him to replace Clinton, Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee — both of whom typically are harsh critics of the president — lavished compliments and praise upon their Senate colleague. McCain, a longtime personal friend of Kerry, even introduced him at the onset of the confirmation hearing.
McCain told the Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 24 he endorsed Kerry’s nomination “with no reservations.” Corker said he is “thrilled” that Kerry was tapped for a job for which Corker, the panel’s top Republican, said “he’s lived a life” of preparation.
Kerry’s swift and positive confirmation is expected to stand in stark contrast to that of Chuck Hagel for the position of defense secretary. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., noted with a grin Jan. 29 that Kerry’s nomination was a special case in the current bitterly partisan environment. That’s because Kerry is a sitting senator who is widely respected on foreign policy issues by both parties.
Hagel has been criticized since Obama tapped him to lead the Pentagon for his past policy stances and remarks on everything from America’s partnership with Israel to how to confront Tehran over its nuclear arms program to his comments about gay rights.
If the administration and its Senate allies are able to shepherd Hagel to confirmation by the full Senate, four men who recently served in that chamber would find themselves occupying the seats at the head of the national security table.
The 28-year Senate veteran joins several other former senators at the top of the Obama administration’s ranks: Obama was a senator from Illinois from 2005 until 2008 and Vice President Joseph Biden was a senator from Delaware from 1973 until 2009. And the nominated Hagel was a senator from 1997 until 2009.
Once he is sworn in, Kerry will become the second consecutive top U.S. diplomat to have been plucked from the Senate. Clinton was a New York Democratic senator from 2001 until 2009 before Obama sent her to Foggy Bottom.
But some warn the transition from being one of 100 senators with a relatively small staff to running the vast State Department could be jolting to Kerry.
Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator, told Defense News, “it is very difficult to manage at the federal level, especially in this era of partisanship.”
Though “the State Department isn’t as big … it’s very complicated and old, and the older agencies are, the harder it is to get the bureaucracy to do things,” said Natsios, now a Texas A&M University professor. “It’s not easy to run the State Department because the career Foreign Service will do what they have always done.”
That means the Foreign Service — and other entities within State — will use tactics new and old to resist parts of the new secretary’s agenda with which it disagrees.
More broadly, “it seems to me that having all these senators in these top jobs together is just a bad idea,” Natsios said. “A senator in one of these positions seems like a good thing. Just look at what Vice President Biden was able to do in negotiating the fiscal cliff deal. So there are things that one senator in one of these jobs brings to the table.
“But if all four of the individuals in these jobs come from the same institution, it can really limit policy-making,” Natsios said. “I’ve been at National Security Council meetings where the policy-making suffered because there weren’t different points of view in the room.”
Natsios added that some of Obama’s first-term miscues on national security and foreign policy issues stemmed from that very problem.
Kerry was one of the first prominent senators to endorse Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. More recently, Kerry played the role of Obama’s 2012 foe, GOP nominee Mitt Romney, during the president’s debate preparations.
And Obama and Hagel became close — and developed a deep mutual respect, insiders say — when they traveled together in July 2008 to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Much has been made about the fact that the very president who emulated America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, by forming a first term “team of rivals,” is opting for a kind of buddy brigade at the start of his second.
But is that good for matters of national security?
“I think the president is putting into these jobs people he’s comfortable with who do not think that differently about some of these issues, nor do they have experience in policy implementation,” Natsios warned. “It’s very different to think up policies while a member of the Senate than to implement it in the executive branch.”
The former USAID chief also questions whether the emerging second term team can think broadly enough to deal with what Republicans and Democrats alike say is a world perhaps as complicated as it ever has been.
“I don’t think the administration has put together a team that can put together a grand strategy,” Natsios said. “Senators don’t think strategically.”
At a forum earlier today in Washington, Doug Wilson, a former senior Pentagon official said Kerry — and Hagel, if he is confirmed — would be giving Obama advise not based on personal ideologies, but rather based on “the world as it is.”
“The issue is, when and how does America engage in the world? How and when does America use force?” Wilson said. “And when it uses force, what are the criteria that determine it?”
Kerry and Hagel are Vietnam veterans. That means they “understand war,” Wilson said. “It’s not how do you avoid conflict, it’s how do you engage in it.”
To that end, Obama and Kerry made clear last week they will, over the next four years, seek to go to war less often than in the years following the 9/11 attacks. Instead, the duo suggested diplomacy and engagement would get a renewed focus.
Obama, during his Jan. 21 second inaugural address, declared U.S. national security can be maintained without “perpetual war” and while keeping with “the rule of law.”
Three days later, during his confirmation hearing, Kerry offered even more about his second-term foreign policy approach. “President Obama and every one of us here knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.”