U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 17 in Washington. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying as part of a budget hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Wednesday, spent much of his time fielding questions on the September attack in Benghazi that cost the lives of four Americans. But in response to questions on North Korea, the Mideast peace process and other diplomatic priorities, Kerry emphasized the need to act quickly and decisively in his first testimony on the Hill since taking the reigns at Foggy Bottom.
In dealing with Israel and a potential Palestinian state, Kerry said that the opportunity to strike an agreement is dwindling.
“I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” he said. “I think we have some period of time, a year-and-a-half or two years.”
Coming days after moderate Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced his resignation, Kerry’s testimony continued a new emphasis on the peace process by the Obama administration. Kerry just returned from a trip that included meetings with both Israelis and Palestinians. President Barack Obama made a trip to the region in March.
And as the U.S. continues to face down Kim Jong Un, the young ruler of North Korea, Kerry said that a new path needs to be blazed swiftly to cool tensions.
Kim has set about the deployment of anti-missile batteries and other military assets with a series of grandiose claims of U.S. annihilation using a North Korean nuclear weapon. Obama expressed his doubts in an interview with NBC News recorded Monday that North Korea has a functioning nuclear missile.
“I would not describe our strategy as strategic patience, I call it strategic impatience,” he said. “The conversations that I had in the region made it clear that we’re not going down the same old road. We’re not going to reward them, and come to the table, and get into some food deal without some pretty ironclad concept of how we’re going forward with demilitarization.”
But a plurality of questions centered around the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, and accusations from GOP congressmen that the administration has impeded efforts to find out what happened.
The congressmen were careful not to blame Kerry, but instead focused their ire on the agency and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In total the number of questions relating to the State Department’s budget or spending priorities, the topic of the hearings, could be counted on one hand.
In one particularly loud exchange, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., accused the Obama administration of a cover-up, referring to Kerry’s predecessor as “Secretary of State Hillary.”
“I do not believe that Secretary of State Hillary was honestly cooperating with this committee about Benghazi,” he said. “Mr. Secretary, we think that there was a cover-up of some kind of wrongdoing that led this administration to lie to the American people about the nature of the attack immediately after the attack. We need to have these questions answered.”
Kerry emphasized that he was willing to work with the committee to get members information, but that he disagreed with Rohrabacher’s assessment.
“I don’t think anybody lied to anybody,” Kerry said. “Let’s find out exactly together what happened because we’ve got a lot more important things to move on to than Benghazi.”
Kerry also said that he will be receiving another report on the agency’s response, one that will clarify who received information about security concerns and how they were handled. He said he was unsure if he could share the information with the committee after the report is finished, citing possible privacy concerns.
In an earlier exchange between Kerry and committee chairman Rep. Edward Royce, R-Calif., Kerry said he felt he’d received sufficient information while he was a senator. Kerry, who represented the state of Massachusetts, was present during testimony from Clinton on the attacks and was privy to intelligence provided to the Senate.
“Look, I was on the other side of this podium just a short time ago, it was a big issue and we held [a] hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, we wanted materials and we got them,” he said. “In fairness I think the administration had testified eight times; has briefed twenty times; Secretary Clinton spent five hours answering questions before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; 25,000 documents have already been turned over; video of the actual event has been made available for members to see.”
In response Royce said that the State Department has created difficult conditions for congressional aids to conduct their research with unclassified documents.
“Instead of handing over copies of the documents we requested — as has always been the custom with Congress in the past — the department has insisted that the committee staff sift through thousands of pages of materials in a room in which they are monitored by the department and they can’t remove or make electronic copies of those documents,” he said.
Kerry said that he was unaware of the restrictions on document access, and the State Department press office did not respond to a request for further details.
By the third hour of questions about Libya, Kerry was visibly frustrated. Asked by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., about the U.S. “leading from behind” in Libya, Kerry refused to let the congressman interrupt his response.
“Let me kill this idea of leading from behind,” he said. “I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know how you lead from behind. If you’re leading, you’re leading. I believe that this president led on Libya. The fact that you decide not to put your boots on the ground doesn’t mean you’re not leading. There are different roles for different people to play.”
Kerry pleaded that the committee focus on other, more pressing issues.
“Mr. Chairman, I do not want to spend the next year up here talking about Benghazi,” he said. “Let’s put this behind us, we’ve got serious, major, big, important, vital to our national security issues that need debating. I’ll help you clear the air with this, but I want to do it in a fair-minded way.”
Kerry did, when given the opportunity, focus on ways the U.S. can fix some of its more pressing policy problems, including escalating hostilities on the Korean Peninsula and the ongoing civil war in Syria.
On the subject of North Korea, Kerry emphasized that any change would come as a result of help from the Chinese. Kerry’s recent trip to the Middle East also had stops in Asia including China, where he said he discussed strategies for handling Korean tensions at length.
“I think it’s very clear from the last 15 to 20 years that the United States of America doesn’t have direct influence over North Korea other than military threats, and that has huge risks and dangers with somebody that is untested, that is provocative, who has already proved himself to be reckless over the course of the last months,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that without China, North Korea would collapse. Therefore, I think it is important for us to work with China. I think China has indicated its willingness to work with us.”
Kerry is intending on using his busy travel schedule to help confront the problem in Syria, as well.
He’ll be heading to Istanbul for a meeting Saturday with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. partners to discuss how to expedite and manage the departure of Bashar Assad, the Syrian ruler.
While the administration has declined to provide weapons to rebel groups in the country, Kerry left the door open for a reversal of that policy following the meeting.
“The United States policy right now is not to provide lethal aid, but we’re coordinating very, very closely with those who are, and with our core group of allies here,” he said. “The meeting that we will have in Istanbul this week is to evaluate where the situation on the ground is, and which accelerants to Assad’s departure make the most sense.”
Besides the questions about Benghazi, the only other common refrain from the committee members was an expression of condolences regarding the Boston Marathon bombings in the state Kerry used to represent.
In one of the more emotional moments of the hearing, Kerry expressed his personal upset at the events, seemingly holding back tears as his voice broke describing his connection with one particular victim.
“The granddaughter of a very, very close supporter and friend of mine through all of my political career, is fighting to keep both of her legs,” he said. “Boston is not going to be intimidated by this, but we’re going to find out who did this.”