Speaking at his secretary of State confirmation hearing, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., made an unexpected and forceful appeal Thursday to his colleagues in Congress to get the country’s own fiscal house in order, arguing that it’s a prerequisite for American leadership abroad.
“The greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy will be in your hands, not mine,” Kerry told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a panel he has chaired for the past four years.
“More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy,” he said in his opening remarks. “My plea is that we can summon, across party lines, without partisan divisions, an economic patriotism that recognizes that American strength and prospects abroad depend on American strength and results at home.”
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the new ranking Republican on the committee, told Kerry those comments had him wishing, for a moment, that “you’d been nominated for secretary of Treasury.”
Kerry, who has served in the Senate for almost three decades, choked up as he remarked that he had both the Senate and the Foreign Service in his blood, and he promised to work closely with the Congress in forging ahead on U.S. foreign policy priorities.
The veteran lawmaker made clear during the hearing that he intends to follow closely in the footsteps of his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he said “has set a very high mark for the stewardship of the State Department and her commitment to country.”
In his opening statement, Kerry promised to “work hard to augment our public diplomacy” — something Clinton has excelled at — and noted that “there is more that can be done to advance our economic capacity and interests.” Clinton elevated what she dubbed “economic statecraft” to the top of the State Department’s agenda.
Kerry highlighted both those aspects of diplomacy in the context of the Arab Spring, which he called “a monumental transformation” for the region.
“I think there is a struggle that is going to go on while we are here, while I’m secretary and you are senators ... for the minds of people in many parts of the world,” he told Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who expressed concern that the Obama administration has not done enough to engage Libya since the fall of its dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi. “I believe we can do a better job, frankly, of galvanizing people around the values and ideas that we have organized ourselves around. But we have to do it, I think, in a lot of different ways.”
On Syria, Kerry wholeheartedly backed the cautious approach the administration has taken, advocating a political solution to the civil war there that would succeed in easing autocrat Bashar al-Assad out the door without precipitating the country’s collapse into sectarian violence.
During the hearing, Sen. John McCain urged Kerry, as secretary, to take more muscular steps to help solve the crisis in Syria.
There is, the Arizona Republican said, “a very strong impetus that we realize that the present policy is not succeeding, and to look at other options to prevent what is going on for now 22 months.”
“But,” Kerry responded, “I think you would agree with me that whatever judgments you make, they have to pass the test of whether or not, if you do them, they’re actually going to make things better.”
Kerry also voiced support for President Barack Obama’s scaled back plans for transition in Afghanistan, where the shift to Afghan security control has been sped up to this coming spring.
On the United States’ goals for the country after 2014, when all NATO combat troops are slated to depart, Kerry said the mission would be two-fold — supporting Afghan security forces and conducting counterterrorism operations. He made no mention of economic development or support for civil society. And he underscored that any peace process with the Taliban would be Afghan-, not American-led.
He also sought to reassure lawmakers — including the senator who is expected to succeed him as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, D-N.J. — that the administration’s policy on Iran “is not containment.”
“It is prevention,” Kerry continued, “and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.”
But he declined to offer specifics, when pressed by Menendez, an Iran hawk, on what sort of agreement the administration might seek to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment.
“It would be totally inappropriate for me here to begin to negotiate with myself,” said Kerry. “I can tell you this: It is going to be imperative that they come into full compliance” with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and previous United Nations resolutions.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul tried to pin Kerry down on his views about Congress’ role in authorizing the use of force in places such as Libya or Syria. Paul has argued that the Obama administration ignored the 1973 War Powers Resolution (PL 93-148) when it helped enforce a no-fly zone over Libya during that country’s civil war.
It was one of the few times when Kerry found himself on awkward ground.
“I believe in congressional authority to go to war,” Kerry said. “I’ve argued that on occasion with respect to some things here, but there are occasions which I have supported where a president of the United States has to make a decision immediately and implement that decision.”
For most of the hearing, however, Kerry demonstrated mastery of a wide range of policy issues — and the loquaciousness — that he has become known for.
Corker noted Kerry’s deep knowledge on foreign affairs and “experience you developed while being on this committee and spending time abroad with world leaders,” in his opening remarks, predicting that his confirmation “will go through very, very quickly.”
The bipartisan tributes to Kerry included a heartfelt introduction by McCain, his longtime colleague and friend.
McCain recounted how he and Kerry — two Vietnam War veterans — bonded during their service, in the early 1990s, on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, which Kerry chaired. The aim was to ascertain the whereabouts and recover the remains of those U.S. veterans still missing in Vietnam. The pair then went on to lead the charge to normalize relations with the Southeast Asian nation.
“Helping to establish a relationship with Vietnam that serves American interests and values rather than one that remained mired in mutual resentment and bitterness is one of my proudest accomplishments as a senator,” McCain said Thursday, “and I expect it is one of John’s as well. Working toward that end with John, and witnessing almost daily his exemplary statesmanship is one of the highest privileges I’ve had here.”
Kerry joked in his opening remarks that he would not “take it personally” that his nomination has united Democrats and Republicans in their eagerness to get him out of the Senate, a nod to the fact that his departure will create a special election contest for his Massachusetts Senate seat that the GOP hopes former Sen. Scott P. Brown can win.
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.