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In Foreign Policy, a New Trio at the Top

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By Anne E. Kornblut and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) gavels the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to order today and welcomes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to her confirmation hearing as President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to be secretary of state, he will mark the ascendance of a new triumvirate dominating the foreign policy arena.

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The hearing will also call attention to a particularly awkward tangle of relationships.

Kerry, who first put Obama in the national spotlight by inviting him to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, endorsed Obama over Clinton early in the 2008 presidential primaries, much to the irritation of the Clinton campaign. But Obama chose his defeated nemesis for the top diplomatic position -- a job that Kerry openly sought with the backing of many prominent Obama supporters. Instead of joining the Obama Cabinet, Kerry became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, with the goal of leading it back to its former prominence.

Now, the three appear to have largely put the past behind them, with Kerry and Clinton having preliminary discussions about what foreign trips they can take together and Obama working to forge a close working relationship with Clinton in a series of regular phone calls and meetings since he chose her for secretary of state in mid-November.

Still, Kerry will have a different mission than Clinton and the president she serves. In an interview, Kerry said it is not his goal to hold the Obama administration's feet to the fire. "On the other hand, I don't work for them," Kerry said. "The committee is an independent branch . . . and where necessary, we're obviously going to push and cajole and prod and try to hold accountable. But we'll do it in a way that I hope is entirely constructive and in partnership wherever possible."

For Kerry, assuming the committee chairmanship represents the culmination of his life's work, starting with his appearance before the committee as a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran who had returned home opposed to the war. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Kerry famously asked in an appearance that would define much of the rest of his career.

It was also on the committee that Kerry developed a reputation as an investigator, digging into the financing of terrorist networks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He said he hopes to bring that investigative spirit to the committee as a whole, not to unravel wrongdoing of the Bush administration but to shed light on murky global transactions, such as those involving offshore entities and U.S. money spent on anti-narcotics efforts. He is also planning a robust environmental program, in addition to retaining the committee's regular status as a kind of "think tank" that addresses international issues as they emerge.

Kerry said he expects Clinton to face some tough questioning from committee members today, with one likely subject her husband's business dealings, but said he expected the atmosphere to remain deferential and serious. And he professed little disappointment in not getting the job himself.

"It's hard to sort of sit here as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, with my independence and freedom I have to get engaged on almost any issue on foreign policy, and be worried about disappointment," Kerry said. "I have my freedom and I have my independence, and there are some assets to being there [at State], there are some great assets to being here. And I'm not going to be a grass-is-greener kind of guy. This is good. I'm fine."

Clinton has been cramming hard for her first test; she has been especially eager to master the differences between her statements on the campaign trail and those of the president-elect, whose foreign policy vision she will now be in charge of executing. What is not yet clear is whether Clinton will have her own set of priorities in the job, or whether she has developed a strategic approach to the world and America's role in it.

Clinton, in her opening statement, will stress two themes, according to transition officials: a renewal of American leadership and a revitalization of diplomacy to promote U.S. security interests and advance U.S. values. A transition official said Clinton will emphasize the use of "smart power," press for greater resources for the State Department and promise to work with Congress in a bipartisan manner on foreign policy.

The former first lady has long described herself as a pragmatic internationalist, someone who adapts to situations as they present themselves and does not adhere to strict formulas. She will assume her new job at a time of great economic peril and when the United States' reputation around the globe is at a low ebb.


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