In Foreign Policy, a New Trio at the Top
With Hearing Today, Clinton, Kerry and Obama Begin to Realign Their Roles

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.

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.

"We have to be both internationalists and realists," Clinton said in a key foreign-policy campaign speech in 2007. "We can rebuild our alliances and restore our moral authority, and reestablish our leadership in the world."

Yet even her campaign speeches did not suggest a strategic framework for approaching the world, relying instead mostly on her unique biography and her exposure to more than 80 countries while her husband was president. "She is clearly very smart, and I have no doubts about ability to master the brief," said Stephen Walt, an international affairs professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "But Hillary has not laid out any particular view or blueprint about America's role in the world."

To be sure, Clinton will be charged with undertaking an agenda largely set by Obama, and transition officials say her confirmation hearings will be a forum to lay out that agenda, not hers.

Even before the election, a task force appointed by Obama had produced a 35-page report on the key issues facing the State Department and the new secretary, according to Wendy Sherman, a close adviser to Clinton who headed the State agency review team. A 15-person team then followed up with even more briefing papers, drawn from more than 400 meetings with insiders and outside groups. The State Department produced its own blizzard of paper, including unvarnished personal essays from each assistant secretary of state and every chief of mission overseas.

"She read absolutely everything. It must have run into the thousands of pages," said Sherman, adding: "She wants to hit the ground running. She is going to be thorough but decisive."

One of Clinton's earliest tests as secretary of state will be the current conflict between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where the heavy toll of Palestinian deaths has outraged Arabs. As a senator, Clinton earned a reputation as one of Israel's strongest defenders, even asserting during the Democratic primaries that the United States could "obliterate" Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel and arguing that the United States should not negotiate with Hamas unless the group renounced terrorism.

Yet nine years ago as first lady, Clinton kissed and embraced Suha Arafat, the wife of then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, after Suha Arafat made inflammatory remarks about Israel, including allegations of using poison gas against Palestinians. (Clinton later said the translation of the remarks was incomplete.) She also called for the creation of a Palestinian state before the Clinton administration officially endorsed the idea.

Clinton, along with incoming national security adviser James L. Jones and other Obama officials, have discussed the Gaza conflict every day and have begun to map out their response depending on the scenario that confronts them on Jan. 20, transition officials said. Top officials already have developed talking points and contingency plans, but Clinton and Obama have given little hint on what they will do, except to suggest that they will move quickly to help shape an end to the hostilities and will be highly sensitive to the conflict's impact on U.S. credibility in the region.

Kerry, in the interview, said he believes that by Jan. 20 there will be a cease-fire in the region -- and that Clinton's first moves will be dictated by events on the ground. It is quite possible, he said, that she will start by appointing a Middle East envoy, and letting the most important players in the region know that the administration intends to be deeply engaged in either negotiating a cease-fire, if one has not already been arranged, or enforcing one.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company