Blinken was staff director of the committee when Biden, as a senator, was its chairman, before joining the Obama administration as a senior adviser to Biden when he was vice president. Blinken praised the committee for its “finest bipartisan traditions, for the caliber of its members and staff, and for the essential work it does to strengthen U.S. leadership around the world.”
There was every indication that Blinken would be confirmed with a strong bipartisan vote, although Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the incoming chairman, said earlier in the day that a panel vote was unlikely until at least Monday. After that, floor votes will have to vie for Senate time with President Trump’s impeachment trial.
One sign of the committee’s direction came from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a strong Trump partisan who opposed Blinken the last time he appeared before it, for confirmation as deputy secretary of state six years ago.
“I think you’re an outstanding choice, and I intend to vote for you,” Graham said this time around.
Firing off his trademark “yes or no” confirmation questions, Graham asked whether Blinken considered Iran the world’s “largest state sponsor of terrorism.” “I do,” Blinken replied.
Did he consider Israel a racist nation? “No.”
Should any U.S. agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan be conditions-based? “Absolutely.”
What would he tell people in a caravan heading toward the American border? “I would say, ‘Do not come.’ ”
Did he agree that China’s repression of the Uighur minority constituted genocide, as the Trump administration declared Tuesday? “That would be my judgment as well,” Blinken replied.
“We’re on a really good start here,” Graham said. “I really just very much appreciate this.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), among the few to adopt a confrontational approach, tied Blinken to what he called “the failed foreign policies of the Obama administration,” of which he said Blinken was “an integral part,” including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine.
“I was tempted to say it’s good to see you again,” Blinken responded before again promising to engage in “real consultations” with lawmakers.
But he declined to agree to Barrasso’s call for submission to Congress all major policy decisions, such as a renewed nuclear deal with Iran or reentry into the Paris climate accord.
“There are sometimes good reasons, in fact, reasons that advance our national security, for why a treaty is not advisable,” Blinken said, promising only that the Biden administration would consider them on a “case-by-case basis.”
Many of the questions concerned China and Iran. On the former, Blinken said that standing up to Beijing is “fully within our control” if it is approached from “a position of strength,” including a “unified position among democratic allies,” renewed U.S. participation in international institutions, and standing up for “our values.”
“I also believe President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach on China,” he said. But, he added, “I disagree with many of the ways he went about it.”
Blinken largely avoided commitments on Taiwan, beyond praising its democracy and referring to statutory and other agreements with Taipei that have been in force for decades.
On Iran, he repeated Biden’s intention to reenter the nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018, saying the chances of succeeding in stemming Iran’s regional aggression and support for terrorism were better once the nuclear issue was off the table.
But he warned that the administration was “a long way from” being able to guarantee the terms of a deal, since it was too soon to tell what terms Iran would accept.
Since the United States pulled out of the agreement, he noted, Iran has increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and fired up its centrifuges to produce higher-grade uranium, reducing its breakout time for a nuclear weapon from over a year to just three or four months.
“That potentially brings us right back to the crisis point we were reaching before the deal was negotiated,” Blinken said, in response to questions from Menendez and others.
Blinken said the Biden administration would cease arms sales and support to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, where the Saudis have been accused of causing thousands of civilian deaths. He also promised that the new administration would “immediately” review Trump’s recent designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization, citing “deep concern” that the listing would undermine efforts to address the humanitarian disaster there.
For the most part, Blinken defused potential arguments, telling Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that he would “welcome the opportunity, if confirmed, to come and talk to you” about Cuba, where Biden has promised a new direction, and Venezuela, where Blinken agreed that President Nicolás Maduro was a bad actor.
He promised an enduring U.S. commitment to Israel’s security but said that Biden remained committed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But he added that “realistically, it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward.”
Without mentioning Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Blinken noted that recruitment, retention and diversity have all declined in the State Department workforce, and he pledged to rebuild morale and a strong, nonpartisan diplomatic corps.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.