The nomination of a secretary of state gives the Senate the opportunity to probe the administration’s foreign policy priorities — and many of President Obama’s policies demand inquiry. Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who have disgracefully sniped at U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, have expressed few coherent reservations about our current course. Instead, it will be incumbent on Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — particularly Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Bob Casey (Pa.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) — to lead a responsible review.
Here are only a few of the questions that senators could ask the nominee.
●Presidential war making: Are there any limits to the president’s war powers in the so-called war on terror? Contrary to expectations, President Obama has broadened George W. Bush’s view that the congressional resolution authorizing pursuit of al-Qaeda after 9/11 gives the president the right to attack any suspect group in any country of the world for as long as there are terrorists — or essentially forever. That prerogative is said to include the power to identify, target and kill anyone — including U.S. citizens — the president decides poses a terrorist threat to the United States.
How would the nominee reconcile this assertion with the Constitution? How would he or she suggest the Congress enforce accountability on a president who mistakenly targets and kills an innocent U.S. citizen?
●Catastrophic climate change: Does the nominee consider global warming a clear and present danger to our national security? In his inaugural address, Obama raised the hope that we would begin to “roll back the specter of a warming planet.” Some progress has been made, but the warming of the seas and melting of the glaciers have exceeded the most pessimistic warnings. Yet the United States was essentially AWOL in the most recent, failed climate negotiations in Doha. Does the new nominee foresee any change in this default?
●Global economic recovery: Does mass unemployment in the United States, recession in Europe and Japan and the risk of yet more adversarial trade policies from China require new international policies from the United States? The United States is pivoting to more austerity at home, even as economic growth here and abroad is faltering. We are headed toward a synchronized global recession with new trade and currency wars when what we need is a global synchronized recovery program. What steps would the nominee recommend to revive sustainable economic growth as a priority in global policy?
●Militarization of U.S. foreign policy: How can the State Department reclaim from the military its proper role as leader of U.S. policy abroad? The militarization of U.S. foreign policy has continued unabated in the first Obama term. Regional military commanders act as effective proconsuls, with far greater weight than ambassadors in regions across the world. Many countries know the United States only for its military bases, its military trainers or its drone attacks. Our foreign assistance budget is a global disgrace, while military spending is now higher than it was at the height of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan. What commitments have been made, if any, from the president in terms of correcting this wrongheaded imbalance?
●Afghanistan: Do you support the continued waste of lives and billions on the senseless war? And what will you do diplomatically to ensure that our exit is not delayed beyond 2014? Reports now are that the administration is planning to keep a military force of unknown size in Afghanistan past 2014, as well as pledging another decade of financial support for a regime that our own military calls by the acronym VICE (Vertically Integrated Criminal Enterprise). What are the limits you would advocate for this misguided commitment?
●Middle East: What should U.S. priorities be in the Middle East as the promise of the Arab Spring looks increasingly like the Arab Fall? We may be witnessing the collapse of the Arab state system that was held together by authoritarian governments for the last four decades at the same time we are seeing the collapse of any fig leaf of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Do you believe our “Israel right or wrong” policy adequately protects this nation’s security interests? Is it more or less important now for the United States to be seen as pushing for a fair settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with the establishment of a viable Palestinian state?
●Iran and nuclear peril: Do you believe our current strategy of ratcheting up sanctions, while keeping the option of the use of military force, is working to prevent Iran from joining Israel, Pakistan and India in developing a nuclear weapon? Is there a possibility that these threats are only accelerating Iran’s nuclear efforts and helping to create a national consensus for a nuclear weapons capability? If deterrence has worked with other potential hostile states, why won’t it work in the case of Iran? Do you think it is necessary to draw a “red line” — essentially threatening a military attack — to keep Iran from developing a bomb?
In the past Iran has been supportive of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and has repeatedly said it does not want nuclear weapons, especially if countries like Israel give up theirs. Would you be willing to test Iran’s interest in what is known as a Grand Bargain?
This is far from the comprehensive set of questions that any nominee should face. This country faces monumental challenges that need to be addressed. It’s time for the Senate to get beyond partisan cheap shots and exercise its constitutional responsibility to probe the president’s nominee on whether and how the administration plans to move forward in an increasingly complex world.