Secretary of State John F. Kerry gave as good as he got on Tuesday when lawmakers at a Senate hearing charged that President Obama’s foreign policy was ineffective and weak.
For more than two hours, Kerry traded quotations from Teddy Roosevelt, disputed facts asserted by his former colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and invited those who disagreed with him to come up with better ideas to deal with a world that he said has grown increasingly complicated.
The hearing, ostensibly on the State Department’s 2015 budget request, came as Obama faces a widening array of foreign crises and Kerry, as diplomatic point man, has been under pressure within and outside the administration to produce results.
“I think you’re about to hit the trifecta,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said scornfully. Kerry’s efforts to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war were “in total collapse,” McCain said, while ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program headed in the same direction, and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with which Kerry is most personally identified, “are finished.”
Kerry said the administration continued to pursue all those efforts. In the Middle East, despite recent upheavals, both parties want the talks to go on, he said. “Sure, we may fail. And you want to dump it on me? . . . I don’t care. It’s worth doing. It’s worth the effort.”
“You can declare them all dead,” he said of the various initiatives. “I don’t. And we’ll see what the verdict is.”
The back-and-forth between Kerry and McCain became so heated that committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) interceded, telling them: “I think you’ve both made your points.”
Although a handful of Democrats lobbed softballs at Kerry, McCain was far from the only critic.
Menendez asked about reports the administration was willing to allow Iran to continue enriching uranium and operating a heavy-water reactor to produce plutonium, as long as its “breakout time” — the time it would take to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon — was extended from its current two months to six to 12 months.
“I don’t think that we did everything that we’ve done to only get a six or 12-month lead time” in exchange for eliminating harsh economic sanctions against Iran, Menendez said. He was among 83 senators who wrote to Obama demanding that the U.S. negotiating position include eliminating Iran “from having either a uranium or a plutonium path to a nuclear bomb,” Menendez said.
Kerry did not confirm the report of 6-12 months, but said “even that is significantly more” than the current situation. In response to questions, he confirmed that sanctions could not be lifted without congressional approval.
“Clearly, what we do will have to pass muster with Congress,” Kerry said. “We well understand that.”
Kerry also said the United States would take action if Russia — on the U.S. side in negotiations with Iran — moved ahead with a reported oil-for-goods barter deal with the Iranians. “Such a deal would clearly violate the [sanctions] regime that has been set up,” he said, and “would be sanctionable, if it happened.”
He repeated administration threats to sharply sanction Russia if its troops cross the border into eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatists currently agitating in eastern Ukraine were paid and sent there by Moscow “determined to create chaos,” he said.
Asked why the administration had not yet responded to requests for defensive arms from the Ukrainian government, Kerry said it was being studied. But, he said, threatened sanctions against Russian economic sectors, including mining and energy, were likely to be faster and more effective.
Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) suggested that two rounds of sanctions Obama imposed on Russia when it sent in troops and later annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea were ineffective. Kerry responded, “The fact is it will have a far more serious impact if they cross over or continue what’s happening in east Ukraine. Now, I don’t know anybody in the United States of America who said we ought to go to war over Crimea. Is there any member of this committee who believes that? I don’t think so.”
Kerry appeared to blame last week’s breakdown in the Middle East peace talks primarily on Israel, which under the terms of the negotiations was to release 26 Palestinian prisoners on Saturday, March 29.
“Unfortunately, the prisoners weren’t released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released,” he said. “And so [the] day went by, day two went by, day three went by. And then in the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem and, poof, that was sort of the moment.”
The Palestinians then announced they would move independently toward statehood by signing a number of international agreements they had agreed to forswear, and Israel then said it had canceled the prisoner release altogether. “We find ourselves where we are,” Kerry said.
On Syria, Kerry declined to provide details on what he said was a significant increase in U.S. military assistance to rebel fighters, but promised a classified briefing for senators — as Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson did before the same committee late last month.
“We are more engaged than we’ve ever been before, right now, and more successfully right now,” Kerry said. Other senior administration officials have said that planning is moving ahead for stepped-up aid, but that ongoing disagreements among partner governments in the region have complicated the plans.
When McCain charged that Kerry had turned Roosevelt’s edict to “speak softly and carry a big stick” on its head — speaking strongly and carrying “a twig,” Kerry shot back that he preferred another quotation. “Your friend Teddy Roosevelt also said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena who are trying to get things done,” he said.