WASHINGTON — A visibly irritated secretary of State battled with Republicans and Democrats alike at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, at one point happily steering to the issue of climate change while one senator accused the administration of talking tough and wielding “a twig.”
John Kerry appeared before the committee to discuss the fiscal year 2015 budget request for international affairs but the lawmakers came out of the gate with concerns about Russia, Syria, Iran, and more — wrapped in warnings of a permissive foreign policy and crumbling credibility.
“I do think that from a bipartisan standpoint, people are very concerned right now about U.S. credibility, and Syria I think was the beginning of that,” ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told Kerry. “I think there are concerns about Ukraine, our actual willingness to go forward and do something after we lost so much credibility around the red line issue, and so much credibility on the ground with just people in the neighborhood regarding not following through on commitments that were made. And I know that you know they were made.”
“…I will say to you that if things don’t change, you in effect could be presiding over a period of time where more U.S. credibility is lost than anyone could have imagined, and a time when the world is becoming less safe as a result,” Corker added.
Kerry insisted that his 29 years on the committee — he was chairman before moving into the Obama administration — gave him broad perspective on foreign policy.
“I’ve seen the ups and downs. I’ve seen the merry-go-round and the roller-coaster of American foreign policy up close and personal. And I will tell you that we’re living in a different time,” Kerry said.
“We’re living with a far more, almost 19th century, 18th century diplomatic playing field, where interests and, you know, some cases mercantilist interests, in other cases just security interests or territorial interests, other kinds of things are raising their head in ways that they didn’t during the Cold War, because they were suppressed,” he said.
Kerry’s successor at the helm of the panel, Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), lamented that the administration chose to slash the Western Hemisphere budget by 21 percent from fiscal year 2013.
“I don’t dispute the importance of other priorities laid out in the administration’s proposal, but I have seen year after year after year a continuous cut in the hemisphere,” Menendez said. “And I believe that those cuts lead us to lack a comprehensive approach to Latin America and the necessary resources to back it up.”
Menendez also panned a recent Wall Street Journal headline: “Obama Administration Shows Optimism on Iran Nuclear Talks.”
“I’m trying to glean where that’s from,” he said. “…With no sanctions regime in place, and understanding that every sanctions that we have pursued have needed at least a six-month lead time to become enforceable, and then a greater amount of time to actually enforce, that the only option left to the United States to this or any other president, and to the West, would be either to accept a nuclear-armed Iran or to have a military option.”
Kerry dismissed breakout as “just having one bomb’s worth, conceivably, of material, but without any necessary capacity to put it in anything, to deliver it, to have any mechanism to do so, and otherwise.”
He then admitted that “our goal” is not eliminating nuclear capability as much as “proving that this is a peaceful program.”
When Menendez told the secretary that the Russia was acting “in ways that are contrary to just about all of our interests,” Kerry replied that “the relationship with Russia produces both moments of consternation and conflict, as well as cooperation and effect.”
“This is not the bipolar, straightforward choice of the Cold War,” Kerry argued. “We’re living in an incredibly challenging time where some of the things that the East-West order took for granted most of my life, are suddenly finding a world in which American engagement is more critical.”
Corker said it’s difficult “to discern the good things that have occurred relative to our negotiations with Russia.”
“But, you know, when the president talked about his red line back in August of 2012, 30,000 Syrians were dead. Today, 150,000 Syrians are dead. We continue to talk about this shiny object, the chemicals. But people daily are being killed with barrel bombs,” the senator continued.
In a testy exchange with Corker, Kerry eventually agreed to share the administration’s Syria policy in a closed session with lawmakers “to the degree I am allowed to under the process and the law,” then proceeded to give a recounting of the timeline in the revolution and deterioration of the opposition.
“All of which everyone said was going to happen on the front end; very predicted,” Corker interjected. “Yes.”