WASHINGTON — Just 12 days after his boss nominated him to be No. 2 at the State Department, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken appeared before a Senate panel to argue that administration foreign policy strategies are working.
President Obama nominated Blinken, who’s been active in Democratic Party politics since fundraising for Michael Dukakis in 1988, after Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, a diplomat for more than three decades, retired Nov. 3.
Blinken worked on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, was staff director at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Obama and Joe Biden were senators, worked on Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign and jumped on board Obama’s transition team.
During his six years behind the scenes in the Senate, Blinken told the Foreign Relations Committee today, he watched lawmakers such as Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) “work together in the best tradition of bipartisan American foreign policy to strengthen American diplomacy and advance our interests and values around the world.”
Blinken’s father used to be ambassador to Hungary, his uncle was ambassador to Belgium and his wife, Evan Ryan, whom he met in the Clinton administration, was confirmed last year as assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs. Ryan worked in communications for Secretary of State John Kerry’s presidential campaign.
“For the past six years, I’ve relied on Tony in the White House, where I’ve come to have extraordinary respect for his knowledge, judgment, and inclusive approach to developing and implementing our foreign policy,” Obama said in the Nov. 7 nomination announcement.
“I recognize that, if confirmed, I will play a different role. Part of my current job at the White House is to explain and defend this administration’s policies – including with Congress. If confirmed, my new job would bring a different responsibility – to work with this committee and the leadership of the State Department to advance our foreign policy and the national interest around the world,” Blinken said today.
He proceded to list administration foreign policy accomplishments, from the recent climate-change deal with China to “American diplomacy in action” at the Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this summer.
“In a few weeks, just before Christmas, many of us will engage in an annual ritual: watching It’s a Wonderful Life on television. We all know what happened to Bedford Falls when George Bailey was out of the picture,” Blinken said. “I think it is self-evident where the world would be without American leadership on all the challenges I just mentioned.”
But some senators asserted that the administration policy, which Blinken helped forge and promote, was as much of a fantasy.
He could not assure Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that Congress will get a say on any impending nuclear agreement with Iran.
“The moment you suspend sanctions you break apart the international coalition; they know that,” Corker said. “Do you not think on the front end that Congress should play a role?”
Blinken said the administration would “effectively work together” with Congress to ensure the deal is implemented, adding there “may be schemes” in which “Congress acting in certain ways would be more effective.”
“Right now it’s going to be difficult to get where we want to go; as we speak we’re not there,” he said of nuclear negotiations ongoing in Vienna as the administration faces a Nov. 24 deadline.
“It’s literally a minute to minute, hour to hour thing,” Blinken added, promising in “days ahead we will continue to be in very close consultation” with lawmakers. “Any deal we achieve has to effectively cut off Iran’s path to a bomb.”
“The operative words here are ‘good deal vs. bad deal,'” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “Our understanding of what a good deal is differed greatly from what the State Department’s was… no deal is substantially better than a bad deal.”
“Once that bad deal happens, you can’t get genie back in the bottle.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) pointedly asked Blinken, “Will you continue to speak up for Israel’s obligation to defend its citizens?”
Blinken vowed the U.S. would “always be there” for Israel, “even if it’s alone.”
“To do something in a place of worship is even beyond the pale of what we’ve seen before,” the nominee said of Tuesday’s synagogue slayings, noting that “President Abbas condemned it.”
“These murders represent the extremism that threatens to bring the region into a bloodbath,” he said, pressing the administration’s peace process. “Majorities want peace; we want to work toward that.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked, “Have you, have this administration learned from past mistakes?”
Johnson then reminded Blinken of his defense of Obama calling ISIS a JV team.
Blinken said the “context of comments was a distinction between terrorist groups” who posed an immediate threat to the homeland — thus “varsity” — or not.
“Were you aware of the growing menace?” Johnson asked of the threat posed by ISIS.
“Absolutely,” Blinken replied.
He also defended the administration airing which tactics it was and wasn’t willing to use to battle the Islamic State. “We believe that it is not necessary and indeed it is not sustainable to have a repeat of what happened a decade ago,” he said, adding that it’s “more effective, more sustainable to strongly support a partner on the ground.”
He didn’t directly answer Johnson’s question: “Do you think it is wise to signal to your enemy what you will and will not do?”
A frustrated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wanted it entered into the official record that the nominee refused to answer “yes” or “no” when asked whether Ukraine should receive lethal aid to defend itself from Russia’s onslaught.
“I believe we need to consider that,” Blinken said.
“You’re supposed to be coming before the committee to give your opinion,” McCain reminded the administration official.
“That can play a role, potentially,” Blinken replied.
“After 4,000 dead and the country dismembered… and you think it’s something that should be looked at,” McCain said.
McCain then couldn’t get an answer from Blinken about whether it was morally sound to send Syrian fighters to battle only ISIS when they’re getting bombarded by Bashar Assad.
“The president has been focused and consistent on the measure to support the moderate opposition,” Blinken said, adding they’ve been working with the Hill for three years on helping Syrians.
“It’s too bad you can’t answer straightforward questions,” McCain shot back. “You’ve done no work with me, Mr. Blinken. You have not worked with me on anything. After 6 years you’d be ‘willing’ to do that? Thank you.”
The senator also noted “it’s very disappointing… that you won’t even admit that you were wrong” on the Iraq withdrawal.
“I actually believed that we were in a situation where Iraqis were working together,” Blinken said. “…Unfortunately, the prime minister chose to take Iraq in a different direction.”
“Unfortunately, you will be wrong again,” McCain said. “If we don’t leave a sustaining force, Afghanistan will collapse again.”
Blinken even faced questions on whether Obama will, as “chatter” on the Hill has suggested, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), unilaterally relax U.S. policy toward Cuba.
“I think you know the president has views on how to move Cuba in a democratic direction and if he has the opportunity I think that is something he would want to pursue,” Blinken said.
Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) predicted there would be a “significant response” to this “epitome of notification and not consultation.”
Menendez noted that Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has violated U.N. sanctions on North Korea, “yet we were relatively silent about it.”
“Any other country would have done it, we would have been driving at the UN.”
Menendez referenced the diplomacy line in Obama’s first inaugural speech: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
The chairman noted that Obama “unilaterally opened the hand” in 2009 by relaxing rules on family travel and money transfers to Cuba, “and at the end of the day the regime… has become more oppressive.”
After the hearing, Rubio said he’s “very concerned” that Blinken “passed up several opportunities today to categorically rule out the possibility of unilateral changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba.”
“Unless Cuba begins an irreversible democratic transformation, the U.S. should not reward the Castro regime with unilateral concessions from us that enrich the regime and help it repress millions of Cubans.”