John Kerry ready to be confirmed by U.S. Senate for secretary of state post

McClatchy News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Poised to become secretary of state for an administration wrapping up a decade of war, Sen. John Kerry described in his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday a vision for greater trade and engagement with foreign partners to underline that “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.”

“We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since Sept. 11, a role that was thrust upon us,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which he’s served for more than two decades.

A Senate vote on Kerry’s nomination is expected within days. He’s assured an easy confirmation, given the strong and vocal bipartisan support for the veteran Democrat. On Thursday, Kerry was introduced by a trio of high-profile allies: outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts.

“John has built strong relationships with leaders in governments here and around the world, and he has experience in representing our country in fragile and unpredictable circumstances,” Clinton said in her introductory remarks.

All three supporters told the committee that Kerry’s quarter-century of public service and his experience as a veteran of the Vietnam War had groomed him for the Cabinet post. Warren noted Kerry’s 90 overseas trips in his 28 years in the Senate. Clinton praised him as “the right choice” to advance the Obama administration’s foreign policy goals. And McCain said Kerry showed “masterful” diplomacy as he led efforts to normalize relations with Vietnam after the war in which both men served as Navy officers.

When a woman in a pink hat interrupted the hearing with anti-war protests and shouts of, “I’m tired of my friends in the Middle East dying!” Kerry quickly defended her right to express her views and reminded the panel that he’d once testified before Congress as an anti-war protester in the Vietnam era.

“People measure what we do,” Kerry told the committee. “And in a way that’s a good exclamation point to my testimony.”

Kerry’s familiarity with world affairs was evident, as he gave in-depth answers, often with statistics or concrete examples, to questions on major policy issues he’ll face.

A smooth U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? Kerry said it hinges on the country holding credible elections and reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Kerry said U.S. policy was not “containment of Iran,” but he added that Tehran had to allow for intrusive inspections and prove that its program is peaceful. How to deal with the war in Syria? Kerry said the White House and the State Department were discussing new ways to support the Syrian opposition, but he stressed that policy changes had to be carefully weighed now that al-Qaida elements have joined the rebel cause.

Kerry also said he wouldn’t give up on burgeoning Arab democracies such as those in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, that he’d seek warmer relations with the Russians, and that potential successions in Venezuela and Cuba held promise for people in the “outliers” of Latin America.

For all the Obama administration’s touting of a renewed focus on the Asia Pacific, there was little discussion of China and its neighbors. Kerry said he hoped that the new Chinese leadership shared the U.S. goal of closer bilateral ties, and he said that Americans should stop viewing the Chinese only as adversaries or competitors.

Throughout the testimony, there also were hints as to how big a behind-the-scenes role Kerry has played in foreign policy in recent years. Asides and anecdotes recounted at the hearing told of a screaming match Kerry had with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, how Kerry had to coax Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept election results, and how he was the first American politician to meet with then-candidate Mohammed Morsi, who went on to become Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

Republicans made it clear to Kerry that he’d be dealing with the legacy of the State Department’s response to the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. posts in Benghazi, telling him they still had questions on what the administration knew and when. Senators from both parties sought his assurance that he’d continue implementing dozens of recommendations made by an independent investigating panel that found systemic problems in State Department bureaucracy that contributed to the chaotic aftermath of the attacks.

“We still haven’t gotten the answers about what happened in Benghazi,” McCain told Kerry.

The questions, while mostly thorough and serious, were hardly confrontational, underscoring how different the confirmation would have been had President Barack Obama been able to field his first choice, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. She withdrew from consideration amid mounting Republican opposition to her candidacy.

Some critics thought her abrasive personality was ill-suited for the diplomatic post, while others fumed over what they considered Rice’s attempts to mislead the public with talk show appearances in which she said the Benghazi attacks were an offshoot of protests instead of what others in the administration already knew to be the pre-planned work of militants.

By contrast, even Republican senators on the committee greeted Kerry warmly, while Democrats practically fawned. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., concluded her questioning by saying she couldn’t wait for the “privilege” of casting an aye vote to confirm Kerry.

Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who presided over the hearing, slipped up and prematurely called Kerry “Mr. Secretary,” to which Kerry quipped that the confirmation was even quicker than expected.

“I’m clairvoyant,” Menendez replied with a smile.