Secretary of State hopeful John Kerry was wrapping up his opening statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when a protester interrupted him. “We need peace with Iran!” yelled the woman in pink as police dragged her out of the room. “We are killing thousands of people! When is it going to be enough? I’m tired of my friends dying!”
Kerry turned in his chair, listened and nodded. “When I first came to Washington and testified, I obviously was testifying as part of a group of people who came here to have their voices heard,” he said, recalling the last time he came before this committee, as a Vietnam War protester 42 years ago. “In a way that’s a good exclamation point to my testimony.”
Kerry’s journey from outsider to insider has been repeated throughout his career: from stone-throwing demonstrator to law-making Senator; from an awkward loner to the darling of his colleagues; and now from an external critic of the Administration to a champion of its policies. Kerry is well suited for the challenge, if the confidence of his colleagues is any indication. Most of the Senators from both sides of the aisle spent the majority of the four-hour hearing praising their soon-to-be-former chairman. “I look at you in being nominated for this as someone who’s almost lived their entire life, if you will, for this moment of being able to serve in this capacity,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s top Republican. “There’s no one in the United States Senate that has spent more time than you have on issues of importance to our country.”
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Kerry joked that getting him “out of the Senate” seemed to be about the only thing that unites Republicans and Democrats these days. He then got serious, emphasizing that the economy remained of paramount importance to all U.S. policy, both domestic and foreign. “The greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy will be in your hands, not mine, because while it’s often said that we can’t be strong at home if we’re not strong in the world, in these days of fiscal crisis — and as a recovering member of the supercommittee — I am especially cognizant of the fact that we can’t be strong in the world unless we’re strong at home,” Kerry said.
Most Senators asked Kerry how he’d handle Iran. With what Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu calls his red line — the point at which Iran cannot be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon — approaching in late spring or early summer, time is running short for a diplomatic solution. Kerry said he supports President Obama’s position of “prevention, not containment.”
Kerry was also pressed on his position on Syria. Although Kerry in past hearings seemed sympathetic to a hawkish position of arming the Syrian opposition, on Thursday he carefully toed the Administration line that while Syrian President Bashar Assad must go, adding weapons to the mix at this point could potentially backfire and escalate the violence that has already claimed 65,000 lives in two years of civil war.
The one exchange that became a bit testy was with Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican freshman and Tea Party darling. Johnson, who on Wednesday pressed Hillary Clinton for answers on Benghazi, pushed Kerry to pledge the answers he felt Clinton denied him. “Senator,” Kerry said, “in all fairness, I think we do know what happened. There was a briefing and tapes, which we all saw — those of us who went to the briefing.”
“Yes, we know what happened in Benghazi,” Johnson pressed, “but not why we were misled.” In response, Kerry simply pledged that the State Department under his guidance would “continue to cooperate as it has — as it has — with every request.”
Kerry was also asked about Obama’s nomination of former Republican Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, a pick Kerry defended. Corker voiced concerns about Hagel’s membership in a group called Global Zero, which strives to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the earth. “I know Chuck Hagel. Chuck Hagel is a strong, patriotic former Senator, and he’ll make a strong, patriotic Secretary of Defense,” Kerry said.
Kerry grew passionate talking about Egypt. While he strongly condemned reports of anti-Semitic remarks by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, he said America has an opportunity with this country that is at a crucial crossroads. “Egypt is a quarter of the Arab world,” Kerry said. “It is critical to everything that we aspire to see happen in the Middle East — peace with Israel, protection of the Sinai, security, the development of that part of the world with respect to an economy that is open and competitive and based on rule of law and rules of the road.”
When asked if he’d continue Hillary Clinton’s initiatives on women and girls, Kerry said he would keep the deputy-secretary-level position she created and would further her work. On China, Kerry said he, like Obama, was keen to pivot away from the Middle East to focus on Asia.
Some of the issues Kerry will be grappling with at State remain the same as those he struggled with in the 1970s. “After Vietnam, you were quite critical of the bombing in Cambodia because, I think, you felt that it wasn’t authorized by Congress,” noted Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican. “Has your opinion changed about the bombing in Cambodia? How is Cambodia different than Libya?” Kerry responded that there is no absolutist standard for when to use the War Powers resolution and when the President has the right to unilaterally act.
In his opening statement, Kerry choked up remembering when he first learned foreign policy from his father, a foreign service officer, at the dinner table. “If you confirm me, I would take office as Secretary proud that the Senate is in my blood but equally proud that so too is the foreign service,” Kerry said, his voice breaking. “My father’s work under Presidents both Democrat and Republican took me and my siblings around the world for a personal journey that brought home the sacrifices and the commitment the men and women of the foreign service make every day on behalf of America.”
Correction: This article previously misstated that Sen. Hagel was in a group called Ground Zero instead of Global Zero.