Senator John Kerry touches on Iran, American foreign policy, our own ‘fiscal house’ at confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON—More than four decades after he testified before the panel as a Vietnam War veteran-turned protestor, Senator John F. Kerry on Thursday returned to the witness chair before the Foreign Relations Committee for his nomination to be secretary of state.

Kerry’s prepared statement opening the hearing focused on his view that foreign policy is increasingly geared toward global economics. He also touched on Iran—sure to be a hotbed of international diplomacy given its advancing nuclear program—saying, “our policy is not containment. It is prevention.”

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“American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone,” Kerry said. “The world is competing for resources in global markets. Every day that America is unwilling to engage in that arena…is a day in which we weaken the nation itself.”

Along with a improving the country’s position in emerging economies, Kerry called for Congress to put “its fiscal house in order.” The United States’ continuing deficits and growing national debt reduce American diplomats’ credibility to call for international economic reforms, Kerry said.

Kerry is expected to easily garner the support needed for confirmation, which will likely be voted upon next week.

Though a handful of committee members openly expressed their support and forthcoming votes for Kerry’s confirmation, their questions ranged from economic development in Africa to diplomatic involvement in Syria to women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Much of the hearing centered on the United States’ changing relationship with the Islamic world, especially given the recent Arab Spring-induced regime changes in nations including Libya and Egypt.

“There is a monumental transformation taking place,” Kerry said. “This is the biggest upheaval of that part of the world since the Ottoman Empire… came apart.”

Despite a previously open window of reform in Syria, those prospects are “ancient history,” Kerry said. The Obama Administration must try harder to broker a deal for a peaceful transition of power from President Bashar al-Assad to a new government.

“Right now, President Assad doesn’t think he’s losing and the opposition thinks it’s winning,” Kerry said. “That’s not an equation that allows you to reach a solution for transition.”

Senator John McCain renewed his calls for military intervention in Syria, however he directed most of his criticism at the Obama Administration. Assad’s fall may be inevitable, the Arizona Republican said, “but what happens in the meantime?”

“Every day that goes by gets worse,” Kerry said. “Whatever judgments you make, they have to pass the test of whether they’re actually going to make things better. They have to pass a test of cost-benefit, including human cost.”

The hearing came only a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on Capitol Hill regarding the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Clinton and Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, got into a heated exchange regarding misinformation spread in the wake of the attack. Johnson returned to the issue today, asking Kerry if the American people deserve the truth in issues of foreign policy.

Responded Kerry: “If you’re trying to get some daylight between me and Secretary Clinton, that’s not going to happen with me today.”

Clinton, the outgoing secretary of state, was one of three who recommended Kerry before the committee convened in the packed hearing room on Capitol Hill, where the historic nature of the appearance was the subject of numerous whispered conversations. Kerry was also introduced to the committee he has chaired since 2009 by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and fellow Vietnam veteran McCain.

Warren, the freshman senator poised to become the Bay State’s senior senator upon Kerry’s confirmation, cited his 90 overseas trips over the years and work in the Senate pushing through arms control treaties as just a few examples of his readiness for the job of top diplomat.

She also said he learned key diplomatic skills as a longtime Massachusetts politician.

“Massachusetts is also a great teacher of diplomatic skills,” Warren said, citing his efforts to negotiate ends to a teachers and nurses strike.

“John is the right choice,” Clinton then told the panel, urging his speedy confirmation. “He will bring a record of leadership and service that is exemplary.”

McCain, calling Kerry his friend, recalled their common experience as Vietnam veterans and their work in the early 1990s in helping normalize relations with Communist Vietnam and investigating whether American soldiers were still being held in captivity.

He said some of the public hearings they held in Vietnam, where McCain was a prisoner of war for five and a half years, turned into a “circus,” with deep emotions on all sides and a recalcitrant Vietnamese government.

“Through it all John led the committee with fairness to all sides...and unshakable resolve to get a result all members could accept,” McCain said. “It was a masterful accomplishment.”

He added: “I recommend his nomination without reservation.”

Kerry was also joined at the hearing by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, his daughter Dr. Vanessa Kerry, his son-in-law Dr. Brian Naheed—both of whom work at Massachusetts General Hospital—and his brother Cameron Kerry, who is a senior official in the Department of Commerce.

In his opening statement, Kerry made reference to his long journey to this moment that began in 1971 in front of the panel then chaired by Senator William Fulbright. But he also stressed the world is far different—and in many ways more complex.

“Nearly 42 years ago Chairman Fulbright first gave me the opportunity to testify before this committee during a difficult and divided time for our country,” Kerry said. “Today I can’t help but recognize that the world itself then was in many ways simpler, divided as it was along bi-polar, Cold War antagonism. Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced—from the emergence of China, to the Arab Awakening; inextricably linked economic, health, environmental and demographic issues, proliferation, poverty, pandemic disease, refugees, conflict ongoing in Afghanistan, entire populations and faiths struggling with the demands of modernity, and the accelerating pace of technological innovation shifting power from nation-states to individuals.”

Kerry, saying he was humbled to appear before the panel, was also lighthearted in his opening remarks before his fellow senators, some of whom he has served with for decades.

“....The one thing that unites Republicans and Democrats: To get me out of the senate,” he joked.

As he was finishing his statement, a woman standing in the back of the room interrupted the hearing, shouting, “The Middle East is not a threat to us! I am tired of my friends in the Middle East dying!

She was quickly removed by the Capitol Police, but Kerry, turning slightly in her direction, addressed the protester by drawing on his own experience.

“I’ll tell you Mr. Chairman, when I first came to Washington to testify it was as a member of group who came to have their voices heard,” he said. “That is what this place is all about.”

At one point Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who’s chairing the hearing in Kerry’s absence, accidentally called the Massachusetts Democrat “Mr. Secretary.”

Kerry stood up briefly and got a hearty laugh when he remarked, “I thought this would be quick.”

An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a policy statement by John Kerry. He said the policy is “not containment, it is prevention.”