The budget meeting conducted by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee provided the opportunity for critics of Secretary of State John Kerry to voice their concerns about how the Obama administration has handled Russia’s annexation of Crimea, nuclear talks with Iran, and the ongoing Syrian civil war. Tuesday’s three-hour hearing was meant solely to handle the State Department’s budget, but instead, the committee once chaired by Kerry himself dwelled on the secretary’s efforts to broker peace in conflict areas around the globe.
“We look forward to hearing your priorities for the State Department for the coming year,” Committee Chair Robert Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, said to Kerry. Such an introduction ostensibly paved the way for the Secretary of State to discuss issues of financing. But as with any discussion of department budgeting and government financing, results are a key consideration.
“As the situations in the Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela demonstrate, never has the need for American leadership and engagement in the world been greater. We understand the limitations and constraints that govern the budgetary environment and that getting the our fiscal house in order at home is the wellspring from which our national power flows. But, in this complex and rapidly changing global environment, we also know our national security interests are priority number one and they cannot be jeopardized.” That proved to be the guiding of the remainder of the hearing.
The same ideas of America’s role in the world were expressed by Kerry in his prepared statement. “No other nation can give people the confidence to come together and confront the most difficult challenges the way the United States can and must, and I hear this from leaders all over the world,” he said. As a prelude to his budget request, he also expressed gratitude “for the way this Committee stands up for an active, internationalist American foreign policy,” a foreign policy stance that he indicated has been very much a success. “I spent enough time in Congress [28 years] to know not to call anything that costs billions of dollars a bargain. But when you consider that the American people pay just one penny of every tax dollar for the $46.2 billion in this request, I think it safe to say that the grand scheme of the federal budget, when it comes to the State Department and USAID, taxpayers are getting an extraordinary return on their investment,” he said.
Menendez largely supported the numerical value of the $46.2 billion request, noting that the $40.3 billion in base discretionary funding requested by the State Department provides “solid footing after several years of uncertainty” for the United States’ “international efforts.” The uncertainty was reference to last year’s automated federal budgetary spending cuts. Plus, the $5.9 in funding for overseas contingency operations will allow the country “to continue to address challenges in the Middle East and North Africa,” including the Syrian humanitarian crisis, as well as ongoing violence Afghanistan and other front-line states. “We also need make sure the budget is structured so that our nation is capable of meeting the new challenges and opportunities of today’s world. And we face many challenging issues,” the Foreign Relations Committee Chair noted.
But there was less agreement on whether the $46.2 billion request would produce results of value, as senators argued that the diplomatic tactics used by Kerry in the fourteen months since resigning his Senate seat were not working — especially regarding the government’s response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Syria’s ongoing civil war.
“What you’re doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick; in fact, a twig,” Senator John McCain of Arizona said, referring to the iconic political ideology described by President Theodore Roosevelt, who made “speak softly and carry a big stick” a tenet of his foreign policy. “Your friend, Teddy Roosevelt, also said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena who are trying to get things done, and we’re trying to get something done,” Kerry told McCain. “I may fail. I don’t care,” he continued in response to McCain’s argument that his efforts would not result in peace in the Middle East. “It’s worth doing. It’s worth the effort, and the United States has a responsibility to lead, not always to find the pessimism and negativity that’s so easily prevalent in the world today,” Kerry added.
Kerry has drawn particular heat for peace talks that have failed to move forward. Further, McCain noted that the Secretary of State was “about to hit the trifecta” — failure to ink a nuclear deal with Iran, failure to reach a political settlement in Syria, and failure to sustain negotiations between Israel and Palestine. “This administration is failing very badly,” the Arizona Senator added.
Disputes between Israel and Palestine have put Middle Eastern peace talks near collapse, and the Secretary of State was forced to explain Tuesday to senators why the latest efforts to find common ground between the Israelis and the Palestinians almost broken down last week. “I hope the parties will find a way back,” he told the committee. “But, you know, we have an enormous amount on our plate,” Kerry added, explaining that “given the rest of the [administration’s] agenda,” there are limits to how much time he and President Barack Obama are able to devote to the peace process “if they’re not prepared to commit to actually be there in a serious way.” With an attitude that was far from apologetic, he both dismissed arguments that his “globe-trotting” attempts to broker a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians were futile and that he had been ineffective in ending three-year long conflict in Syria.
Peace talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition have ended in a deadlock. But Kerry — answering questions calmly when pressed by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland to explain how the United States would apportion blame for the death of tens of thousands in Syria — noted that 54 percent of the government’s stockpile of chemical weapons had been removed from the country thus far, with two shipments scheduled to leave in the near future. However, that accomplishment was not enough for Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s ranking Republican lawmaker. Corker inquired whether a planned American missile strike, aimed at punishing the Syrian government for last summer’s chemical weapon attack, would have been enough to change the course of the civil war. In response, Kerry argued that the strike would have been limited in nature and only meant to prevent Assad from sending more chemical weapons to his troops.
Meanwhile, since the limited sanctions were imposed on a number of Russians by the United States and European Union in late March, the western powers have been inactive, leaving a Russian-backed operation to nudge further into Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s actions were far more concerning to Senators than lagging peace talks between Israel and Palestine. After questioning from committee members, Kerry stated that if Russia fails to back down from its presence in Ukraine, the United States will implement tougher economic sanctions. “What we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary,” Kerry said. He will meet next week in Europe with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian officials.
Some of the criticism can be attributed to typical pre-election partisan opposition. As Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho stated: “Our foreign policy is just spinning out of control.” But some lawmakers who spoke out against Kerry’s records were members of his own party. Menendez — a Democrat — pressed the Secretary of State on Iran. The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene, has agreed to allow nuclear talks to resume in Vienna. But Kerry told the committee that he was “not expressing optimism” on the prospect of a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. What Menendez wanted Kerry to answer was whether the United States would agree to allow Iran to retain a limited enrichment capability. When Kerry responded that achieving what is known as “lead time” on Iran’s ability to enrich weapons-grade uranium would constitute significant progress, Menendez told the Secretary of State: “A deal that would ultimately unravel the entire sanctions regime for a six-to-12-month lead time is not far from where we are today.” Currently, the lead time is two months.
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