In Senate confirmation hearing, Kerry addresses Hagel, SyriaBy Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer, NBC News
Updated at 11:42a.m. ET: President Barack Obama’s choice to be secretary of state, Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass, began his confirmation hearing Thursday morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one day after the same committee conducted a fractious hearing with current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over last September's attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Unlike Wednesday’s sometimes-contentious hearings, Republicans welcomed Kerry, who is currently the chairman of the same committee, warmly at the outset. Sen. John McCain R-Ariz. joined Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren D-Mass. in introducing the nominee.
"Should he be confirmed, and I'm confident he will be, and become our next Secretary of State, I'm sure we'll have our disagreements, which I know neither of us will hesitate to bring to the other's attention,” McCain said. “But I know he will acquit himself in that office with distinction, and use his many talents and his indefatigable persistence to advance our country's interests, and I commend his nomination to you without reservation.”McCain praised Kerry for “a masterful accomplishment” and “exemplary statesmanship” in his work on an accord to allow opening of normal diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995.
While the hearing remained cordial, Republicans did press Kerry on some of their specific concerns with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, including the use of executive agreements in place of treaties that must be ratified by the Senate.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, asked Kerry about Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel and his support for Global Zero, a group which calls for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.
Kerry said Hagel would be “a strong secretary of defense secretary” and that Hagel would not weaken the U.S. nuclear arsenal which serves as a deterrent to an attack on the United States.
A world without any nuclear weapons, Kerry said, was a goal “worth aspiring to,” but “we’re not talking about today’s world” and it might take “many centuries” to achieve abolition of nuclear weapons.
Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of State, speaks with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., before he testifies at the Senate Foreign Relations committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Jan. 24, 2013.
In his opening statement, Kerry did not mention Syria – where more than 60,000 have been killed in a civil war.
But in response to a question from Corker, Kerry – who has met several times over the years with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, said perhaps the United States and Assad had missed an opportunity to cooperate. “There was a moment where Syria had an interest” – partly because of its booming population -- to “reach out to the West and see if there was some kind of accommodation.” But cooperation is “now moot,” he said, because Assad was waging war on his own people “and is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria.”
Kerry also addressed Iran's nuclear program.
“The President has made it definitive--we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said in his opening statement. “I repeat here today: our policy is not containment. It is prevention and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.”
He added, “No one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.”
He said Obama “knows 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 September 11th, a role that was thrust upon us.”
Referring to the impasse over reducing budget deficits and the growing national debt, Kerry said to the committee members that “the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat – and our credibility as nation – as we work to help other countries create order, is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.”
He called for “an economic patriotism which recognizes that American strength and prospects abroad, depend on American strength and results at home.” He said it is difficult for an American leader to tell foreign leaders they must adopt responsible fiscal policies “if we don't resolve our own.”
In his opening statement, Kerry showed one brief moment of emotion. His voice shook when he referred to his father, who was a Foreign Service officer. Kerry said he was proud that “the Senate is in my blood – but equally proud that so too is the Foreign Service. 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” that American diplomats abroad make or their country.
A Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, Kerry said to the committee that he wants “us all to keep in our minds the extraordinary men and women in uniform who are on the front lines, the troops at war who help protect America. As a veteran, I will always carry the consequences of our decisions in my mind and be grateful that we have such extraordinary people to back us up.”
Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 and a member of the Senate since 1985, is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee but will be ceding that post to Sen. Robert Menendez, D- N.J.