Senate Foreign Relations Committee members vented frustration Tuesday with Secretary of State John Kerry over shortcomings in U.S. foreign policy that they say make it look like American efforts are "spinning out of control."
Kerry fielded a battery of concerns from both sides of the aisle about U.S. handling of issues in hot spots across the globe, including Syria's killing of its own people, Iran's nuclear-weapons capabilities, and Russia's fomenting destabilization in Ukraine.
"You can't help but get the impression that our foreign policy is just spinning out of control and we are losing control in virtually every area that we are trying to do something in," said Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Republican, at a hearing on the president's foreign policy budget.
Sen. John McCain echoed that harsh appraisal of the administration's leadership. "On major issues, this administration is failing very badly," the Arizona Republican said.
Kerry taking heat over U.S. foreign policy was hardly unexpected, but what was striking was the personal nature of the debate. Lawmakers focused on their pet issues and in particular administration actions that have undermined their leadership in Congress.
For example, ranking Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee did little to mask his irritation that the committee — at President Obama's behest — took a tough vote last fall authorizing the use of force against Syria. The panel's controversial vote forced lawmakers to defend the administration, even when it was not clear a majority of the Senate would go along with it.
Corker questioned why Obama waited so long to respond after it was clear Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was slaughtering his own people. Corker also asked why the president has sought to downplay the significance of the use-of-force option ever since. He questioned whether there was a coherent policy on Syria and — given the increase in tens of thousands of civilian deaths — whether it is working.
"We didn't create the Syrian problem. I understand that. But our lack of attention in dealing with it has caused it to fester to a point where now it's a national security threat to our nation," Corker said. "Do you agree with the president's comments on CBS just recently that the authorization for force that you asked for — that had we done that it would have had no effect in Syria? "¦ After you came in and told us the effect it was going to have?"
Kerry hedged. He said there is a coherent strategy on Syria that he could discuss in a classified setting, and he backed the administration's choice to stick to diplomacy.
"Everybody up here was saying we don't want to go to war," Kerry said. "It would have had some effect ... but it wouldn't have had a devastating effect, by which [Assad] had to recalculate, because it wasn't going to last that long."
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez raised his own beef over negotiations with Iran on its nuclear-weapons capabilities. The New Jersey Democrat had stuck his neck out on the issue, spearheading bipartisan legislation that would impose additional sanctions against Iran. But he backed away from pursuing such legislation amid intense push-back from the administration. Menendez has since led a bipartisan letter to the president with 82 other senators laying out what a final deal with Iran should entail, namely that its nuclear-weapons capabilities should be dismantled, but he expressed fear Tuesday that that will not be achieved.
Menendez criticized the administration for appearing to be swayed by merely delaying Iran's time frame for nuclear "breakout" capability. He argued that delaying the time needed for Iran to be in position to fuel a nuclear weapon to only six to 12 months, from the current two-month time frame, was not what lawmakers bargained for.
"I don't think that we did everything that we've done to only get a six or 12 months lead time, because 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," he said.
Menendez argued that it takes at least six months to assemble a sanctions regime and longer to enforce it. He questioned whether the U.S. is limiting itself such that "the only option left to the U.S. would be to either accept a nuclear-armed Iran or to have a military option."
Menendez expressed concern that with Iran's research and development moving forward, there is a risk it will be able to create more-sophisticated centrifuges more quickly and proceed with missile development.
"It is far different from where we started off and what we were told, to where I believe we are heading and this is why so many members joined us in staking out a ground so the administration understands," he said, asking for assurances that the administration would come back to Congress with a final deal.
"Clearly what we do will have to pass muster with Congress," Kerry said.
Tuesday's hearing also revealed considerable unease over U.S. dealings with Russia.
Congress just passed legislation sought by the administration that Menendez and the Foreign Relations Committee had a major role in driving, which provides $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.
Menendez took issue with the fact that the U.S. negotiated with Russia on Syrian chemical weapons, which resulted in worsening the humanitarian crisis there and a delay in removing its chemical weapons. He went on to criticize an oil-for-goods deal with Russia and Iran that could be worth $20 billion, which was followed by Russia annexing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine.
"At what point in this relationship with Russia, particularly vis-Ã -vis Iran, but even beyond, is it going to be clear that there are consequences?" Menendez asked. "I understand that Russia is an entity that we are going to have to deal with, but by the same token, right now they seem to act in ways that are contrary to just about all of our interests."
On the issue of Russia's continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Kerry tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, he blamed Moscow for special agents that created fresh chaos in the region this week, but he just as quickly commended Russia for agreeing to sit and meet next week with Ukraine at the table about how to create a stable path forward.
"The hard reality is that the relationship with Russia produces both moments of consternation and conflict as well as cooperation and effect," Kerry said.