Senators Knock Kerry for Foreign Policies That Make Them Look Weak

Lawmakers call into question U.S. leadership on Russia, Syria, and Iran (and how it reflects on them).

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a press conference closing three days of talks on Iran's nuclear programme, on November 10, 2013 in Geneva.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
April 8, 2014, 9:32 a.m.

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-à-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.

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