WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry, President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of state, collected pledges of support Thursday and testified at his confirmation hearing that U.S. foreign policy should be defined by a helping hand as well as military strength.
The Massachusetts Democrat discussed Iran, Syria, climate change and a variety of issues with members of the Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing that recalled an unusual American life – son of a diplomat, Navy lieutenant who volunteered for Vietnam, anti-war protester, five-term senator, unsuccessful nominee for president, and Obama's unofficial envoy.
The nearly four-hour hearing also provided an odd juxtaposition as Kerry, a member of the panel for 28 years and its chairman for the last four, sat alone in the witness chair. At one point, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the incoming chairman who presided, mistakenly referred to Kerry as "Mr. Secretary."
The current secretary, Hillary Rodham Clinton, introduced Kerry, calling him "the right choice." She is stepping down after four years.
The committee is expected to approve Kerry's nomination early next week, and a full Senate vote could occur before the month is out.
"American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone," Kerry said in outlining his views. "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 Sept. 11, a role that was thrust upon us."
Kerry spoke out strongly for dealing with climate change, providing food and energy security and humanitarian assistance. He also spoke of robust foreign aid, but he insisted that the country must get its fiscal house in order to lead in the world.
"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," said Kerry, who described himself as a "recovering member of the supercommittee." That bipartisan panel failed in 2011 in its mandate to come up with a deficit-cutting plan.
Faced with Iran's nuclear program, Kerry said the United State will do what it must to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but he also signaled that diplomacy remains a viable option.
"I repeat here today: Our policy is not containment. It is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance," Kerry said.
The senator said he was hopeful that the U.S. and other nations could make progress on the diplomatic front, but that Tehran needs to relent and agree to intrusive inspections.
"If their program is peaceful, they can prove it," he said.
In an unexpected exchange, Kerry found himself defending Obama's pick of Republican Chuck Hagel to be the next defense secretary against GOP criticism.
Sen. Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the panel, expressed concerns about Hagel's support for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons, a major issue for the Tennessee lawmaker and his home state. The Y-12 nuclear facility is located near Oak Ridge, Tenn., and any cuts or delays in modernization to the nuclear arsenal would have an impact on local jobs.
"I know Chuck Hagel. And I think he is a strong, patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense," Kerry said.
The Massachusetts senator urged lawmakers to be realistic, arguing that an 80 percent cut is an aspiration that would be unlikely in the current climate.
On Syria, Kerry was asked about his outreach to President Bashar Assad, now an international pariah after months of civil war and unending violence against his citizens.
Kerry said there was a moment where Syria reached out to the West but that the moment has long passed.
"History caught up to us. That never happened. And it's now moot, because he has made a set of judgments that are inexcusable, that are reprehensible, and I think is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria," the senator said. "I think the time is ticking."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a fierce critic of Obama's policy on Syria, said the status quo is unacceptable with the United Nations estimating that 60,000 have been killed and the heavy influx of refugees in Jordan and Turkey.
After a recent visit to the refugee camps, McCain warned that Syrians frustrated with the U.S. response will be a recruitment target for extremists.
"We can do a lot more without putting American boots on the ground," McCain said. "Otherwise, we will be judged harshly by history."
Kerry said it was imperative to continue discussions with Russia and others in dealing with Syria but that "I don't have optimism."
Menendez noted that Kerry, if confirmed, would be the first senator on the panel in a century to ascend to the Cabinet post. President William McKinley appointed Ohio Sen. John Sherman secretary of state.
The job of the nation's top diplomat would be the realization of a dream for the 69-year-old Kerry, whom Obama passed over in 2008 when he chose Clinton. When Joe Biden became vice president, Kerry replaced the former Delaware senator as chairman of the committee.
Obama nominated Kerry after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, removed her name from consideration following criticism from Republicans over her initial comments about the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Corker told Kerry, "You've almost lived your entire life for this moment."
The Vietnam War, a long, bitter conflict that took its toll on a generation of draft-age American men, played a prominent role at the hearing.
In his testimony, Kerry alluded to his controversial moment before the committee some 42 years ago, when the decorated Vietnam veteran testified about his opposition to the war and famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
"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 antagonisms," Kerry said. "Today's world is more complicated than anything we have experienced."
McCain, who also introduced Kerry, said their friendship took root with their work on a committee seeking to resolve the status of POWs and missing in action from Vietnam as well as efforts to ensure normal U.S. relations with Vietnam during President Bill Clinton's administration.
"Helping to establish a relationship with Vietnam that serves American interests and values, rather than one that remained mired in mutual resentment and bitterness, is one of my proudest accomplishments as a senator, and I expect it is one of John's as well," McCain said.
The hearing is the first of three for Obama's national security nominees, and the least controversial. Hagel will face tough questions about his past statements on Israel, Iran, nuclear weapons and defense spending at his confirmation hearing next Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. John Brennan, the president's choice for CIA director, will be quizzed about White House national security leaks and the use of unmanned drones at his hearing next month.