WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry pushed back Tuesday against withering criticism by Republicans and some fellow Democrats, defending the Obama administration’s response to an emboldened Russia, nuclear talks with Iran and the Syrian civil war.
Defiant before the committee he once chaired, Kerry dismissed arguments that his globe-trotting attempts to broker a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians was a futile exercise and that the U.S. has been ineffective in ending the three-year civil war in Syria.
His insistence did little to deter members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a nearly three-hour hearing that was supposed to focus on the State Department’s budget but instead turned into a rapid tour of world conflicts and divisions.
“I think you’re about to hit the trifecta,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whom Kerry fleetingly considered as a possible running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket in 2004. Pointing to negotiations on Syria, the Middle East and Iran, McCain said that on the major issues, “this administration is failing very badly.”
Republicans seized on President Vladimir Putin’s bold moves in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula last month as further signs of an Obama administration policy “spinning out of control” as Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, described it. McCain reminded Kerry that President Theodore Roosevelt had adopted the tenet to speak softly and carry a big stick.
“What you’re doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick; in fact, a twig,” McCain said.
Kerry rejected McCain’s “premature judgment about the failure of everything,” and reminded his fellow Vietnam veteran that the peace talks to end that war took years with months debating the shape of the negotiating table. Diplomacy is a far better option than the alternative of war, the secretary said.
“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.
Kerry’s successor at the committee helm, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., pressed him about possible concessions by the West in the nuclear talks involving Iran and six world powers. One of the leading proponents of sanctions on Iran, Menendez sought assurances that the U.S. would impose economic sanctions if Iran and Russia move forward with a reported oil-for-goods contract.
On the question of the fate of a heavy water plutonium reactor in Iran, Menendez expressed exasperation.
“Originally we were told that’s going to be dismantled. Now we are told we are going to find a different purpose for it. It continues to morph into different areas,” he said.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., pressed Kerry on the plan to ensure that those responsible for the death of tens of thousands in Syria are held accountable. He also questioned Kerry about the status of Israeli-Palestinian talks, prompting Kerry to blame both sides but single out Israel for announcing 700 new settlement units in East Jerusalem.
“Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said of the current deadlock.
Among the issues Kerry addressed in his testimony:
—UKRAINE: Kerry threatened Russia with tougher economic sanctions if it fails to back down from its chaotic involvement in Ukraine. The secretary described the recent actions by pro-Russia demonstrators in seizing regional offices in Ukraine as a possible pretext for further Russia military aggression.
“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 said he would meet next week in Europe with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian officials. He said Russia has a choice and can work with the international community.
—IRAN: With nuclear talks resuming in Vienna between Iran and the six world powers, Kerry offered a sober assessment of the talks less than three months before the informal July deadline for reaching an agreement.
He focused on the ability to conduct inspections and even if Iran comes up with the ability to produce enough material for one nuclear bomb, it would not necessarily have the capacity to deliver a weapon.
—SYRIA: Kerry said more than half of President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile — 54 percent — has so far been shipped out of Syria. He also said the U.S. is sending increased assistance to moderate Syria opposition forces — something they have long pleaded for — but refused to offer any details about what the aid would consist of or where it would go.
The U.S. has resisted sending heavy weapons and massive lethal aid to Syrian rebels for fear it would fall into the hands of al-Qaida and other extremist groups who are also fighting Assad in pockets across the country.
Kerry predicted that the war will end only through a negotiated political agreement — not a military strike by outside forces.
Sharply criticized by Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s top Republican, Kerry said a planned American missile strike to punish Syria’s government for a chemical weapons attack last summer would not have been powerful enough to change the course in the civil war.
Kerry said the scrubbed strike would have been limited, and would have been aimed only at preventing Assad from delivering more chemical weapons to his forces.