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, which 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 Crimean 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.
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 deadlock.
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.
On Syria, Kerry said more than half of President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile — 54 percent — has 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 consists 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.
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