Tough Questions for John Kerry

Tough Questions for John Kerry

Here are just a few things the Foreign Relations Committee should be asking Obama’s nominee for secretary of state.


(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Barack Obama’s nomination of John Kerry as secretary of state gives the Senate a critical opportunity to probe the administration’s foreign policy priorities—and many of those policies demand inquiry. The Republicans—who, like Senator John McCain, sniped disgracefully at UN Ambassador Susan Rice—have expressed few coherent reservations about our current course. So it will be incumbent upon Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to lead a responsible review.

Here are a few questions senators should ask the nominee.

§ Presidential war making: Are there any limits to the president’s war powers in the so-called “war on terror”? Contrary to expectations, Obama has broadened the Bush administration’s view that the congressional resolution authorizing the pursuit of Al Qaeda after 9/11 gives the president the right to attack any suspect group in any country as long as there are terrorists—in other words, forever. That prerogative is said to include the power to kill anyone (including US citizens) that the president decides poses a terrorist threat to the United States. How would you reconcile this position with the Constitution? How would you suggest that Congress enforce accountability on a president who targets and kills innocent people by mistake? 

§ Climate change: Do you consider global warming a clear and present  danger to our national security? In his first inaugural address, Obama raised the hope that we would begin to “roll back the specter of a warming planet.” Yet the United States was essentially AWOL in the recent climate negotiations in Doha, and thus a key contributor to their failure. Do you plan to change course? 

§ Global economic recovery: Does mass unemployment in the United States, recession in Europe and Japan, and continued trade conflict with China require new international policies from the United States? Washington is pivoting toward more austerity at home, while economic growth here and abroad is faltering. We are headed for a synchronized global recession with new trade and currency wars, when what we need is a synchronized global recovery. What steps would you recommend to revive sustainable economic growth as a part of our global policy? 

§ Militarization of US foreign policy: How can the State Department reclaim from the military its proper role as the lead agency of US policy abroad? The militarization of foreign policy has continued unabated in the first Obama term. Regional military commanders act in effect as proconsuls who have far greater weight than ambassadors in regions around the world. Many countries know the United States only for its military bases, its military trainers or its drone attacks. Our foreign assistance budget is a global disgrace, while military spending is higher than it was at the height of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan. What commitments have been made, if any, by the president in terms of correcting this wrongheaded imbalance? 

§ Afghanistan: Do you support the continued waste of lives and billions of dollars on this war? And what will you do diplomatically to ensure that our exit is not delayed beyond 2014? Reports are circulating that the administration plans to keep a military force of unknown size in Afghanistan past 2014, and has pledged another decade of financial support for a regime that at least one US official has called a “vertically integrated criminal enterprise.” What limits would you urge for this misguided commitment? 

§ The Middle East: What should US priorities be in this region, as the promise of the Arab Spring looks increasingly like the Arab Fall, with a proliferation of regional militias in Libya, increasing tensions in Egypt and growing sectarianism among Syria’s rebels? How can we claim to support democracy in the Arab world when the monarchy in Bahrain—our ally and host of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet—imprisons and kills peaceful protesters? Given the shredding of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, do you believe our “Israel right or wrong” policy adequately protects America’s security interests? Is it more, or less, important now for the United States to push for a fair settlement of the conflict by establishing a viable Palestinian state? 

§ Iran and nuclear peril: Do you believe our current strategy of ratcheting up sanctions while retaining the option of using military force prevents Iran from joining Israel, Pakistan and India in developing a nuclear weapon? Is it possible that these threats are actually accelerating Iran’s nuclear efforts and helping to create support in the country for a nuclear weapons capability? Iran has often said it does not want nuclear weapons, especially if countries like Israel give up theirs. Would you be willing to test Iran’s interest in what is known as a “grand bargain” (in which, among other things, Washington would renounce regime change and accept normalized relations in exchange for Tehran’s agreeing to intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency)? 

This is only a small sample of the questions that any nominee should answer. We are facing monumental foreign policy challenges. It’s time for the Senate to get beyond partisan cheap shots and exercise its constitutional responsibility to ask John Kerry how the administration plans to address them. 

Back in 2001, David Corn wrote an incisive piece on “Defining John Kerry."

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