By Peter Sullivan - 04/08/14 08:31 PM EDT
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday accused Secretary of State John Kerry of presiding over a “trifecta” of foreign policy disasters.
McCain lambasted his former Senate colleague at a hearing in which Kerry faced wide-ranging criticism about the administration’s handling of crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.
“I think you’re about to hit the trifecta,” McCain declared.
Kerry hit back: “It’s interesting that you declare it dead, but the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t declare it dead,” Kerry said of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“We’ll see,” McCain interrupted.
“Well, yeah, we will see,” Kerry shot back.
“It has stopped. It has stopped. Recognize reality,” McCain retorted.
When McCain said the administration was failing to carry “a big stick,” as President Teddy Roosevelt famously advised, Kerry punched back, “Your friend Teddy Roosevelt also said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena that are trying to get things done, and we’re trying to get something done.”
The secretary of State provoked laughter from the packed audience when he began his response to McCain’s long list of grievances by saying calmly, “Let me begin with the place that you began, with your premature judgment about the failure of, uh, everything.”
The tough talk from McCain, a fellow Vietnam War veteran whom Kerry considered asking to be his vice presidential running mate, underscored the difficulties the former senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate is now enduring.
Since taking office last year, he has dived into a series of challenges with the attitude of someone who knows he is in his last job, racking up frequent flier miles shuttling between the Middle East and Europe to convince the Israelis and Palestinians to start talking; stop Russia from a further invasion of Ukraine; resume nuclear talks with Iran; and try to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons as agreed.
Republicans are skeptical that Kerry is making progress on any of those issues, and there have been whispers that in his pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, he has his eye on a Nobel Prize.
Kerry is also taking friendly fire from Democrats. With the Middle East talks teetering on collapse last week, administration officials anonymously sniped at him to the press.
President Obama felt compelled to weigh in, reportedly saying to his national security team, “I see a lot of senior officials quoted about Kerry and Middle East peace, but I’m the most senior official, and I have nothing but admiration for how John has handled this.”
Kerry acknowledged in the hearing that he is lined up to receive the blame if the negotiations fail. “I think it’s important to do this,” he said. “Sure we may fail. You want to dump it on me? I may fail. I don’t care. It’s worth doing. It’s worth the effort.”
But Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the senior Republican on the committee, raised a possible split in the administration on a different issue. He seized on a report Monday night in The Wall Street Journal saying Kerry is privately pressing for the U.S. military to get more involved in training and equipping Syrian rebels.
“Apparently there’s some debate occurring relative to military action or not. The Wall Street Journal reports that you’re for it,” Corker said. “Secretary Kerry, I guess we’ll tell after you write your memoirs whether you support the policy of the administration or not, but we certainly get a lot of conflicting reports.”
Kerry offered to speak more about the specific options being weighed in a closed session but then took a break from the sharply worded back-and-forth to seek some advice from Corker.
“Let me ask you a question,” Kerry said. “I’m happy to be the recipient of some good advice. What do you believe would make the difference right now in order to get a negotiated solution? Or do you believe there is a military solution?”
Corker said he wanted to arm the vetted, moderate opposition. “I strongly supported that, and I thought you supported that, actually,” he said dryly.
On perhaps the most pressing front, the concern with a further Russian invasion into eastern Ukraine, Kerry declared pro-Russian protesters were sent by Moscow and could be a “contrived pretext for military intervention, just as we saw in Crimea.” He warned of sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy if the situation escalates, but said he would meet with the Russians and Ukrainians together next week to seek a solution.
He told Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) that there are no easy answers to any of the issues.
“When you say something like, ‘Our foreign policy is spinning out of control,’ those are great talking points,” Kerry said. “They make for great sound bites on TV nowadays, but I have to tell you, senator, that’s just not true.”