Kerry pressed to defend Obama policies on Syria, Libya at confirmation hearing

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was pressed to defend President Obama's policies in Syria and Libya during an otherwise smooth four-hour confirmation hearing Thursday.

The 28-year veteran and current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee impressed members with his deep knowledge of world affairs, and is expected to be easily confirmed next week. Kerry, though, also faced tough questions on President Obama's handling of the violent uprising in Syria and U.S. involvement in NATO's Libyan bombing campaign.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long led calls for the U.S. to arm President Bashar Assad's opponents and support the 22-month-old insurrection, charged that the Obama administration's policies of staying on the sidelines is failing.

“Every day that goes by it gets worse,” Kerry acknowledged. “But I think you would agree with me that whatever judgments you make, they have to pass the test of whether or not, if you do them, they're actually going to make things better,” he continued. “You have to make a test of a cost analysis in doing that. And I mean all kinds of costs — human life costs, treasure, effect on other countries.”

He vowed, if confirmed, to work with his former colleagues on the committee to find a solution to a civil war that has left more than 60,000 people dead.

“This is very complicated,” Kerry said. “And I'm deadly serious when I say to you, we're going to have to sit down, there's nothing we need more than congressional consensus if we can build it on something like this, particularly if the worst happens and you have, you know, disintegration.”

Kerry was also pressed on his past efforts to reach out to Assad, with whom he's met several times in recent years in efforts to convince the Syrian strongman to agree to reforms. Some conservative pundits have criticized those efforts, but Republicans stayed clear of directly criticizing Kerry.

“You spent a lot of time with Assad in Syria, as many of us have from time to time,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the panel's new ranking member. “And I know you spent a lot of time really trying to move him more towards Western alliance.”

"Sometimes there are moments where you may be able to get something done in foreign policy, and if the moment somehow doesn't ripen correctly or get seized you miss major opportunities,” Kerry said, explaining his efforts to press Assad to open to the West. “I think that there was a moment where Syria had an interest because of its burgeoning youthful population. ... History caught up to us. That never happened.”

Libya was also a hot topic, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a sharp critic of NATO's campaign against former leader Moammar Gadhafi, bringing up Kerry's past as a Vietnam war protester four decades ago.

“In the early 1970s, you know, after Vietnam, you were quite critical of the bombing in Cambodia because I think you felt that it wasn't authorized by Congress,” Paul asked. “Has your opinion changed about the bombing in Cambodia? How is Cambodia different than Libya?”

Kerry defended Obama, who as a candidate said presidents shouldn't go to war without the consent of Congress but then approved participation in NATO's bombing campaign in Libya in 2011.

“Look, you can be absolutist and apply it to every circumstance,” Kerry said. “The problem is it just doesn't work in some instances. When 10,000 people are about to be wiped out by a brutal dictator and you need to make a quick judgment about engagement, you certainly can't rely on a Congress that has proven itself unwilling to move after weeks and months sometimes.”

Asked by Corker if he had “major differences in your view of the world and the ones that the president has laid out,” Kerry said he's about to find out.

“The president and I have purposefully kept away from any deep-dive discussions during the nominating process, partly because he hasn't had time and I haven't had time,” Kerry responded. “We do intend to sit down next week. And I look forward to having that conversation with him.”

Corker also sought Kerry's views on former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Obama's pick to be the next secretary of Defense. Corker questioned Hagel's support for the nation's nuclear arsenal and his participation in the denuclearization movement Global Zero.

“I believe in deterrence,” Kerry said. “But the whole point is they're not talking about today's world. ... It's a goal. It's an aspiration. And we should always be aspirational.”

“I know Chuck Hagel,” he said. “And I think he is a strong patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of Defense.”

Kerry also promised to work with Republicans to learn the lessons of the Sept. 11 attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But he made clear that he had no desire to revisit Republican accusations that the administration deliberately misled the public in statements linking the attack to a protest gone awry.

“It makes a big difference whether or not the American people have the confidence that the president and the administration is being truthful with them,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who had a confrontational exchange with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she testified Wednesday. “Are you willing to work with me? Or are you basically kind of agree with Hillary — Hillary Clinton that, that's kind of yesterday's news and let's move on?”

“If you're trying to get some daylight between me and Secretary Clinton,” Kerry answered, “that's not going to happen here today on that score.”