Secretary of State John Kerry went to Capitol Hill Tuesday to testify on the State Department’s proposed budget, but that topic was quickly swept aside as senators pressed the nation’s top diplomat on a myriad of crises facing every corner of the world.
Jumping alternatively between issues of war and terrorism, human rights and disease, Kerry managed to stave off whiplash, but was frequently reminded of the complexity of modern diplomacy.
Nuclear talks with Iran
Lawmakers were particularly keen to question Kerry on the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran, which continued over the weekend in Geneva.
Kerry, who flew back to Washington just last night, warned critics to withhold judgment until the negotiations have run their course.
“Anybody running around right now, jumping in to say, ‘Well, we don’t like the deal,’ or this or that, doesn’t know what the deal is,” said Kerry. “There is no deal yet.”
His testimony comes just one week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address the U.S. Congress about the dangers of loosening sanctions on Iran – a step the U.S. and its partners are considering in exchange for certain assurances from Iran that it won’t develop a nuclear weapon.
Talks yielded an interim agreement in late 2013, but a longer-term deal remains elusive. Negotiations have already been extended twice, and the delegations are now coming up against a March 31st deadline.
Still, in his testimony, Kerry focused on the progress made so far.
“I don’t know anybody who looks at the interim agreement and doesn’t say, ‘Wow this has really worked,’ including [Netanyahu], who would like to see it extended, having opposed it vehemently in the beginning, calling it ‘the deal of a century for Iran,’” said Kerry.
Nonetheless, lawmakers expressed concerns about the Iranian regime’s behavior on several fronts, from their support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to their influence over the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee Kerry addressed, accused Iran of “wrecking havoc” in the Middle East; a notion Kerry wouldn’t echo, even as he agreed with Graham on specific points.
“Do you agree with me that Assad is a puppet of Iranian regime?” Graham asked at one point.
“Pretty much,” Kerry answered.
“Do you agree with me that Hezbollah is a subcontractor of the Iranian regime?” Graham followed up.
“Totally,” said Kerry.
In one of the tenser exchanges of the day, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, suggested the Obama administration has been cooperating with Iran to counter the terrorist group ISIS.
“I would just point out that the notion of getting Iran to help fight ISIS is like hiring the local town psychopathic pyromaniac to join the volunteer fire department,” Kirk quipped.
“Well, senator, we’re not hiring them,” Kerry said.
Kerry said the topic of Iraq came up in recent talks with his Iranian counterpart, but that exchange was brief and revolved around their shared assessment that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was committed to promoting inclusivity in his government. The two governments are not engaged in broader cooperation on ISIS, he insisted.
The fight against ISIS
The Obama administration has launched a global effort to counter ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That effort includes airstrikes, as well as actions to disrupt terror financing and dissuade young people who might be tempted to join extremist groups.
But the multi-faceted approach has been mocked by some, including lawmakers, who say the administration is focusing too much attention on counter-messaging and downplaying the importance of the military dimension.
Kerry took aim at that criticism Tuesday.
“The President’s goal is to degrade and destroy ISIS,” said Kerry, “That’s the goal.”
“But the fact is, if all you do is do that, you’re not going to solve this problem,” he said. “Some secretary of state is going to be here in the future. Some president will be there. And there’ll be a different acronym, and you’re going to be talking about how you get rid of them. Because there’s a big pool of people out there waiting to be seduced into this.”
Kerry also fielded questions on Russia, which the U.S. maintains is supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine with training, weapons and equipment. Those accusations have continued this month, in spite of a ceasefire agreement that yielded mixed results.
The Russian government denies it’s providing this assistance, but on Tuesday, Kerry said Russia’s claims are lies.
“Russia has engaged in a rather remarkable period of the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise that I’ve seen since the very height of cold war,” he said. “And they have been persisting in their misrepresentations, lies – whatever you want to call them – about their activities there to my face, to the face of others, on many different occasions.”
He also emphasized that the U.S. and European Union are prepared to place additional sanctions on Russia if its interference in Ukraine continues, and suggested the U.S. would consider sending defensive weapons to the Ukrainian government.
Safety of American abroad
The array of threats facing the U.S. was further highlighted Tuesday by a series of State Department travel warnings sent out even as Kerry was testifying.
The department updated its guidance for Americans traveling to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Algeria - three extremist hotspots where Americans could become targets.
Perhaps more concerning still was an emergency message sent to Americans in Afghanistan, which said “militants planned to conduct multiple imminent attacks against an unspecified target or targets in Kabul City.”
The State Department would not provide additional information on that threat, but said it was unrelated to the three travel warnings that went out shortly after.
Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, Kerry addressed the overall state of the world.
“People need to be vigilant, but not scared,” he said. “Travel today is safer than it’s ever been.”