Count on it: in a season of hotly contested executive nominations, the road for Sen. John Kerry, President Barack Obama???s nominee for Secretary of State, will be smooth and clear as Kerry faces his longtime colleagues in the Senate.
Few senators have even indicated areas of concern in advance of questioning Kerry, who begins his nomination hearings Thursday morning. Nonetheless, here are five questions that should be asked, given Kerry???s political positions and the challenges he???ll face in the new office.
1. What stands between Kerry and the Keystone Pipeline?
Kerry announced this week that he would shed stock holdings in a number of oil companies supportive of Keystone XL to avoid a potential conflict of interest as he approaches his nomination hearings.
Wednesday, 53 senators signed a letter urging quick approval of the Canada-to-Texas oil sands pipeline, which was rejected by Obama this time last year on the grounds that the State Department had not completed a review of the project.
With approval recently secured from all affected states, the State Department, with its review due in March, will have what is apparently the final word on the pipeline.
Kerry has made no secret of being a longtime environmentalist, but has promised to give Keystone XL his full consideration. In hearings, Kerry should be probed about personal reservations he has on the project.
2. What is Kerry???s climate change agenda?
Climate change is the increasingly popular progressive buzzword, making an appearance in Obama???s inaugural address despite critics who still insist the alleged phenomenon is unproven.
Kerry has been vocal about his climate change beliefs, attempting to push a cap-and-trade bill through the Senate and even addressing global warming as a coming crisis on his official Senate page.
But in an era of national budget tightening, the State Department???s FY 2013 budget for climate change initiatives is a whopping $469.5 million, and senators may ask Kerry if he plans to pursue this hobby issue at the expense of other areas of concern.
In addition, some worry that Kerry would push aggressively for ratification of a new version of the UN Kyoto Protocol, a binding international commitment to reducing emissions that the U.S. has rejected once before.
3. How hard will Kerry push for Law of the Sea and other controversial treaties?
Despite Kerry???s advocacy, efforts to ratify the controversial UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities failed in the Senate in 2012, opposed by those concerned with giving the United Nations purview over national governance and sovereignty.
Under Kerry???s tenure at State, the Law of the Sea and other treaties, such as the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the global sale of firearms, may come back for a U.S. vote. While a Secretary of State Kerry won???t be able to force the Senate to approve these measures, he should be asked in confirmation hearings how much of a priority these matters are for him and how much energy he???ll devote to them on the global stage.
4. What are red lines for U.S. military action and what are the limits of peaceful engagement?
If Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel and Kerry are both confirmed, the leadership of State and Defense will both rest with Vietnam veterans disposed to avoid military action whenever possible.
Kerry famously rallied against the war following his tour in Vietnam, and while he voted for the war in Iraq and for funding of the war in Afghanistan, he chastised Mitt Romney on the campaign trail for hawkish talk about military action in Iran.
Even the Washington Post, in its December endorsement of Kerry for State, acknowledged that he and Obama had a similar weakness: ???an excessive faith in the potential benefits of ???engagement??? with rogue regimes and dictators.???
In particular, Kerry???s relationship with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad–he has made six visits to Syria and has spoken graciously of Assad following meetings–should come under scrutiny during Kerry???s hearings.
While Kerry would not be making key military decisions as secretary of state, it???s crucial that he is clear-eyed in his dealings with oppressive regimes and understands the necessity of military force to back up peaceful negotiation.
5. How will Kerry continue to improve diplomatic security and the State Department following Benghazi?
Following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton???s long-awaited testimony on Benghazi this week, the tragic murders of four Americans at a U.S. consulate in Libya are at risk of being forgotten, victims of the short attention span of Washington, D.C.
Clinton has said she has already begun to implement all of the more than two dozen recommendations produced by an Accountability Review Board report, which showed that systemic leadership problems within the State Department and poor diplomatic security at high-threat posts were among factors that left the Benghazi consulate vulnerable to attack.
Kerry should be asked to present his own plans to confront internal failings at the State Department and explain the ways he will make sure that Benghazi never happens again.