Democratic Sen. John Kerry, President Obamaâ??s nominee for secretary of state, worked hard to keep his nose clean at his confirmation hearing last weekâ??maintaining a hawkish stance on a nuclear Iran, eschewing any sort of untoward relationship with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, and reassuring members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, unlike Defense Department nominee Chuck Hagel, he didnâ??t support the idea of trying for nuclear zero, at least not yet.
But, on other subjects, the Massachusetts senator made clear he would be true to his liberal credentials, endorsing policies that some fear will infringe on American sovereignty and thwart U.S. energy-producing potential.
Kerry knew he had a friendly audience as longtime chairman of the committee hearing his testimony. Nonetheless, he went to work dispensing with the most potent strikes against his confirmation right in his opening statement. To suggestions that he, a Vietnam veteran, would shy away from new military conflict in case of serious threat, Kerry was explicit.
â??The president has made it definitiveâ??we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,â?ť Kerry said. â??I repeat here today: our policy is not containment. It is prevention.â?ť
While Kerry did not lay out a timeline or a â??red lineâ?ť for decisive action, he said that Iranâ??s continued failure to prove peaceful intentions for their nuclear program would be unacceptable moving forward.
Kerry also worked to dispense with rumors that he might be more friendly or sympathetic with Assad given his half-dozen visits to Syria and the extended conversations the men have had.
While Assad once appeared to be reaching out to the west and to reform on behalf of Syrian youth, Kerry said, â??Itâ??s now moot because he has made a set of judgments that are inexcusable and reprehensible and, I think, is not long for remaining head of state in Syria.â?ť
Questions from Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) were among the most effective at revealing one of the true problems conservatives may have with Kerry: his endorsement of international treaties and agreements for national leadership and his acceptance of what some consider executive power grabs in lieu of democratic governance. Risch probed him on his views about substituting executive agreements for the harder-to-ratify treaties, such as the Law of the Sea and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which both recently failed, faced with Republican opposition.
â??Thereâ??s no better way to guarantee that whatever concerns you have about the presidentâ??s desire to move on an executive agreement would be greatly nullified or mollified if we could find a way to cooperate on a treaty…â?ť Kerry said. â??But I think thereâ??s a lot of frustration out there that some of the automatic ideological restraint here that prevents the majority from being able to express their voice has restrained people, pushed people in a way where theyâ??ve got to consider some other way of getting things done.â?ť
When Risch suggested this was an end-run policy of convenience, Kerry rebuffed him.
â??There are times around here in recent days only, where certain arguments that are not necessarily based on fact or science or anything except the point of view of some outside entity have prevented certain things from being done,â?ť he said.
This was an ill-disguised jab at the Heritage Foundation, a large conservative organization that has lobbied successfully, with the aid of senators such as Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and the recently resigned Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
To another topic of controversy, whether he would ratify the Keystone XL pipeline, Kerry would say little. With a State Department study on the project due for completion in March, Keystone may be one of the first decisions to come across Kerryâ??s desk. When the study did arrive, he said, he would make the â??appropriate judgmentâ?ť on it.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee expects to confirm Kerry within days.