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Confirmation Hearings Begin for Secretary of State Nominee Sen. John Kerry

January 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the wake of outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's testimony on the Benghazi attack, her presumptive successor Sen. John Kerry begins confirmation hearings. Kwame Holman reports on the proceedings and Jeffrey Brown talks with two former presidential national security advisers, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Stephen Hadley.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama’s nominee for secretary of State, Senator John Kerry, took the first step towards Senate confirmation today.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: For John Kerry, it was a day long in coming. The diplomat’s son, veteran senator, and former Democratic presidential nominee has been considered a potential secretary of state for years.

SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.: I look at you in being nominated for this as someone who has almost lived their entire life, if you will, for this moment.

KWAME HOLMAN: Indeed, Kerry first appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, as a Vietnam veteran challenging senators over the war.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: And we cannot fight communism all over the world, and I think we should have learnt that lesson by now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Now the Massachusetts Democrat chairs the committee, and he warned today that the U.S. must put its fiscal house in order to lead in the age of an emerging China and the Arab awakening.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: It is urgent that we show people in the rest of the world that we can get our business done in an effective and timely way. Every day that goes by where America is uncertain about engaging in that arena or unwilling to put our best foot forward and win, unwilling to demonstrate our resolve to lead is a day in which we weaken our nation itself.

KWAME HOLMAN: As secretary of state, Kerry would face the thorny issue of Iran and its nuclear program. He said today he is totally committed to enforcing sanctions.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: We must resolve the questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. The president has made it definitive. We will do what we must do to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And I repeat here today, our policy is not containment. It is prevention. And the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kerry also pointed to the civil war in Syria and lamented a missed opportunity. He had met with President Bashar al-Assad back in 2009.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: And I remember President Assad said to me: “I have 500,000 kids who turn 18 every year, and I don’t have a place to put them; I don’t have jobs for them; I need to be able to change what’s happening here.”

And, you know, clearly, thinking down the road, you know, he wanted to try to find some way to reach out to the West and see if there was some kind of an accommodation. History caught up to us. That never happened. And it’s now moot, because he has made a set of judgments that are inexcusable, that are reprehensible, and I think is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Senator John McCain supports the Kerry nomination. But he again criticized President Obama for not taking stronger action against the Assad regime.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: We are sowing the wind in Syria, and we’re going reap the whirlwind. And that whirlwind will be the increased presence of al-Qaida and Islamist groups which are now flooding into Syria, as you know. And we can do a lot more without putting American boots on the ground, and we can prevent this further slaughter and massacre and inhumanity. Otherwise, we will be judged very, very harshly by history.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I have complete understanding of where you’re coming from on this and known your frustration and know what you’re trying to say about it.

What I think everybody worries about, John, is that if you have a complete implosion of the state, nobody has clear definition of how you put those pieces back together, number one. And, number two, you have a much greater risk with respect to the chemical weapons. Now, that’s why I want to get in and see what the contingency plans are, because I can’t measure risk without having a sense of what’s on the table.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kerry also fielded pointed questions about another Cabinet nominee, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, tapped for secretary of defense.

Tennessee Republican Bob Corker voiced concern about Hagel’s support for reducing U.S. nuclear weapons by 80 percent.

SEN. BOB CORKER: He was part of a group called Global Zero, and for those of us who care deeply about our nuclear arsenal and modernization and that type of thing, some of the things that were authored in this report candidly are just concerning.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I will say this. I know Chuck Hagel, and I think he is a strong, patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense.

KWAME HOLMAN: There were no doubts expressed about Kerry’s own qualifications or his prospects. His confirmation to succeed Hillary Clinton at State is considered a virtual formality.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at the Kerry nomination and foreign policy challenges he will face with two men who’ve served as national security adviser to the president.

Zbigniew Brzezinski held that position with President Carter. He’s now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Stephen Hadley served under President George W. Bush. He’s currently a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.

Welcome to both of you.

First, Zbigniew Brzezinski, your thoughts on John Kerry as nominee for secretary of state?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: I think he’s an absolutely top-notch choice, very good, experienced, solid, energetic, with a broad vision and with a strong focus on trying to stabilize those parts of the world that are especially dangerous. I think he’s practical, intelligent, well-informed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Hadley?

STEPHEN HADLEY, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: Well, he’s in a way spent his whole life preparing for this job. And it’s good that he did because he takes it in a very challenging time. And I think he’s going to have a lot of challenges before him. I think one of them is to prioritize where he’s going to put his time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, he spoke about the economy, getting the economy right first and foremost. He said, “More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy.”

Does that sound right to you?

STEPHEN HADLEY: I think that’s right, and I think this is a man who’s grown up, really, in the political military side of foreign policy and national security.

And I think one of the challenges will be for him to recognize that the economic instrument and trade is really very important. If you look at Asia, the coin of the realm in Asia is trade and economics. And, you know, if we’re going to have a rebalancing toward Asia, it needs to be an economics and trade, overwhelmingly.

So he’s got, I think, a real opportunity to help lead the administration in using all of our instruments for national power influence, particularly economic and trade.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think — I mean, I know what you think about the — we talked about this in your last book, about the need for economic thinking, I guess, changing the way we think about the world. But do you think that the administration has understood that well?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think Obama understands it. I think Obama understands that we’re in a new age. If you will, the 20th century was a century of struggle for hegemony. And that involved mostly direct political contests, military power.

We are now in an age in which struggle for hegemony makes no sense. It’s more or less a question of whether we can establish enough stability in the world that we can deal with global problems. And in that context, economic health is the point of departure. It’s also the point of departure for global support for the United States and respect for the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: When he brings up climate change, though, food security, that fits also what you’re talking about?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Exactly, although I do suspect that as a practical matter, he’s going to be more preoccupied right now with potential strategic challenges, in the Middle East, first of all — and that involves a whole gambit of issues — in our relations with China, potentially our relations with Russia, and the growing problem of how do we structure an effective alliance with Europe.

And these are the kind of issues that require a lot of patience and intelligence and a good team. And my last point is, I think I now see a single team in the area of foreign affairs headed by the president, with his new choice for chief domestic adviser who happens to have been in the NSC for the last four years.

Then with Mr. Donilon, with Mr. Kerry, with Mr. Hagel, and Mr. Brennan, that’s a cohesive team. Until now, we have had two teams, a White House team and the secretary of state’s team. This is now a single team. And I think it’s going to be focused much more on those immediate challenges.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what do you — well, the team, but also the particular challenges that face them, because we can talk about the domestic economy, but trouble spots are there every day. We report on them every night.

STEPHEN HADLEY: I think the challenge will be — I think it is a good — it is a cohesive team. I think the question is whether more in the second term than the first whether the president and the White House is willing to empower these very capable Cabinet officials and let them go out and try to solve some of these problems we have and give them political backing back here at home.

Secondly, I think there is a real prioritization issue. I would agree with Zbig. It’s really the Middle East, Asia and the economic instrument. I think he needs to focus on that. And, third, I think the challenge is also relationships between issues that tend to be stovepiped.

I will give you a sort of superficial example. If you think you’re going to have a confrontation in Iran and you don’t want to tank the international economy, you need to make sure oil production stays up, which requires that oil coming out of Iraq to come out of Iraq, which means you ought to pay attention to Syria, because if this struggle in Syria goes on, it risks destabilizing neighboring countries, including Iraq, which could interrupt the oil flows, which could make it difficult to deal with Iran.

They need to see the relationship between these crises that they’re managing and trying to put in place policies that will shape the future, not simply to respond to …

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you saying that suggesting that they’re not seeing the relationships? Did you hear that in Senator Kerry today talking about Iran, for example?

STEPHEN HADLEY: I think it’s a challenge for any national security adviser. I think Zbig would agree with that. It was a challenge of the Bush administration.

I always think it is a challenge, because these things tend to come at you as individual challenges and individual crises. And stepping back, seeing the relationships and having policies that reflect those relationships is one of the real challenges.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you hear, and particularly today, about Iran and Syria?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: You know, nothing especially new, except recognition of the fact that these are terribly complex problems which cannot be resolved quickly nor by the use of force alone.

And there was a news item tonight which you had here earlier which is very significant: Korea. You had a little item on it and how threatening it has become. But not much has been said over the fact — about the fact that, just yesterday, a resolution of the U.N. Security Council was passed critical of North Korea, with the support of China and Russia. And that’s unprecedented.

We have to think of the same kind of an approach to Syria. If we can get the Russians and the Chinese in, we’re much more likely to come out without the region exploding. The same is true in the longer run of Iran. So these are the kind of things which are inherent in the complexity of the new age we’re in.

It’s not an age in which you struggle and break through with the use of force. You have to manage a lot of resources and a lot of priorities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you both in our last couple of minutes here, I’m thinking about the inauguration speech a few days ago. Not a lot of talk about foreign policy. There has been a lot of talk about sort of rebalancing after two long wars, focusing more on rebuilding the United States.

Is there, Stephen Hadley, starting with you, a — I don’t know. Do you fear that we might pull back from the — disengage a little bit too much?

STEPHEN HADLEY: I think we already have.


STEPHEN HADLEY: I think you see it in the Middle East.

There’s a phrase, a decade of war is coming to an end. If you look at what’s happening into the Middle East, it’s patently not true. What’s coming to an end is our involvement from a military standpoint in the Middle East. If we’re not going to be involved militarily in the Middle East, we still have interests there.

And so the challenge is, how are we going to protect those interests and advance those interests in a different way? I think that’s one of the real challenges for this next team.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about the…

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I would agree. I would agree with what Steve said.

Particularly in terms of the Middle East, however, I would say this. We will have one more chance. I think — I really believe that, one more chance to make an effort at a breakthrough between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But we can only do it if we’re engaged and if we have all of the major parties in the world engaged on our side.

And then, if there is an agreement, perhaps detach the signing of the agreement, the conclusion of the agreement from its implementation, thereby gaining time for the parties on both sides, Palestinians and the Israelis, to deal with their own internal dissidents.

JEFFREY BROWN: It doesn’t — it doesn’t otherwise feel like there’s another chance, but you think there is?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, if there isn’t, then it’s the end of the road for peace and then the prospects both for the Israelis and the Palestinians are extremely grim.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, that’s a bad note to end on, I guess, but we will look for the next four years.


JEFFREY BROWN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Stephen Hadley, thank you both very much.


JEFFREY BROWN: And online, you can see more of Senator Kerry’s confirmation hearing. That’s on our World page.