Sen. John F. Kerry testifies before longtime colleagues on the Senate Foreign… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry pledged Thursday that as secretary of State he would de-emphasize the military role "thrust upon us" by Sept. 11, saying "we cannot afford a diplomacy that is defined by troops or drones or confrontation."
Appearing at his confirmation hearing before longtime colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Massachusetts Democrat said it was time to spotlight America's international efforts to promote human rights, fight disease and lift the world's poor.
"We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely," said Kerry, a 28-year Senate veteran and his party's 2004 presidential nominee.
Kerry, a loyal ally and occasional diplomatic representative of the administration, was giving another signal that the White House intended to close the door on a decade of war, as President Obama said at his inauguration ceremony Monday. His comments veered from the administration script only in their implications about drones, which the White House has embraced as a low-cost counter-terrorism tool but which Kerry's statement cast in an unflattering light.
Kerry, who made his first congressional appearances as a shaggy antiwar veteran in 1971, is expected to easily win confirmation, allowing him to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton early next month. Indeed, many Senate Republicans actively promoted him as a candidate when they were seeking to block the candidacy of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, whom they said was too partisan.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told the committee that he recommended Kerry "without reservation" and predicted the Democrat would easily win confirmation.
Even while highlighting the administration's interest in peacemaking, Kerry endorsed the threat to go to war against Iran if that country refused to accept curbs on its controversial nuclear program.
U.S. policy on Iran "is not containment," he said. "The president has made it definitive: We will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Senate Republicans have been concerned by the administration's signals that it intends to redefine the terms of America's military involvement abroad. But GOP members didn't press Kerry hard on the administration's foreign policy direction, and seemed more worried about other current and future members of the Obama team.
Three Republican senators were still smarting from comments Clinton made at a hearing Wednesday, in which she challenged GOP members' focus on whether the administration had sought to shade the truth in its early explanations of the deadly militant attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The senators signaled that they intended to keep pursuing answers in the four-month-old controversy.
Clinton had slammed Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) for asking why she had not made greater efforts immediately after the attack to gather facts on whether the administration's statements about it had been accurate.
"I think it matters a great deal that the American people get the truth," he said Thursday.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the new ranking minority member of the committee, expressed concern that former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Obama's nominee for Defense secretary, belonged to a group, Global Zero, that seeks the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
Kerry reassured Corker that eliminating nuclear weapons was only an "aspiration" for the group. "We're not talking about today's world," he said.
Kerry also voiced hope that the death or retirement of the ailing President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela could open the way for better relations with one of America's chief adversaries in the hemisphere.
"There may really be an opportunity for a transition there," Kerry said.
Administration officials have said little publicly about their hopes for change in Venezuela, fearing it would suggest that the United States could be secretly maneuvering to undermine the government in Caracas.
Kerry also said he intended to examine whether the United States should scale back its sizable workforce in Iraq, which he said still consisted of about 1,000 personnel and about 4,000 contract employees, even though U.S. forces have departed.
"That's a pretty big footprint," he said.