WASHINGTON — With only three “no” votes, the Senate on Tuesday confirmed veteran lawmaker and former presidential candidate John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as the secretary of state for the Obama administration’s second term.
The Massachusetts Democrat, 69, glided through his confirmation process, with supporters noting his quarter-century in the Senate, across-the-aisle friendships with Republicans, nearly 100 overseas trips, family ties to the Foreign Service, and status as a Vietnam veteran. Although no time for a swearing-in has been announced, Kerry was expected to deliver a speech on Wednesday; Clinton’s last day as secretary will be Friday, her office announced.
Not a single objection to Kerry’s candidacy was raised in either last week’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry had led before recusing himself, or in the two-hour debate period before the full Senate vote Tuesday. Even so, there were “no” votes from three Republicans: John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. Ninety-four senators voted in favor of Kerry’s candidacy; one voted present – and that was Kerry.
The overwhelming bipartisan support for Kerry “sends a very clear message to the world that this is America’s representative, this is our secretary of state, and I believe he’s earned the vote,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who succeeded Kerry as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The confirmation might’ve been the easy part. Now, Kerry is poised to inherit a long list of worsening conflicts and humanitarian crises in which U.S. policy has waffled or remained opaque and heavily criticized. In just the Middle East and North Africa, there’re the civil war in Syria, the French-led fight to dislodge extremists from northern Mali, and fresh violence in U.S. partners Egypt, Libya and Iraq.
Kerry also will have delicate internal affairs to manage as Republicans pledge to continue their sharp questioning of the State Department’s conduct and security posture at the time of the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. posts in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. The debacle cost President Barack Obama his first choice for Clinton’s replacement, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice.
Rice withdrew her name from consideration once it became apparent she’d face a firestorm of opposition from Republicans, largely over her statements in the aftermath of the Benghazi assault. In foreign policy circles, Rice also is considered an Obama loyalist, and analysts said that a Kerry-led State Department might show more independence.
Moments after the Senate vote, Rice sent out a message on her official Twitter account congratulating Kerry and saying that she’s “looking forward to working closely with him on the national security team.”
Critics accused Rice of deliberately misleading the public during TV appearances in which she painted the Benghazi attacks as part of a spontaneous protest rather than what others in the administration already had deemed a pre-planned militant attack. Rice has said she was only parroting talking points provided by intelligence authorities.
Republicans have complained that there’s still too little information on what some tabloids have called “Benghazigate,” and claim that administration officials had tried to cover up the security lapses and intelligence failures in the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. They’ve pledged to keep the Benghazi investigation a priority, even after Kerry is in office.
As if to underscore that they intended to revive the debate for a second term, three House Republicans – Ed Royce and Darrell Issa of California, and Jason Chaffetz of Utah – wrote to the State Department on Monday demanding to see all Benghazi-related emails, cables and memoranda Clinton received.
The representatives also wanted explanations for an independent review board’s decision against interviewing Clinton and top deputies, and about “the decision to maintain an isolated outpost in Benghazi even with evidence of increasing violence,” according to a joint statement from the congressmen. Considering that Clinton’s last day as secretary is Friday, it’ll most likely be Kerry making sure those requests are considered.
During the confirmation hearing, both Republicans and Democrats sought pledges from Kerry that he’d continue implementing the recommendations of the review board, which found systemic managerial problems in the State Department offices that handled the Benghazi crisis.
Four managers were placed on administrative leave; one of them resigned. Kerry will be in charge of rebuilding those offices, keeping apace with the review board’s dozens of recommendations and conducting periodic security assessments on U.S. posts in all high-risk locations.
On top of the internal fallout from Benghazi, one of the most pressing matters Kerry will face is the blood-soaked Syrian uprising turned civil war. On Tuesday, the administration announced a $155 million bump in humanitarian aid, putting the total U.S. aid to Syria at $365 million.
However, as Kerry reiterated at the hearing last week, there was no imminent shift in the longstanding U.S. policy of refusing to provide arms directly to the Syrian rebels. The administration’s assistance is strictly “nonlethal,” such as communications equipment, food and medicine, and winter kits to keep warm the millions of displaced Syrians.
Kerry said it would be difficult to weigh a drastic policy shift now that extremists groups such as the al Qaida-backed Nusra Front are the most formidable rebel forces. Even so, he acknowledged that the current policy is costing the United States allies among members of the Syrian opposition, many of whom accuse the Obama administration of abandoning their fight as it nears the two-year mark.