Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Long Journey

As reported in the Boston Globe, John Kerry’s likely ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will cap a long journey for the Vietnam veteran who first earned national notoriety before the Committee in 1971.

More than three decades after he first appeared before the panel as a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran-turned-antiwar protester, Senator John F. Kerry will be named chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, giving him enormous influence over President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy, according to congressional officials.

… Aides to Kerry said he is already laying out a broad agenda for the committee, beginning with new legislation to strengthen the United States' hand against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan; provide oversight of efforts to end the war in Iraq; and seize what he sees as a new opportunity to curtail the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

…Along with the Judiciary and Finance committees, the Foreign Relations Committee was among the first three Senate panels established, in 1816. It is responsible for vetting international treaties before ratification by the full Senate, and for conducting the confirmation hearings for presidential nominees for the State Department, including all foreign ambassadors.

The committee also oversees the State Department budget and funds foreign aid programs, helps set arms control policy, and authorizes military training for allied nations. Kerry's elevation to chairman, to be announced as early as this week by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, is the culmination of a unique journey. It began when a shaggy-haired Kerry, wearing his military ribbons, testified for nearly two hours before the panel on April 22, 1971, the first Vietnam veteran to do so. Speaking on behalf of fellow veterans, he appealed for an end to US military involvement in Southeast Asia, posing the famous question, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

In what proved to be a highly prescient remark, committee member Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island - a future chairman himself - expressed hope that the young Kerry would one day "be a colleague of ours in this body." Now Kerry is set to take over the committee with an impressive set of credentials. He is the third-ranking Democrat on the committee, behind Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who will remain chairman of the Banking Committee. Kerry has served on the committee for 23 years - including stints as chairman of the Asia and Middle East subcommittees - and has overseen legislation on a wide range of issues, such as human rights and Russia's invasion of Georgia last summer.

He also negotiated the creation of a war crimes tribunal to try the perpetrators of genocide in Cambodia, was instrumental in normalizing US relations with Vietnam in 1994, and attended global climate change negotiations in Indonesia last year. He has been a leading voice in recent years on several of the foremost foreign policy questions. Kerry, who voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war that Obama opposed, introduced the first Senate amendment in 2006 to withdraw US combat forces from Iraq. While backed by only 13 senators at the time, his position was later adopted by nearly all his Democratic colleagues, and by some Republicans.

In 2006, he was also among the first in Congress to call for more US troops in Afghanistan, a position that later became a key element of Obama's national security platform. Over the years, Kerry, whose father was a career foreign service officer, has traveled widely to meet with political and military leaders. Earlier this year, he made official trips to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Turkey.

To some critics, including Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran who is a professor of international relations at Boston University, Kerry's career in the Senate has been a disappointment. Kerry has not shown enough leadership, they say, and was wrong about the Iraq war. "Kerry's senatorial career is one of great potential unfulfilled," Bacevich said. As chairman of the committee, "he'll have a chance to redeem himself."

Kerry declined to be interviewed because the announcement is not yet official. But his aides, speaking on the condition that they not be identified, said he already has a priority list as chairman. In addition to running confirmation hearings on Obama's selection for secretary of state and other State Department appointments, Kerry plans to seek quick passage of two bills that failed last year, the aides said. One would be to authorize additional aid to Pakistan to improve the country's relationship with the United States, considered critical in the fight against Al Qaeda. The second would be to provide more resources for Afghanistan's civil institutions.

Other issues on Kerry's agenda are advancing nuclear nonproliferation goals, which Kerry believes enjoy more solid support than ever in both parties. Kerry also plans to use the committee to lay out a blueprint for the new administration on how to deal with global climate change, while addressing the Middle East peace process, Iran, Russia, and other pressing challenges, the aides said.

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