WASHINGTON — Since he was elevated to the leading foreign policy position in Congress three years ago, John F. Kerry has been on the road a lot. He has brokered runoff elections in Afghanistan, shuttled between warring factions in Africa, and patiently sat through marathon tea-drinking sessions with recalcitrant Middle East dictators, all to advance the Obama administration’s top foreign policy goals.
In the words of Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry “probably has the closest relationship with the president and the vice president of any chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.’’
“When he takes on the responsibility of being an envoy for this administration, he does it with great skill,” Biden told the Globe.
Yet Kerry’s frenetic pace of travel on behalf of the administration is stoking a lively debate. Some foreign policy specialists question whether the Massachusetts Democrat has his eye on the secretary of state’s job if Obama is reelected and, as a result, has been too lenient on oversight of the administration’s policies, the chairman’s primary role.
The fiercest criticism is directed at his committee’s oversight of the war in Afghanistan and the administration’s use of lethal force, including the expansion of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere.
“Times of war is when the need for oversight is at its zenith,” said Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer and former top Justice Department official in the Reagan administration. “That’s where the checks and balances are needed. Kerry is doing the opposite. He seems to be running for secretary of state and has not had serious oversight of the conduct of wars that are more endless than Vietnam.’’
Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, expressed concern over a lack of questions asked about the drone strikes that have killed suspected terrorists across the world, operations he generally supports. Such a strategy is “one of the biggest changes in American foreign policy in the last 10 years,’’ he said. “It has huge ramifications for US foreign policy and should involve [the Foreign Relations Committee]. But Congress has been largely absent of any engagement on these issues.’’
Kerry strongly challenges any suggestion that he has allowed his relationship with Obama or any future ambitions to affect his stewardship of the committee, where he first came to prominence as a Vietnam veteran-turned-war protester in 1971, famously testifying, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
In an interview, he said his critics are simply ill informed.
“I will categorically say to anybody who thinks I am pulling any punches they haven’t read my comments; they haven’t listened to me in the hearings; they are just operating off some out-there stereotype,” Kerry said. “I think we can point with clarity to real impact on the aid programs in Afghanistan, to the approaches in Pakistan. We have had a huge number of oversight hearings, and, more importantly, we have issued some very constructive reports.”
The Senate panel Kerry chairs has been, since it was established in 1816, one of the most influential in the Senate, reviewing the foreign aid budget, shaping policy through legislation, and voting on the president’s ambassadorial appointments and international treaties before presenting them to the full body.
Some modern chairmen, however, also used the perch to confront the administration in power on a range of policies, whether the president was from the opposing political party or not, according to historians and congressional scholars.
In the 1960s, for example, Senator William Fulbright, a Democrat, used public hearings to try to end US involvement in the Vietnam War, under Democratic and Republican presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, respectively. In the 1980s, Senators Charles Percy and Richard Lugar, both Republicans, confronted Ronald Reagan’s sale of arms to the Middle East and Central America and the more conservative direction of his foreign policy.
More recently, Lugar and Biden challenged President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
“Kerry’s been activist in a different way than some previous chairmen of the committee,” said Ralph G. Carter, a political science professor at Texas Christian University and authority on the Senate panel. “Most we think of in that role have been challengers of administration policy. Kerry’s been more heavily relied upon as an unofficial representative of the administration in diplomatic roles, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets nominated to be Hillary Clinton’s successor as secretary of state in the next Obama administration.”
Other factors contribute to Kerry’s role on behalf of the administration. As a former Democratic nominee for president and a member of the committee for almost three decades, Kerry has unique access to and the respect of many world leaders.
He also shares a common vision of America’s role in the world with Obama, who served on the committee with him from 2005 to 2009. Indeed, many of Obama’s positions were informed by stands Kerry took during his failed 2004 White House run, including ending the war in Iraq and increasing US forces in Afghanistan.
To some of his former colleagues in the Senate, the path he has blazed as chairman reflects that relationship.
“He has carried around the world the authority of president and vice president,’’ said Timothy Wirth, a former senator who runs the United Nations Foundation, a global advocacy group. “He is almost a wing of the administration.”
Former senator Gary Hart, who served with Kerry on the committee in the 1980s and who Kerry recently dispatched on a fact-finding mission to Russia, put it this way: Kerry has, in effect, become “the congressional secretary of state.”
The debate over Kerry’s tenure on the committee has only intensified in recent weeks as he has emerged as a key surrogate for President Obama’s reelection campaign, attacking the foreign policy positions of the presumptive GOP nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Kerry has also been selected to be a stand-in for Romney in the president’s debate preparations.
Kerry insists the frequent chatter about his prospects, in the hallways of Congress and the State Department and on political blogs, is a distraction, though he did not say he was not interested in the job.
“I’m doing the job I love as chairman and senior senator; I’m working hard at both, and I’m already preparing to run for reelection” in 2014, Kerry said. “Any other speculation is a waste of other people’s time.”
By his staff’s count, Kerry has held 17 hearings on Afghanistan and Pakistan since he became chairman. These, Kerry said, have provided plenty of opportunity for members to ask tough questions of the administration.
“There’s nothing to stop any colleague from making that hearing as contentious as they want it to be,” Kerry said.
Yet, some observers contend the Afghanistan hearings have not been rigorous. “Kerry needs to get every scrap of paper and review the official story,” Fein said. “They need to subpoena the underlying documents. The hearings now consist of what we have already read in the newspapers.
“Real oversight is putting the critics before the committee there right next to the officials from the administration.”
Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, concurs.
The committee “has been particularly weak in conducting even the most basic oversight of official claims of progress in the war,” Brian said.
She said she wrote to Kerry in February urging him to convene a hearing to take testimony from a military whistleblower, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who has made statements about battlefield successes against the Taliban and efforts to train Afghan security forces, “which appear to vary greatly from the statements to Congress by senior military officials.”
“Credible challenges to the Pentagon’s party line have been made,” she wrote. “As the US commits another year of funding to the war in Afghanistan, the public and Congress deserve an accurate assessment of the effort.”
The Foreign Relations panel says it has no plans to hold such a hearing to hear testimony from Davis, whose detailed analysis of the conduct of the war made headlines earlier this year.
“This is about oversight, which we do on a daily basis,” the committee said in a statement. “It’s not about providing platforms.”
Kerry pointed out several actions he has taken to bolster overall oversight, including hiring a chief investigator for the committee in 2009. Such a position had not been designated in nearly two decades.
The committee has released four public reports on Afghanistan during his tenure, including a review last year of US aid.
Not all of the committee’s oversight has been conducted in public. Kerry’s staff wrote a confidential paper last fall that aides said was highly critical of how the Obama administration has been funneling humanitarian aid to Pakistan, using legislation that Kerry championed to provide $7.5 billion in nonmilitary aid over five years.
The report, according to Kerry aides, concluded that the Obama administration’s handling of the program suffered from a series of failings, including “unclear strategy, repeated changes in direction, excessive bureaucracy, and ineffective communications,” as well as a lack of consultation with Congress.
The rebuke was not made public at the time, they said, because Kerry believed doing so privately would be more effective.
“We are trying to be helpful without beating people over the head on the front page,” said Bill Danvers, the committee’s staff director.
Others believe the criticism of Kerry is unjustified, especially because he is a member of the same party as the president.
“He has played a very constructive role by being another voice on foreign policy but one that is in tune with the administration,” said Joseph Nye, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Even critics agree that Kerry has had several significant accomplishments through his committee. He is perhaps proudest of shepherding the New START arms treaty with Russia through the Senate with wide bipartisan support in 2010.
Yet, it is outside the committee room where Kerry most shines, many longtime foreign affairs experts say.
“He was patient, tireless, pragmatic, and firm when necessary,” recalled Karl Eikenberry, who was US ambassador in Kabul in 2009, when Kerry intervened to persuade President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to agree to a run-off election in keeping with the country’s constitution. “He is probably the most skilled negotiator I have ever known.”
Kerry insists that he will also continue to wield his oversight authority, especially concerning Afghanistan.
“I have been crystal clear about wanting a much different presence, a much clearer set of restraints” for US military involvement, Kerry said.
He expressed confidence that the Obama administration is setting forth an achievable plan to transfer responsibilities to the Afghans and bring the bulk of 90,000 US troops home in the next several years.
“We’re basically drawing down the presence in Afghanistan,” Kerry said. “Now, if they weren’t doing that, then you’d be having a different kind of oversight hearing, perhaps.”