WASHINGTON — Drawing on his experience as the son of a Foreign Service officer, Senator John F. Kerry on Thursday made an impassioned plea for what he said his father called “foreign policy outdoors” — the need for American diplomats to interact extensively with foreign populations, despite the security risks.
“We have to be on the ground outside the wire reaching out to those people,” Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as he opened a hearing to receive testimony on the State Department investigation into the terrorist assault that killed the US ambassador and three others in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
“That’s the enterprise of US foreign policy today,” he said. “To help men, women, and children around the world share in the vision of democracy and the values of freedom, and through it bring stability to whole regions of the world and reduce the threats to our nation.”
Kerry, widely believed to be President Obama’s top choice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke of his own family to highlight what he said are the necessary risks that Foreign Service officers endure to advance US foreign policy.
“When my father served in Berlin after World War II, I remember my mother sometimes looking at the clock nervously in the evening when he was late coming home for dinner, in a city where troops guarded the line between East and West and the rubble of war was still very fresh,” Kerry recalled.
“My father knew that what he was doing was worth whatever the risk might have been — and so do the Foreign Service personnel who we send all over the world today.
“They want to be accessible to people on the ground, they need to be accessible to people on the ground, when they are representing our country,” the Massachusetts Democrat continued. “They want those people to see and touch the face of America.”
He warned against pulling back in response to the attack in Libya, saying that US interests would suffer. “We do not want to concertina wire America off from the world.”
But Kerry also stressed that to accomplish the mission, the State Department — which he noted receives a tenth of the annual budget of the military — needs to be adequately funded.
“We need to make certain that we are not penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to supporting America’s vital overseas interests,” he said. “Adequately funding America’s foreign policy objectives is not spending, it is investing.”
That view was shared by the panel’s leading Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana.
“Diplomacy is not a luxury,” Lugar said. “It is essential to American national security, especially in an era of terrorism. We should fund the State Department as the national security agency that it is.”
Hanging over the Senate hearing was Kerry’s future prospects as America’s top diplomat, putting him in the unusual position of conducting oversight of an agency he may soon run.
“I will not be asking any questions,” he told the witnesses after his opening statement, yielding his time to fellow members of the panel.
The hearing on the terrorist attack in Benghazi came on the heels of a scathing State Department report on Wednesday that outlined “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.”
The report led to the resignations of four top State Department officials, including two responsible for security.
The report, by a so-called Accountability Review Board, made 29 recommendations, including strengthening security at foreign posts, consolidating multiple diplomatic posts in the same city, reviewing the management of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and revamping fire safety and crisis management for all diplomatic personnel.
At Thursday’s hearing, Kerry told Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Thomas Nides that the investigation pointed out serious failures.
“Clearly mistakes were made,” Kerry said. “There were clear signs that the security situation in Libya had deteriorated.”
Acknowledging a “troubling pattern of deteriorating security,” Nides told the committee that State Department leaders “will ensure that all 29 are implemented quickly and completely.”
But Senator Robert Corker, a Tennessee Republican, criticized the witnesses for what he said was a State Department pattern of conducting reviews in recent years and then failing to completely follow through with the necessary fixes.
Corker then turned to chairman Kerry: “The culture within the statement to me is one that needs to be transformed. This committee can help. Maybe the next secretary of state can help.”