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Op-Ed: Nominating Sec. Of State, A Chance To Assess Foreign Policy


And now for the opinion page. There are going to be obviously a number of shake ups in President Obama's new Cabinet, including a new secretary of state. As we learned last week, Senator John Kerry is Obama's official pick now. Kerry will appear in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a committee that, we should point out, he is actually the chairman of. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes, quote, "This country faces monumental challenges that need to be addressed. It is time for the Senate to get beyond partisan cheap shots and to probe the president's nominee on whether and how the administration plans to move forward in an increasingly complex world."

We want to ask you, our listeners, what questions do you think the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should be asking the nominee for secretary of state? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So joining us now is Katrina vanden Heuvel. She is the editor and publisher of The Nation and joins us by phone from her office in New York. Katrina, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.




DONVAN: So you outline a number of key topics that you say the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should examine when vetting a new secretary of state. So let's start with the Middle East. What questions do you think these senators should be asking John Kerry about the U.S. relationship with Iran?

VANDEN HEUVEL: With Iran, I think the question is, do you believe our current strategy of ratcheting up sanctions while keeping the option of the use of military force is working to prevent Iran from joining Israel, Pakistan, India developing a nuclear weapon? And is there a possibility that these threats are only accelerating Iran's nuclear efforts and helping to create a national consensus in that country for a nuclear weapons capability?

And very important in my mind, to raise the question that if deterrence has worked with other potential hostile states, why won't it work in the case of Iran? And do you think it's necessary to draw this, quote, "red line," essentially threatening a military attack to keep Iran from developing a bomb? I think this is a critical set of issues to raise with the secretary of state nominee.

But, you know, let's step back for a moment. As the secretary of state nominee is being questioned and one hopes questioned in vigorous, rigorous, informed ways, what the role of the secretary has often been in these last years to implement the president, the administration's foreign policy.

DONVAN: As opposed to actually being a leader in that sense.

VANDEN HEUVEL: As opposed - yes. As opposed to being a conceptualizer. And it seems to me that this is a moment to raise that question as an overarching one because it's a critical, pivotal moment in a second term. On a number of fronts, whether domestic or international, and often those two are interrelated, but Kerry has a chance because he has been almost an ex-officio sort of ad hoc ambassador for this administration in these last years, particularly travelling to Afghanistan, to Pakistan in those difficult, challenging areas, to play a different role than perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did because...

DONVAN: But, Katrina, do you think...

VANDEN HEUVEL: ...she's more of an implementer.

DONVAN: Do you - well, do you think that that is John Kerry's choice on how to define his role? Or do you think that President Obama tells him what his role should be?

VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, as you know, John, relationships between presidents and secretary of states have varied. You know, John Kerry is someone who supported President Obama in 2008. It was, you know, striking that he did that because of his relationship with the Clintons, but he also was one who brought Obama to the Democratic Convention in 2004 to give his famous - Obama's famous speech, blue-red. I mention that only because, well, he's not in the inner circle. He is close to President Obama, and I think he's someone who has the ear of so many around the world and has informed himself as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he's a listener.

And I think he has the gravitas to come forward and say, for example, that we must find a way out of Afghanistan. A very contested issue this will be, it seems to me, in the next year as our exit looms forward in 2014. I also think he could play a critical role in rebalancing international policy because the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, which is a question I raised in The Washington Post column, one that should be posed to a secretary of state nominee is how can the State Department reclaim from the military its proper role as leader of U.S. policy abroad?

DONVAN: But Katrina, to narrow on this point that you're making earlier about Kerry taking a different role, when the senators are asking questions of Kerry as the nominee, are - what are they asking? Are they asking Kerry what he thinks? Or are they asking Kerry what Barack Obama thinks?

VANDEN HEUVEL: They are asking both, but over - again, I think it's an opportunity in the hearing to probe the administration's foreign policy priorities, and in that, to see if there is some evidence on the part of a nominee for the position of secretary of state, some difference this nominee may have with what has been the administration's priorities. Now, John Kerry is a very cautious man. And I think that may be difficult to see, but he is someone who has spent a lot of time in the Middle East.

And it would be very interesting, for example, to know how he sees the efforts to rebuild an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, how he sees relationships with new countries emerging in the Arab world, countries no longer the authoritarian governments of the last four decades. He's a man of great experience and someone who, I think, also understands an issue that has been too off the radar is the nuclear peril. We live in a post-Cold War world, and we've lost sight of that issue.

But all of this, I have to say, John, comes back to probing the administration's foreign policy, national security priorities but also raising a question of how John Kerry sees what might be called a new internationalism because we've lived in this kind of war on terror, post-9/11 moment for a long time now, for almost a generation. Maybe that's overstated, but is there a new internationalism that is consistent with the administration's vision of rebuilding an investment at home, a new internationalism that rejects the tendency to measure our nation's strength by our capacity to destroy?

DONVAN: Let's go to Richard in Palo Alto, California. And we're asking our listeners to call in with what questions they think should be put to secretary of state nominee John Kerry. Let's go to Richard in Palo Alto, California. Hi, Richard. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

RICHARD: Yeah, hello. Thanks for taking my call.


RICHARD: I'm interested - I would be interested in Senator Kerry's take on what policy the administration would pursue to deal with the problem of a failed states, and obviously, the problem of terrorism, you know, finding a comfortable home there, places like, Mali, the Congo, Somalia.

DONVAN: Richard, I want to ask you this because Katrina is, I think, somewhat making the point. I think Katrina is actually saying that we don't know the answers to a lot of these things, that there's a lack of articulation on the part of the administration. We don't know what their answer would be to that question, so asking Kerry might be a chance to answer. Do you have that sense that you don't know what the approach would be to a failed state?

RICHARD: Well, I certainly don't know. It may be that there's a coherent, consistent policy or it may be that they're dealing with it ad hoc. And maybe that's the only way to deal with it. But I'd be interested in what the policy is because it certainly isn't clear to me.

DONVAN: Katrina?

RICHARD: And that's not necessarily a...

VANDEN HEUVEL: I think you're caller is right that it isn't clear because this administration has veered, in a sense, between trying to build multilateral approaches, trying to work through the United Nations, but at other times, working more unilaterally and not really working to build responsible regional powers capable of establishing order or the development of true international collective security arrangements.

So the U.S. has been called on or has stepped in to, quote, "bear the burden of order keeping" in many of these areas, and I think that is a major issue as to what the, quote, "footprint" of the United States will be in very troubled areas, whether it's in the Middle East, in Northern Africa and in dealing with what your caller rightly refers to as failed-state situations. I mean, we're witnessing this civil war in Syria unraveling and what will follow.

So these are issues as to how to construct the U.S. relationship with other countries, with other regional powers, with international institutions. But also, I come back again to the militarization of our foreign policy. Perhaps that is something that a secretary of state could begin to address because we've - we have a military budget that is larger than it was during the height of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan, and so many of the critical issues our country faces today call not for military responses - bombs and bases - but for international collective efforts. And I think that's where a secretary of state with a vision of a new internationalism could play a serious role.

DONVAN: Katrina, you have complimented John Kerry already in this conversation as a serious man and a man who has a profile overseas. I want to ask you this about the seriousness of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in addressing the kinds of issues you're talking about. And I go back to the third presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, which was meant to be in foreign policy, and how quickly they veered - in that conversation, they veered back to domestic conversations as though the umbrella topic of foreign policy was left behind.

That, you know, I'm suggesting that we have a collection of leaders who are much more comfortable talking about domestic issues in domestic terms than foreign policy issues.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah. But I think that the way we discuss foreign policy, international issues has in an increasingly globalized world meant that you bring it back to your own country. I mean, I'm a believer in what George Kennan, who was in the State Department and heading the policy planning department - I believe he was the first to head that important department. But he always believed that you would be wise to rebuild at home to get your own home in order, house in order, before you go out to the world to lecture or hector or engage. It's not isolationism. I would say it's more like ethical realism or a new, new internationalism.

But, you know, in The Washington Post column, I do reference the importance of asking the secretary of state what he or she thinks of, you know, do you consider global warming, climate change a clear and present danger to our national security? Is that a domestic issue? And I also raise hope in a sense that at this time of, you know, the need for global economic recovery, you know, that too is something that we're grappling with at home, this massive unemployment in the United States in recession, in Europe and Japan and the risk of yet more difficult trade policies from China require new international policies from the U.S., but that too also begins at home...

DONVAN: Because this...

VANDEN HEUVEL: And hope that the U.S. would lead a global coordinated economic recovery with other countries would certainly benefit the prosperity, health and education of American people, as well as people around the world.

DONVAN: Mary Anne in Delray Beach, Florida, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. Mary Anne, are you with us? Oh. Well, I'm having a little bit of difficulty bringing Mary Anne up from Delray Beach, but we will try again. In the meantime, I want to share some listener emails that we're getting. This one is from Michael, who says: Why is the U.S. staying in Afghanistan for two more years? What good can come of that? Will the sacrifice of more American lives actually bring about a democratic central government with security for the Afghan people after we've left this country? Katrina...

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, it's interesting, your caller or your emailer raises that because, you know, John Kerry is very well known because of his role in trying to end the war in Vietnam. And I think it's a great line with, you know, who's - who will be the last to die for a war that has failed? I'm paraphrasing. And I think he could shed fresh eyes on Afghanistan and the question of why not begin our exit more quickly. I'm concerned in a certain way because in the 2009 debates inside the administration, it's reported that John Kerry did not play a key role in raising tough questions about our counterinsurgency strategy which Vice President Biden did.

But the - we will witness a battle in this country, no question, beginning next year as many try to say we cannot leave Afghanistan because it will endanger our national security. And I think John Kerry has an opportunity, as do many others, to say that the continued waste of lives and billions on the senseless war does not contribute to our national security, and we will be far better off using economic development and other such measures to ensure that Afghanistan and its people are not victimized by our departure. I will say that as Kerry has played a role in these last few years, as I said earlier, it's almost like this, you know, informal, unofficial ambassador to Afghanistan and to Pakistan.

And so as the administration spends this next year still extricating itself from Afghanistan and collaterally Pakistan, I think Kerry is well positioned to handle that.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Ian in Juneau. Hi, and you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

IAN: Yeah, thanks for taking the call.


IAN: All of these questions about failed states and terrorists in Afghanistan are all really valid, but I'm afraid that in the last decade or so, we've really lost sight of what's going on in South America. And, you know, I think it would be really good to put Kerry on the spot about how he sees our policies going forward there. Are we going to continue the economic and military imperialism that we've had in that region for, at least, the last century and specifically what he thinks about changing the drug war policies.

VANDEN HEUVEL: He's - I think your caller raises a very important question. First of all, I would just say in the failed state, quote, "war on terror," one thing this administration could do is just so critical as it says that it won't use the term war on terror is to repeal the congressional resolution authorizing pursuit of al-Qaida after 9/11, which gave the president unlimited, almost unlimited right to attack any suspect group in any country of the world. And this - the escalation of the drone war, the escalation of executive power is not healthy either for national security or for our democracy.

On Latin America, John Kerry played a very important interesting role during the Contra wars in the Reagan administration. He almost alone launched an investigation into BCCI, the bank, and...

DONVAN: Katrina, I'm sorry that I have to jump in and interrupt because we were just hitting our time limit.


DONVAN: But thanks very much for joining us. Katrina vanden Heuvel is the...


DONVAN: ...is the editor and publisher of The Nation and joined us on the phone from her office in New York. One more email: We grew up in a military family and always waited until my father came home to open gifts. But that's from another broadcast. I want to thank Katrina vanden Heuvel for joining us. And tomorrow, we will talk about reunions. The holidays are full of them with family and old friends. And we'll talk about some of those memorable ones. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.