WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of state discussed Iran, Syria and other issues Thursday, while testifying at his confirmation hearing that the United States must get its fiscal house in order to lead in the world.
Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat, also spoke out strongly for dealing with climate change, providing food and energy security and humanitarian assistance before members of the Foreign Relations Committee. The committee is expected to approve Kerry's nomination and a full Senate vote was expected Tuesday.
Kerry - son of a diplomat, a Navy officer in Vietnam, anti-war protester, five-term senator, unsuccessful presidential candidate and Obama's unofficial envoy - also spoke for robust foreign aid, but insisted that the country's economy is central to success abroad.
"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," said Kerry, who has been a member of the committee for 28 years and its chairman for the last four." That bipartisan congressional panel failed in 2011 in its mandate to come up with a deficit-cutting plan.
Sharp disagreements between Democrats and congressional Republicans over taxes and spending have threatened to set back America's struggling economy. The latest ongoing dispute over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling was settled temporarily after the Republican-led House of Representatives voted Wednesday to postpone any showdown on the borrowing limit for three months.
Thursday's hearing is the first of three for Obama's national security nominees, and the least controversial. The president's pick of Chuck Hagel to be the next defense secretary will face tough questions about his past statements on Israel, Iran, nuclear weapons and defense spending at his confirmation hearing next Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. John Brennan, Obama's choice for CIA director, will be quizzed about White House national security leaks and the use of unmanned drones at his hearing next month.
The current secretary, Hillary Rodham Clinton, introduced Kerry, calling him "the right choice." She is stepping down after four years.
Kerry said U.S. foreign policy should not be defined only by its military strength.
"American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone," Kerry said in outlining his views. "We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since Sept. 11, a role that was thrust upon us."
Faced with Iran's nuclear program, Kerry said the United States will do what it must to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but he also signaled that diplomacy remains a viable option.
The senator said he was hopeful that the U.S. and other nations could make progress on the diplomatic front, but that Tehran needs to relent and agree to intrusive inspections.
"If their program is peaceful, they can prove it," he said.
In an unexpected exchange, Kerry found himself defending Obama's pick of Hagel - a Republican - to be the next defense secretary against Republican criticism.
Sen. Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the panel, expressed concerns about Hagel's support for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons, a major issue for the Tennessee lawmaker and his home state. The Y-12 nuclear facility is located near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and any cuts or delays in modernization to the nuclear arsenal would have an impact on local jobs.
"I know Chuck Hagel. And I think he is a strong, patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense," Kerry said.
He urged lawmakers to be realistic, arguing that an 80 percent cut is an aspiration that would be unlikely in the current climate.
On Syria, Kerry was asked about his outreach to President Bashar Assad, now an international pariah after months of civil war and unending violence against his citizens.
Kerry said there was a moment where Syria reached out to the West but that the moment has long passed.
"History caught up to us. That never happened. And it's now moot, because he has made a set of judgments that are inexcusable, that are reprehensible, and I think is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria," the senator said. "I think the time is ticking."
Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican and a fierce critic of Obama's policy on Syria, said the status quo is unacceptable with the United Nations estimating that 60,000 have been killed and the heavy influx of refugees in Jordan and Turkey.
After a recent visit to the refugee camps, McCain warned that Syrians frustrated with the U.S. response will be a recruitment target for extremists.
"We can do a lot more without putting American boots on the ground," McCain said. "Otherwise, we will be judged harshly by history."
Kerry said it was imperative to continue discussions with Russia and others in dealing with Syria but that "I don't have optimism."
The job of the nation's top diplomat would be the realization of a dream for the 69-year-old Kerry, whom Obama passed over in 2008 when he chose Clinton. When Joe Biden became vice president, Kerry replaced the former Delaware senator as chairman of the committee.
Obama nominated Kerry after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, removed her name from consideration following criticism from Republicans over her initial comments about the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Corker told Kerry, "You've almost lived your entire life for this moment."
The Vietnam War, a long, bitter conflict that took its toll on a generation of draft-age American men, played a prominent role at the hearing.
In his testimony, Kerry alluded to his controversial moment before the committee some 42 years ago, when the decorated Vietnam veteran testified about his opposition to the war and famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
"Today I can't help but recognize that the world itself then was in many ways simpler, divided as it was along bi-polar, Cold War antagonisms," Kerry said. "Today's world is more complicated than anything we have experienced."