John Kerry to Congress: Middle East peace effort is urgent
In his first congressional hearing as secretary of State, John Kerry tells lawmakers that, after the Benghazi attacks, the US must fortify security for diplomats, press for a two-state solution in the Middle East.
Seven months after the deadly terrorist attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, the State Department is proposing hundreds of millions of dollars in new security spending â€“ tacit acknowledgment that some of the most effective security enhancements for Americaâ€™s overseas diplomats are still months or years away.
Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday that the departmentâ€™s proposed fiscal 2014 budget calls for $4.4 billion â€śto fortify our worldwide security protection and improve our overseas infrastructure.â€ť
In his first congressional testimony as secretary of State, Mr. Kerry also underscored his commitment to pressing forward in the decades-old quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unlike his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kerry has made reaching a peace accord a top goal of his tenure. â€śWe have some period of time â€“ a year to year-and-a-half to two yearsÂ â€“ or itâ€™s over," he said, underscoring the urgency of his Middle East effort.
On the proposed budget, about half of the amount set aside for security is earmarked for construction of more secure facilities. The goal? That diplomats might no longer find themselves trapped in exposed, poorly guarded facilities like the Benghazi mission, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans lost their lives in a missile and fire-bombing attack last September.
While the State Departmentâ€™s schedule of overseas construction projects has been revamped since Benghazi to give priority to what are deemed to be the most vulnerable facilities, construction still takes time.
In addition to construction, the State Department is also moving to add more Marine guards to at-risk embassies and to step up the training and vetting of locally hired security guards.
But all of those measures take time, too. For example, the State Department can request but canâ€™t order the deployment of additional Marine guards â€“ it can only make a request with the Pentagon.
In January, Mrs. Clinton said in her last congressional testimony as secretary of State that Benghazi had prompted her to ask the Defense Department â€śto dispatch hundreds of additional Marine guardsâ€ť to â€śhigh-riskâ€ť embassies. The Pentagon says it is evaluating the request.
Kerryâ€™s appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday provided House Republicans, in particular, the opportunity to renew their criticism of the Obama administrationâ€™s handling of the Benghazi attack and its aftermath.
Coming two days after the Boston Marathon bombing, which President Obama has called an â€śact of terrorâ€ť while pledging to find whoever carried out the attack, Kerry's testimony was also an opportunity for critics to allude to Mr. Obamaâ€™s almost identical pledge in September concerning the Benghazi attackers.
Saying diplomats like Ms. Smedinghoff and Ambassador Stevens â€śunderstand how risky the work we signed up for can be,â€ť he added that the two were â€ścut from the same clothâ€ť and that their qualities â€śmade them such outstanding Americans as well as members of the State Department family.â€ť
Smedinghoff was walking to deliver books to an Afghan school when she and four other Americans were killed by two bomb blasts. Stevens had been scheduled to open an American cultural center in Benghazi the day after the mission attack. Â
Kerry said the proposed State Department budget takes into account federal budget realities â€“ the 2014 budget would actually be a 6 percent drop from current spending â€“ as well as shifting diplomatic priorities.
In addition to stepped-up security spending, the budget sets aside $580 million for a â€śMiddle East and North Africa Incentive Fundâ€ť to encourage countries in the region to move forward on economic and political reforms.
The fund would tell the leaders of countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya that, â€śIf youâ€™re willing to take on the deep-rooted challenges and make the tough choices, we are here for you,â€ť Kerry said.
The budget also includes some shifting of resources to allow for new diplomatic posts in the Asia-Pacific region, according to State Department officials, reflecting an effort to make good on Obamaâ€™s commitment to a â€śrebalancingâ€ť of resources to the Asia-Pacific region.
On Israeli-Palestinian peace, Kerry said his three trips to the region in less than three months have convinced him that â€śthe window for a two-state solution is shutting.â€ť
Kerry signaled a determination to keep the ball moving downfield despite difficult and mounting obstacles, saying the world is looking to the US to pursue an accord.
â€śEverybody I talk to in the region and all of the supporters globally who care,â€ť he said, â€śwant us to move forward on a peace effort.â€ť