The Cable

Kerry shakes things up at the SFRC

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) is shaking things up. The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has revived a tradition once started by Senator Fulbright, holding regular round tables with policy and regional experts, at which senators and invited experts sit around a table and have discussions with each other, rather than the more ...

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Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) is shaking things up.

The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has revived a tradition once started by Senator Fulbright, holding regular round tables with policy and regional experts, at which senators and invited experts sit around a table and have discussions with each other, rather than the more formal, traditional hearings formats. He has hired a top investigative journalist to lead the committee’s investigations arm, and a former investment banker to advise the committee on the intersection of global finance and foreign policy. And this past Wednesday night, he and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry had committee members of both parties and their spouses over for dinner at their Georgetown home.

The round tables — there have been ones on Afghanistan, Sudan, and how the international financial crisis affects U.S. foreign policy already the past couple weeks “are done to really create a non-adversarial environment where senators come from behind the dais and sit with the witnesses/guests and participate in more of a dialogue as opposed to the inquisition style that is traditional in hearings,” says committee spokesman Frederick Jones.

“I think Sen. Kerry wants to give and take … and it’s a format that helps engender free-flowing dialogue,” Jones added. (Democratic sources said vice chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN) didn’t show up to the first round table on Afghanistan, and said Lugar didn’t seem fond of the new format. A call to his spokesman wasn’t immediately returned).

Kerry has hired Douglas Frantz, the former Los Angeles Times managing editor, to lead the committee’s investigative wing. The committee won’t specify what Frantz, who recently coauthored a book on Pakistani nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan, plans to investigate. But sources note that he’s currently in Vienna, the seat of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Sources tell The Cable that the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has encouraged Kerry and other members to probe Iran’s alleged sanctions busting, and how the country might bypass international sanctions to supply its nuclear program.

“For sure folks are strongly supportive of congressional and U.S. efforts to go after trans-shipment issues, often through the UAE, but in other places as well, that the Iranians have been using to bring in dual use items and other things not allowed under the sanctions,” a source following the Iran issue said on condition of anonymity. With the recent U.S.-UAE nuclear power deal, “there is increased expectation on the Hill that the UAE will do a better job of cracking down on their country being used by Iran to push their nuclear programs forward and step up their effort to help ensure the economic sanctions aren’t being violated under their noses.”

Kerry’s committee has also hired international financial expert Heidi Crebo-Rediker from the New America Foundation to head up a new SFRC focus on international finance and economics. “This is a new position that Senator Kerry created to better marry finance and economics with foreign policy,” a committee source said. On Wednesday, the committee held a roundtable on the issue of how the global economic crisis affects U.S. foreign policy.

Last week, the committee assigned senators to head up regional subcommittees. Among the new assignments, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) is heading up the subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia; Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) is heading the subcommittee on East Asia, a long-time passion of his; and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is heading up a new subcommittee on global women’s issues, an interest of hers and of Secretary of  State Hillary Clinton.

Senator Casey, who is planning his subcommittee’s first hearing on the recent violence in Sri Lanka Feb. 24,  envisions a robust agenda for the year, including hearings on Iran, Pakistan, Iraqi refugees, and the nuclear programs in the Gulf states. 

“We are going to be working very hard within the committee itself and within the subcommittee to take a hard look at a whole series of challenges we face in foreign affairs going forward,” Casey told Foreign Policy. Although he and the chairman are very supportive of the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team, he said the committee also has to be an independent voice on foreign policy. He especially wants to “pay close attention to all of the areas under our subcommittee’s jurisdiction, which are the subject of a lot of debate [in the U.S. government] and require a lot of vigilance, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, [or] the Middle East.”

Regarding Kerry’s chairmanship of the committee, Casey said he was “very excited. He’s an ideal successor” to former SFRC chairman Joseph Biden.

It’s no secret that in a city full of people who feel they do not have the first-choice job they deserve, Senator Kerry, who sought the presidency in 2004 and more recently lobbied to be Obama’s secretary of state, has more reasons than many to be wistful. But as the Obama administration grapples with the staggering economic crisis and continued global turmoil, Kerry appears to be putting any lingering resentments aside and getting to work.

Among Kerry’s foreign relations committee staff are several people seeking administration positions, some still waiting for solid offers to materialize. (The Cable recently reported that SFRC staffer Puneet Talwar will join the NSC as senior director on Iran, Iraq, and Gulf states, and that an advisor on European issues, Tomicah Tillemann, will go work as a speechwriter for Secretary Clinton. Jennifer Simon is another committee staffer who recently left to go work at the U.S.-UN office at the State Department.) Staffers still waiting to hear say Kerry has been very sympathetic to their situation, and while supporting their wish to go into the administration, has let it be known he would like them to stay.

“He’s been great,” one staffer said. “However this all plays out, he’s a really classy guy.”

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