Kerry: Administration’s Foreign Policy Not ‘Spinning Out of Control’

By Patrick Goodenough | April 8, 2014 | 7:31 PM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department budget on Tuesday, April 8, 2014. (Image: C-SPAN)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry took exception Tuesday to an assertion by a Republican senator that the Obama administration’s foreign policy is “spinning out of control,” declaring that “that’s just not true.”

“You can’t help but get the impression our foreign policy is just spinning out of control,” Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department budget. “And we are losing control in virtually every area that we are trying to do something in.”

Risch cited developments in Russia, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – but focused on the Russia-Ukraine situation.

“This administration said they were going to hit the reset button [with Moscow] and I can’t help think that somebody hit the wrong button,” he said.

The Russians were behaving “worse than they have in decades,” Risch said, pointing to Russia’s continued presence in Georgian territory it seized in 2008, its current actions in Ukraine, and its support for the Assad regime in Syria as tens of thousands continue to die.

“We’ve seen this movie over and over and over again with the Russians,” he said. “They misbehave, then we sit down at the table, we make some kind of an agreement, and they misbehave even worse after the agreement.”

Kerry bristled at Risch’s assessment.

“When you say, you know, something like our foreign policy is spinning out of control, those are great talking points, they make for good, you know, sound bites on TV nowadays but I have to tell you senator, that’s just not true,” he said.

Kerry listed U.S. achievements in conflict zones in central and north-eastern Africa, pressure on China to change its policy towards North Korea and the denuclearization drive, engagement in the South China Sea with regard to territorial disputes with China, leading the humanitarian assistance push in Syria, “leading the effort” in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, and others.

“I just don’t agree with you – we’re living in a complicated world,” he said, citing rising sectarianism and religious extremism, and the need to provide increasing numbers of young people with job opportunities and a future so they don’t become extremists.

“We are more engaged than ever before, which is why my travel schedule is what it is.”

Kerry took particularly issue with the criticism of the administration’s policy towards Russia.

Offering Risch what he called “a taste of reality,” he noted that Russia’s invasion of Georgia “happened under George Bush – and he didn’t even bring a sanction.”

“President Obama has brought sanctions, and it’s having an impact, you can ask – yes it is having an impact,” Kerry continued. “And the fact is it will have a far more serious impact if they cross over or continue what’s happening in eastern Ukraine.”

“We now have announced the possibility of using sector sanctions – now that’s serious business, serious business, it’s banking, it’s energy, it’s mining, it’s arms, it’s other things.”

Kerry said the administration believes that the Russians “take that seriously.”

The authority for sanctions targeting sectors of the Russian economy was created in an executive order signed by Obama on March 20.

Twenty days have passed since then, and no decision on actually imposing sanctions under the authority has been announced.

Over the course of those 20 days, meanwhile, Russia has incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation, stormed military bases on the peninsula, terminated agreements with Ukraine on natural gas discounts for hosting the Black Sea fleet, amassed tens of thousands of troops near the border with Ukraine, and – according to Kerry on Tuesday – sent provocateurs and agents into eastern Ukraine “determined to create chaos” as part of “an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state.”

While Kerry was correct that President Bush did not target Russia with economic sanctions after its forces invaded Georgia in 2008, two steps that were taken by the Bush administration in response to Russia’s actions were reversed after Obama took office:

--Bush shelved a key civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Moscow, but the Obama administration resubmitted the agreement to Congress in 2010 and it entered into force in 2011.

--The U.S. pushed NATO to freeze relations with Russia, which it did – but the freeze was lifted the following March, one day before the new administration’s then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed the symbolic “reset button” to her Russian counterpart.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow