Kerry “felt betrayed and surprised to see McCain so angrily rooting for failure against one of the most internationalist members of the administration,” said the official, who is close to the secretary and requested anonymity to speak candidly about the top diplomat’s reaction.
The key word there might be “internationalist.” Republicans long openly contemptuous of President Barack Obama’s cautious handling of world affairs — “leading from behind,” as one anonymous administration aide once described it — had hoped that Kerry would nudge the administration to take a more aggressive approach to problems such as the civil war in Syria.
“I'm sure we will have our disagreements, which I know neither of us will hesitate to bring to the other's attention,” McCain declared at Kerry’s confirmation hearing in January 2013. “But I know he will acquit himself in that office with distinction and use his many talents and his indefatigable persistence to advance our country's interests. And I commend his nomination to you without reservation.”
But the change Republicans hoped for hasn’t happened, or hasn’t happened quickly enough. At the same time, the GOP has redoubled its attacks on Obama over Russia’s seizure of Crimea, over nuclear talks with Iran, and over putting pressure on Israel in Middle East peace talks. And no one in Congress has more sharply criticized the White House on foreign policy, and especially Syria, than McCain.
The two senators, both Vietnam veterans, have long had a close bond. They worked together on normalizing relations with Vietnam. And when McCain ran for president in 2000, Kerry rose to his defense after some Republicans waged a whisper campaign suggesting that McCain’s years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam had somehow left him unsuited for the White House. “It's an insulting and degrading allegation not just to John McCain but to many who served under difficult circumstances,” the Democrat said at one point. When Kerry, in turn, ran for president in 2004, he briefly flirted with the idea of picking the Arizona Republican as his running mate.
Some in the GOP rolled their eyes at the notion of a surprising new break between the two men.
“This didn’t come out of nowhere — this is the same guy who called Secretary Kerry a ‘human wrecking ball’ last year,” said one Senate Republican aide. “And last Friday he issued the lengthy statement below on Kerry’s comment that it’s ‘reality check time’ in the Middle East.”
McCain’s office was unapologetic.
“Sen. McCain is admittedly emotional about the death of 150,000 men, women and children in Syria, and America’s failure to do anything meaningful to stop it,” said spokesman Brian Rogers. “He’s been to the refugee camps to visit some of the millions of who have been raped, tortured and displaced by the Assad regime, so it’s an issue close to his heart.”
McCain is “gravely concerned about the consequences of America’s failure to lead in the world under this administration” and “has never hesitated to mix it up and ask hard questions at hearings — he takes his Senate responsibilities seriously,” Rogers told Yahoo News.
“Mix it up”? McCain can be blunt. It wasn’t that long ago that he branded Republicans critical of policies such as drone strikes and broad surveillance powers “wacko birds.”
But his questioning of Kerry before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday was unusually sharp.
McCain said Israel-Palestinian peace talks are “finished,” charged that diplomatic efforts to end the Syria crisis were “a total collapse” and predicted that talks with Iran about that country’s nuclear program “will collapse, too.”
“You’re about to hit the trifecta,” the Arizona lawmaker said. “On the major issues, this administration is failing very badly.”
Turning to Ukraine, McCain told Kerry that “my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, used to say, talk softly but carry a big stick. What you're doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick — in fact, a twig.”
Kerry hit back at McCain’s “premature judgment about the failure of everything.”
“I guess it's pretty easy to lob those judgments around, particularly well before the verdict is in on any of them,” the secretary said. As for the Middle East peace process, “it's interesting that you declare it dead but the Israelis and the Palestinians don't declare it dead. They want to continue to negotiate.”
McCain cut in: “We'll see, won't we, Mr. Secretary?"
“I beg your pardon?” Kerry replied.
“We'll see,” McCain repeated.
“Well, yeah, we will see, but why declare it dead…” Kerry began.
“It's stopped. It is stopped. Recognize reality,” McCain said.
Kerry drew out his own Roosevelt quote. “Your friend Teddy Roosevelt also said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena who are trying to get things done. And we're trying to get something done,” he said.
“I think it's important to do this. Sure we may fail. And you want to dump it on me? I may fail. I don't care. It's worth doing. It's worth the effort. And the United States has a responsibility to lead, not always to find the pessimism and negativity that's so easily prevalent in the world today,” Kerry said.
When it comes to Iran, “we have no illusions about how tough this is. I'm not predicting success, senator. I'm not,” the diplomat said. “But I know we have an obligation to go through this process before we decide to go to war. So that's where we are. You declare them all dead. I don't.”
That led Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., to declare, “I think you've both made your points.”