The silver lining in John FN Kerry becoming Secretary of StateBob Menendez, will become Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez, who is Cuban American, is the first Latino elected to the U.S. House and Senate from New Jersey and would become the first Latino chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. His rise to the top of a panel with broad authority to oversee U.S. foreign policy will mean new attention to relations with Central and South America, normally a diplomatic backwater.
Menendez will be an Administration ally on immigration reform – he has offered reform measures year after year only to see them die in the Senate. But his new authority is likely to slow efforts to liberalize relations with Cuba; Menendez, 59, is fiercely pro-embargo.
Whereas Kerry had to wait nearly 30 years to become chairman, Menendez’s rise to the top in six is relatively meteoric. The job should fall to the next most senior Democrat, California’s Barbara Boxer, but Boxer has indicated she prefers to remain chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Menendez will have the somewhat complicated job of overseeing the work that Kerry, his predecessor on the panel, does at State. The two men have convivial relations that will surely be tested in the coming years.
As the U.S. enters a critical stage in relations with Iran, Menendez represents the pro-Israel wing of the Democratic party — thanks in part to the large Jewish population in New Jersey — that has been pushing the President to get tougher on Iran. Menendez, along with Republican Senator Mark Kirk, co-authored sweeping sanctions last year against Iran that the Administration didn’t particularly want. And he has voiced reservations about Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee to run the Pentagon, because of Hagel’s past statements on Iran. “He certainly has been a strong voice on Iran sanctions and has been instrumental in overcoming Administration hesitation on the most recent sanctions bill,” says Mike Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.For a reminder of Menendez's willingness to speak out against Obama, let's go to the videotape from December 2011.
During his tenure as chairman, Kerry was careful to never cross the line from friendly criticism to friendly fire on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. An op-ed pushing for greater engagement in Libya, or some pointed comments about the lackadaisical pace of the Middle East peace process was as far as Kerry went. Menendez, by contrast, has shown much more willingness to take on his fellow Democrats up Pennsylvania Avenue and a chairman’s perch gives him a bigger megaphone. “The central question about Menendez is whether he’ll moderate any of his views to accommodate his party’s President,” Sabato says. If not, he may soon find himself taking on not only Obama, but his predecessor.
Let's hope Menendez sticks to his guns.