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Educating the US Senate: Hearing gives rookies ‘world view’

January 21, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — The chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, a 30-year veteran of Congress, is taking his colleagues to school on foreign policy.

Sen. John McCain opened his first hearing Wednesday with a warning that threats against the U.S. persist, and he brought in former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft to talk about them.

“In a speech riddled with unrealistic wishful thinking, President Obama told the nation last night that the ‘shadow of crisis has passed.’ That news came as quite a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to what has been happening around the world,” McCain said, in some of his first comments as chairman.

Through the spring, McCain plans to call former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and James Baker III. And he’s expected to lead more fact-finding trips overseas like the one last weekend to the Mideast, in which six senators toured the region to learn more about Iran’s nuclear program.

The political climate, a relatively inexperienced Senate and increasing concerns about terrorism make the panel ripe for a reset of world views, McCain has suggested. The November elections bring a Senate in which 46 of 100 members are in their first term, some with little foreign policy experience.

The elections also put McCain in the committee chairmanship and raised the prospect of pushing back against deficit hawks who have prevailed over defense hawks in recent years, ushering in an era of automatic spending cuts. Called sequestration, the cuts are slated to slice $54 billion from the Defense Department’s budget in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

Canceling sequestration would allow the committee to “develop policy that drives the budget rather than have the budget drive the policy,” McCain said in a recent interview.

The new Congress also affords McCain a chance to push back against isolationist foreign policy favored in recent years by some conservatives, such as Sen. Rand Paul, a possible presidential contender in 2016. The rise of Islamic State militants, the possible threat of Iran’s nuclear program and the political climate in the U.S. could make the Senate receptive to lessons from the 78-year-old McCain, a former Vietnam War prisoner of war and Republican presidential nominee in 2008 who lost to Obama.

“I think the 2014 election was a rejection of isolationism,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican and a McCain ally who joined the weekend trek to the Mideast. “We have a moral obligation to replace these defense cuts. These gentlemen and wise people can help make that case.”

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