Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., talks to reporters as he holds...

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., talks to reporters as he holds Pen and Pad on assuming chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Credit: AP/Jose Luis Magana

WASHINGTON — The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pointed Thursday to possible policy shifts affecting Egypt, Turkey, the war in Ukraine and other issues around the globe as he took over the powerful leadership of the panel, replacing indicted Sen. Bob Menendez.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a veteran Maryland Democrat, will have an abbreviated term leading the committee because his term expires in January 2025 and he is not seeking reelection. He described him unexpectedly inheriting the chairmanship, with its power to help shape how the United States approaches the rest of the world, as a “pinch yourself” moment.

Cardin spoke to reporters under the chandelier and vaulted ceiling of the historic 19th-century committee room on his first full day on the job.

Menendez was indicted on Sept. 22 on charges he and his wife, Nadine, accepted bribes including cash and gold bars in transactions that included using his position as committee chairman to influence some U.S. policy decisions in favor of Egypt's autocratic government.

The indictment alleges that included helping Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's government overcome human-rights restrictions limiting a small portion of what is more than $1 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Egypt.

Menendez and his wife have pleaded not guilty.

Cardin, before becoming chairman, had condemned the Biden administration's decision this year to override a human-rights prohibition on $235 million of this year's military aid to Egypt.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., talks to reporters as he arrives...

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., talks to reporters as he arrives to hold Pen and Pad on assuming chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Credit: AP/Jose Luis Magana

The administration cited national security interests for waiving the human rights restrictions, even though the State Department acknowledged Egypt had made no progress on detaining journalists, writers and rights advocates, as well as other human rights abuses.

Asked Thursday if he intended to stop the distribution of that money if it could still be stopped, Cardin said he was “looking at his options." He said he wanted to give the administration and some lawmakers a hearing on the issue before reaching a final decision.

As chairman, Cardin can place holds on some funding and sales.

Cardin signaled another break, regarding Turkey, a NATO partner that for years has sought to buy advanced warplanes from the U.S. but has been repeatedly blocked, including by Menendez. Menendez had placed a hold barring the sale of F-16s to Turkey, arguing — in part — that he was concerned about Turkey having more air power than Greece, its neighbor and rival.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., talks to reporters as he arrives...

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., talks to reporters as he arrives to hold Pen and Pad on assuming chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Credit: AP/Jose Luis Magana

Cardin made clear he was open to considering moving forward on the sales, if he is satisfied with points, including any additional threat to Greece and on Turkey's human rights.

Turkey has used the veto power held by each NATO member to block Sweden's entry into the Western military alliance, even though the U.S. and European allies want Sweden in the bloc to strengthen NATO's northern flank against Russia.

Turkey has linked its getting the F-16s to its decision on Sweden joining NATO.

Cardin, who attended a gathering of NATO ambassadors this week, said Turkey has indicated it would clear the way for Sweden’s membership in the first part of October.

The power of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairs to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on some key U.S. decisions makes the committee's chairs at least as well-known in some foreign countries as they are in the United States.

In Turkey, some news media are celebrating Menendez's legal difficulties. A CNN Turk political panel gleefully showed the indicted senator as a sobbing SpongeBob SquarePants.

Ahmet Hakan, a journalist with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration, used his column in Sunday’s Hurriyet newspaper to comment on the case against Menendez, who he said opposed Turkey “to the death.”

“Together we can celebrate it with...laughter: Hahaha!” he wrote.

In Latin America, Menendez, whose parents immigrated from Cuba, was widely seen as using his influence to block any further thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba, even as he helped some Latino causes and politicians in the U.S.

Former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray told the AP the fall of Menendez would be significant for his island. “In any case, the pressure goes down," Alzugaray said.

Tellingly, Cuba did not even come up as Cardin ran down a list of his foreign policy priorities with reporters Thursday.

Cardin described working to maintain the U.S. flow of money and arms to Ukraine against invading Russian forces as “by far the highest priority” for him.

It's one he sees as crucial to the United States' own security and its ability to influence global affairs, he made clear. Ukraine's supporters in Congress should do a better job of making that case to Americans, he said.

“China's watching” whether Americans stand by Ukraine's defense, to guide China's decision on how far it pushes to assert its claim to Taiwan, Cardin said.

“North Korea's watching. Iran's watching,” he said.

Cardin also addressed the Biden administration's push to broker an agreement for the first broad diplomatic relations between U.S. ally Israel and Gulf heavyweight Saudi Arabia as a “game-changer in the region,” and one he was excited about. Biden officials and other supporters say the deal would help stabilize the Middle East and boost the economies of the Middle East.

“There's recognition that this is going to happen. There's going to meaningful changes,” Cardin said, saying that he was seeing conversations involving Israel and the Palestinians “that I didn't think we could have" as part of those broader negotiations. He gave no details.

Saudi Arabia, as a condition for agreeing to the deal, is asking the U.S. for security commitments and for assistance in developing its civilian nuclear program.

Cardin said he would be active in setting the terms for any such U.S.-Saudi agreement. “It must meet the highest standards, and there’s got to be guardrails.” And as far as “any security agreement that the United States commits to help defend another country to make sure it’s always in our national security interest to get engaged," he said.

Issues on Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record would need to be addressed, he said, and handed reporters a printout on a Saudi man rights groups say has been tortured and imprisoned over tweets critical of the Saudi government.

—-

Andrew Wilks contributed from Istanbul and Andrea Rodriguez from Havana.

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