By Arshad Mohammed and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bristled at fierce criticism from U.S. senators on Tuesday, saying he would accept blame for foreign policy failures but was at least trying to make progress on Middle East peace and the crises in Syria and Ukraine.
During a two-and-a-half-hour hearing, Kerry got pointed questions about the U.S. failure to end Syria's civil war, prevent Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
While much of the criticism came from Republicans, Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also pushed Kerry on negotiations with Iran on curbing its nuclear program and on U.S. policy on Syria.
Republicans have been hammering the Obama administration's handling of foreign policy as weak and ineffectual, hoping to use the issue to make gains in the U.S. congressional elections in November.
Critics also argue that a perception the administration's foreign policy is in disarray weakens the United States, making it harder for Washington to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program and to deter countries such as Russia and China from aggressive behavior toward their neighbors.
Appearing before the panel, on which he served for 28 years, including as its chairman, Kerry seemed especially piqued by criticism from Senator John McCain, a fellow Vietnam War veteran with whom he worked closely to normalize relations with Hanoi.
"On the major issues, the administration is failing very badly ," said McCain, an Arizona Republican who was defeated by Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
"Sure we may fail. You want to dump it on me? I may fail. I don't care. It's worth doing," Kerry shot back. "It's worth the effort and the United States has a responsibility to lead."
McCain, a critic of Obama's foreign policy, was unflinching.
"You're about to hit the trifecta. Geneva II was a total collapse, as I predicted to you that it would be," McCain said, referring to a U.S.-Russian effort to broker a political solution to end Syria's three-year civil war.
"The Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though you may drag them out for a while, are finished," McCain added. Talks between Israelis and Palestinians appear on the brink of unraveling as Kerry's April 29 target for a peace agreement approaches.
"I predict to you that even though we gave the Iranians the right to enrich (uranium), which is unbelievable, those talks will collapse too," McCain added, referring to a November 24 accord under which Iran agreed to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for limited, temporary relief from economic sanctions.
"On the issue of Ukraine, my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, used to say: talk softly but carry a big stick," McCain said, referring to former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. "What you're doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick. In fact, a twig."
Kerry bristled in response.
"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," he said. "And we're trying to get things done."
Senator Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the panel and an Obama administration ally on some issues, took Kerry to task for U.S. policy on Syria and especially Obama's decision to pursue an agreement for Damascus to give up its chemical weapons rather than to carry out threatened air strikes last year.
"We ended up jumping in Syria's lap. We now sit in the back of the bus as Iran and Russia really drive policy in Syria," he said, referring to Iran and Russia's backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Paul Simao)