WASHINGTON—Secretary of State John Kerry spent more than three-and-a-half hours on Tuesday trying to convince the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that military intervention is necessary in Syria.
He didn’t appear to change any minds.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former member of the committee, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Kerry in the effort, but it was the secretary of state who did most of the talking.
“The world is watching not only what we do, but how we do it,” Kerry said, urging senators to show the world “we can still make our nation speak with one voice.”
Tuesday’s hearing came after President Barack Obama on Saturday called for targeted military action in Syria in response to a sarin gas attack that, according to the Obama administration, killed 1,400 people last month. Obama said he has the authority to unilaterally carry out strikes, but he decided to seek congressional approval.
Obama last year declared the use of chemical weapons a red line for U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war that has already killed more than 100,000. On Tuesday Kerry told lawmakers that those who say this is about Obama’s red line couldn’t be more wrong.
“It’s about humanity’s red line,” he said. “If we don’t act, it’s a guarantee that [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] will do it again.”
Kerry repeatedly cited the transgression of “international norms” as the reason for military action. He pointed to an international agreement that forbids the use of chemical weapons—although Syria has not signed on to the accord.
Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), provided the most difficult questions, grilling the witnesses on the specific goals of military action and the odds that it would do more harm than good. Paul said strong arguments could be made for both sides on how military action might stabilize or destabilize the region.
“There are all kinds of unknowns, and I can’t offer an answer and neither can you,” Paul said.
This is the first time since 2003—when the Bush administration sought approval to invade Iraq—that Congress has held hearings regarding military action. Kerry said, “We are especially sensitive” about “never again asking a member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence.” He said the administration has “scrubbed and rescrubbed” the evidence and concluded “beyond reasonable doubt” that the Syrian government carried out the Aug. 21 chemical attack.
But most of his evidence focused on the reality that an attack occurred outside Damascus, not on who carried out the attack. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., pressed Kerry—politely—asking if there was any dissent in the intelligence community that the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons. Kerry responded evasively before saying the intelligence community had offered “no alternative theory.”
Boxer then asked why Russia is sending a delegation to the United States to show Assad was not behind the chemical weapons attack. Kerry had no explanation but insisted opposition forces, which he later estimated at between 80,000 and 90,000 strong, did not have the capability to use chemical weapons.
Several times Kerry, and at times Hagel and Dempsey, deferred questions to a classified committee briefing scheduled for Wednesday.
Most senators expressed appreciation that Obama came to Congress for approval of military involvement. Paul said it made him “proud” of Obama and his country—until he heard Obama say he might carry out strikes even without congressional approval. Paul said the administration is making a mockery of Congress if it proceeds with military action after Congress votes it down (which he said is unlikely).
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who backed the proposal Monday after a meeting with Obama, criticized the president for not acting decisively. “You don’t tell the enemy what you’re about to do,” an indignant McCain said, pointing to a Tuesday Associated Press report that Syria is hiding weapons and moving troops in advance of U.S. strikes.
Udall was the first Democrat to voice serious concern about Obama’s request, but others followed. Udall said the United States “is on shaky legal ground,” and he sees the bombing campaign as the first step toward full war.
“This is a very open-ended proposal,” said Udall, who had arguably the most contentious exchange with Kerry.
Kerry said the administration has no intention of putting troops on the ground, but he also gave a hypothetical scenario “in the event Syria imploded” and there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into wrong hands: “I don’t want to take off the table an option that might secure our country.”
The caveat prompted more prodding from senators and caused Kerry to repeatedly say the administration would not put “American boots on the ground.”
Members from both parties expressed the desire to rewrite the administration’s resolution. A majority of committee members appeared friendly to the idea of military intervention, but the House is expected to be the hardest task for the administration. The same three men will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.