The first congressional hearing on President Obama’s request to use military force in Syria showcased the deep and bitter legacy of the Iraq war, as one senator after the other demanded that any authorization specifically rule out any recourse to American boots on the ground.
The Tuesday afternoon hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee revealed the varying concerns of different factions in Congress – concerns that range from wanting any US action to assist the Syrian rebels in bringing down President Bashar al-Assad to worrying that even limited military action could aid America’s enemies, including Al Qaeda elements in Syria.
But the echo of Iraq – and the demand that Syria not become another quagmire – dominated more than three hours of discussion.
Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged Iraq's shadow when he said he understood congressional reluctance to authorize the use of force based on intelligence assessments that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians on Aug. 21. He was seated next to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – who, like him, voted as a senator in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. "We are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence," Secretary Kerry said.
But Kerry rattled senators when he said that, while the president “has no intention and we do not want to put American troops on the ground to fight this civil war” in Syria, he also did not want “to take off the table an option” for securing Syria’s chemical weapons.
He offered “hypotheticals,” such as the implosion of Syria, resulting in lost command and control of the country’s significant stockpiles of chemical weapons or a situation in which a chemical weapons “cache” falls into the hands of Al Qaeda-affiliated militants.
But the committee’s chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, said, “I do think we are going to have to work on language that makes it clear” that the use of American troops is not authorized.
It was only after the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, admonished Secretary Kerry for his response to the use-of-troops question that Kerry offered an unequivocal ban on sending US soldiers into Syria.
“There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the Syrian civil war,” Kerry said, correcting his earlier statement.
That did not reassure Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico, who called the draft resolution the White House sent to the Hill Saturday “a very open-ended proposal” that he saw as a “potential next step towards full-fledged war.”
“We’re saying once again that the United States will be the world’s policeman,” he said, adding that it reminded him of the path to the Iraq war, which he called “one of the biggest blunders in US foreign policy.”
Senator Menendez, who is supportive of the administration’s request, sought to reassure his committee colleagues that the committee would fashion its own resolution and would not simply be tweaking the White House draft.
Committee leadership is working on wording and could have it ready for committee vote by Wednesday afternoon, Menendez said, after the committee meets in closed session with administration officials Wednesday morning.
Republican senators generally focused more on criticism of the Obama administration’s Syria policy.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has repeatedly pressed for more robust US military involvement in Syria’s nearly three-year-old civil war, said he wanted assurances that any US military intervention would aim to weaken the Assad regime’s military capabilities even as it focused on chemical weapons.
Senator McCain said he was troubled by media reports saying the White House instructed the Pentagon “not to develop strike options that would tip the balance on the ground.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded, “no,” when asked if that was true. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, put the instructions he’s received for developing a list of targets this way: “I have never been told to change the momentum [in Syria’s civil war], I have been told to degrade military capability.”
Much of the senators’ questioning focused on the unforeseeable risks of intervening militarily. “What happens if this gets away from us?” queried Sen. James Risch (R) of Idaho.
Kerry acknowledged that unintended consequences are possible, but he also warned that “the greater danger would be in not responding” to Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
North Korea, which sits on a substantial chemical weapons stockpile, could take heart from inaction. Likewise, Iran could be emboldened to forge ahead on developing a nuclear weapon.
“If we don’t respond, we will back here,” Kerry said. “I guarantee you.”