Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door Tuesday to sending American troops into Syria if Bashar Assad’s regime collapses and al-Qaida-linked extremist groups stand to get their hands on his chemical weapons.
“In the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies — and all of us, the British, the French and others to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements,” Kerry told lawmakers, “I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president of the United States to secure our country.”
Prodded on the issue by Sen. Bob Corker, R.-Tenn., who warned that Congress would work to ensure that President Barack Obama does not use ground troops in response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons attack, Kerry backpedaled furiously.
“I don’t want anything coming out of this hearing that leaves any door open to any possibilities, so let’s shut that door now, as tight was we can,” he testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility and I’m thinking out loud about how to protect American’s interests,” Kerry said. “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”
Kerry also assured lawmakers wary of giving their explicit green light to military strikes against Syria that Obama “is not asking America to go to war.”
Kerry warned Congress against embracing “armchair isolationism” or settling for being “spectators to slaughter” — and promised that any American action would be limited.
“Let me be clear: President Obama is not asking America to go to war,” the top U.S. diplomat told the committee.
There will be no American ground troops in Syria, and Washington is not assuming responsibility for the country’s 2½-year-old civil war, he said. The conflict had left 100,000 people dead even before the alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack by Bashar Assad’s forces, which Kerry said had killed about 1,400.
While Obama wants a congressional “authorization for the use of military force” — the same kind of document that set the stage for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and not a formal declaration of war, it seems unlikely that American observers would consider a Syrian missile on U.S. targets anything short of “war.”
What will Obama do if Congress rejects his request, asked Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. Kerry said he couldn’t say “because he hasn’t told me.”
But the president “retains the authority” to strike at Syria, even absent lawmakers’ consent, Kerry said.
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey faced a grilling by the committee about Obama’s Syria policy.
Kerry referred to the flawed case for war in Iraq, underlining that America’s intelligence agencies had “scrubbed” their reports on the alleged attack for any inaccuracies.
Obama and his top aides are mindful of “never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence,” the former senator said.
Kerry focused heavily on what he described as the risks of inaction, warning against giving Assad “impunity” that might embolden him to escalate attacks, or giving what amounts to a “permission slip” to countries like Iran or North Korea as well as extremist groups.
“They’re all listening for our silence,” Kerry said.
He did not spell out precisely how limited military action would achieve America’s goals without escalating the conflict or helping the extremist elements of rebel forces fighting to topple Assad.
But he dismissed the prospects that Assad could be so “arrogant” or “foolish” as to retaliate against American interests.
“The United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war,” he said, without giving examples.
As Kerry wrapped up his testimony, “Code Pink” protester Medea Benjamin, dressed in her trademark color, began shouting “we don’t want another war” and “launching cruise missiles means another war.” Security escorted her out.
The hearing came amid profound doubts that the fractured Congress would easily give its approval in the face of stiff public opposition.
In a boost to the administration’s efforts, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee pro-Israel lobbying group came out strongly in favor of Congress giving Obama the green light.
“AIPAC urges Congress to grant the President the authority he has requested to protect America’s national security interests and dissuade the Syrian regime's further use of unconventional weapons,” the organization said in a statement. “The civilized world cannot tolerate the use of these barbaric weapons, particularly against an innocent civilian population including hundreds of children.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., opened the hearing with a call to approve legislation authorizing what Obama has promised will be a limited military operation — not a repeat of Iraq or Afghanistan.
“This is not a declaration of war but a declaration of our values to the world,” Menendez, who voted against the war in Iraq, said in his opening statement.
“We are at a crossroads moment. A precedent will be set either for the unfettered and unpunished use of chemical weapons — or a precedent will be set for the deterrence of the use of such weapons through the limited use of military force,” he warned.
Even before the hearing got underway, a lone protester from "Code Pink" stood up clutching two small signs and calling out against war with Syria. Security escorted him from the room.
Gen. Dempsey could prove to be the most interesting witness: Two weeks ago, he wrote a letter warning Congress that striking Syria could escalate the U.S. role in the country’s civil war while helping opposition forces not friendly to the United States.
Earlier, Obama ramped up his parallel sales pitches for striking Syria, warning lawmakers that the standoff amounts to a dress rehearsal for a possible confrontation with Iran while assuring the U.S. public he won’t give them a rerun of Iraq or Afghanistan.
“The key point that I want to emphasize to the American people: The military plan that has been developed by the joint chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional. It is limited. It does not involve boots on the ground,” Obama said as he hosted top lawmakers at the White House. “This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan.”
Obama also pushed Congress for a “prompt vote” of support for attacking Syria and signaled he would be OK with lawmakers imposing some limits on the mission.
“So long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad degrading his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future — as long as the authorization allows us to do that, I’m confident that we’re going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark,” he said.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner, emerging from the meeting with Obama, said he would support legislation authorizing the use of force — but that it was up to the president to work for its passage. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed Boehner’s support, but said the White House still had to convince skeptical lawmakers.
The president did not mention Iran by name in his brief on-camera appearance Tuesday, but the implications were clear.
“This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences,” he said.
Those “other countries” clearly include Syria’s patron Iran, which has been locked in a tense standoff with the United States and other world powers over its suspect nuclear program.
Failure to respond militarily to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons to massacre civilians “sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don't mean much,” Obama said.
The president said the United States must enforce international restrictions on chemical weapons in part because of the threat that the widening conflict in Syria poses to the stability of allies in the region.
“We recognize that there are certain weapons that, when used, cannot only end up resulting in grotesque deaths, but also can end up being transmitted to nonstate actors, can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey,” he said.
The point about Israel's security is sure to carry great weight in Congress, where few other issues enjoy greater bipartisan support.
But Obama does not have much time: Congress is expected to vote on an authorization as early as the week of Sept. 9, when most lawmakers return from their monthlong August break.
As lawmakers debated the issue, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center released a public opinion poll showing that 48 percent oppose military strikes against Syria, compared with 29 percent who support it.
And an ABC News/Washington Post survey found nearly 6 in 10 Americans oppose a unilateral U.S. military strike.
Earlier, the U.N.’s refugee agency said that more than 2 million Syrians had fled the country, up from 230,000 a year ago, adding to the strain for destination countries like U.S. allies Turkey and Jordan.