Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 3, 2013, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
When President Obama decided to ask for input from Congress on a military strike in Syria, it created a crucial opportunity to probe two questions about the intervention: will it be limited? And how effective will it be?
The answers provided by Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday were unclear on several of these points. And few of their answers inspired much confidence. The House will host these officials this afternoon—and hopefully get more clarity.
On the issue of entanglement, Kerry made the biggest headlines by hypothesizing about US troops on the ground in Syria early on in the hearing. The draft legislation sent over by the White House notably contained no prohibition on ground troops, and while Senators quickly confirmed they would add that language, it certainly raised eyebrows about the administration’s intentions.
When Senator Robert Menendez asked Kerry about ground troops, he said this:
SEC. KERRY: Mr. Chairman, it would be preferable not to [have prohibition language], not because there is any intention or any plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground. And I think the president will give you every assurance in the world, as am I, as has the secretary of defense and the chairman. But 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, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country. So that was the only kind of example, that’s the only thing I can think of that would immediately leap to mind.
The blowback inside and outside the hearing room was swift. Polls show the public is heavily opposed to intervention in no small part because they fear deeper entanglement, and so Kerry’s remarks were seriously damaging to the administration’s case. “In the event Syria imploded” is no doubt an extremely fungible term. Already, the regime has lost control of large swaths of the country; a third of the population has fled and become refugees; daily, grinding violence including, now, chemical weapons, has claimed tens of thousands of lives. What does a real implosion look like, exactly?
Senator Bob Corker, moments later, told Kerry “I didn’t find that a very appropriate answer regarding boots on the ground.” Kerry recanted—again, and again throughout the hearing—and ultimately the White House has agreed to such language in a new draft bill. But surely there are now only larger questions about how deeply involved Obama’s foreign policy apparatus would like to be in Syria.