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.
On effectiveness, there were some serious and probing questions from a wide range of senators, from Republican Marco Rubio to Democrat Tom Udall.
The basic problem the senators—and many others—have regarding intervention is that it’s not clear what the actual goal is. Dempsey has already acknowledged that airstrikes cannot stop Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again, and indeed a Rand Corporation study concluded it would be impossible to destroy his capability without a massive infusion of ground troops.
Meanwhile, administration officials have been clear they don’t intend to end the civil war and topple Assad with the airstrikes—if that were even possible—and so the question is, what is the objective?
There was a lot of pablum from intervention supporters on this point. “This is not a declaration of war but a declaration of our values to the world,” Menendez said during his opening remarks. Kerry repeatedly talked of “reputation” and taking a stand against the use of chemical weapons.
But the closest thing to an actual logistical argument came from Dempsey, who said at several points the idea was to “deter and degrade” the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future. He said the strikes could eliminate key launching stations and apparatus, and invoke a certain price to be paid for using chemical weapons that Assad may want to avoid in the future. This would also weaken—but not defeat—Assad, in the administration’s eyes. “The consequence of degrading his chemical capacity inevitably will also have downstream impact on his military capacity,” Kerry said.
John Judis describes the administration’s theory best—by weakening Assad, the United States can force a diplomatic resolution to the civil war.
But Juan Cole sees the opposite result playing out. “The prospect of a US missile strike is emboldening the rebels. They increasingly hope that the US will come in militarily with them. The rebels don’t look at the proposed US missile strikes as a limited affair or as solely related to chemical weapons use,” he wrote. “By striking Syria, Obama has all but guaranteed that a negotiated solution becomes impossible for years to come.”
Several senators tried to unearth what the outcome of intervention will truly be. “Are we really going to be giving them credibility if we go in with a limited strike and, the day after or the week after or the month after, Assad crawls out of his rat hole and says, Look, I stood up to the strongest power on the face of this Earth and I won?” asked Senator Jim Risch. Kerry said plainly that wouldn’t happen, but didn’t have much in the way of detail why that wouldn’t be the case.
Ultimately these two issues of entanglement and effectiveness are deeply, and dangerously, related. The airstrikes, by the administration’s own admission, won’t eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons capability nor topple his regime. If he indeed emerges more emboldened—with more desperation that could lead to more unconventional warfare—all while the country plunges further into civil war, the situation clearly becomes much more dire.
If that happens and the United States is already militarily involved, it’s a recipe for a drawn-out disaster. Today, administration officials are already sketching out in public scenarios in which US troops could be on the ground. What will they propose then?
These central questions will hopefully be probed further in the House of Representatives this afternoon. Check back in this space for updates from the hearing, which you can also watch here.
1:18 pm House Syria resolution in doubt? Representative Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, informed Kerry of a “rumor” that the House won’t hold a vote on a Syria resolution. Kerry said hasn’t heard that, and it seems quite unlikely—there will almost certainly at least be a vote—but having one of the top foreign policy Republicans in the House float that possibility is not a good sign for proponents of intervention.
1:32 pm General Dempsey won’t rule out escalation. Representative Gregory Meeks asked pointed questions about the risk of further entanglement in Syria. General Dempsey’s response was honest, but not particularly reassuring. “What we’re talking about here is not [a longer engagement]. That’s not to say that I discount the risk of escalation, which I never discount, but I can tell you we’ve mitigated it to as low as possible.”
2:41 pm Hearing grinds towards uselessness. The House hearing is beginning to drag, re-covering old ground and with members delving into theatrics. Representative Jeff Duncan self-caricatured a Tea Partier by holding up a picture of someone killed in Benghazi. He drew a sharp rebuke from Kerry. “We’re talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to sit here and talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious.”
2:46 pm A dollar figure (sort of) for intervention. Hagel was asked about the cost of US military intervention in Syria, as outlined by the administration. He said “it would be in the tens of millions of dollars.”
2:49 pm Cantor promises House vote. An aide to the House majority leader told CBS News that Ros-Lehtinen is wrong, and “We are planning on having a debate and a vote in the House.”
3:05 pm Grayson questions administration’s evidence of regime culpability. Representative Alan Grayson pointedly asked Hagel if he would agree to declassify intercepted communications between Syrian commanders, in redacted form. The administration has already said it will not declassify these documents, which allegedly show commanders talking about a chemical attack. But Grayson referenced media reports suggesting the communications actually reflect surprise among the commanders—making him the first member to openly question the administration’s evidence during these hearings.
Grayson kept pushing Hagel to declassify the documents, but Hagel declined, and said he had “no idea” what Grayson was referring to, and said only he’d have to “go back and look” at the intelligence.
3:28 pm Senate panel approves intervention. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, following yesterday’s debate, has approved a resolution to intervene militarily in Syria. The measure allows ninety days of intervention, with a prohibition on any ground troops. The vote was 10-7-1, with new Senator Ed Markey voting “present.” The full Senate will now consider the resolution early next week.
4:22 pm Hearing over, vote uncertain. After over four hours of discussion, the House debate has ended. The administration is likely pleased with how it went; opponents of intervention were somewhat muted, and no solid blows against the administration’s case were landed. But that doesn’t reflect the very tough vote coming up in the House, where at last count only forty-three members were likely to approve intervention.
Why did The New York Times cut its reference to AIPAC lobbying in its Syria coverage?