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Kerry Presses Senators on Authorizing Strike

Kerry Presses Senators on Authorizing Strike

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 4, 2013

Facing a skeptical Congress and a public weary from recent long wars, John Kerry tried to assure the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that President Obama is "not asking America to go to war."

The secretary of state insisted throughout the four-hour-long hearing that the president will not send a single solider to Syria, whose leader, the administration is convinced, killed more than 1,400 civilians last month with chemical weapons.

Kerry joined Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, on Capitol Hill to urge congressional authorization of strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It was an issue that made for strange bipartisan bedfellows at the hearing, and Kerry -- who once chaired the same committee -- engaged members in almost a philosophical discussion about what constitutes war.

When pressed by Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who leads the GOP’s libertarian wing in opposing military intervention in the civil-war-ridden nation, Kerry said, “We don't believe we are going to war in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war. The president is asking for the authority to do a limited action that will degrade the capacity of a tyrant who has been using chemical weapons to kill his own people.”

Four days after Obama asked Congress to approve the use of military force, administration officials continue to seek votes to approve such action, which they argue would weaken Assad’s arms capability and send a message to the region that the U.S. won’t stand for against chemical warfare. Despite public testimony and closed-door meetings with Kerry and other officials, lawmakers are weighing several difficult questions at the end of their month-long recess, during which many have been polling their constituents on the issue. A broad spectrum of feelings was expressed by the panel -- which will hold a classified meeting with Kerry on Wednesday -- underscoring how difficult it may be to gain approval of the president’s planned action.

Obama did receive welcome support Tuesday from two typically oppositional sources, House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, as well as from a more likely one: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who wrote a letter urging colleagues to favorably consider the president’s request. GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is in charge of counting votes in the House, is still undecided about the resolution.

A top concern that emerged was whether a strike against Syria would indeed be “limited,” as the White House has insisted is its intent, and whether the United States could attack the Assad regime without placing boots on the ground. If the White House hoped Kerry would be the ultimate persuader of his former colleagues, it might have felt a bit uneasy after Tuesday’s hearing.

(The Senate resolution to authorize strikes, released late Tuesday and scheduled for mark up on Wednesday, calls for “limited and tailored use” of U.S. forces, would be valid for 60 days -- with a 30-day renewal option -- and specifically “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations.”)

Kerry told the senators that sustained military intervention in the country was not part of Obama’s calculus, but “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.” He warned of “hypotheticals,” such as the country imploding or terrorist operations gaining hold of Syria’s chemical weapons, which could trigger a deeper involvement. Republican Sen. Bob Corker called the statement “inappropriate” and gave the secretary room to walk it back. Hoping to “shut that door now as tight as we can,” Kerry clarified several times throughout the rest of the hearing that there would be no troops deployed in Syria, at least as pertains to the country’s civil war.

Kerry also made clear that the administration isn’t planning to receive a “no” vote from Congress. Saying that he doesn’t know how Obama would react should lawmakers fail to back the plan, Kerry reminded members that the president still has the authority to carry out military action sans approval.

The senators had several other questions, including how long the strikes would last, why Obama would bother to come to them if he might carry out his plan anyway, and whether intervention would empower Assad rather than weaken him.

Notably, Kerry agreed that Assad “may be able to crawl out of a hole” and say he stared down the United States if he emerges from the strike unscathed. But, he said, if the Syrian dictator “is foolish enough to respond to the world's enforcement against his criminal activity, if he does, he will invite something far worse and I believe something absolutely unsustainable for him.” Again, Kerry clarified, “that doesn't mean the United States of America is going to war."

Lawmakers were also seeking clarity as to what, exactly, they’re being asked to support. Some of them question whether the administration still believes that Assad should exit, and if so, how the United States would be involved to press for that outcome. Kerry signaled that support for a united opposition would help Syrians themselves topple their leader.

Corker expressed disappointment that the administration still hasn’t armed vetted Syrian opposition groups with weapons, and asked Kerry what was taking so long. The secretary said he believed those forces have developed greater clarity as to how to structure their opposition, but said he would elaborate at the closed-door briefing on Wednesday. Nonetheless, senators such as Marco Rubio have expressed concern about not having a strong and moderate enough opposition to take over if Assad is removed, which could create further disarray.

After the hearing, Corker told RCP he was disappointed by the lack of “intensity” in efforts to arm and train vetted opposition forces, but said he thought he could get that matter addressed in the upcoming resolution.

One of the most notable lines of questioning came from a Democrat, Sen. Mark Udall, who asked Kerry what message, exactly, the United States would send with an attack. He raised concern that a strike would only reinforce the notion of the U.S. acting as a global policeman.

To that, Kerry gave an impassioned response: “Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again and they -- and the world -- says, ‘Why didn’t the United States act?’?”

Earlier, he asserted: “If we don't answer Assad today, we will erode a standard that has existed for [100] years. In fact, we will erode a standard that has protected our own troops in war, and we will invite even more dangerous tests down the road.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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