WASHINGTON -- Senators from both parties pressed President Barack Obama’s top Cabinet officers Tuesday to provide guarantees that no U.S. troops would be sent to Syria after an initial strike in a sign of the potential political pitfalls and widespread public skittishness over even a limited retaliatory attack.
While Obama gained a key supporter in House Speaker John Boehner for responding militarily to the use of chemical weapons in Syria two weeks ago, a contentious Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing showed how much work remains for him to close the deal and gain congressional authorization for the high-risk move.
The most spirited exchange came toward the end of the 3 1/2 hour hearing when Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., clashed over the purpose and possible consequences of a U.S. military strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“I don’t know that we can say that by attacking them, he’s not going to launch another chemical attack,” Paul said.
Paul ticked off several risks, among them assaults on Israel, increased Russian involvement in the Middle East and more aggressive behavior by Iran.
“There are all kinds of unknowns that I can’t tell you absolutely the answer, and neither can you,” Paul told Kerry. “But I think there’s a reasonable argument that the world may be less stable because of this, and that it may not deter another chemical weapons attack.”
An angered Kerry turned the tables, asking Paul: “If the United States of America doesn’t do this, senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again? You want to answer that question?”
When Paul said twice the answer was unknown, Kerry snapped: “It’s unknown, senator? Senator, it’s not unknown. If the United States of America doesn’t hold him accountable on this, with our allies and friends, it’s a guarantee Assad will do it again. A guarantee. And I urge you to go to the classified briefing (Wednesday) and learn that.”
Kerry plans to brief senators in a private session Wednesday where he presumably will talk in more detail about classified information.
Early Tuesday night, Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he and the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, had reached an agreement on the Senate text for authorization of force against Syria.
The resolution permits up to 60 days of military action against Assad and gives Obama the option to extend military operations by 30 days, providing Obama “determines and certifies to Congress” within five days before the end of the initial authorization that more force is needed.
“Together we have pursued a course of action that gives the president the authority he needs to deploy force in response to the Assad regime’s criminal use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, while assuring that the authorization is narrow and focused, limited in time, and assures that the Armed Forces of the United States will not be deployed for combat operations in Syria,” Menendez said in a statement.
Earlier in the open hearing, Kerry stirred controversy when he initially refused to rule out the possibility of sending any U.S. troops to Syria in the aftermath of an American strike that would likely be delivered by Tomahawk cruise missiles from Navy destroyers off its coast.