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.
Asked by Menendez, whether a congressional resolution authorizing military action should contain “a prohibition for having American boots on the ground,” Kerry responded: “Mr. Chairman, it would be preferable not to have a prohibition, not because there is any intention or plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground.”
After saying that Obama will provide “every assurance in the world” that no troops would be used, Kerry sketched a scenario in which they might.
“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 (an al Qaida-linked group in Syria) 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 the president of the United States to secure our country.”
Kerry’s lengthy scenario drew rebukes from Corker and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as well as a gentler response from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
By the end, Kerry had backed off his original stance and said the congressional resolution could contain an explicit prohibition against follow-on U.S. troops in Syria, though he continued to acknowledge that down the road their presence couldn’t be absolutely ruled out.
Another dramatic moment in the hearing came after a handful of protesters held up signs and shouted out objections to U.S. military action in Syria.
“We don’t want another war,” one of them yelled.
As guards ushered the protesters from the hearing room, Kerry reflected on his now-famous testimony against the Vietnam War before the same Senate panel in 1971 after he’d served in the Southeast Asia conflict and returned home.
“The first time I testified before this committee – when I was 27 years old – I had feelings very similar to that protester,” Kerry said. “And I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are all here having this debate, talking about these things before the country, and that the Congress itself will act representing the American people.”
At a White House session before the Senate hearing, Obama picked up a key supporter when Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters that he supports the president’s desire to launch a limited strike at Syria in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons two weeks ago.
“I’m going to support the president’s call for action, and I believe my colleagues should support this call for action,” Boehner said after meeting with Obama.
“The United States for our entire history has stood up for democracy and freedom for people around the world,” he said. “The use of these (chemical) weapons has to be responded to, and only the United States has the capability and capacity to stop Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated.”
Assad has repeatedly denied responsibility for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb. Obama, Kerry and other top U.S. officials say the evidence of his involvement is indisputable.
Obama said Tuesday that any military action against war-torn Syria would not involve “boots on the ground.”
“This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan,” Obama said. “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.”
At the Senate hearing, Menendez also came out in favor of a U.S. military response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria.
“In my view there is a preponderance of evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Assad’s forces willfully targeted civilians with chemical weapons,” Menendez said.
“Having said that, at the end of the day, the chemical weapons attack against innocent civilians in Syria is an indirect attack on America’s security with broader implications for the region and the world,” he said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has said for days that the Pentagon is prepared to launch a strike, gave his strongest support yet for such an attack.
“The Syrian regime’s actions risk eroding the nearly century-old international norm against the use of chemical weapons – a norm that has helped protect the United States homeland and American forces operating across the globe from these terrible weapons,” Hagel told the panel. “Weakening this norm could embolden other regimes to acquire or use chemical weapons.”
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pleaded for more time before any military actions, urging Obama and Congress to await the conclusion of tests by his team of weapons inspectors, which left Syria over the weekend but still must analyze and report on its findings.
Ban expressed appreciation for Obama’s decision to go to Congress on the issue, but he said significant elements of the U.S. version of events in Syria involving the chemical weapons attack remain unproven.
A poll released Tuesday suggested that Americans haven’t come around to Obama’s view, with 48 percent of those surveyed opposing a U.S. strike against Syria, 29 percent supporting one and the rest uncertain.
Three-quarters of Americans believe that U.S. airstrikes would likely create a backlash against the United States and its allies in the Middle East, and 61 percent fear they would likely lead to a long-term U.S. military engagement there, according to the poll by the Pew Research Center.
Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed.