Secretary of State John Kerry appears before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is at right.(Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
WASHINGTON -- President Obama does not want a major military
commitment in Syria, top administration officials told the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, but the failure to respond to
Syria's chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,400 people will
send the wrong signal to rogue regimes around the world.
argument, expressed by Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary
Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, won the general support of most committee members. The panel's
chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and ranking Republican, Sen. Bob
Corker of Tennessee, said the United States needed to act against
Menendez opened the hearing on the Obama administration's
case for military action in Syria by calling the Aug. 21 attack that
killed at least 426 children "sickening."
The three witnesses
sought to show why it was necessary for the United States to act against
Bashar Assad's government in the face of ongoing skepticism from a
Menendez and committee Democrats, such as Sen.
Barbara Boxer of California, said the brutality of the attack made a
U.S. response necessary. "In my view the world cannot ignore the
inhumanity and the horror of this act," Menendez said.
Boxer, a liberal Democrat, opposed the 2002 authorization of the Iraq
war but said Syria was different, in part because the Senate resolution
will make it clear this is a more limited engagement with no troops on
the ground. "I will support a targeted effort but not a blank check
against Syria gassing its people to death," Boxer said.
committee Republicans tended to support the administration's call for
action, but criticized Obama for not acting on behalf of Syria's rebels
before now. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the failure to act earlier
has forced the administration to do something now.
Assad for the attack, saying his government prepared for it and warned
its troops to protect themselves from the toxins.
"It did happen," Kerry said. "And the Assad regime did it."
Kerry, a former chairman of the foreign relations committee, said
neither he nor Hagel, another former senator, would ask the Senate to
vote based on faulty intelligence. Their intelligence, Kerry said, was
Kerry and Hagel are both decorated veterans of the Vietnam war.
told senators that the objective of military action would be to hold
Syria's government accountable for using chemical weapons, degrade its
ability to mount more attacks and deter it and other adversaries such as
Iran and North Korea from using weapons of mass destruction.
an exchange with Menendez, Kerry appeared to leave open the possibility
of sending U.S. troops to Syria. The exchange irked Corker.
didn't find that to be an appropriate response," said Corker. "I don't
think there are any of us here willing to support the possibility of
combat troops on the ground."
Kerry quickly backtracked. "Let's
shut that door now, as tight as we can...There will not be American
boots on the ground in respect to the civil war."
The hearing was interrupted by protesters who were escorted from the hearing room.
Wednesday, the committee will hold a second, closed hearing on
classified information regarding the decision to engage in Syria because
the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the nation's ongoing civil
war. Hagel and Dempsey will hold another closed-door hearing for members
of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the morning.
Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey are also scheduled to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss Syria.
hearing followed private meetings at the White House between Obama and
key congressional committee leaders, including House Speaker John
Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
After the meeting, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor,
R-Va., said they supported a military strike. "I intend to vote to
provide the president of the United States the option to use military
force in Syria," Cantor said in a statement.
remains out of session until Sept. 9, but both the House and Senate are
scheduled to vote next week on authorization resolutions, which are
still being drafted.
Susan Davis and Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY