Secretary of State John Kerry assured reluctant lawmakers the White House would not put any U.S. soldiers in Syria as he sought to convince them Tuesday to support a military strike against that country.
Kerry’s comments at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are part of the Obama administration’s push to convince the public and skeptical lawmakers that limited strikes against Syria are the right response to the use of chemical weapons by the forces of President Bashar Assad.
Saying he wanted to be “crystal clear,” Kerry said the administration would have “no problem editing the language to have zero capacity for U.S. troops on the ground” in Syria in order to secure authorization from Congress.
Kerry made the statement after initially saying he did not want Congress to pass a resolution that would preclude U.S. troops from entering Syria because it would limit the president’s options.
After that comment quickly ruffled members on the panel and drew puzzled responses from the committee’s chairman and ranking member, who both support military action, Kerry backtracked.
His quick correction highlighted the tightrope the administration is walking as it tries to convince Congress that allowing military strikes will not lead to greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s years-long civil war.
It is not clear whether Congress will approve Obama’s request for military authorization, and members of both parties clashed with Kerry during the three-and-a-half hour hearing.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) warned that intervention in Syria would return the U.S. to the role of international policeman. He also criticized the administration for not doing more to convince the United Nations Security Council to back action.
Kerry responded that the U.S. cannot stand idly by simply because others wouldn’t act, and he said it had been impossible to move a resolution through the United Nations due to opposition from permanent Security Council members Russia and China.
“I don’t believe that we should have given up so easily on using the United Nations,” Udall told Kerry.
In response, Kerry fired back, “We haven’t given up.”
“Yes, we have,” Udall said defiantly.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) pressed for an explanation for why the administration didn’t want to use military action to remove Assad from power, a nod to the possibility that al Qaeda affiliated groups could take his place.
Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who joined Kerry at the panel’s hearing, also faced skepticism from defense hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who says the administration isn’t doing enough to oust Assad from power.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), meanwhile, asked Kerry to explain what the White House would do if Congress rejected a strike.
Kerry argued to the panel that doing nothing would give a “permission slip” to other dictators or terrorists to pursue and wield weapons of mass destruction.
“Iran is hoping you look the other way,” Kerry said in his opening statement. “Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not put it to the test.
“We know that Assad would read our stepping away or our silence as an invitation to use those weapons with impunity,” Kerry said.
Kerry also disputed that the U.S. decision to take military action in Syria is about President Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.
“This debate is about the world’s red line,” Kerry said. “It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone’s conscience ought to draw.”
He argued that this was not the time for “armchair isolationism,” in a shot at those who have said they oppose getting the U.S. involved in Syria’s internal conflict.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the panel’s chairman, said his committee was attempting to finalize an edited authorization measure on Syria that would be less open-ended than the White House draft that was submitted over the weekend. The Foreign Relations panel could vote on the final resolution as early as Wednesday, he said.
“I do think we’re going to have to work on language that makes it clear that this is an overriding issue that I think that members as well as the American people want to know,” Menendez said of ground troops.
The Senate session was the first of at least two public hearings where Kerry, Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey will testify this week.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding another open hearing Wednesday, while the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations panel will be having closed sessions.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pressed Kerry on what Obama would do if he loses the vote.
“Only if our vote is binding is it meaningful,” said Paul, who is one of the biggest critics of U.S. action in Syria.
— This story was last updated at 8:36 p.m.
— Carlo Munoz contributed to this story.