Kerry: 'Humanity's Red Line' Crossed in Syria

At a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out the administration's case for a "limited" intervention in Syria.

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At a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out the administration's case for a "limited" intervention in Syria. Kerry, who took on the bulk of the duties of defending the plan from a myriad of reservations from the committee, tried to counter specific concerns about the consequences and feasibility of the administration's proposal by weighing it against a moral duty to respond. He told the senators that "humanity's red line" was crossed during a chemical weapons attack last week that the Obama administration blames on the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

In his opening statement, Kerry addressed doubts in the U.S. intelligence relied upon for the administration's decision to go forward with a strike. Kerry argued that the U.S. had "scrubbed and rescrubbed" the evidence. He added: "we have declassified unprecedented amounts of information...we can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that the Assad regime prepared for this attack."

Going into the panel, both Committee chair Robert Menendez and Ranking Member Bob Corker had expressed their support for a limited military intervention. That being said, Kerry faced plenty of skepticism on the panel,with many questions focused on the ability of the administration to keep a military strike limited, and on the actual scope of authorization proposed to Congress. The repeated refrain in response from Hagel and Kerry, along with Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey? The limited strike's mission would be to "deter and degrade" Assad's chemical weapons abilities, and not to prompt the overthrow of his regime. Some of the senators with unknown positions on Syrian intervention, including Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tom Udall (D-NM) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), made their positions a bit clearer. It looks like Murphy is leaning against intervention, while Udall would like the U.S. to wait for the U.N. to support a response, which also means he's leaning against. Markey, however, seems to be leaning towards supporting the administration's stance. 

Leading the "no" camp was Senator Rand Paul, who seems to think that the administration will get the Congressional authorization that it wants. So he asked Kerry whether the administration will go ahead and authorize a strike anyway in the off chance that Congress rejects it. Kerry made the mistake of bringing up the Constitution to Senator Paul, arguing that the president has the constitutional authority to authorize a strike without Congress if he wants. Paul disagreed: "Madison was very explicit," at which point he quotes Madison's assertion that the executive branch is the most likely to go to war. Here's part of their exchange, via Mediaite:

There's another notable development from the hearing, again involving Kerry. The Secretary of State, in what he said was just "thinking out loud," spent some time trying to walk back the following statement indicating that the administration would not, in fact, like to take "boots on the ground" completely off the table:

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 or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies — 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.

Here's one attempt to address that statement:

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State was also confronted by Code Pink protesters, prompting the former Senator to reminisce about his first appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: as a 27-year-old representative of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Assuming Paul is right (not a given), that the Obama administration will get Congressional authorization, it might not be the exact authorization it asked for: Menendez indicated that the committee was drafting up its own language for a use of force authorization — based on today's debate, probably more limited than that proposed by the administration — the language of which could be debated as early as tomorrow. Committee members get a classified briefing tomorrow morning with the panel members.

Also, John McCain was caught playing poker on his iPhone during the hearing. He's already owned up to it:

Below are our live updates on the hearing. You can find the statements or positions of each committee member after their name in bold below.

Update 6:13 p.m.: And, with Markey's testimony over, the hearing begins to wrap up, over three and a half hours later. But not before Menendez lays out an extended analogy of getting beaten up by a school-age bully.

As a parting gift, here is a photo of John McCain's iPhone poker game. 

Update 6:01 p.m.: Now it's Senator Ed Markey's turn. Markey, you'll remember, took Kerry's Senate seat after Kerry became Secretary of State. Markey, citing the unpopularity of the idea of another war among the American people, asks the panel to explain what the Russian response to any potential Syrian attack would be. "Syria is a proxy state of Russia," Markey says.

Dempsey says that "it could" increase Russia's military support for Syria, but that such an increase isn't a reason, in his mind, not to act. Dempsey asked Kerry about the U.N. process, namely would it "be wise for us to wait" for the U.N.'s findings on the chemical attack. This led to shenanigans with Markey's name plate, and then to an answer: "the distinction here," Kerry said, "is that their mandate will only allow them to say that a chemical weapons attack took place. They have no mandate to assign blame." Kerry says that Iran and Syria have both admitted that an attack took place. Markey urged the administration to declassify more information in order to assure the international community over U.S. intelligence. Kerry basically responds by saying that the administration has declassified enough.

Update 5:55 p.m.: Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat, is speaking out in support of intervention before his questions. Notably, Kaine called Russia, a "pariah state" because of its pro chemical weapons stance.

Update 5:45 p.m.:  Senator Rand Paul wants to know whether the administration will go forward with a missile strike even if Congress doesn't authorize it. Kerry, without giving a firm answer, responds by arguing that the president would have the constitutional authority to authorize a strike, which Paul responds to by talking a lot about Madison.

Here's how the Kerry-Paul exchange is going. Paul, who says that Congress will probably authorize what the president wants, is against it:

Hagel Dempsey declined to add anything in response to Paul.

Update 5:32 p.m.: Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, agrees with the administration's argument that there is a national security interest presented by the chemical attacks. But, he asks whether intervention would lessen the "acuity" of the moral atrocity, and what the potential effects will be from escalation or unintended consequences.

He's not getting very detailed answers from Kerry, who is now into hour three of a hearing that has mainly relied on his responses. In response to one of Murphy's rather measured questions, Kerry compares Assad to Hitler. But now, Rand Paul is up.

Update 5:29 p.m.: Kerry, in response to a question from Republican Senator John Barrasso explains a bit more about the limited and yet broad scope of the authorization before Congress. His argument? Essentially, that limiting the military's ability to respond to further chemical attacks would be detrimental. Addressing another question from Barrasso, Menendez indicates that the committee is working on a new authorization of force.

Update 5:23 p.m.: Senator Tom Udall, bringing up Iraq, has concerns over the administration's proposal. He asks Kerry what specific language he'd be will to agree to in order to make it clear that Congress wasn't authorizing "boots on the ground." Kerry declines to discuss that point again, in detail, but goes on to discuss the limited scope of the proposed mission. 

"This is not sending a message," Kerry says. It will have an "effect." That effect? Deter and degrade. Udall, speaking about U.N. authorization, seems to want the U.S. to try harder to either get Russia and China to change their minds and agree to a resolution against Syria. This prompts an impassioned response from Kerry. Asking whether he'd be willing not to act altogether, Kerry says that "history is full of opportunity of moments when someone didn't stand up and make a difference." Udall responds that "I don't believe we should have given up so easily" on the U.N. 

Update 5:04 p.m.: Senator McCain's up (he's put down his reported iPhone poker game). After complimenting Kerry and his wife, McCain apologizes for "what I'm about to do to John." He begins, "When you tell the enemy you're gonna attack them, they're obviously gonna disperse and make it harder," focusing on the U.S.'s delay in intervention to go to Congress.

McCain asked the panel specifically about the allegations in a Wall Street Journal piece:

He also cites another WSJ piece, outlining the dynamics of the opposition.

Update 4:59 p.m.: Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat, asks about collateral damage, citing the images of dead children from the August 21 chemical attack that we've already seen. Dempsey defers most of the answer to the closed session, but adds that the calculations are different for civilians and for regime personell.

Update 4:55 p.m.: Flake asks what Obama will do if Congress says "no." Kerry responds by referencing the President's assertion that he still retains the power to authorize a strike unilaterally. Then, he says that a rejection by Congress would prompt Tehran, Pyongyang, etc., to "celebrate,"

Update 4:50 p.m.: Senator Jeff Flake, Republican, wonders why we didn't attack targets in Syria "right now," or "a week ago," instead of waiting for Congress. Referring to Libya, Flake asks if the decision to see authorization this time is "political." Kerry responds by saying that he's surprised a senator on the foreign relations committee would question the president following the "original intent of the founding fathers." Kerry also cites Dempsey's apparent assessment that the mission of "degrading and deterring" can wait without the mission itself degrading.

Update 4:40 p.m.: Democratic Senator Christopher Coons, who seems to support intervention, reaches for the literary by describing the Assad regime's actions as an "ascending crescendo of death." (of course, "ascending crescendo" will ring just a bit redundant for many).

Update 4:34 p.m.: Senator Ron Johnson, Republican, wants to know why the administration isn't just straight up trying to remove Assad from office with a "knock-out punch," rather than to "deter and degrade" his chemical weapons ability. Kerry says that Obama has decided that the U.S. doesn't need that action right now, adding, "is the Congress ready to pay for thirty days of 30,000 air strikes?" Kerry responds, getting a bit combative.

Johnson also wants to know a lot about the competency and numbers of the opposition, with the implication that the U.S. may not believe that the rebels are ready to take over if Assad leaves power. He asks for numbers of rebel forces, divided by "moderate" and more extreme. Most of his questions are deferred to the closed session. Kerry, however, notes that the numbers of active combatants are in the tens of thousands, and posits that most Syrians want their country to remain secular.

Meanwhile, Senator John McCain is apparently passing the time by playing poker on his iPhone.

Update 4:26 p.m.: Senator Jeanne Shaheen's question period takes us near the two-hour mark:

She asked the panel about the timing of the current push for intervention. Dempsey cites the unique national security interest in the wake of the chemical attack in Syria.

Update 4:19 p.m.: Kerry returns to the "boots on the ground" again, stating that the authorization absolutely would not authorize such an act, and he doesn't want the media to misinterpret his "hypothetical" outline of when, in fact, the administration might need boots on the ground in Syria. Meanwhile, his earlier statements, which he's since disowned as just "thinking out loud" are already generating headlines.

Update 4:12 p.m.: Republican Senator Rubio argues that Assad is connected to basically every group that works against American interests, including those others generally bring up in connection to the rebels:

Repeating the Superhawk refrain that the administration was "leading from behind" on Syria before the chemical attacks in late August (implying that the administration should have done something earlier), Rubio argues that intervention in Syria is in the "vital national interest" of the U.S.

His first question, to Dempsey: "Can we structure an attack that tips" the "calculation" for Assad, so that he believes its more in his interest to risk "losing to the rebels."  Dempsey argues that Assad believes chemical weapons are "just another weapon in his arsenal." Rubio follows up by asking about the feasibility of a limited scope. Dempsey says that the U.S. has primary and secondary "target sets," to use if necessary in limited action in Syria. His skepticism is focused on the ability of such a plan to achieve its objectives, which, again, are to "deter and degrade" Assad's chemical weapons capability.

Update 4:10 p.m.: And, just before it's Senator Rubio's turn, a third protestor speaks out.

Update 4:03 p.m.: Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin somewhat gently brings up the fact that the proposal put before Congress seems "broader" than what president Obama has told the American public he's asking for. "I wanna urge you in the strongest possible terms," he says, "to draft a resolution" as "tight" as possible on the limits of the intervention.

Update 4:00 p.m.: Senator Jim Risch, a Republican, is the first committee member to push back against the idea of the feasibility of a limited intervention:

"What happens if this thing gets away from us?" he adds, specifically mentioning the possibility of a retaliation against Israel. Kerry, noting that he spoke to Israel's Netanyahu yesterday, argues that Israel is prepared to handle a scenario like that.

Update 3:51 p.m.: When asked by Boxer about Russia's claim against American intelligence on the Syria chemical weapons attack, Kerry laughs, but declines to insult the Russians directly as President Obama gets ready for the G20 summit in St. Petersburg this week. Also, this photo, from today's hearing, is probably going to be everyone's caption contest in a matter of days (photo via the AP):

Update 3:47 p.m.: Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer (CA) gives a statement during her turn for questions. She says she'll support a "targeted" military response to Syria, but not a "blank check." Addressing Kerry, Boxer asks whether any intelligence agencies dissent from the analysis of the intelligence presented by the administration. Kerry says that's not the case to his knowledge.

Update 3:46 p.m.: Sen. Corker brings up "boots on the ground" again, calling Kerry's initial answer "unsatisfactory." Kerry chooses to push back against his earlier hypothetical about situations in which boots on the ground might be necessary, saying "let's shut that door as tight as we can."

Kerry notes that he was just bringing up a hypothetical situation, "thinking out loud" about circumstances in which that might be necessary, such as if terrorists got their hands on chemical weapons, or if Syria "imploded." Kerry says: "there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war."

Despite this pushback, his comments about not taking boots on the ground "off the table" in certain circumstances will probably end up sticking — and it looks like Kerry knows this.

Update 3:34 p.m.: Ranking member Bob Corker is up next for questioning. He's interested in what else the U.S. can do to assist the opposition in the country. Corker wants to know why the U.S. has been "so slow" in providing "lethal support" to the opposition. Kerry refers most of his response to that for tomorrow's closed session. Hagel adds that lethal opposition was only authorized in "June," referring to the "extensive" vetting process required before the U.S. will start giving that support.

Corker adds "is there anything about the authorization... that takes away" or "supplements" the ability of the "vetted" opposition to continue and "enhance" their strategy against Assad. Kerry believes that the proposed military response — again, he repeats "deterring and degrading" their chemical weapons ability — would have a "downstream" effect on Assad's overall military capacity.

Update 3:30 p.m.: The first questions come from chair Bob Menendez. Will an intervention (which Menendez supports) make us more secure? Kerry says, yes, it would make us more secure. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, facing questions from Menendez on the goals of any military action, repeats the "deter and degrade" phrasing from Kerry's speech, referring any further details to tomorrow's closed session.

Meanwhile, Kerry notes that he doesn't want to "take off the table" boots on the ground completely, or any other military option against Syria. Kerry brings up a hypothetical situation of the threat of chemical weapons falling into the hands of extremists as an instance in which the administration might change their mind on the topic. Menendez seems keen to make sure any congressional authorization for military action doesn't include "troops on the ground for combat purposes."

Update 3:26 p.m.: Hagel, like many before him, addresses the "risks" of a Syria strike by arguing that not acting would hurt our credibility and reputation, which he called a "vital currency."

Update 3:22 p.m.: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is up next, following another impassioned speech by John Kerry. Hagel, perhaps to counter the blow of the U.K.'s pull-out from supporting the U.S. proposal, lists France, Turkey, and the UAE among the U.S.'s international support on a limited military strike. "A political solution" from the Syrian people is the only way to stop the ongoing conflict in Syria, Hagel argues, adding that any military action would only focus on deterring further use of chemical weapons.

Update 3:18 p.m.: And, another Code Pink protester begins shouting against Syrian intervention as Kerry finishes. Kerry, speaking after she's quieted, notes that he held views "similar" to the protester's when he testified for the first time to the committee when he was 27.

Here, by the way, is that testimony (h/t MSNBC):

And here's the protester, none other than Medea Benjamin, via TPM:

Kerry finished by calling non-action "armchair isolationism," alluding to "spectators to slaughter." he continued, "we must protect our security, protect our values, and lead the world."

Update 3:15 p.m.: Kerry argues that the strikes would send the "unmistakeable message that when the US and the world say never again, we don't mean sometimes, we don't mean somewhere...never means never." To not act, Kerry adds, would render international agreements banning chemical weapons use just "pieces of paper." Kerry repeats Senator Menendez's assertion that the proposal on the table is not a "declaration of war." He adds: "he's asking for authorization to degrade and deter" Assad's ability to use chemical weapons. "If Assad is arrogant enough" to retaliate, Kerry adds, the U.S. has "ample" ways to make him "regret that decision."

Update 3:09 p.m: Kerry also argues that a limited strike against Syria would limit Assad's ability to carry out future attacks. But it's not clear whether this is based on specific analysis of the impact of military strikes, or on a continued assertion that such strikes would send a message. Kerry says that the proposed action would "forc[e] Assad to change his calculation on his ability to act without impunity" He also argues that the message would go beyond the Assad regime, referring to "extremists of both sides:"

Update 3:05 p.m.: Kerry adds that the evidence is "beyond a reasonable doubt," alluding to the standard used in domestic criminal courts. That evidence, he said, includes "signatures of sarin" in blood and hair samples.

Update 3:00 p.m.: "We're here because against multiple warnings from the United States," Kerry says, "from our friends and allies around the world...the Assad regime, and undeniably only the Assad regime, released an outrageous chemical attack" in Syria. Once again appealing to the emotional pull of the deadly attacks, Kerry talks about the lives "snuffed" out by what he argues was an action by the Assad regime.

Sidestepping a direct comparison to Iraq, Kerry argues that the intelligence cited by the administration is sound. they have "scrubbed and rescrubbed" the evidence, he says, adding, "we have declassified unprecedented amounts of information...we can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that the Assad regime prepared for this attack."

Update 2:57 p.m.: Secretary of State John Kerry is up first on the panel. Side note: Kerry mentions that this is the first public appearance for Teresa Heinz-Kerry since July, after she suffered a seizure and was hospitalized at the end of the Kerry's vacation. Kerry thanks the committee for returning to work early in order to start talking about the administration's proposal.

Update 2:54 p.m.: "Everyone here knows that I am very inclined" to support a military intervention in Syria, Republican committee ranking member Bob Corker says, adding that one of the "problems" facing many committee members is that "while we make policy, you [meaning the State Department and the Pentagon, represented by Kerry and Hagel] implement." Corker reminds the panel member that they're making the case to the American people, as well as to the committee today, asking them to focus on why Syria "matters" to our national interest, and to the region. Corker also asks Kerry and Hagel to address the potential aftermath of any military action in Syria

Update 2:49 p.m.: Menendez argues that non-action on Syria "clearly" leaves our national security at stake, as the Senator hypothesizes over the message that a lack of response would give to Kim Jong un and Hezbollah, for instance. "This is not a declaration of war," Menendez says, "but a declaration of our values to the world. Menendez, remember, supports a limited military interventions, perhaps even more limited than that proposed by the administration. Senator Bob Corker, the ranking member of the committee, is up next.

Update 2:45 p.m.: Menendez, again, mentions that the committee will look at more evidence regarding the chemical attacks in Syria at a closed session tomorrow.

Update 2:41 p.m.: Committee Chair Bob Menendez makes the case for the Obama administration, arguing that whatever the U.S. does to respond to Assad will "send a signal" around the world about the use of chemical weapons. "what message do we send the world when such a crime goes unpunished?" He added, presumably regarding Russia, "are we willing to watch a slaughter just because the patrons of that slaughter are willing to use their veto at the U.N.?"

Update 2:36 p.m.: even before the hearing begins, a protester starts chanting "no more war in Syria."

Original post: Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will present the administration's case for a military strike on Syria to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this Tuesday. They'll be joined by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first formal step towards seeking congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria.

In a statement, a senior State Department official outlined their argument:

"[Kerry] will argue that the failure to take action against Assad unravels the deterrent impact of the international norm against chemical weapons use; endangers our friends and our partners along Syria's borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq; and risks emboldening Assad and his key allies -- Hezbollah and Iran -- who will see that there are no consequences for such a flagrant violation of international standards."

Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ), supports military intervention in Syria. In a statement, he said that limited military force was "justified and necessary given the Assad regime's reprehensible use of chemical weapons and gross violation of international law." The ranking member, Bob Corker (R-Tenn), also supports a limited intervention (though, like Menendez, may prefer a revised, even more limited version of the authorization bill), as do committee members Dick Durbin (D-Ill), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). Committee member John McCain (R-Ariz.) would like even more intervention than is allegedly planned, while many committee members haven't publicly made up their mind yet. Those include Chris Murphy (D-Conn.),  Tom Udall (D-NM) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

Meanwhile, just 6 in 10 Americans support a solo use of military force in Syria, according to a new poll by the Washington Post and ABC News. If, say, the U.K. or France participated in the strikes, the split narrows to 46 percent against and 51 percent in favor.

Watch the hearing live below. It begins at 2:30:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.