WASHINGTON — Facing a committee whose members’ skepticism wasn’t easily distinguished by party lines, Secretary of State John Kerry led the administration’s charge for action in Syria in the first open hearing before the congressional committee he used to lead.
Though Congress still isn’t back in session, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee returned for a nearly four-hour hearing today that also featured Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey as witnesses.
Kerry, with his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry and a sprinkling of antiwar protesters in the audience, reiterated his assertion that the evidence pointing to Bashar al-Assad’s guilt in gassing his own people is irrefutable.
“My colleagues, we know what happened. For all the lawyers, for all the former prosecutors, for all those who have sat on a jury, I can tell you that we know these things beyond a reasonable doubt that is the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives,” he said.
“Now, some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world’s red line. It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.”
It’s also, Kerry added, about “Congress’ own red line.”
“I will tell you there are some people hoping that the United States Congress doesn’t vote for this very limited request the president has put before you. Iran is hoping you look the other way. Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test. Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day. They are all listening for our silence,” he said.
Israel, Jordan and Turkey, Kerry continued, “are one stiff breeze away from the potential of being hurt, of their civilians being killed as a consequences of choices Assad might take in the absence of action.”
“We need to send to Syria and to the world, to dictators and to terrorists, to allies and to civilians alike the unmistakable message that when the United States of America and the world say, never again, we do not mean sometimes. We do not mean the somewhere. Never means never,” he said. “So this is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they’re not enforced.”
While Kerry stressed “President Obama is not asking America to go to war,” Hagel said, “We are not unaware of the costs and ravages of war, but we also understand that America must protect its people and its national interests.”
And Kerry got nostalgic about his own military — or, most specifically, post-military — life after Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin staged the first antiwar outburst of the hearing.
“We don’t want another war. Nobody wants this war,” Benjamin shouted as Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) banged the gavel and Capitol Police led her out of the room. “Cruise missiles — launching cruise missiles means another war. The American people do not want this.”
“You know, 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.”
Menendez said he was at a soccer tournament over the weekend when a group of moms came up and said, “Senator, we saw those pictures. They’re horrific. We can’t imagine the devastation those parents must feel about their children. But why us? Why us?”
“And so, I ask you, would you tell them that we would be more secure or less secure by the actions that are being considered, for which the president has asked for the authorization of the use of force?” he asked the panel.
“Senator, I would say unequivocally that the president’s actions will make us more secure, less likely that Assad can use his weapons or chooses to use his weapons. And the absence of taking the action the president has asked for will, in fact, be far more threatening and dangerous and potentially ultimately cost lives,” Kerry said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), after a drawn-out monologue about times she did (Serbia) and didn’t (Iraq) cast votes in approval of force, asked if all intelligence agencies who reviewed the Syria evidence arrived at the same conclusion.
“To my knowledge, I have no knowledge of any agency that was a dissenter or anybody who had, you know, an alternative theory,” Kerry replied. “And I do know — I think it’s safe to say — that they had a whole team that ran a scenario to try to test their theory to see if there was any possibility they could come up with an alternative view as to who might have done it, and the answer is they could not.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) drew praise from Syrians on Twitter for his criticism of an administration leading from behind.
“The choice was made to watch as this thing unfolded. Others advocated that we should just mind our own business. And what we’re seeing here now is proof and an example of when America ignores these problems, these problems don’t ignore us. We can ignore them, but eventually they grow and they come to visit us at our doorstep,” Rubio said.
The senator called out Kerry on noting “that one of the calculations that Assad used in deciding to use chemical weapons was that the U.S. wouldn’t do anything about it.”
“And I understand perhaps why he made that calculation because, yes, this was a horrible incident where 1,000 people died. But before this incident, 100,000 people had died, including snipers that were used to pick off civilians, including women that were raped as part of a — they were going to these villages to carry this out, and nothing happened. So, of course, he reached that calculation,” Rubio continued. “…Can we structure an attack that tips that calculation, where he’ll basically decide that he would rather risk being overrun by rebels than risking a limited attack from the U.S. if he uses these chemical weapons?”