The Cable

Kerry & Co. Whiff on Syria Hearing's Softball Questions

It was meant to be a softball question. Would the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked, sign off on legislation barring ground troops from being sent to Syria? The White House had been making that exact guarantee for days, and Kerry had been sent to Capitol Hill to reiterate the promise to a panel of skeptical lawmakers. He somehow messed up the answer all the same.

"It would be preferable not to" insert that kind of language into a formal congressional authorization for military strikes into Syria, Kerry said. He cited a range of hypotheticals, from Syria imploding to chemical weapons falling into the hands of the country's Islamist rebels, where the U.S. might need to take strong steps to prevent catastrophe. "I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country," Kerry said.

Kerry realized his mistake almost immediately and quickly assured the lawmakers that the administration was fine with a ban on ground troops. "Let's shut that door now as tight as we can," he said. He wasn't able to put the genie back in the bottle, though. Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Republican after Republican asked Kerry to promise that the administration wouldn't do something it had already promised not to do.

It was that kind of day. Sen. John McCain turned to Kerry's wife, Teresa, and said "I apologize for what I'm about to do to John" before ripping off a string of aggressive questions. A Washington Post photographer later captured McCain playing poker on his iPhone. So few questions went to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that he didn't say a word for long stretches of the hearing and looked visibly bored. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked what the U.S. was seeking in Syria, replied "I can't answer that."

Dempsey had perhaps the hardest job of any of the administration witnesses. The nation's top military officer, Dempsey has spent the past two years issuing public warnings about the potential risks of a U.S. strike against Syria. He spent Tuesday trying to persuade a skeptical Congress to sign off on just that kind of attack, arguing that Assad's chemical weapons use posed a direct threat to the U.S. and had altered his personal judgment about whether to recommend military action to the president.

"Over the past year, we've provided a range of options, and my advice on those options was based on my assessment of their linkage to our national security interests and whether they would be effective," he said. "On this issue, that is the use of chemical weapons, I find a clear linkage to our national security interest. And we will find a way to make our use of force effective."

Dempsey said that the Pentagon had prepared additional target lists in case the initial strikes against Syrian targets weren't enough to adequately "deter and degrade" Assad's chemical weapons capabilities. He also reassured lawmakers that the administration wasn't asking Congress "for permission for the president to be able to use the United States armed forces to overthrow the regime."

Dempsey wasn't as sanguine about other aspects of the administration's recent public comments about Syria, however. White House officials have defended President Obama's decision to hold off on striking Syria until Congress finished debating the issue by insisting that the additional time wasn't giving Assad a chance to hide important military assets. Dempsey offered a more pessimistic assessment, telling lawmakers that there was evidence that the Assad "regime is reacting not only to the delay, but also they were reacting before that to the unfortunate leak of military planning" by unnamed Pentagon and administration officials.

Dempsey has been playing a complicated role in the Syria debate for months. He has emerged, perhaps unwillingly, as the administration's most vocal pragmatist on intervention in Syria, citing the risks and costs of intervening in Syria in any substantive way. In a letter last month to New York Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Dempsey warned that a U.S. strike could empower radical rebel groups rather than the more moderate ones backed by the administration and its allies. Dempsey also wrote that while the U.S. could destroy the Syrian air force, grounding some of Assad's most powerful weapons, such a step could "escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict."

Dempsey has also dodged questions about whether he personally believed the U.S. should get involved in Syria. In July, McCain, one of the Senate's most hawkish voices on Syria, pressed Dempsey on whether continued American inaction was more dangerous to the U.S. than a limited strike. Dempsey refused to answer the question directly, infuriating McCain by replying that he would only share his views privately with the president.

The general was far more willing to publicly endorse the administration's Syria policy on Tuesday, repeatedly expressing confidence that American strikes could significantly degrade Assad's chemical weapons capabilities. He also said that the attacks could be carried out without causing much collateral damage, a significant concern given that many of Assad's military facilities are located in heavily-populated civilian areas.

Still, Dempsey made clear that his fundamental concern about intervening in Syria hadn't changed: a military strike, no matter how limited in scope and duration, could easily spin out of control. It was a message he conveyed in July, when he wrote lawmakers about the need to "anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action," and it was a warning he reiterated Tuesday.

"We can calibrate it on our side," he said in response to a question.  "There is always the risk of escalation on the other."

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

The Mysterious Source of Syria's Chemical Weapons and the 4 Other Biggest Takeaways from Syria Hearings, Day 2

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused Russia of supplying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with chemical weapons, the most eyebrow-raising moment in a long and sometimes strange hearing that included the Obama administration's first estimate of the financial cost of a potential U.S. strike on Syria, a detailed description of the U.S. target list, and a Republican congressman's meandering attempt to link Syria to the consolate attack in Benghazi and the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" scandal.

First, Russia. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) -- best known for screaming "you lie" at President Obama during a State of the Union address -- made the most news at today's hearing when he asked Hagel where Assad had gotten his chemical weapons.

"Well, the Russians supply them," Hagel responded. "Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."

Reports that Russia has been selling chemical weapons to Assad -- or at least providing the ingredients and equipment his scientists needed to make them -- have been floating around for years, but Hagel's comments marked one of the first times a high-ranking American official made the charge publicly.

The comments were later walked back by Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who in a statement to reporters said: "In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime."

The allegation is likely to further exacerbate U.S.-Russian tensions over Syria, which spiked this week after Russian President Vladimir Putin came out in strong opposition to a potential American intervention into Syria.

Hagel's Russia comments were the most surprising part of the House hearing, but they weren't the only interesting moment on a day when the administration won its first major victory by getting the Senate Foreign Relations Services Committee to sign off, 10-7, on a military strike against Assad. The measure should go to the full Senate next week.

Below, four other highlights from from the House session:

Military Strikes On The Cheap:  Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the limited military strikes envisioned by the administration would cost "tens of millions of dollars," the Pentagon's first public estimate of the financial price of hitting Assad.

It's a surprisingly low number given that U.S. air operations in Libya, a country with far less sophisticated air defenses than Syria, cost roughly $1 billion. A U.S. official stood by Hagel's estimate, telling The Cable that "we're taking millions and not billions for this operation." If those numbers are accurate, the potential U.S. strikes on Syria would be exceptionally modest in both scope and duration. Proponents of the strike have talked about an attack that might cost a couple hundred million. Could this plan be even smaller than previously imagined?

Military Strikes On Someone Else's Tab: Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab League wasn't willing to formally request a U.S. strike on Syria, but said key Arab powers were prepared to do perhaps the next best thing: pick up the tab for the entire cost of the operation.

"With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes," Kerry said. "They have. That offer is on the table."

In fact, Kerry said, Arab countries were willing to open their checkbooks wide.

"Some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," Kerry said. "That's how dedicated they are at this. That's not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it, but they're talking in serious ways about getting this done."

Kerry also gamely insisted that so many U.S. allies wanted to take part in a potential strike on Syria that the Pentagon couldn't find a role for all of them. That seems unlikely, since Turkey and France are to date the only major powers to publicly express a willingness to use military force against Assad. But Kerry may have an elastic definition of "participation." Albania, he said later in the hearing, was willing to provide political support for a strike. He didn't say anything about Albania being willing to do much else.

The Target List: Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided one of the most-detailed breakdowns to date of the military's target list for Syria. He said the overall mission would be to degrade Assad's chemical weapons assets by striking targets "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security." Translated from military-speak, that means doing everything possible to ensure that those weapons didn't fall into the hands of the Islamists flooding into Syria to battle Assad.

Dempsey said other targets would include the "means of delivery" for the weapons, like the rockets and artillery shells that allegedly carried sarin gas into rebel-held areas of Damascus last month, and the country's air defense systems, including its longer-range missile and rockets.

That description closely tracks with recent news reports about the administration considering a target list of roughly 50 sites that would be struck over the course of one to two days. The White House has harshly condemned those leaked war plans and vowed to find those responsible.

Bringing the Crazy: The strangest and most contentious moment of the five-hour hearing came during a heated exchange between Kerry and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), who accused the administration of having a "serious credibility issue" because of what he said were lingering questions about the White House's handling of Benghazi, the alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department's ill-fated "Fast and Furious" program.

His questioning of Kerry quickly turned personal.

"Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts. The same is true for the president and the vice president," he said. "Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?"

The secretary of state, not surprisingly, didn't take well to the charge. Normally even-keeled, a visibly angry Kerry reminded Duncan that he, Hagel, and Dempsey had all served in the military and cut the congressman off when Duncan tried to interject.

"I'm going to finish, congressman," he said, almost shouting. "I am going to finish."

Kerry said that as a senator he'd supported military action in Grenada and Panama -- conspicuously ignoring his early support for the Iraq war -- and made no attempt to hide that he thought the questions were ludicrous.

"I'm not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this," he said. "We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious!"

It remains to be seen whether Duncan will be the only one who wants to dredge up past administration scandals. With public opinion running sharply against any U.S. strike, Republicans seem likely to use any weapon in their arsenal to attack the White House's case for war.

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