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."
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