Thus you can imagine how much it disturbed me, while watching the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings yesterday, to watch him field questions from Senators far more worried about simple partisan posturing than national security, from Senators unable--for the most part--to ask significant or meaningful questions.
The committee chairman--Senator Bob Menendez--began the hearing with flowery rhetoric about how the meeting was a "profile in courage" or some such nonsense, then admonished Senators to put their personal politics and ideologies aside on the matter. Yet, Menendez made a point of establishing his own politics, noting how he voted against military action in Iraq, as if that somehow gave him "street cred" on the issue of Syria. And beyond that, all he did was play the role of administration mouthpiece.
Ranking Republican Senator Bob Corker was little better. He was more concerned with demonstrating his first hand knowledge--he recently took a trip there--with the situation in Syria, than anything else. And with criticizing the lack of support given to rebel factions (which may be a valid point, but has no bearing on the issue of military strike against Syria for using chemical weapons).
Senator Boxer, later in the hearing, read her statement which was little more than absolute evidence of her very clear political partisanship, of her support for Democratic Presidents and opposition to Republican Presidents. So of course, she voiced her support for the President's idea of a "limited strike" against Syria.
The other Senators postured in similar ways, the Democrats basically making it clear that they supported the President and the limited strike doctrine, while most Republicans found fault with the President's actions up to the current point, in one direction or the other. But Senator Rand Paul really took the cake, by trying to elicit something from Kerry that he was in no position to give: a promise to not engage in Syria if Congress voted down the resolution (for President Obama has already said he can act without the consent of Congress, because he can, like it or not). It was a pointless excursion, to be sure, but one that Senator Paul is no doubt proud of.
The whole thing was very much a dog and pony show, with only a handful of insights provided by any of the Senators who spoke. One Senator who actually did give a good accounting of himself was Marco Rubio, who asked the following of General Dempsey:
So my question is this: Can we -- 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. He has to decide: I'll use chemical weapons and take on a limited U.S. attack in the future or I'll risk being overrun by the rebels. How are we going to unbalance that and lead him to calculate that he's better off risking losing to the rebels?He didn't receive much of a response. Which led him to ask the following of Kerry:
And this question is probably for Secretary Kerry, and I think this was asked earlier, but I think it's important to elaborate on it. One of the concerns that I have and I've heard others express is that Assad could take three, five, six days of strikes, maybe longer, maybe shorter, and emerge from that saying, I have faced down the United States and I have held onto power and survived, and at that point be further emboldened both domestically and perhaps even abroad. Have we taken that into account? And I understand your argument that inaction would be worse, but have we taken into account what the implications could be of an Assad that could weather a limited strike and what that could mean for the long- term prospects of the conflict?Kerry's answer, in full:
Yes, we absolutely have. For certain, we've taken that into account. He will -- I mean, he will weather. The president's -- the president's asking for a limited authority to degrade his current capacity and to deter him from using it again. He is not asking for permission from the Congress to go destroy the entire regime or to, you know, do a much more extensive kind of thing. That's not what he's asking. So he will be able to stand up, and no doubt he'll try to claim that somehow this is, you know, something positive for him.Kerry was pressed on the issue of "troops on the ground" by Menendez earlier, and noted that it would be unwise to absolutely limit such a possibility. He's now clarifying by allowing that the resolution would thus contain no allowances for such troops (which would not absolutely rule out their usage). And that's a fair answer, I think, though I'm certain it will fail to satisfy the nattering nabob crowd on both sides of the aisle.
But I think General Dempsey has made it clear and I think we believe deeply, as do others who are knowledgeable about this in the region, that there is no way that it will, in fact, be beneficial for him, that it will not translate for him on the ground; that the defections that are taking place now and other things that will happen will further degrade his capacity to prosecute it going forward.
And I want to emphasize something. I want to come back to it because I don't want anybody misinterpreting this from earlier. This authorization does not contemplate and should not have any allowance for any troop on the ground. I just want to make that absolutely clear. You know, what I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential it might occur at some point in time, but not in this authorization, in no way -- be crystal clear -- there's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for. I don't want anybody in the media or elsewhere to misinterpret that coming out of here. As I said earlier, I repeat it again now, that's important.
But the larger point is this: Rubio hits the two primary issues that must be addressed, the efficacy of a limited strike militarily and the efficacy of a limited strike politically/democratically. The answer to the first--from the military--is less than inspiring. The answer to the second--from Kerry--is at least honest. I suspect Kerry knows it is also insufficient. I also suspect Kerry is actually unhappy with what has gone on, with the actions of the Administration, up to this point. He's stuck with a gameplan he's less than thrilled with. Rubio's questions revealed a deep-seated unease in Kerry, as he grasps a reality here: a limited strike, following all this debating and voting in Congress, becomes less and less effective by the moment, because it creates an atmosphere of doubt which will be exploited by Assad, along with Putin and others.
The moment has passed on Syria, not because there is nothing that can now be done, but because there is no will to do what should be done, what should have been done already. And Kerry knows this, but can only play the hand he has been dealt.