Stating that he feels "100 percent" confident that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad would use chemical weapons in the future if the United States didn't intervene, Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Capitol Hill Wednesday to make the administration's pitch to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday. Kerry did offer some new arguments — we have more allied help than we need; we must act or else al Qaeda fighters will be strengthened — but the larger debate has obviously shifted away from initial information-gathering and to political arm wrestling.
Watch the hearing live.
It's become apparent that the biggest fight will be in the House — not a new circumstance for the administration, but one Obama hoped to avoid. Despite agreement from Republican House leaders on supporting action, an informal count conducted by ThinkProgress, shows that House members who have stated a position on intervention oppose it by nearly four-to-one. Among those who are skeptical is Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the committee. His introduction to Kerry's appearance reflected that skepticism.
President Obama drew, in his words, a "red line," and yet only last week did the administration begin to consult with Congress on what that means. Today, the House begins formal consideration of the president's request to use military force in Syria. It is a cliche, but true: There are no easy answers.
After Kerry's somewhat shaky performance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, it was important he not repeat his prior uncertainty. He didn't. But he didn't offer much new evidence to convince the Royces of the world.
The pressure on Kerry began at the outset. As he entered the hearing room, a protester confronted the secretary in opposition to the effort, but with far less energy than Tuesday's Code Pink protests. Kerry was again joined by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey. While they spoke, protesters held up hands stained in red, one with pink tape over her mouth.
Kerry's opening remarks largely echoed his statement on Tuesday. On the issue of ground troops, he was adamant and specific.
We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground. The president has made crystal clear: we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war. That is not in the cards. That is not what is here. The president is asking only for the power to make certain that the United States of America means what we say.
"The world is wondering," he said, "whether the United States of America is going to consent through silence to stand aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence." The administration seeks Congress' approval, Kerry said, not because there's question on Assad's guilt. "The world is watching to see how we decide," he said, "to see if we can still achieve a single voice speaking for America." Noting his past as a prosecutor, Kerry argued that the case against Assad would pass muster on the standard of reasonable doubt applied in American criminal cases. The administration had received new evidence even on the day of his appearance, suggesting that Assad's allies considered him guilty.
Nor was Kerry there to defend the president's red line, contrary to Royce's introduction (and in keeping with Obama's statements earlier Wednesday).
This is about the world's redline. It is about humanity's redline, ... a line that was drawn nearly 100 years ago when the chemical weapons convention was agreed upon.
"Our troops in war have been protected by this prohibition," he continued. "This is a standard we need to enforce to stand up for America's interests." But ultimately the decision was about imposing a cost on Assad's alleged action. Kerry concluded, "Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence."
Kerry asserted that the United States would not be acting alone. "There are more countries who have offered to be part of our operation than our military believes we need," for the campaign to be effective, the secretary said, some 34 in total (though he didn't name them). Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida raised the question of cost. Noting that the Arab League strongly supports American intervention, she asked if they might help cover the expense. (Or, rather, if they would "pony up.") Kerry said the offer was on the table.
Answering a question from Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, Kerry offered an interesting argument for action. "If we fail to pass this — those who are working with us today with the Syrian opposition, we have been working hard to keep them from funding bad elements" — such as al Qaeda-affiliated fighters. "If we back off and failed to enforce our word here, I promise you the discipline that we have put in place with respect to the moderate opposition versus bad guys will dissipate immediately and people will resort to anybody they can find to help them accomplish their goal."
When it was his turn, Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia asked the Cabinet members their thoughts on one question: "If we do nothing … what is your judgment that Assad will use chemical weapons as a routine weapon to turn the tide of this war?" Hagel called the likelihood "very high." Kerry went further. "I agree completely. I might even put it at 100 percent."
In other words, in Kerry's estimation the stakes literally couldn't be higher. It's not clear that his arguments on Wednesday made much headway in convincing the House committee to agree.