Syria Vote: What Happened At the Senate Hearing On Syria

Wednesday's ad-hoc meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was three and a half hours long, so long that some had to resort to Internet poker in order get by. Not to worry, this summary should give a run down for members who could not be present either physically or mentally, and should help in the decision whether to bomb Syria, or not to bomb Syria.

Before the session even began, it was described as historic. In a period when the president has taken increased war powers and expanded them, this ball hit into Congress's court was unexpected by Congress itself. Is Congress able to handle such a discussion properly with all sides being given a chance to speak and all evidence being presented, or would the Congress act as a rubber stamp for the president? This committee session offered an important glimpse into how this question would be answered on the floor of the House and Senate, where it is due to appear as early as today. Committee members included such outspoken senators as Republicans John McCain (Ariz.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Rand Paul (Ky.), and Democrats such as Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Tom Udall (N.M.). Those being questioned on the stand included Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and General Martin Dempsey.  

The session commenced with the chair, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), speaking in strong support of the strike, emphasizing the difference between Syria and Iraq, for which he voted against, and declaring that he supports a resolution "with the clear knowledge that no troops will be stationed on the ground." However, things soon got messy when it seemed Kerry was nudging away from such a commitment. Several members, including Tom Udall, expressed concern that the strike would pull the U.S. into further military engagements, and therefore wanted a clear statement in the resolution that would forbid boots on the ground and require the president to come back to Congress for future authorization. Kerry was at first hesitant on the issue, describing a hypothetical scenario in which ground troops would be necessary as an argument against the inclusion of such a provision. Only when pressured did he back down and claim that "There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war."

Rand Paul spoke as to the importance of Congress in this decision. He first took time to thank Obama for following his constitutional duties and sending the resolution to Congress. However, he was also disappointed in the president's later statement that he still has authority to strike Syria. Paul placed this question before Kerry and asked if the president would honor Congress's vote. "The president expects to win this vote", was the mantra repeated by Kerry, inter-spliced with reference to the War Powers Act which he believes allows the president to commit unilateral action. Paul was supported in his statement by Sen. Durbin, who said that he hoped Congress would address the question seriously. However, several other senators voiced their opposition to the fact that this was even introduced into Congress, and were concerned that this process would "waste time."

The committee was of course strongly divided in its opinions; one minute Kerry or Hagel would be arguing that the strike would be limited, to allay fears of increased conflict in the region, and in the next defending the administration for not long ago lending complete support to the rebels. John McCain in particular has come out in complete support of the Syrian Free Army. While some, including Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), questioned if the rebels were as moderate as is claimed, McCain pounced on Kerry with questions of why, if the Obama administration's policy is to see Assad go, the president is just stopping at strikes.

One of the most interesting aspects of the hearing was the participants' utter disregard of previous uses of chemical weapons. Kerry himself stated that "Only two tyrants have used chemical weapons since the convention has been signed, Assad is the third." Unless he is referencing Presidents Johnson and Nixon, Kerry seems to be experiencing some form of amnesia. If the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam is too distant, perhaps the U.S. government's support of the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988) which resulted in the deaths of 100,000 Iranians, would spark some memories. Although Kerry did briefly mention Saddam, he forgot the crucial detail of U.S. support. A protester called Kerry out on these examples, only to be quickly sent out of the room. 

A closed session in which more military and diplomatic information will be discussed, is scheduled for today. The president has pressured Congress to act  quickly. It's therefore probable that a resolution could appear in written format as early as today. As it stands, the majority of Congress is in support of a limited intervention, thought much more in the Senate than the House. Congress reconvenes September 9, and this will surely be the first issue that it addresses.