At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Senator Coons questioned Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey about President Obama's request for an authorization of the use of military force in Syria. A transcript follows:
SENATOR COONS: Thank you, Chairman Menendez. I would like to thank Secretaries Kerry and Hagel and Chairman Dempsey for your service to your nation, for your testimony in front of us today. I think the authorization of the use of force, I think the commitment of America's military strength is one of the most important issues that we will ever debate in this Congress, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have this conversation today. As secretary Kerry said, in his opening testimony, not just what we decide, but how we decide it, will send a very important message around the world, that this Congress can still function in a nonpartisan way, in the interest of the people of the United States.
As I've listened to Delawareans in recent days, I think they reflect a nation that is weary of war and that is wary of inadvertently repeating some of the challenges of our engagement in Iraq. I've heard specific and pointed concerns that we not rush into action, based on uneven or inaccurate intelligence, that we not be drawn into a civil war we don't fully understand or where we can't quite discern the good guys from the bad guys. And more than anything, that we not commit to an open-ended participation, a direct military invasion in an occupation of a country in a part of the world that is often confounding and is full of competing priorities.
Having reviewed the intelligence this morning in a classified briefing, having participated in a number of briefings from you and from folks leading in your agencies and departments, I am persuaded that this is not that circumstance. That the intelligence is solid. That we have, in this distance, a clear violation of a long-standing global red line against the use of chemical weapons. As you've stated, something embedded in America's statutes and in our treaty commitments, something that is a truly global standard.
My view, as I've watched both the images on TV that were presented at the beginning of this hearing, and as I've spoken to family and friends and neighbors at home, is that we face a real risk here if we do not act. That this is an instance where one of the world's worst dictators has steadily ratcheted up an ascending crescendo of death in his own nation. He began with thugs, police, and the military taking on peaceful demonstrations, graduated to snipers, killing innocent civilians. Has used helicopters and jet fighters against his own people, has deployed cluster bombs and scud missiles. I think over the last two years, there is no doubt that Bashar al Assad and his regime is willing to go to any lengths to stay in power.
So the challenge now for those of us who seek an appropriate path forward is to make sure that we craft an authorization for the use of military force that responds to American's legitimate concerns but still allows the administration to act in a decisive and timely way to both deter and punish the Assad regime for what they've done.
So I have a few questions for you if I might. First to General Dempsey. And I know we've spoken to this before, but I think it is worth repeating. How do we strike the right balance between military action that is too insignificant to actually effectively deter or degrade Assad's capabilities and one that is so decisive and overwhelming that it reaches beyond the scope of an authorization and becomes actually a regime change effort.
GENERAL DEMPSEY: Well, Senator, I won't recommend an option or a set of targets that won't effectively deter and degrade. That's the task that I've been given. And now we'll continue to refine that, not just based on intelligence, but based on the resolution that comes out of this committee.
SENATOR COONS: And could you, in your view, accomplish that mission with an authorization that is limited in scope, in terms of a time duration, and in scope as has been discussed with Secretary Kerry in terms of not introducing U.S. troops on the ground?
GENERAL DEMPSEY: Well, it won't surprise you to know that as the military leader responsible for this, the more -- the broader the resolution, the less limiting, the better off I will be in crafting a set of options. But I completely -- I defer to the secretary of state to give me what I need to do then.
SENATOR COONS: Well, if I might then to Secretary Kerry, because our goal here is to not pass or even consider an authorization that is so narrow that it prevents any effective message to be sent here. As you said, in a compelling way in your opening statement, our actions are not just meant to deter Assad but to send a strong message to Pyongyang, to Tehran, to non-state actors around the world who might use chemical weapons or might seek nuclear weapons. How do we craft an authorization, how do we take actions that are effective in deterring other countries that are watching our decisiveness and our action in this instance?
SECRETARY KERRY: I think the language that the administration submitted with respect to the military action necessary to degrade and deter and prevent the use of chemical weapons, specifically, is very targeted.
But as I've said several times now and will repeat again, I know the administration has zero intention of putting troops on the ground, and within the confines of this authorization, I'm confident would have zero problem in including some kind of prohibition there, if that makes you comfortable.
I would not urge an excessively pinpointed congressionally mandated set of targets. And I think in the course of the classified briefings, the intelligence community and the military community will make it very clear to you why that's not advisable. And I think they have to have some -- the general needs some latitude here to be able to make sure he can accomplish his task. But I think the broad confines and constraints of this particular operation are not hard for us to arrive at in agreement, and I'm confident we'll do it very quickly.
SENATOR COONS: Thank you.
One of my other concerns, Mr. Secretary, is the flood of refugees and their impact on the region. In a visit in January to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, I was moved both by the humanitarian situation they're facing and by the very real impact that this is having on our regional allies. On Jordan, on Turkey, the destabilizing impact on Lebanon, and of course, the real impact it's potentially going to have on our close ally, Israel.
I was encouraged to hear there was successful missile defense system test earlier today. Secretary Hagel, what steps are we taking to ensure that our allies in this immediate area of Turkey and Jordan and Israel are able to defend themselves from a potential response by the Assad regime?
SECRETARY HAGEL: Well, Senator, first, Jordan, you know we have Patriot Missile defense batteries in Jordan. And we also are working very closely with the Israelis. You know they have a very sophisticated Iron Dome and aero-system missile defense system. We are in constant coordination with all the allies in the region. And as you may know, General Dempsey was just in Jordan for a commander's meeting, which included all the senior military from the neighboring countries and our partners. So we are closely connected with and assisting our allies on this and other issues.
SENATOR COONS: Thank you.
Last question, Secretary Kerry, if I might. I am interested in our having a follow-on conversation about how this specific strike and this specific authorization that you're seeking can also lead to a broader strategy, a strategy for support and engagement with the opposition that will lead to the diplomatic resolution of the Syrian civil war that you've spoken about repeatedly.
I don't think these are mutually exclusive. I do think it's possible for us to take action that reinforces a global red line against chemical weapons use but to still continue to strengthen and broaden our engagement with the opposition in a way that moves towards a post- Assad Syria that is sustainable and secure. And I look forward to your input with us on your next hearing on that topic.
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely, Senator, I look forward to it, too. What I'd like to do is get the whole committee maybe to come down to the department, and we can have this discussion in that confine, as a committee, also. And I think that might be helpful, in addition to what we do in the classified briefing tomorrow.
SENATOR COONS: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, if you want to do that, I'm happy to do that.