John Kerry briefly told Congress that any resolution approving military force would prohibit “boots on the ground,” but kept the option on the table. A top Republican told Kerry he didn’t find his response appropriate.
The exchange during the first public hearing in Congress on possible military action in Syria highlighted the worries of many lawmakers about authorizing US military strikes to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons on civilians.
Kerry initially told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he would prefer not to bar the use of ground troops in Syria to preserve President Barack Obama’s options if Syria “imploded” or there was a threat of chemical weapons being obtained by extremists.
“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 told the committee.
But when Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee, told Kerry he “didn’t find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground,” Kerry quickly, and repeatedly, backtracked.
Kerry said he was simply “thinking out loud” and raising a hypothetical situation, but he did not want to leave the door open to sending ground troops to Syria.
“Let’s shut the door now,” Kerry said. “The answer is, whatever prohibition clarifies it to Congress or the American people, there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”
The exchange came as Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Capitol Hill as part of the administration’s push to persuade Congress to back Obama’s plan to launch limited strikes on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons last month.
Obama has asked Congress, which does not return in full from summer recess until next week, to authorize action in response to what the administration says was a sarin gas attack by the Syrian government that killed more than 1,400 people, hundreds of them children, near Damascus on August 21.
Significant opposition to military force remains in Congress, where many lawmakers, including Obama’s fellow Democrats, have said they are concerned the president’s draft resolution is too open-ended and allow possible use of ground troops or eventual attacks on other countries.