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Senate Hearing on Syria Military Action

Aired September 3, 2013 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Fair enough.

General Dempsey, we saw these photographs earlier, these heartbreaking photographs. Page three of "The Washington Post" this morning, an ad by a group supporting the president's effort has a photograph that's riveted my mind, as a father and grandfather, of the children on the floor in shrouds, victims of this chemical agent and gas attack.

What the administration is asking us for is military authority to launch additional attacks.

What have you been charged with, in terms of the issue of collateral damage, from those attacks, as it would effect innocent people and civilians in the nation of Syria?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Senator, the guidance that we've received on targeting is to maintain a collateral damage estimate of low. And just briefly on how we come up with our assessments of collateral damage, it's based on how much we know about a target through intelligence, its proximity to civilian structures, and weapons' effects, as we decide what weapon to weaponeer against it. And a collateral damage estimate of low means just that, that we will keep collateral damage lower than a certain number, which I would rather share with you in a classified setting.

That doesn't mean, by the way, that we would have the same constraint, if you will, in what damage could be done to regime personnel. So that's a separate issue, although even in that case, I could probably tell you some more things in the classified setting.

DURBIN: I look forward to that.

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Thank you, Senator.

Senator McCain?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I thank the witnesses.

And may I say, John, it's very good to see Teresa here with you in good health and good spirits. Thank you.

So, Teresa, I apologize for what I'm about to do to John.

John --

KERRY: Man, there's a setup.

MCCAIN: John, when you tell the enemy you're going to attack them, I'm not going to take any time on this. You tell the enemy you're going to attack them, they're obviously going to disperse and try to make it harder.

And I'm looking right here at an AP story report, "Syria is said to be hiding weapons and moving troops."

There's even open source reporting that they may be moving some of their assets into the Russian naval base.

But let's not get -- it's ridiculous to think that it's not wise, from a pure standpoint, to -- not to warn the enemy that you're going to attack.

Secretary Hagel, in "The Wall Street Journal" today, we read the following. "Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power. The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it," a senior military officer said.

Is there any truth to that, Senator Hagel?

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Senator, as I said, the president asks us for a range of options and we provided him a range of options.

MCCAIN: I'm asking if there's any truth to "The Wall Street Journal" report.

HAGEL: Our options were not limited to any (INAUDIBLE) --

MCCAIN: I'm just asking if there's any truth to the story that's in "The Wall Street Journal?"

HAGEL: No.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

Secretary Kerry, in the same "Wall Street Journal" article, quote, "The delay in providing arms to the opposition, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly, but that underpins its decision-making. According to former and current U.S. officials, the current administration doesn't want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition, for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate."

Is that story accurate?

KERRY: No.

MCCAIN: Thank you. KERRY: And, by the way, can I add something, Senator?

On the warning issue, I don't disagree with you about warning. In fact, the general wouldn't disagree with you, either. And we are all deep --

MCCAIN: But the general said it would be just as easy --

KERRY: No, no, we're deeply --

MCCAIN: -- not to warn -- let's not get into that when we just --

KERRY: But, John, all I want to -- all I want to say to you is that there were leaks, which are the bane of everybody's existence. And the fact is, that the newspapers began to carry stories about a strike and targeting well before any decisions were made. And that began a process of moving.

So now --

MCCAIN: OK. I get --

KERRY: -- there is at least --

MCCAIN: I've got it --

KERRY: (INAUDIBLE).

MCCAIN: -- I really would like to move on to some more important questions, if you don't mind.

KERRY: Well, I thought all your questions were important, John.

MCCAIN: Thank you, John. That's good. I'll try to remember that.

The president said today that the purpose of the military action in Syria is not just to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons, but to degrade his military capabilities as part of a broader strategy to change the momentum on the ground. And as the president said, quote, "allow Syria, ultimately, to free itself."

Do you agree with that assessment, John?

KERRY: I said up front, I've said several times here, there will automatically be, as a result of degrading his ability for chemical weapons, there will be downstream impact, which will have an impact on his military capacity.

MCCAIN: And (INAUDIBLE) --

KERRY: I agree with the president.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

General Dempsey, do you agree with that statement of the president's?

DEMPSEY: I agree. I have never been told to change the momentum. I have been told to degrade capability.

MCCAIN: Do you think, General, that without a change in momentum, that Syria ultimately could free itself, Secretary Hagel?

HAGEL: Well, Senator, I think they all are connected. Degrading a military capability, as you know, is a pretty significant part of momentum shifts.

MCCAIN: Secretary Kerry -- John, over the weekend, "The Wall Street Journal" ran an important op-ed by Dr. Elizabeth O'Bagy -- I hope you saw it -- a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who's spent a great deal of time inside Syria, including just this month.

And I want to read her assessment of the situation on the ground. And I quote the story. "The conventional wisdom holds that the extremist elements are completely mixed in with the more moderate rebel groups. This isn't the case. Moderates and extremists wield control over distinct territory. Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely or even predominantly by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards. The jihadists pouring into Syria from countries like Iraq and Lebanon are not flocking to the front lines. Instead, they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern rebel-held areas of the country.

Moderate opposition forces, a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army, continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime. While traveling with some of these free armies -- Syrian Army battalions, I've watched them defend Alawite and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups. They've demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative and they've struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society."

John, do you agree with Dr. O'Bagy's assessment of the opposition?

KERRY: I agree with most of that. They have changed significantly. They've improved. And as I said earlier, the fundamentals of Syria are secular and I believe will stay that way.

MCCAIN: And I think it's very important to point out, again, as you just said, it's a secular state. They would reject radical Islamists. And they, in some cases, in the areas in which they have control, the people are demonstrating against them, is the information I have.

So when we see these commentators say, well, we don't know which side will win, we don't know who the bad guys are, if you agree with this assessment, we certainly know who the bad guys are, is that correct?

KERRY: I believe we do, for the most part.

MCCAIN: For the most part.

KERRY: There are some worse than Al-Nusra. And they tend to be, most of them, in the northern area and the east.

MCCAIN: I thank you. And, again, I would like to ask again, can you share with the committee that the administration does not see a protracted stalemate and conflict in Syria as somehow a good thing or a goal of U.S. policy?

KERRY: The goal of U.S. policy is not a stalemate, the goal is a negotiated solution which results in the departure of Assad and the free choice of the Syrian people for their future.

MCCAIN: And finally, I would like to ask again, If we reject this resolution, doesn't it send a serious -- as you already said -- a seriously bad message to our friends and allies alike?

It encourages our allies -- our enemies and would dispirit our friends, particularly those fighting in Syria, but not only there, but around the world?

KERRY: Senator McCain, I have gotten to know my counterparts in the Mideast particularly well because of the number of crises and initiatives that we've had to deal with in that region. And I cannot emphasize enough how much they are looking to us now, making judgments about us for the long-term and how critical the choice we make here will be not just to this question of Syria, but to the support we may or may not anticipate in the Mideast peace process, to the future of Egypt, to the transformation of the Middle East, to the stability of the region and other interests that we have.

There's no way to separate one thing from all of the rest. Relationships are relationships. And they are integrated. And that's why this is so important.

MCCAIN: But I would also emphasize, if it's the wrong kind of resolution, it can do just as much damage, in my view.

I thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Senator.

Senator Udall?

SEN. MARK UDALL (D), NEW MEXICO: Thank you.

Thank you very much.

And I thank all the witnesses for their testimony and for their service here today.

And I also want to thank Chairman Menendez for the way he has conducted this hearing.

Like everyone here, I deplore what Bashar Al-Assad has done to his own people by attacking them with chemical weapons. Assad has committed an atrocious crime so heinous that international law singles it out as an assault deserving of international action. But let there be no mistake, I fully agree his horrific acts deserve an international response. But what should that response be?

That is why we are here today, to ask that question and many others. And I hope this hearing will do more than just rubber stamp a decision that has already been made by this administration.

I have grave concerns about what the administration is asking of us, of our military and of the American people.

Here's the situation, as I see it. With limited international support, we are being told the United States must retaliate for the use of chemical weapons with a surgical bombing campaign of our own. We're being told we're bombing in order to send a message.

But what message are we sending?

To the international community, we're saying once again, the United States will be the world's policeman. You break a law and the United States will step in.

We are on shaky international legal foundations with this potential strike and we need to know whether we exhausted all diplomatic and economic sanction options to effect Syria's behavior.

We need to increase our attention on the source of Assad's ability to continue to ruthlessly kill his own people. And that is support from nations, including Russia and China, who are cynically trying to hold the moral high ground. Assad would not be able to maintain his grip on power if he were not being supported from outside.

The full force of international outrage should come down on those nations that are refusing to allow the U.N. to act and find a solution.

And finally, I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step toward full-fledged war. We've been here before.

The Iraq War began as an international effort to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and then years of a no-fly zone and air strikes to prevent Saddam from threatening his neighbors or reconstituting his arsenal of chemical weapons. And as we all know, this limited military action eventually led to what is one of the biggest blunders in U.S. foreign policy, a war that I voted against.

Many who voted for it came to regret that vote. Americans are understandably weary after the fiasco of Iraq and over a decade of war.

How can this administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited?

How can we guarantee that one surgical strike will have any impact, other than to tighten the vice grip Assad has on his power or allow rebels allied with al Qaeda to gain a stronger foothold in Syria?

I take our role very seriously here, like many of the other senators have said. And I will hear the president and his team out.

The president made the right decision to pursue an authorization for the use of military force. I hope these hearings will give the American people the answers they deserve.

But there are troubling questions that need to be answered.

And Secretary Kerry, I want to start with you. You've assured the American people -- I watched your national television performances -- that the U.S. action will not include -- and I think you've said this here today -- will not include the use of ground troops, that it will be limited in nature to deter Assad and others from using weapons of mass destruction.

Yet, the draft authorization of force proposed by the administration states that it would allow the president to use the armed forces, and I quote here, "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict with Syria.

Now, this is a very open-ended proposal, with no specific limits on types of forces that would be used, with no limit on their duration. Why was it proposed in a way that it conflicts with these statements of no ground troops and what kind of language, Secretary Kerry, or the precise language are you willing to back in terms of showing the American people that we really mean what we say in terms of no boots on the ground?

KERRY: Senator, all good questions, and I will respond to all of them. But I want to address sort of the suspicion and concern that you have, which is appropriate. I think everybody understands that Iraq left a lot of folks reeling for some period of time. So, it's appropriate to ask the questions you've asked, but please, let me try to emphasize.

This is not sending a message, per se. This is having an effect, an impact. This is taking action to achieve something more than just a message. It is to degrade his current capacity. It will make it harder for him to do that in the future, and it will also facilitate our ability to hold him accountable in the future if he does. And he will know that. So, this will affect his calculation, that's number one. That's not just a message.

UDALL: Secretary Kerry, by degrading his capacity, don't you, in fact, make him weaker and make the people out there like Al Nusra and al Qaeda and these other extremist forces stronger. And this is what I want secretary -- General Dempsey to talk about in a little bit, too. Could you answer that? By degrading him, you make these extremist forces stronger, do you not?

KERRY: No, I don't believe you do. As a matter of fact, I think you actually make the opposition stronger. The opposition is get stronger by the day now, and I think General Idris would tell you that, that he is not sitting around and his daily concern is not the opposition, it's Assad. And what Assad is doing with his scuds, with his airplanes, with his tanks, with his artillery, to the people of Syria. But, I think it's important also to look at this, because you raised the question of, doesn't this make the United States the policeman of the world? No, it makes the United States a multilateral partner in an effort that the world, 184 nations strong, has accepted the responsibility for. And if the United States, which has the greatest capacity to do that, doesn't help lead that effort, then shame on us.

Then we're not standing up to our multilateral and humanitarian and strategic interests. Now, that said --

UDALL: Can I stop you, Secretary Kerry, just --

KERRY: Anytime.

UDALL: -- just on that one, because if you're talking about multilateral efforts, what we're talking about is the world being able -- this is a breach of a treaty. And the world put within the United Nations that enforcement mechanism. And what we have done here with Russia and China, holding up the ability of the U.N. to act, we've just turned aside --

KERRY: Well, senator, with all do respect --

UDALL: We should be standing up. We should be standing up and making sure that they are condemned, those countries that are not allowing us to move forward, to find a solution where the solution should reside.

KERRY: Well, senator, I don't disagree that we should be finding solution where it resides, but the fact is, just a few weeks ago, just a few weeks ago, at the U.N., we saw a condemnation of a chemical attack, without blame, without citing Assad, without saying who's responsible, simply a condemnation of a chemical attack and the Russians blocked it.

UDALL: Right.

KERRY: So, we have no illusions. Yes, is the U.N. Security Council having difficulties at this moment performing its functions? Yes. Does that mean the United States of America and the rest of the world that things we ought to act should shrink from it? No. And that's really what's at test here. I would urge you. You said, how do we know it won't result in X or Y or Z happening if we don't do it.

Let me ask you, it's not a question of what will happen if we don't do it, it's a certainty. Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gases his people yet again and the world says, why didn't the United States act? History is full of opportunity of moments where someone didn't stand up and act when it made a difference.

And whether you go back to World War II or you look at a ship that was turned away from the coast of Florida and everybody on it lost their lives subsequently to German gas, those are the things that make a difference. And that's what's at stake here. And I would say to you, you know, these are troubling questions, it's a guarantee if the United States doesn't act together with other countries, we know what Assad will do.

That's a guarantee. I can't tell you what's guaranteed that some country will do if we do act, but I know what will happen if we don't. And I'm pretty darned clear that a lot of things that people think will happen won't happen if the United States acts. It will, in fact, have enforced this international standard with respect to the use of chemical weapons.

And if the multilateral institution set up to do it, the Security Council is being blocked and won't do it, that doesn't mean we should turn our backs and say there's nothing we can do. That's not the case. We did it in Bosnia and it made a difference. We saved countless number of lives. And I believe, and the president of the United States believes we can do that now.

UDALL: Well, I don't believe that we should -- I don't believe that we should have given up so easily on using the United Nations --

KERRY: We haven't given up --

UDALL: Yes, we have. We haven't -- we haven't taken Russia to task, we haven't taken China to task, and that's what we should be pointing out at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Time of the senator has expired.

UDALL: I want to respectfully disagree with you and say also I very much appreciate your service. I know that you're trying very, very hard to find, on the diplomatic side, as secretary of state, a peaceful resolution. Thank you for your courage and sorry for going over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Barrasso?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO, (R) WYOMING: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for being here. Over Labor Day weekend in Wyoming, I heard from people all across the state. All believe what is happening in Syria is awful, despicable. Do have concerns about the administration and what the plan really is, what the strategy really is. They want to know what the core national security interests of the United States are, that are at stake in Syria.

What is our ultimate goal of proposed military strikes and what happens if the strikes are not effective. And to that end, Mr. Chairman, I would ask you, what exactly it is that we are going to be voting on? Is it what the White House has set forward and when we're going to see the specifics?

Senator Durbin also asked about the narrowness or the expanse of what we would be voting -- and would we be voting within the next 24 hours?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, (D) FOREIGN RELATIONS CHMN: The chair is working with the ranking member and others to come to an agreed upon text that we believe would meet the goals of achieving the ability for the administration to pursue the military action they have sought the Congress' support for in a way that would allow them to have the maximum ability to succeed in that action.

By the same token, tailor it sufficiently so that this is not an open ended engagement and specifically, not with boots on the ground, American troops on the ground. We're not there yet. It is our aspiration to try to get there before the end of the day and then to look forward to the possibility of a markup tomorrow.

We'll see if we can get there and if we do, we'll give all members ample notice of that time. We start off in the morning, as I said, with a classified briefing and we will move from there.

BARRASSO: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Secretary, I appreciate you coming to Congress to seek legislative authorization for the military action. President Obama specifically asserted on Saturday that he already had the authority.

Now, when the British parliament rejected a notion supporting U.K. participation, the prime minister specifically said that he would respect the will of the British people and there would be no British military intervention. Where does President Obama stand with that now that he has come to Congress?

KERRY: He intends to win the passage of the resolution.

BARRASSO: And on the case that he does not, is the plan --

KERRY: Well, we're not contemplating not, because it's too dire.

BARRASSO: We talked a little bit about the risks of delays. There are already reports that by delaying military action, that Assad is moving military assets, hardware, troops to civilian neighborhoods. Reports indicate that Russia plans to send an anti-submarine ship and missile cruiser to the Mediterranean in the next few days. I wonder what this means to our contingency planning and what this impact is going to be for military operations?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Well, the movement of the Russian -- there's already four Russian warships in the Eastern Med, and they are staying a respectful distance, I don't see that as a factor.

BARRASSO: Has the administration created, conducted, perhaps, a threat assessment of how Russia, how Iran, how Hezbollah is going to respond to a U.S.-led attack and what response do we expect from Syria's allies, including, you know, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, to military action?

KERRY: We all agree that that would be best handled in a classified session.

BARRASSO: The -- in terms of what success looks like, Senator Udall specifically, you know, said what happens if gases are used again. I'm wondering if we do a limited strike, as proposed, and still Assad goes back and uses chemical weapons on his people, then that engenders an entire new set of hearings and how does this end? Where are we a month from now? DEMPSEY: Well, as I said, senator, there's -- we're preparing several target sets, the first of which would set the conditions for a follow-on assessments and the others would be used if necessary, and we haven't gotten to that point yet. What we do know is that we can degrade and disrupt his capabilities and that that should put us in a better position to make the kind of assessment you're talking about.

KERRY: Let me add to that, if I can, John. Senator Feinstein brought this up today at the meeting at the White House. It would be really -- it would not be sensible to pass this resolution with a view to degrading and -- degrading his capacity and preventing him from doing it. If he were foolish enough to do it again, the general does have follow-on possibilities.

And since the objective would remain the same, it would be important for Assad himself to know that you have not limited this to one specific moment with respect to chemical weapons. You can still have a limited authorization, but with respect to chemical weapons, it would be a huge mistake to deprive General Dempsey and company of their options to enforce what we're trying to achieve.

BARRASSO: Trying to achieve, Mr. Secretary, the negotiated departure of Assad. You keep mentioning trying to get him to do this from the negotiating table. It seems to me that somebody as Senator Coons said go to any length to stay in power to the point of even using chemical weapons against his people, that instead wouldn't he be just driven to a more serious level of determination to keep power rather than the negotiation table?

KERRY: John, it's a very appropriate question. The answer is, I don't believe so, and there are a number of different reasons why I don't believe so.

And most of them are best discussed and I look forward to it with you in the private session, but, there are very strong indications from a number of discussions that have taken place between countries and individuals over the last months that Assad would not necessarily avoid making a different decision under certain circumstances. So, I think we ought to leave it at that, but in the private session, I think we ought to dig into it.

BARRASSO: I was going to ask about the chemical weapons stockpiles and maybe you want to reserve this for the discussion tomorrow as well in terms of steps that we could take in terms of command and control of the regime's chemical weapons stockpiles, to make sure that these things are protected in a way that could not potentially be used.

KERRY: Absolutely. And I want you to know, and this is again something that ought to be done in the other session, but I will just say generically that General Dempsey and his team have taken great pains at the instruction of the president of the United States to make certain that whatever we do doesn't make it -- doesn't make people less safe or potentially more exposed to weapons or that those weapons would have less control and so forth. All of these thing have entered into the calculation.

BARRASSO: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Barrasso. Just one add-on to my original response to you. The resolution as sent to us by the administration will not be the resolution that we will be working on, but it is a good opening as to what the desires are and intentions are, but it will not be the specific resolution we'll be working on. Senator Murphy?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, General, thank you very much for being with us and for taking so much time with us.

We all are referencing the conversations we've had over the last week. I've never, frankly, seen a greater level of public engagement on an issue since, frankly, the health care reform debate of 2009. And while there are certainly hardliners that have come to me with a resolution that we should go in or many more with a resolution that we should stay out, most people see both sides of this issue. And they, frankly, appreciate the fact that they have an American president who has taken so much time and put in so much thought into arriving at this decision. Even if they disagree.

And they frankly appreciate even more the fact that this president trusts them and trusts their elected representatives enough to bring this conversation to the United States Congress, albeit the fact that it may be a little messy to get from point A to point B. And so given all of the commotion that we will hear from our constituents, that maybe more than anything else, comes out to me loud and clear.

I guess when I look at this question, I see two questions inherent in the one. One, we have to ask ourselves, is there a moral or national security imperative? And I think you've very plainly made the case, as has the president, that there is. Atrocities committed that we cannot let stand and a country that has very vital security interests to the United States.

But there's a second question. And that's the one that I have trouble with, and I think some of my colleagues have trouble with. And that's this. Will our action lessen the acuity of that moral atrocity or advance our national security interest? There both has to be a problem that needs to be solved and then a way to solve it. And that's why I struggle with this.

And frankly, I don't think the fact that I and many others struggle with that question means that we lack courage or that we are frankly enabling the Syrian regime. I just think that it's we wonder whether there is a limit to the ability of American military power to influence the politics on the ground in the Middle East. And clearly, though, there is not some direct linkage between what happened in Iraq and what happened in Syria, it does chill the ability of people to believe that American military might influence politics on the ground in Syria after they have watched the last 10 years.

The second problem people have is this question of escalation. And I think one of the most important things, Secretary Kerry, you said in your remarks was this. You said that we would be prepared to respond to, I think as you stated, a miscalculation of Assad, whether it be in reprisals of his own people or attacks against our allies in the region. That we would be prepared to respond without going to war.

Now, some people will find that statement a little incongruence. How do you respond without going to war? And so many let me ask the question this way. There are a variety of responses from Assad. He could launch another chemical weapons attack against his own people. He could launch a ferocious conventional weapons attack against his own people. He could, of course, he or his allies could launch attacks against our allies in the region.

I don't expect you to explain exactly what the response will be today, but does this resolution that we're debating today give you the ability to respond to those reprisals? Or in any of the situations I just outlined, responses within Syria against his own people, or responses outside of Syrian against our own allies, would you have to come back to Congress for a new authorization of force?

KERRY: Well, excuse me, I'm sorry. I think as the president has made clear and as we've seen in many of these crisis over the course, certainly, of my career here in the Senate, I saw presidents do both. And I supported some, and I opposed others. And on a number of occasions, presidents acted without the authorization of Congress.

So there is no question, but that the president would have the authority and the right and conceivably the imperative to respond without any other authorization if Assad were to attack again. And so I can't speak for the president in terms of what decision he would make, but he has the authority and that right would be available to him.

Now, if I can just say quickly with respect to, you know, it's absolutely appropriate to ask the question, will this make a difference? Totally appropriate. And to think about this question of escalation. But let me say something quickly about both of those. If the Congress decides not to do this, it is a guarantee, whether it is with Assad in Syria or nuclear weapons in Iran or nuclear weapons in North Korea, we will have invited a for-certain confrontation at some point in time that will require you to make a choice that will be even worse, with the potential of even greater conflict. That I guarantee you. Because that's the message that will be sent.

Now, there's a distinction between this and Iraq. I understand all the Iraq, you know -- we lived through that here. In Iraq, intelligence purported to suggest that weapons of mass destruction existed. But we didn't know if they existed. So we had a massive invasion in order to try to find out if they existed, and we found out they didn't.

Here we have weapons of mass destruction that we not only know do exist, they have been used. Not once, not twice, not three times, but multiple times. We estimate in the teens, and the opposition estimates more than that. And now we have this most recent use of weapons of mass destruction and contravention of nearly a hundred years of a prohibition against their use --

MURPHY: Yes, but that's -- I don't think that's the dispute. The dispute is not the correlation of the intelligence --

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: But the dispute is, what are you to do about it? The dispute is, what are you prepared to do about it? That's the dispute. If you believe that by doing nothing, you are going to stand up for the norm and somehow reduce the threat of the use at some future time, that's your right to believe that. But I think, and the president believes deeply and everybody at this table believes that flies against all common sense and all human behavior.

MURPHY: Mr. Secretary, let me ask you a question about Iran, because I think it's very important and a compelling narrative here. Let me just ask you this.

The circumstances are very different. Not to trivialize what has happened in Syria, but the stakes of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, which could kill millions, is different than Syria killing thousands with chemical weapons. And I wonder whether or not it lessens our moral authority to make a different decision with respect to Iran, just because on Syria, we decide not to act.

And second, I worry about this weariness that we've talked about within the American public, that it may ultimately make it harder - I'm not saying it will, but it could make it harder for us to rally the American public with respect to a response to Iran, having gone through what could be at least a slightly protracted engagement with Syria. And so, I guess I want to challenge you for a second on the automatic nature of a failure to step in in Syria with respect to compromising our ability to respond in Iran.

KERRY: Well, let me just make it very, very, very clear. The world decided after World War I and the horrors of gas in the trenches and the loss of an entire generation of young people in Europe that we are never again to allow gas to be used in warfare. So if all of a sudden, at this moment, where the third instance was used by Adolf Hitler to gas millions of Jews, it was used by Saddam Hussein in order to gas Iraqis and -- Iranians and his own people, and now it has been used by Bashar al Assad. Three people in all of history. And the United States knowing it, and knowing that we've drawn a line that the world has drawn with us, is unwilling to step up and confront that, it is an absolute certainty that gas will proliferate.

We've had sarin gas in the Tokyo subway. Do you really want to have a situation where that that gas may be available to these groups if it continues to deteriorate because Assad can use this gas to continue to subjugate his population that is looking for a governance that is representative and different and respectful of their rights? I don't know how we could live with that.

Now, is there a difference between gas and a nuclear weapon? Well, I suppose it would depend on the scale, to be honest with you. It would depend on the scale. But the world decided that chemical, biological, and nuclear are the prohibited entities of warfare and we, as a nation and we as a global community have struggled to try to enforce that through the years. It's hard for me to imagine that the United States would not stand with the world against that.

Now, is it going to be effective? I'm convinced that what we can do will reduce the possibilities of more use of gas and degrade his capacity to use this weapon. And I think it's imperative for us, as I've said again and again, we all have, to take that step. But it's significantly different from what took place in Iraq originally with respect to weapons that we didn't know existed. And the two just are not similar.

MENENDEZ: Senator Paul?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Thank you for coming today. It's not often that I get to compliment the president. I can probably count the number of times maybe on one hand. But when I first heard that the president was going to come to Congress, boy, was I pleasantly surprised. I was proud that he was my president. I didn't vote for him, and I still am opposed to him for quite a few times, but I was proud that he did this.

And I was just about to stand on my feet and clap and give him a standing ovation, and then I heard, well, if I lose the vote, I'll probably go ahead and do the bombing anyway. And so that does concern me. I want to be proud of the president, but every time I'm just about there, then I get word that really he doesn't mean it. That he's going to sort of obey the Constitution if he wins.

So, I heard Secretary Kerry say, if we win, sure. But if we lose, what? I mean, make me proud, Secretary Kerry. Stand up for us and say, you're going to obey the Constitution, and if we vote you down -- which is unlikely, by the way -- but if we do, you'll go through what the people say through their Congress, and you won't go forward with a war that your Congress votes against. Can you give me a better answer, Secretary Kerry?

KERRY: I can't give you a different answer than the one I gave you. I don't know what the president's decision is. But I will tell you this: he ought to make you proud because he still has the constitutional authority, and he would be in keeping with the Constitution.

PAUL: Well, I disagree with you there. I don't believe he has the constitutional authority. I think Congress has this. Madison was very explicit. When he wrote the Federalist Papers, he wrote that history supposes or the Constitution supposes what history demonstrates. That the executive is the branch most likely to go to war, and therefore the Constitution vested that power in the Congress. It's explicit and runs throughout all of Madison's writings.

This power is a congressional power, and it is not an executive power. They didn't say big war, small war, they didn't say boots on the ground, not boots on the ground. They said, declare war. Ask the people on the ships launching the missiles whether they're involved with war or not.

If we do not say that the Constitution applies, if we do not say explicitly that we will abide by this vote, you're making a joke of us. You're making us into theater. And so we play constitutional theater for the president. If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress. You're probably going to win. Just go ahead and say it's real, and let's have a real debate in this country and not a meaningless debate that in the end, you lose, you can say oh well. We had the authority anyway, we're going to go ahead and go to war anyway.

A couple of items --

KERRY: Senator, I assure you, there is nothing meaningless and there is everything real --

PAUL: Only if you adhere to what we vote on. Only if our vote makes a difference. Only if our vote is binding is it meaningful.

KERRY: And I will leave to the man who was elected to be president of the United States the responsibility for telling you what his decision is, if and when that moment came. But the president intends to win this vote, and he's not going to make prior announcements.

PAUL: We've had a lot of discussion about, you know, whether or not we're going to make the world safer with this. Somehow we're going to have less chemical weapons.

But I think that's an open question, and I think it's conjecture at best. You can say, oh, we think Assad will be less likely to launch chemical weapons after this. We may be able to degrade his capacity somewhat, he's got a thousand tons. Are we going to wipe it out? Most reports I hear say we're not even probably going to directly bomb chemical weapons, because of what might happen to the surrounding population.

So my guess is he still will have the capability. Most people say Assad acted very illogically. Why would he release chemical weapons on his own people when it brought the anger and enmity of the entire world? So, he's already acting irrationally or illogically. Now we're going to deter him, and he's going to act in a rational manner. I think it's equally likely that he either does it again or he doesn't do it. I don't think you can say for certain which is better. I don't know that we can say that by attacking them he's not going to launch another chemical attack.

KERRY: Well --

PAUL: Will the region -- I've got a few and then I'll stop. Will the region be more stable or less stable? We all say we want stability in the Middle East and stability in the Middle East is a national interest for our country. Will it be more stable or less stable? I, frankly, think there are equal arguments on both sides of that.

Will Israel be more likely to suffer an attack on them, a gas attack or otherwise, or less likely? I think there's a valid argument for saying there'll be more likely to suffer an attack if we do this. Will Russia be more likely or less likely to supply more arms and get more heavily involved in this? I think there's a valid argument that they may become more likely to be involved. Iran, more likely or less likely to be involved with this. If Iran gets involved, more likely or less likely that Israel launches an reprisal attack on Iran. There are all kinds of unknowns that I can't tell you absolutely the answer and neither can you, but I think there's a reasonable argument, but the world may be less stable because of this and that it may not -- deter any chemical weapons attack.

So what I would ask is, how are we to know? How are we to go home? I haven't had one person come up to me and say they're for this war. Not one person. We get calls by the thousands, nobody's calling in favor of this war. I didn't meet -- while I was home all month, I went to 40 cities, I didn't have one person come up and say -- do they all agree it's a horrendous thing? Yes, we all agree chemical attacks are a horrendous thing, but people are not excited about getting involved.

They also don't think it's going to work and they're skeptical of what will occur with this. But I'd appreciate your response and try to reassure the rest of us, one, that the vote is meaningful and valid, that you'd adhere to it, and also that you're convinced that all of these different items will be better, not worse by this attack.

KERRY: Well, Senator, I'd very happy to do that. Will Israel be more likely to suffer an attack, or will they be safer? Will they be less safe? I can make it crystal clear to you that Israel will be less safe, unless the United States takes this action.

Iran and Hezbollah are two of the three biggest allies of Assad. And Iran and Hezbollah are the two single biggest enemies of Israel.

So if Iran and Hezbollah are advantaged by the United States not curbing Assad's use of chemical weapons, there is a much greater likelihood that at some point down the road, Hezbollah, who has been one of the principle reasons for change in the situation on the ground, will have access to these weapons of mass destruction. And Israel will for certain be less secure.

(CROSSTALK)

PAUL: But I would also argue --

KERRY: Let me -- let just finish.

PAUL: -- it'd be more likely that Hezbollah will attack because of this attack in response.

KERRY: And Israel feels quite confident of its ability to deal with Hezbollah if they were to do so. You will notice that Israel has on several occasions in the last year has seen fit to deal with threats to its security because of what's in Syria and not once has Assad responded to that to date.

I think there are a bunch of things we should talk about in a -- in a classified session. But let me just make it very clear to you that, you know, you ask these questions. Will this or that be more likely to happen or not likely to happen.

If the United States of America doesn't do this, Senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again? You want to answer that question?

(CROSSTALK)

PAUL: I don't think it's -- no. I don't think it's --

KERRY: Is it more or less likely that he does it again?

PAUL: I think it's unknown.

KERRY: It's unknown?

PAUL: Well, it's more unknown when you have the attack.

KERRY: Senator, it's not unknown. If the United States of America doesn't hold them accountable on this, with -- with our allies and friends, it's a guarantee Assad will do it again. A guarantee. And I urge you to go to the classified briefing and learn that.

Secondly, let me just point out to you that with respect to this question of Americans wanting to go to war, you know, you've got three people here who've been to war. You've got John McCain who's been to war. Not one of us who doesn't understand what going to war means. And we don't want to go to war.

We don't believe we are going to war in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war. The president is asking for the authority to do a limited action that will degrade the capacity of a tyrant who has been using chemical weapons to kill his own people.

PAUL: But I think by doing so you announce in --

KERRY: It's a limited. It's limited.

PAUL: By doing so you announce in advance that your goal is not winning.

KERRY: That's not --

PAUL: And I think the last 50 years of secretaries of Defense would say --

KERRY: Senator, with all -- the people are asked, do you want to go to war in Syria, of course not. Everybody. A hundred percent of Americans will say no. We say no. We don't want to go to war in Syria either. It's not what we're here to ask. The president is not asking you to go to war. He's not asking you to declare war. He's not asking you to send one American troop to war.

He's simply saying we need to take an action that can degrade the capacity of a man who's been willing to kill his own people by breaking a nearly 100-year-old prohibition. And will we stand up and counted to say we won't do that? That's not -- I don't -- you know, I just don't consider that going to war in the classic sense of coming to Congress and asking for a declaration of war and training troops and sending people abroad, and putting young Americans in harm's way.

That's not what the president is asking for here.

General, do you want to speak to that -- all to that?

DEMPSEY: No, not really, Secretary. Thank you for offering.

(LAUGHTER)

KERRY: I got (INAUDIBLE).

SEN. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: Great. Thank you to all of you. This has been a good discussion. I want to echo what Senator Paul, Senator Durbin, and others have said. I very much appreciate and celebrated the president's decision to bring this matter to Congress. I also believe with others that the Constitution reserves the power to initiate military action to Congress. Five hundred and thirty-five people get a vote on that.

There's only one commander-in-chief. After the vote is taken, after we do that searching inquiry, it's the commander-in-chief that has to decide how to execute the decided upon mission but I applaud the president for doing it. I view it not only as a matter of constitutional law, I view it as a -- reflecting a very important underlying value.

And the value is this. We shouldn't put service members into initiating battle, putting people into harm's way. If they don't have the consensus behind them, the American public political leadership is behind them. To send young men and women into war or into a military action where they are exercising military options with a divided political leadership class is the worst thing we can do.

And so we need to come to a consensus then execute on that consensus whatever it is. And it would be my hope that Congress' consensus would then be what the president would do and not otherwise.

There's a basic principle at stake. I think you stated it well. It's a principle of international law and American law. No use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians. I don't know of a higher principle of the relations of states, of the law of nations, of sort of international legal morality than no use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians. And that is the principle that is at stake as we wrestle with this request of the president on this committee.

That is a principle that is very clear, as you said, Secretary Kerry, it's not about the weapons of mass destruction exist. They exist. It's not just whether they exist. They've been used, they've been against civilians. They've been used against civilians on a massive scale including women and children.

And so it's a principle that is squarely at stake. We know that Bashar al-Assad does not care about the principle. Contrary to things that you said, we know that Vladimir Putin, until he shows otherwise, does not care about the principle.

I hope Congress still cares about the principle. It is a principle of long-standing origin. Syria signed on to it. The Geneva Convention. The Soviet Union signed on to the Geneva convention and then again in the 1990s era, chemical weapons convention as Russia under the leadership of the previous president, President Yeltsin.

So we know that there are some who don't care but I hope that Congress shows that we do care by our action.

Couple of questions. First, Russia. I want to associate with something that Senator Udall said earlier. The fact that they -- we have not done enough to demonstrate that Russia has essentially become a pariah nation by being pro-chemical weapons. It is hard to read their action and come up with any conclusion other than the current governor -- government of Russia is pro use of chemical weapons against civilians.

We should make them aware being a pro-chemical weapons nation like a rotting carcass around their neck in every instance we can so that at some point they'll ask themselves the question, do we really want to be the nation that is pro use of chemical weapons against a civilian population? If we make that as painful as we can every day at the U.N., even if they're going to block it, we come back with another -- we should make it painful every day so that at some point they'll ask themselves the question, why do we want to carry this water for a dictator who's using chemical weapons against his own civilians?

We haven't done enough on that score. The fact that they're going to block us shouldn't dissuade us. We should do more and more and more. I think that will ultimately contribute to a political negotiation.

When I asked you the question about the Syrian opposition's position on chemical weapons, I was unclear about their position on chemical weapons. But I understand that the opposition may have made some commitments in compacts that have been negotiated, Mr. Secretary, that they are anti-chemical weapons. That they would commit to turn over chemical weapons to the international community either if they take control of those weapons during the course of this civil war. Or whether they are in the lead, in a post-Assad government.

Can you talk about the opposition and their commitment to get rid of the stockpile of chemical weapons that is currently being used?

KERRY: Yes. We've had some discussions with him about that. And I hope that when the president comes here, when President Jabbar comes here that he will make that position clear to all of you.

KAINE: That would be very helpful. I think that would be one of the best things the opposition could do is make that point.

There is a little bit of a confusion. I think we can talk shorthand here in ways that might make it hard for senators and certainly the public to follow. We are here talking about military action on the same time we're saying there will be no solution to the civil war that's not a negotiated political solution. So those can seem to be at odds.

I want to state my understanding of how they fit together and you tell me if I'm right or wrong. If we take action, action to degrade the ability of Syria to use chemical weapons, action to degrade their ability to violate international law, it will take away a significant asset that they have in their battle against the opposition. It will level the playing field by removing the ability to use chemical weapons.

And it will therefore increase the odds that the parties will then come to the table to try to figure out that political solution. Is that the connection between the military option you are proposing and the stated end goal of a solution to the civil war only being -- only being achieved through a political end?

KERRY: It's the collateral connection to it. It's not the purpose of it. But it is a collateral connection.

KAINE: I don't have any other questions, Mr. Chair. I'll save them for tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Senator Markey.

SEN. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, very much.

With all question, there is great horror and disgust at Assad's use of chemical weapons and great sympathy for the people of Syria. That their leader would use chemical weapons upon his own people. And that his murderous regime is so dedicated to retaining power that they would use those weapons. At the same time in our own country, there is great concern that we could be invoking the law of unintended consequences as we talk about using our own military in Syria.

Back in 2001 and 2002, the threat obviously was that the next attack at the United States could come in the form of a mushroom -- cloud from Iraq and although there were inspectors on the ground for 100 days in Iraq who could not find it before the war started, nonetheless that war began.

And I think people are understandably apprehensive about what we're talking about right now. Because of what did precipitate that war in Iraq. So I continue to look forward to additional evidence being presented. And my hope is that we can act in a way that does not bog us down into the middle of a Syrian civil war.

I think there are many people who want us in the middle of the Syrian civil war. Many people. But I don't think that the American people do. I think they are very wary of having our country once again drawn into a civil war in another country. The concern that I think many people have is that we don't fully understand as well what the reaction of the Russians will be to this action.

So, General, you -- and I thank you, General, and Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel, for your -- this is a tough job. And we really appreciate the sensitivity and the professionalism with which you're handling this. You talked about the Russians now having four vessels in the eastern Mediterranean, but you did not seem to be that concerned about it.

Syria is a proxy state of Russia. They provide the military assistance, the training to Syria.