Murphy grills Kerry on plans to attack Syria

Washington – President Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry and top military officers to Capitol Hill Tuesday to sell a plan for an airstrike on Syria. But many lawmakers, including Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, aren’t necessarily buying.

“We wonder if there is a limit on the ability of the American military power to  influence the politics on the ground in the Middle East,” Murphy said.

Murphy said a strike on Syria poses the danger of an escalation of conflict that would cost  U.S. forces and U.S. resources for years.  He also  said a strike on Syria could result in little change on the ground, yet stir up anti-American fervor in the region.

Murphy and other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee abandoned their summer break to return to Washington Tuesday to consider the military action Obama plans in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s attack on opponents with chemical weapons.

In response to questioning by Murphy, Kerry said there is no question Assad’s government has used chemical weapons several times.

“They have been used not once, not twice, but multiple times,” Kerry said.

Murphy argued that the use of chemical weapons is not in dispute – but the use of U.S. military power to respond to those attacks is in question.

An agitated Kerry disagreed.

“Chris, the dispute is what are you going to do about [the chemical attacks],” Kerry said. “That’s the dispute.”

Kerry also told Murphy that “believing doing nothing reduces future threats… flies against all common sense and human behavior.”

Although there were some testy exchanges like the one between Murphy and Kerry during the four-hour hearing, the Obama administration’s aim is to try to calm lawmakers’ concerns.

“Let me be clear, President Obama is not asking Americans to go to war,” said Kerry.

Kerry was often interrupted by protesters opposed to military action in Syria. They were escorted out of the hearing room by Capitol Police. But the secretary of state assured the senators that the Obama administration is willing to compromise on the nature of a Syria resolution. Congress is likely to vote on it next week.

“I am absolutely confident we can work out language that will satisfy Congress and the American people,” Kerry said.

He insisted over and over, “There will not be American troops on the ground.”

But members of the Senate committee questioned the size and duration of the proposed strike, the nature of the likely targets, and the wisdom of aiding Syrian rebels in the country’s civil war.

“We get calls by the thousands,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., “But nobody has called me in favor of war.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said there’s a “shaky legal foundation” for a strike on Syria and that it would send the message to the international community that the United States wants to remain “the policeman of the world.”

Obama surprised lawmakers  by delaying a punitive attack on Syria until the rest of Congress returns next week and votes on a resolution approving U.S. military action, but he met congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday to urge a swift decision.

“This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan,” Obama said. 

The decision to involve Congress in planning a military strike — a move previous presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, strenuously avoided -– could be political risky.

But after a flurry of meetings and phone calls to members of Congress, Obama seems to be turning the tide of opinion on Capitol Hill his way.

Tuesday he won the strategic backing of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The president also has the support of other key congressional allies, including Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations  Committee.

Menendez called the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people —  including 426 children —  “sickening.”

“In my view the world cannot ignore the inhumanity and horror of that act,” Menendez said.

Kerry said he was sure Congress would approve a resolution backing an attack and told lawmakers there is no planned alternative if the resolution fails.

“We’re not contemplating that because it’s too dire,” Kerry said.

In Connecticut’s all-Democratic  congressional delegation, only Sen. Richard Blumenthal has indicated support for an attack. But Blumenthal has also joined all other Connecticut lawmakers in insisting that Obama consult with Congress before initiating such an attack.

There will be another Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Syria Wednesday, but this will be behind closed doors.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, which counts Blumenthal among its members, will also  be briefed by administration officials in a closed session Thursday.

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