Secretary of State John Kerry mixed messages Tuesday against a proposed congressional prohibition on the use of American ground forces in Syria, saying the war-torn country could “implode” and that, if so, U.S. troops would be needed to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry first said he didn’t want to “take off the table” an option that might become necessary if Syria further destabilizes. Some lawmakers are proposing amending the Obama-administration authored legislation that would give congressional approval to military action in Syria — a change that Kerry said was ill-advised.
“But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, 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 said.
Kerry’s comments, in response to a question from New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, cast into doubt implications by the White House that President Barack Obama is not considering boots on the ground in Syria, even as he pushes for a more limited response to Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
“So the key point that I want to emphasize to the American people: The military plan that has been developed by the joint chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional,” Obama said Tuesday morning before a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House. “It is limited. It does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan.”
Kerry’s comments are likely to upset many war-weary members of Congress who are worried about the United States getting drawn into another conflict in the Middle East.
“I didn’t find that an appropriate response,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the committee’s top Republican, adding that his support for military force hinges on a commitment not to place boots on the ground.
Kerry later stated that under the plans currently drawn up, “the president doesn’t want boots on the ground fighting Syria’s civil war, period.”
Under questioning from Corker, he said he was offering a hypothetical for another situation entirely when he opened up the door to American forces on the ground in Syria. But Kerry’s walk-back was incomplete, only applying to the civil war and not the protection of Syrian chemical stockpiles.
“Let’s shut that door now as tight as we can,” Kerry said. “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”
UPDATE at 4:20 p.m.: Kerry, attempting to clean up his comments yet again, said the Obama administration has “no problem in having the language that has zero capacity for” boots on the ground.
UPDATE at 5:00 p.m.: State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf sends along this statement: “As Secretary Kerry made clear repeatedly during the hearing and over the last several months, the Administration is not considering and has no plans to consider boots on the ground in Syria. Period.”
The transcript of the exchange:
SEN. MENENDEZ: Mr. Secretary, we received from the administration a proposed resolution for the authorization of force, and of course that is a negotiation between the Congress and the administration.
Would you tell us whether you believe that a prohibition for having American boots on the ground — is that something that the administration would accept as part of a resolution?
SEC. KERRY: Mr. Chairman, it would be preferable not to, not because there is any intention or any plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground. And I think the president will give you every assurance in the world, as am I, as has the secretary of defense and the chairman. But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, 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. So that was the only kind of example, that’s the only thing I can think of that would immediately leap to mind to say, you know —
SEN. MENENDEZ: Well, if we — if we said that there’d be no troops on the ground for combat purposes, that clearly would, I assume —
SEC. KERRY: Well, assuming that in the going to protect those weapons, whether or not they had to, you know, answer a shot in order to be secure — I don’t want to speak to that. The bottom line is this — can I give you the bottom line?
SEN. MENENDEZ: We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to — we’re going to have to work to — (inaudible) —
SEC. KERRY: I’m absolutely confident, Mr. Chairman, that it is easy, not that complicated, to work out language that will satisfy the Congress and the American people that there’s no door open here through which someone can march in ways that the Congress doesn’t want it to while still protecting the national security interests of the country.
I’m confident that can be worked out.
SEN. MENENDEZ: Well, I —
SEC. KERRY: The bottom line is, the president has no intention and will not, and we do not want to, put American troops on the ground to fight this — or be involved in the fighting of this civil war, period.
SEN. CORKER: I will say that — in response to your answer to Senator Menendez, I didn’t find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground. And I do want to say that — that that’s an important element to me, and I hope that as we together work through this, we work through something that’s much clearer than the answer that you gave. I don’t think, while we’re all — we all feel the actions by the Assad regime are reprehensible, I don’t think there are any of us here that are willing to support the possibility of having combat boots on the ground.
SEC. KERRY: Well —
SEN. CORKER: And I do hope as we move through this, the administration can be very clear in that regard.
SEC. KERRY: Well, let me be very clear now because I don’t want anything coming out of this hearing that leaves any door open to any possibility. So let’s shut that door now as tight as we can. All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility — and I’m thinking out loud — about how to protect America’s interests. But if you want to know whether there’s any — you know, the answer is, whatever prohibition clarifies it to Congress and the American people, there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.