CAPITOL HILL: At an often combative hearing about the US use of force after Syria’s killing 1,400 of its citizens with chemical weapons, Secretary of State John Kerry said America “will not wait for long” to hear details of Russia’s proposal to put the weapons under international control.
“We are waiting for word on the Russian proposal, but we will not wait for long,” Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee.. Later in the hearing, Kerry said he’d gotten word from the White House that French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister David Cameron “agreed to work closely together with Russia and China to explore the viability of the Russian proposal.” The international solution may well involve the United Nations, Kerry noted. “We need to expore this,” he said. “The Russians are supposed to make a proposal to us.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee he could not guarantee there would be no retaliation against the United States should we strike Syria. But he sounded resolute and prepared. “We assess that the risk of retaliation is low,” Dempsey said. “I can’t drive it to zero. We are postured within the region to respond.”
Kerry continued to press his view that the US will not be going to war, that there will be no boots on the ground and that America will not be teetering toward a wider war. “I do not see that slippery slope. I do not see that,” he said just before slipping out of the hearing room with his seven staff.
Much of the hearing was taken up with jabs at Kerry and Hagel by the HASC’s chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, and several other senior committee Republicans about the impact of the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration. They argued that sequestration poses a bigger long-term threat to the United States than does Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Rep. Randy Forbes, chair of the HASC seapower and projection forces, demanded Kerry tell him whether Syria was a bigger threat to the US than the $578 billion in cuts made to the Pentagon budget.
Kerry counterattacked, noting that “this is not a budget hearing,” and generally refusing to discuss the choice. Forbes told Defense Secretary Hagel — who played his now customary second-tier role when Kerry is present at the Syrian hearings — that he hasn’t seen him or other administration types banging the table over budget cuts.
Dempsey brushed aside a comparison by Rep. Duncan Hunter of whether the threat posed by Syria looms larger than does Iran and its nuclear enterprise, calling it a “false dichotomy.” However, Dempsey also laid out his military judgement quite clearly. “The bigger, long-term threat is clearly Iran,” Dempsey told Hunter.