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Congress debates Syria: Now what?

Senate and House committee hearings expose numerous fault lines in the administration’s case for war.

As President Barack Obama tries to drum up support in Europe for his plans to intervene in Syria, Congress is busy back home trying to figure out exactly how it wants to exercise its own powers to enable or hobble.

Today in Stockholm, Obama said he reserves the right to act even if Congress does not give him authorization, but he’s clearly hoping that lawmakers will not put roadblocks in his way.

He faces an uphill battle.

Following hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, committee members presented a draft authorization for a “limited, tailored” use of the military against Syria.

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The draft requires Obama to justify his actions to Congress and present a coherent strategy for achieving his goals. It also limits the administration’s power to act to a 60-day period, subject to a 30-day extension with congressional approval.

Today’s agenda is busy: Top administration officials are speaking to the foreign committees of both the Senate and the House, as well as to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

GlobalPost live blog: US Congress holds Syria hearings, Putin demands proof

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he’s confident he can deliver a vote for the Syria resolution, but it won’t be so easy in the Republican-controlled House, which begins debating the Syria attack plan next week.

Although key congressional leaders have voiced support for the president, remaining divisions and unanswered questions could sour the debate.

Tuesday’s hearings offered a preview. While all the senators expressed horror at what had happened in Syria, where the US State Department says more than 1,400 people were killed in a sarin nerve gas attack by the President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, there’s much less consensus on what can, or should, be done about it.

Some, like Republican Sen. John McCain, want to go in and deliver a significant blow; others, like Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., were less sure that intervention could work and were more concerned about the possible consequences of such a strike.

The administration members who testified at the hearing — Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — at times struggled to make convincing arguments to the Senate committee.

Kerry in particular seemed to bumble through parts of the proceedings, taking heat from senators for confusing and contradictory statements.

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The president has said, and Kerry reiterated, there’s no intent to send American troops to fight in Syria. But when committee chairman Robert Menendez asked whether the administration would accept language in the authorization document that explicitly prohibits sending soldiers to Syria, Kerry started to squirm.

“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 … 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 … 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.”

This earned Kerry a sharp rebuke from Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the committee’s ranking member.

“I hope that as we together work through this, we work through something that’s much clearer than the answer that you gave,” Corker said.

Kerry then walked back his remark, and ultimately tried to repair the damage.

“We all agree, there will be no American boots on the ground,” Kerry said, adding he had only been “thinking out loud” earlier.

Two polls released Tuesday show the American public is opposed to intervention in Syria, with 61 percent convinced that strikes will lead to a prolonged commitment in that nation’s civil war.

While Kerry insists there’s no intent to get deeply involved in Syria, Tuesday’s hearings were marked by a new language regarding the proposed intervention.

Gone are the earlier “punitive strikes”; Obama and his advisers are now promising a campaign to “degrade and deter” Assad’s regime.

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What, exactly, that might mean is up for grabs.

It does not mean regime change, although Kerry said, “President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go.”

When Republican Sen. Ron Johnson asked the secretary why the United States should not, in that case, deliver a knockout punch rather than the limited action being contemplated, Kerry fumbled again.

“The president is listening to the American people and has made a policy decision that [regime change] is not something that the United States of America needs to engage in or ought to engage in,” he said.

“But it — but it’s the stated goal,” Johnson replied, clearly perturbed.

“Well, yeah, it is. It is, senator,” Kerry conceded. “Is the Congress of the United States ready to pay for 30 days of 30,000 airstrikes to take out … and is there a legal justification for doing that?” he asked. (Here’s a full transcript.)

The senators also differed on the definition of “war.”

“So let me be clear,” Kerry said, “We don’t believe we are going to war in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war.”

“Ask the people on the ships launching the missiles whether they’re involved with war or not,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul sputtered.

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Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Tom Mahnken, former deputy assistant defense secretary and current professor at the US Naval War College, tried to clarify things a bit.

“Whether he knows it or not, Barack Obama is leading the United States into war with Syria,” Mahnken wrote. “To quote [Prussian military theorist] Carl von Clausewitz … war is ‘an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.’”

Continuing to cite the 19th century scholar, Mahnken cautions against hasty action.

“No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it,” Mahnken wrote.

Judging by Tuesday’s hearings, Obama, Kerry and friends had better start brushing up on their Clausewitz.