Lawmakers tie military cuts to military action in Syria


Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel prepare to testify before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on proposed military force in Syria. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
September 10, 2013

Members of the House Armed Services Committee pelted Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with a bunch of questions at a lengthy hearing Tuesday, and some of them even concerned Syria.

At a time of new crisis, some Republicans on the panel preferred to keep fighting the last political war — by arguing some more about military budget cuts that nobody wanted in the first place.

And one query after another focused primarily on how much the military had been weakened by what some lawmakers insisted on calling “the president’s sequestration” — a.k.a. the cuts that came of Congress’s inability to agree on where to trim.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) asked Hagel whether he’d call those cuts debilitating and told Kerry, who, like Hagel, served in Vietnam, “This administration loves to use the military’’ across the globe, but “you just don’t want to pay the price it takes to have a strong military.’’

He and others were echoing the concerns that committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) expressed in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday threatening that he would vote against authorizing a military strike on Syria unless President Obama promises to “address sequestration as part of any deal on the debt ceiling. If he makes that commitment, then he has my support. If not, I won’t be able to vote to send our overstretched and under-funded military into action.”

Maybe McKeon has leverage now, with Congress up against a budget and debt-ceiling deadline. But sequestration, as Hagel told him, isn’t going anywhere: Two years ago, lawmakers passed a measure saying that if they couldn’t agree on a plan to reduce the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion more, then $1 trillion in across-the-board cuts would automatically take effect this past March.

“The whole design of these arbitrary cuts,’’ Obama said then, “was to make them so unattractive and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would actually get together and find a good compromise of sensible cuts as well as closing tax loopholes and so forth.”

That’s not what happened, of course. Nothing happened. The deadline came and went. On March 1, the president signed the automatic cuts — which slice defense and non-defense spending equally — and the country has continued to lurch from stopgap funding to continuing budget resolutions.

The latest one will expire in 19 days. Without an extension, the government will shut down.

Now, Obama has placed before Congress a wholly different unattractive and unappealing scenario. This time, to judge from the questioning of administration officials Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats have found unity in opposition to the president, although for different reasons.

Even the sudden, if still small, possibility that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could willingly give up his stockpile of chemical weapons only seemed to make McKeon more anxious about who would pick up the bill if that happened.

­­“This is a very expensive operation’’ that would require careful monitoring, he said. “Is there any discussion who’s going to pay for that?”

In light of that proposal, he asked, did Obama still want the House to vote on the use of force against Syria?

Oh, Kerry said, “we’re not asking Congress not to vote,’’ and “nothing has changed with respect to our request for the Congress to take action.’’

“No one in the administration has argued that the United States is under imminent threat,’’ said Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who read her questions because she wanted to ask them word for word. “In fact, last night the president seemed to say that we didn’t have to so worry about Assad and his capabilities. . . . And do you support vigilante action for other nations to enforce international law, or just us?”

Kerry called her questions “terrific,’’ but she didn’t seem to feel the same way about his answers and cut him off.

After a couple of hours of this, Kerry lost his temper with Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who’d observed that the only reason the Senate wasn’t going ahead with a vote on Syria is “because they don’t have the votes, Mr. Secretary.’’

“I don’t know that,” Kerry shot back.

“Read any newspaper in this country,’’ Miller needled him, “and you will find that out.”

“Do you want to play politics here,’’ Kerry asked, “or do you want to get a policy in place?’’

That’s when Miller took the zinger out of his pocket and asked Kerry to explain what he’d meant when he said that any strike would be “unbelievably small.” As in not Iraq, not Afghanistan and not an operation that would drag on for a year, Kerry replied. “Targeted, limited but consequential action.”

All three of those testifying — Hagel, Kerry and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — repeatedly argued that it would be riskier not to act than to act, because weapons of mass destruction cannot become “weapons of convenience’’ that could be used against allies in the region or at some point against Americans.

But, Kerry promised, “we will not send America’s sons and daughters to fight in Syria’s civil war.’’

Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who’d been dozing earlier in the hearing, was one of only a couple of members who asked a truly friendly question, and he may have overcompensated: “You are a man who has always said what he meant and meant what he said, isn’t that right?” he asked Kerry.

“I’ve tried,” the former senator said.

“So you didn’t misspeak?” Johnson asked. He wanted to know whether Kerry meant to say on Monday in London that the only way Assad might avoid consequences for using chemical weapons would be turning over the entire stockpile.

No, the secretary said, he hadn’t misspoken.

Before the dubious committee members, he touted his plan, accidental or not, as “the ultimate way to degrade and deter” Syria’s capability. “It is the ideal way to take this weapon away from” Assad.

Kerry didn’t sound as though he was counting on that. “But make no mistake,’’ he said, “no political solution will ever be achievable as long as Assad believes he can just gas his way out of this predicament.”

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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