WASHINGTON -- Two cabinet secretaries who fought during the Vietnam War and a four-star general whose views on intervention were shaped by command tours in Iraq appeared before the Senate on Tuesday to argue the Obama administration's case for Congressional authorization to attack Syria over chemical weapons use.
The three men, drawn from President Obama's senior national security team, said that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government directly puts American interests at risk, and that other potential adversaries, whether North Korea or Iran, would be emboldened if the United States failed to act.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in his remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Congress to vote in favor of the president ordering a military strike and argued that "the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting."
Mr. Kerry, who once served as the chairman of the committee, sat next to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former member of the panel, and recalled the flawed intelligence assessments that helped propel the Senate to approve American military action against Iraq in 2003. He said this case was different.
"I remember Iraq, Secretary Hagel remembers Iraq," Mr. Kerry said. "We were here for that vote. We voted. And so we are especially sensitive -- Chuck and I -- to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence. And that is why our intelligence community has scrubbed and rescrubbed the evidence.
"We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, warned its forces to use gas masks," Mr. Kerry said, referring to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
"We have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when," he said. "Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory. All of them landed in opposition-controlled or contested territory. We have a map, physical evidence, showing every geographical point of impact -- and that is concrete."
Mr. Kerry argued against any restrictions in the Congressional authorization, including whether ground forces would be prohibited. He emphasized that Mr. Obama had no intention to put "boots on the ground." But he said that if Syria imploded and chemical weapons depots were at risk of being raided by militants, then ground troops might be required to secure those locations. He said such an action would most likely be undertaken with allies.
Mr. Kerry warned that the turmoil in Syria, if not contained, might allow extremists to find haven in a country with chemical weapons. That nexus of chemical weapons depots and militant fighters tied to international terrorist organizations, he said, could threaten American allies that border Syria, American troops in the region and perhaps even United States territory.
He also sought to tie the deaths by chemical weapons in Syria to the gas attacks of World War I and the horrors of World War II. But he said the authorization for use of force would not foreshadow a full war. "There will be no American boots on the ground," Mr. Kerry said, nor would the United States assume responsibility for the Syrian civil war.
The goal, he said, is to degrade the Syrian government's ability to use chemical weapons and deter their future use.
"This is not the time for armchair isolationism," Mr. Kerry said, knowing that there is great reluctance for another conflict in the Middle East among both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. "This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence."
Mr. Hagel, like Mr. Kerry a veteran of the Vietnam War, used an argument heard from previous administrations in warning of the potential links between terrorist organizations and authoritarian governments that held arsenals of unconventional weapons.
And he underscored the threat to American military personnel across the region if chemical weapons proliferated out of Syria. He also said other dictators around the world might be emboldened if the United States did not punish the Assad government.
Mr. Hagel warned that the implications for American inaction could reverberate across the Korean Peninsula, where the United States has 28,000 troops stationed below a demilitarized zone with a government in the North that also holds unconventional weapons.
"The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only an assault on humanity, it is a serious threat to America's national security interests and those of our closest allies," Mr. Hagel said. "We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use chemical weapons."
"Weakening this norm could embolden other regimes to acquire or use chemical weapons," Mr. Hagel said. "North Korea maintains a massive stockpile of chemical weapons that threatens our treaty ally, the Republic of Korea, and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed there."
Even as he urged Congressional approval, Mr. Hagel listed allies that he said were in support of an American strike. "Key partners, including France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other friends in the region, have assured us of their strong support for U.S. action," he said.
In the moments before the hearing began, and again after Mr. Kerry spoke, protesters jumped up and expressed their opposition to military action. "Kerry, no more war in Syria!" one shouted, before saying the nation needed health care and education more than military action.
Although the stated goal of any strike on Syria would be to degrade the government's ability to launch a chemical weapons attack and deter the future use of those poisons, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was asked whether such an attack would also diminish to some broader extent the Assad military's abilities. "Yes," he said.
In the hearing, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel and General Dempsey sought to present a unified front. But they have had differences over how to respond to the conflict in Syria in recent months, with the secretary of state emphasizing the need to arm the rebels and consider greater military involvement and the general highlighting the risks.
Mr. Kerry has been the administration's most ardent advocate of military action, while General Dempsey has written to Congress warning of the potential costs and likely risks of significant intervention. Mr. Hagel, who was traveling in Asia last week as the crisis over chemical weapons use in Syria pushed the administration toward action, has said the military is ready at any time to carry out a strike ordered by the president.
On the issue of providing arms, Mr. Kerry said publicly in the spring that there were moderate elements of the Syrian opposition who could be trusted to maintain control of weapons they received from international donors.
"There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them," Mr. Kerry said in March.
In contrast, General Dempsey told Congress in April that he was not sure the United States "could identify the right people" to equip in the Syrian opposition.
"It's actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago," General Dempsey said.
Differences between Mr. Kerry and General Dempsey also emerged at a White House meeting on June 12 at which military options on Syria were discussed.
The Senate hearing on Tuesday was the first in what is certain to be days of intense debate on Capitol Hill. Congressional officials said that a vote on whether to authorize the use of force was not expected before the middle of next week.
Defense Department officials said the Navy had allowed one of the five destroyers deployed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to return to port, but added that the remaining four destroyers had an arsenal of Tomahawk cruise missiles sufficient to carry out the limited, focused strike.
As a precautionary measure, more American warships were moved to the region. Officials said the aircraft carrier Nimitz and its strike group, which includes three destroyers and one cruiser, had moved into the southern Red Sea.
While the Nimitz was not envisioned to take part in a strike, whose centerpiece is expected to be long-range cruise missiles fired from the destroyers in the Mediterranean, the carrier strike group was considered prudent to counter worries of retaliatory actions by Syrian allies or militant surrogates in the area.
The Navy also recently moved another warship into the Mediterranean Sea, an amphibious transport dock vessel named the San Antonio. The ship has members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit on board.
Mr. Obama has said that any military strike he ordered on Syria would have "no boots on the ground." Pentagon officials said the presence of Marines was a precaution should the attack on Syria provoke street riots or otherwise put American embassies across the region at risk.
Early Tuesday, the Pentagon provided technical assistance to Israel for a ballistic missile defense test over the Mediterranean Sea.
The Pentagon press secretary, George Little, said the test was planned long before the current escalation of the Syrian crisis and was designed to help evaluate Israel's Arrow ballistic missile defense system.
"This test had nothing to do with United States consideration of military action to respond to Syria's chemical weapons attack," Mr. Little said. Regardless, the missile defense effort will certainly be noted by Israel's allies and potential adversaries in the region.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.