WASHINGTON — As they made the first public pitch to Congress for military action in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey were consistent about why the administration must intervene. But when it came to defining the goals, strategy, and end-game of the mission, the three were often unclear.
Kerry began by re-stating the administration's case that U.S. intelligence showed that a large-scale chemical weapons attack on August 21st was definitely carried out by the Assad regime.
"We're here because against multiple warnings from the President of the United States, from the Congress, from our friends and allies around the world, and even from Russia and Iran, the Assad regime – and only, undeniably, the Assad regime – unleashed an outrageous chemical attack against its own citizens," Kerry said.
Hagel then argued that the use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces could lead to chemical weapons proliferation throughout the region, including to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanon-based militant group.
"If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, could acquire them," Hagel said.
But once the presentations were over and the questioning began, the three officials were sometimes convoluted in their answers and gave little indication of exactly how the mission would work, how long it would last, and how much risk there would be that the Syrian president could carry out further atrocities.
Dempsey, under questioning from Senator Jeff Flake, acknowledged that the delay resulting from the Obama administration's decision to put the proposed strikes to a congressional vote had already complicated the military's job.
"There is evidence that the regime is reacting to the delay but also they were reacting before that to the unfortunate leak of military planning," Dempsey said. "This is a very dynamic situation." At a separate point in the hearing, Kerry also criticized leaks of military planning.
Yet Kerry argued that the delay was in fact beneficial, saying: "We are not losing anything by waiting and in fact, in my opinion, there are advantages."
Kerry at one point appeared to suggest that the strikes could eventually be followed by ground troops in a hypothetical future scenario, eliciting criticism from some members of the committee. Obama has repeatedly said there will be "no boots on the ground" in Syria.
Kerry said: "I think the President will give you every assurance in the world, as am I, as is 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 somebody 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."
He walked back that statement later, while still not completely closing off the possibility of ground troops outside the parameters of the proposed authorization of force sent by the administration to Congress.
"All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility — and I'm thinking out loud — about how to protect America's interests," Kerry said. "There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the Syrian civil war."
"I didn't find that response very appropriate," Senator Bob Corker, the ranking member on the committee, said of Kerry's answer about ground troops. "I don't think there are any of us here who are willing to support boots on the ground."
The State Department pushed back almost immediately on a BuzzFeed story about Kerry's answer, sending the following quote from spokesperson Jen Psaki: "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."
Kerry faced a serious challenge from Senator Rand Paul, one of the few members of the committee who appeared vehemently opposed to the proposed intervention. In response, Kerry made a confusing argument that the air strikes did not constitute an act of war.
"We don't want to go to war. We don't believe we are going to go war in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war," Kerry said. "The president is asking for the authority to do a limited action that will degrade the capacity of a tyrant who has been using chemical weapons to kill his own people. It's a limited action. It's limited."
"The President is not asking you to go to war," Kerry said. "He is not asking you to declare war. He is not asking you to send one American troop to war."
Though Paul conceded that "you're probably going to win" Congress' approval of the strikes, he demanded that Kerry assure him that the U.S. would not attack Syria without the approval of Congress.
"[Obama] still has the constitutional authority and he would be in keeping with the Constitution" if he acted without the approval of Congress, Kerry said.
Despite the frequent fumbling, the administration officials appeared to have the support of most of the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They will face a tougher crowd during a similar hearing on Wednesday, when they face the House Foreign Affairs Committee.