Opening Remarks Before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Secretary of State
The video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.
As we convene for this debate, it’s not an exaggeration to say to you, all of you, my former colleagues, that the world is watching not just to see what we decide. But it is watching to see how we make this decision – whether in a dangerous world we can still make our government speak with one voice. They want to know if America will rise to this moment and make a difference.
And the question of whether to authorize our nation to take military action is, as you have said, Mr. Chairman, and you’ve echoed, Mr. Ranking Member, this is obviously one of the most important decisions, one of the most important responsibilities of this committee or of any senator in the course of a career. The President and the Administration appreciate that you have returned quickly to the nation’s capital to address it and that you are appropriately beginning a process of focusing with great care and great precision, which is the only way to approach the potential use of military power.
Ranking Member Corker, I know that you want to discuss, as you said, why Syria matters to our national security and our strategic interests, beyond the compelling humanitarian reasons. And I look forward with Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey to laying that out here this afternoon.
But first, it is important to explain to the American people why we’re here. It’s important for people who may not have caught every component of the news over the course of the Labor Day Weekend to join us, all of us, in focusing in on what is at stake here. That’s why the President of the United States made the decision, as he did, contrary to what many people thought he would do, of asking the Congress to join in this decision. We are stronger as a nation when we do that.
So 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. We’re here because a dictator and his family’s personal enterprise, in their lust to hold onto power, were willing to infect the air of Damascus with a poison that killed innocent mothers and fathers and hundreds of their children, their lives all snuffed out by gas in the early morning August 21.
Now, some people here and there, amazingly, have questioned the evidence of this assault on conscience. I repeat here again today that only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen – and the Assad regime did it.
Now, I remember Iraq. Secretary Hagel remembers Iraq. General Dempsey especially remembers Iraq. But Secretary Hagel and I and many of you sitting on the dais remember Iraq in a special way because 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 re-scrubbed the evidence. We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information. And we ask the American people and the rest of the world to judge that information.
We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instructions to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks. We have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when. Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory. Not one. 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.
Within minutes of the attack – 90, I think, to be precise, maybe slightly shorter – the social media exploded with horrific images of the damage that had been caused – men and women, the elderly and children, sprawled on a hospital floor with no wounds, no blood – but all dead. Those scenes of human chaos and desperation were not contrived. They were real. No one could contrive such a scene.
We are certain that none of the opposition has the weapons or capacity to effect a strike of this scale – particularly from the heart of regime territory. Just think about it in logical terms, common sense. With high confidence, our intelligence community tells us that after the strike, the regime issued orders to stop, and then fretted openly, we know, about the possibility of UN inspectors discovering evidence. So then they began to systematically try to destroy it. Contrary to my discussion with their Foreign Minister, who said we have nothing to hide, I said if you have nothing to hide, then let the inspectors in today and let it be unrestricted. It wasn’t. They didn’t. It took four days of shelling before they finally allowed them in under a constrained, prearranged structure. And we now have learned that the hair and blood samples from first responders in East Damascus has tested positive for signatures of sarin.
So my colleagues, we know what happened. For all the lawyers, for all the former prosecutors, for all those who have sat on a jury – I can tell you that we know these things beyond the reasonable doubt that is the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives.
So we’re here because of what happened two weeks ago. But we’re also here because of what happened nearly a century ago, in the darkest moments of World War I and after the horror of gas warfare, when the vast majority of the world came together to declare, in no uncertain terms, that chemical weapons crossed a line of conscience and they must be banned from use forever. Over the years that followed, over 180 countries – including Iran, Iraq, and Russia – agreed and they joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. Even countries with whom we agree on little agreed on that conviction.
Now, some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s redline. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world’s redline, it’s about humanity’s redline, and it’s a redline that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.
This debate is also about Congress’ own redline. You – the United States Congress – agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention. You – the United States Congress – passed the Syria Accountability Act, which says Syria’s chemical weapons are, quote, “threaten the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States.” You – the Congress – have spoken out about grave consequences if Assad in particular used chemical weapons. So I say to you, Senator Corker, that is one of the reasons why Syria is important.
And as we debate and the world watches, as you decide and the world wonders – not whether Assad’s regime executed the worst chemical-weapons attack of the 21st century; that fact I think is now beyond question – the world wonders whether the United States of America will consent, through silence, to standing aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.
In the nearly 100 years since the first global commitment against chemical weapons, only two tyrants dared to cross the world’s brightest line. Now Bashar al-Assad has become the third. And I think all of you know that history holds nothing but infamy for those criminals and history reserves also very little sympathy for their enablers.
So the reality is the gravity of this moment. That is the importance of the decision that this Congress faces and that the world is waiting to learn about in these next days.
Now, Ranking Member Corker asked a central question: Why should Americans care, beyond what I’ve just said, which ought to be enough, in the judgment of the President and this Administration?
Well, it is clear that, in addition to what I’ve just mentioned about the Syria Accountability Act and the threat to the Middle East, we cannot overlook the impact of chemical weapons and the danger that they pose to a particularly volatile area of the world in which we’ve been deeply invested for years, because we have great friends there, we have allies there, we have deep interests there.
Since President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go, it is not insignificant that to deprive him of the capacity to use chemical weapons or to degrade the capacity to use those chemical weapons actually deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war, and that has an impact. That can help to stabilize the region, ultimately.
In addition, we have other important strategic national security interests, not just in the prevention of the proliferation of chemical weapons, but to avoid the creation of a safe haven in Syria or a base of operations for extremists to use these weapons against our friends. All of us know that the extremes of both sides are there waiting in the wings, working and pushing and fighting. They’d be desperate to get their hands on these materials.
And the fact is that if nothing happens to begin to change the equation or the current calculation, that area can become even more so an area of ungoverned space, where those extremists threaten even the United States and more immediately, if they get their hands on those weapons, allies and friends of ours like Jordan or Israel or Lebanon or others.
Forcing Assad to change his calculation about his ability to act with impunity can contribute to his realization that he cannot gas or shoot his way out of his predicament. And as I think you know, it has been the President’s primary goal to achieve a negotiated resolution, but you got to have parties prepared to negotiate to achieve that.
Syria is also important because, quite simply – I can’t put this to you more plainly than to just ask each of you to ask yourselves if you’re Assad or if you’re any one of the other despots in that region, and the United States steps back from this moment, together with our other allies and friends, what is the message? The message is that he has been granted impunity, the freedom to choose to use the weapons again or force us to go through this cycle again, with who knows what outcome after once refusing it. We would have granted him the capacity to use these weapons against more people with greater levels of damage because we would have stood and stepped away.
As confidently as we know what happened in Damascus, my friends, on August 21st, we know that Assad would read our stepping away or our silence as an invitation to use those weapons with impunity. And in creating impunity, we will be creating opportunity – the opportunity for other dictators and/or terrorists to pursue their own weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
I will tell you, there are some people hoping that the United States Congress doesn’t vote for this very limited request the President has put before you. Iran is hoping you look the other way. Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test. Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day. They are all listening for our silence. And if we don’t answer Assad today, we will erode a standard that has existed for those hundred years. In fact, we will erode a standard that has protected our own troops in war. And we will invite even more dangerous tests down the road.
Our allies and our partners are also counting on us in this situation. The people of Israel, of Jordan, of Turkey each look next door and they see that they’re one stiff breeze away from the potential of being hurt, their civilians being killed as a consequence of choices Assad might take in the absence of action. They anxiously await our assurance that our word means something. They await the assurance that if the children lined up in unbloodied burial shrouds were their own children, that we would keep the world’s promise. That’s what they’re hoping.
So the authorization that President Obama seeks is definitively in our national security interest. We need to send to Syria and to the world, to dictators and to terrorists, to allies, and to civilians alike the unmistakable message that when the United States of America and the world say “Never again,” we don’t mean sometimes, we don’t mean somewhere. Never means never.
So this is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they’re not enforced. As Justice Jackson said in his opening argument at the Nuremberg trials, “The ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to the law.” If the world’s worst despots see that they can flout with impunity prohibitions against the world’s worst weapons, then those prohibitions are just pieces of paper. That is what we mean by accountability, and that is what we mean by we cannot be silent.
So let me be clear: President Obama is not asking America to go to war, and I say that sitting next to two men, Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey, who know what war is. Senator McCain knows what war is. They know the difference between going to war and what President Obama is requesting now. We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground. The President has made crystal clear we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. He is asking only for the power to make clear, to make certain that the United States means what we say, that the world, when we join together in a multilateral statement, mean what we say. He’s asking for authorization to degrade and deter Bashar al-Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons.
Now, some will undoubtedly ask, and I think appropriately, what about the unintended consequences of action? Some fear a retaliation that leads to a larger conflict. Well, let me put it bluntly: If Assad is arrogant enough, and I would say foolish enough, to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war. Even Assad’s supporters, Russia and Iran, say publicly that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. Now, some will also question the extent of our responsibility. To them, I say when someone kills hundreds of children with a weapon the world has banned, we are all responsible. That is true because of treaties like the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and for us, the Syria Accountability Act. But it’s also true because we share a common humanity and a common decency.
This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence. We have spoken up against unspeakable horror many times in the past. Now, we must stand up and act, and we must protect our security, protect our values, and lead the world with conviction that is clear about our responsibility. Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Secretary Kerry, the American people say no war.
CHAIRMAN MENENDEZ: The committee will be in order. The committee will be in order.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The people have said no war. (Inaudible) another war. We don’t want another (inaudible).
CHAIRMAN MENENDEZ: I’d ask the – please to restore order.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Inaudible) nobody wants this war. Cruise missiles – launching cruise missiles means another war. The American people do not want this. Secretary Kerry (inaudible).
CHAIRMAN MENENDEZ: Secretary Hagel.
SECRETARY KERRY: Can I just say before you – the first time I testified before this committee, when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester. And I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are all here having this debate, talking about these things before the country, and that the Congress itself will act representing the American people. And I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view, and we do.