Proposed Authorization to Use Military Force in Syria

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Opening Remarks Before the House Armed Services Committee
Washington, DC
September 10, 2013

The video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.

Chairman McKeon, Ranking Member Smith, and distinguished members of the committee, I’m privileged to be here this morning with Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey, and we are all of us – all three of us – very much looking forward to a conversation with you about this complicated, challenging, but critical issue that our country faces.

And we don’t come to you lightly. I think Secretary Hagel and I particularly come here with an enormous amount of respect for this process, for what each of you go through at home, and the challenges you face with constituents, and the complexity of this particular issue. So this is good. It’s good that we’re here, and we look forward to the conversation.

And as we convene at this hearing, it is no exaggeration at all to say to you that the world is watching. And they’re watching not just to see what we decide; they’re watching to see how we decide it, and whether or not we have the ability at this critical time when so much is on the line in so many parts of the world. As challenges to governance, writ large, it’s important that we show the world that we actually do have the ability to, hopefully, speak with one voice. And we believe that that can make a difference.

Needless to say, this is one of the most important decisions that any member of Congress makes during the course of their service. And we all want to make sure we leave plenty of time here for discussion. Obviously, this is a very large committee, and so we’ll try to summarize in these comments and give the opportunity for the Q&A.

But I just want to open with a few comments about questions I’m hearing from many of your colleagues, and obviously, from the American people and what we read in the news.

First, people ask me – and they ask you, I know – why we are choosing to have a debate on Syria at a time when there’s so much that we need to be doing here at home. And we all know what that agenda is. Let me assure you, the President of the United States didn’t wake up one day and just kind of flippantly say, “Let’s go take military action in Syria.” He didn’t choose this. We didn’t choose this. We’re here today because Bashar al-Assad, a dictator who has chosen to meet the requests for reform in his country with bullets and bombs and napalm and gas, because he made a decision to use the world’s most heinous weapons to murder more than – in one instance – more than 1,400 innocent people, including more than 400 children. He and his regime made a choice, and President Obama believes – and all of us at this table believe – that we have no choice but to respond.

Now, to those who doubt whether Assad’s actions have to have consequences, remember that our inaction absolutely is guaranteed to bring worse consequences. You, every one of you here – we, all of us – America will face this. If not today, somewhere down the line when the permissiveness of not acting now gives Assad license to go do what he wants – and threaten Israel, threaten Jordan, threaten Lebanon, create greater instability in a region already wracked by instability, where stability is one of the greatest priorities of our foreign policy and of our national security interest.

And that brings me to the second question that I’ve heard lately, which is sort of: What’s really at stake here? Does this really affect us? I met earlier today with Steve Chabot and had a good conversation. I asked him, “What are you hearing?” I know what you’re all hearing. The instant reaction of a lot of Americans anywhere in our country is, “Woah, we don’t want to go to war again. We don’t want to Iraq. We don’t want to go to Afghanistan. We’ve seen how those turned out.” I get it, and I’ll speak to that in a minute.

But I want to make it clear at the outset, as each of us at this table want to make it clear, that what Assad has done directly affects America’s security – America’s security. We have a huge national interest in containing all weapons of mass destruction. And the use of gas is a weapon of mass destruction. Allowing those weapons to be used with impunity would be an enormous chink in our armor that we have built up over years against proliferation. Think about it. Our own troops benefit from that prohibition against chemical weapons.

I mentioned yesterday in the briefing – many of you were there, and some of you I notice from decorations, otherwise I know many of you have served in the military, some of you still in the reserves. And you know the training we used to go through when you’re learning. And I went to Chemical, Nuclear, Biological Warfare school, and I remember going into a room and a gas mask, and they make you take it off, and you see how long you can do it. It ain’t for long.

Those weapons have been outlawed, and our troops, in all of the wars we fought since World War I, have never been subjected to it because we stand up for that prohibition. There’s a reason for that. If we don’t answer Assad today, we will irreparably damage a century-old standard that has protected American troops in war. So to every one of your constituents, if they were to say to you, “Why did you vote for this even though we said we don’t want to go to war?” Because you want to protect American troops, because you want to protect America’s prohibition and the world’s prohibition against these weapons.

The stability of this region is also in our direct security interest. Our allies, our friends in Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, are, all of them, just a strong wind away from being injured themselves or potentially from a purposeful attack. Failure to act now will make this already volatile neighborhood even more combustible, and it will almost certainly pave the way for a more serious challenge in the future. And you can just ask our friends in Israel or elsewhere. In Israel, they can’t get enough gas masks. And there’s a reason that the Prime Minister has said this matters, this decision matters. It’s called Iran. Iran looms out there with its potential – with its nuclear program and the challenge we have been facing. And that moment is coming closer in terms of a decision. They’re watching what we do here. They’re watching what you do and whether or not this means something.

If we choose not to act, we will be sending a message to Iran of American ambivalence, American weakness. It will raise the question – I’ve heard this question. As Secretary of State as I meet with people and they ask us about sort of our long-term interests and the future with respect to Iran, they’ve asked me many times, “Do you really mean what you say? Are you really going to do something?” They ask whether or not the United States is committed, and they ask us also if the President cuts a deal will the Congress back it up? Can he deliver? This is all integrated. I have no doubt – I’ve talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday – Israel does not want to be in the middle of this. But we know that their security is at risk and the region is at risk.

I also want to remind you, you have already spoken to this. Your word is on the line, too. You passed the Syria Accountability Act. And that act clearly states that Syria’s chemical weapons threaten the security of the Middle East. That’s in plain writing. It’s in the act. You voted for it. We’ve already decided these chemical weapons are important to the security of our nation. I quote, “The national security interests of the United States are – the national security interests of the United States are at risk with the weapons of mass – the chemical weapons of Syria.”

The fourth question I’ve been asked a lot of times is why diplomacy isn’t changing this dynamic. Isn’t there some alternative that could avoid this? And I want to emphasize on behalf of President Obama, President Obama’s first priority throughout this process has been and is diplomacy. Diplomacy is our first resort, and we have brought this issue to the United Nations Security Council on many occasions. We have sent direct messages to Syria, and we’ve had Syria’s allies bring them direct messages: Don’t do this. Don’t use these weapons. All to date, to no avail.

In the last three years, Russia and China have vetoed three Security Council resolutions condemning the regime for inciting violence or resolutions that simply promote a political solution to the dialogue – to the conflict. Russia has even blocked press releases – press releases that do nothing more than express humanitarian concern for what is happening in Syria, or merely condemn the generic use of chemical weapons, not even assigning blame. They have blocked them. We’ve brought these concerns to the United Nations, making the case to the members of the Security Council that protecting civilians, prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and promoting peace and security are in our shared interests, and those general statements have been blocked.

That is why the President directed me to work with the Russians and the region’s players to get a Geneva 2 peace negotiation underway. And the end to the conflict in Syria, we all emphasize today – is a political solution. None of us are coming to you today asking for a long-term military – I mean, some people think we ought to be, but we don’t believe there is any military solution to what is happening in Syria. But make no mistake: No political solution will ever be achievable as long as Assad believes he can just gas his way out of this predicament. And we are without question building a coalition of support for this now. Thirty-one countries have signed on to the G-20 statement, which is a powerful one, endorsing the United States’ efforts to hold Assad accountable for what he is doing. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France and many others are committed to joining with us in any action. We’re now in the double digits with respect to countries that are prepared to actually take action should they be needed were they capable of it. More than 25 – I mentioned 31 nations signing on to the G-12 statement.

But our diplomatic hand, my former colleagues, our diplomatic hand only becomes stronger if other countries know that America is speaking with a strong voice here, with one voice, and if we’re stronger as a united nation around this purpose. In order to speak with that voice, we need you, the Congress. That’s what the President did. Many of you said please bring this to Congress. The President has done that, and he’s bringing it to Congress with confidence that the Congress will want to join in an effort in order to uphold the word of the United States of America – not just a president, but the United States of America – with respect to these weapons of mass destruction.

Now, I want to be crystal clear about something else. Some people want to do more in Syria; some people are leery about doing anything at all. But one goal we ought to all be able to agree on is that chemical weapons cannot be under the control of a man so craven that he has repeatedly used those chemical weapons against his fellow Syrians with the horrific results that all of us have been able to see.

Yesterday, we challenged the regime to turn them over to the secure control of the international community so that they could be destroyed. And that, of course, would be the ultimate way to degrade and deter Assad’s arsenal, and it is the ideal weapon – ideal way to take this weapon away from him.

Assad’s chief benefactor, the Russians, have responded by saying that they would come up with a proposal to do exactly that. And we have made it clear to them – I have in several conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov – that this cannot be a process of delay, this cannot be a process of avoidance. It has to be real, has to be measurable, tangible. And it is exceedingly difficult – I want everybody here to know – to fulfill those conditions. But we’re waiting for that proposal, but we’re not waiting for long.

President Obama will take a hard look at it. But it has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic. And if the United Nations Security Council seeks to be the vehicle to make it happen, that cannot be allowed to simply become a debating society. There are many countries – and many of you in the Congress, from those who wanted military action to those who were skeptical of military action – want to see if this idea could become reality.

But make no mistake – make no mistake – about why this idea has any potential legs at all and why it is that the Russians have reached out to the Syrians and why the Syrians have initially suggested they might be interested. A lot of people say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Well, it’s the credible threat of force that has been on the table for these last weeks that has, for the first time, brought this regime to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal. And it is the threat of this force and our determination to hold Assad accountable that has motivated others to even talk about a real and credible international action that might have an impact.

So how do you maintain that pressure? We have to continue to show Syria, Russia, and the world that we are not going to fall for stalling tactics. If the challenge we laid down is going to have the potential to become a real proposal, it is only because of the threat of force that we are discussing today. And that threat is more compelling if Congress stands with the Commander-in-Chief.

Finally, let me just correct a common misconception. In my conversation with Steve Chabot earlier today, he mentioned this. I’ve heard it. I’ve talked with many of you. You’ve told you me you hear it. The instant reaction of a lot of Americans – and I am completely sympathetic to it, I understand it, I know where it comes from, I only stopped sitting where you sit a few months ago – I know exactly what the feelings are. People don’t want another Iraq. None of us do. We don’t want Afghanistan.

But Mr. Chairman, with all due respect, we can’t make this decision based solely on the budget. We can’t make this decision based solely on our wishes, on our feeling that we know we’ve been through the ringer for a while. We’re the United States of America, and people look to us. They look to us for the meaning of our word, and they look to us for our values in fact being followed up by the imprint of action where that is necessary.

We are not talking about America going to war. President Obama is not asking for a declaration of war. We are not going to war. There will be no American boots on the ground. Let me repeat: No American boots will be on the ground.

What we’re talking about is a targeted, limited, but consequential action that will reinforce the prohibition against chemical weapons. And General Dempsey and Secretary Hagel will tell you how we can achieve that and their confidence in our ability to achieve that. We’re talking about an action that will degrade Assad’s capacity to use these weapons and to ensure that they do not proliferate. And with this authorization, the President is asking for the power to make sure that the United States of America means what we say.

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking Member, and members of this committee, I can say to you with absolute confidence, the risk of not acting is much greater than the risk of acting. If we fail to act, Assad will believe that he has license to gas his own people again. And that license will turn prohibited weapons into tactical weapons. And General Dempsey can tell you about this. It would make – it would take an exception, a purposeful exception that has been in force since 1925, and make it the rule today. It would undermine our standing, degrade America’s security and our credibility, and erode our strength in the world.

In a world of terrorists and extremists, we would choose to ignore those risks at our peril. We cannot afford to have chemical weapons transformed into the new convenient weapon, the IED, the car bomb, the weapon of everyday use in this world. Neither our country nor our conscience can bear the costs of inaction, and that’s why we’ve come before you, at the instruction of the President, to ask you to join us in this effort.

PRN: 2013/1101