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Senators hear White House pitch for military action against Syria

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WASHINGTON – Arizona senators had only one question as Obama administration officials asked for congressional approval Tuesday for a military strike against Syria: What took so long?

President Barack Obama says he has the authority to order “limited” use of force against the Syrian government amid evidence that it used chemical weapons on rebels in the country, which is beset by civil war. But he said this weekend that he would ask for approval from Congress, which is on recess until next week.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was the first public hearing of that request, a timeframe criticized by some senators.

“I think one would have to suspend disbelief to assume that we wouldn’t be better off attacking those targets right now or a week ago, than waiting three weeks for Congress to take action,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

Secretary of State John Kerry called it “somewhat surprising” to hear Flake questioning the president’s decision to consult Congress.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Kerry it was “ridiculous” to think that it’s wise “to warn the enemy that you’re going to attack.”

“When you tell the enemy you’re going to attack them … they’re obviously going to disperse and try to make it harder,” McCain said, citing a news report that suggested Syria might be hiding weapons and moving troops.

It was part of a 3.5-hour hearing with Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Obama had said that U.S. action would be called for if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons. But Kerry called it “humanity’s red line” that was crossed, not Obama’s, and a “red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.”

“In the nearly 100 years since the first global commitment against chemical weapons, only two tyrants dared to cross the world’s brightest line,” Kerry said. “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.”

Kerry repeatedly said that inaction would send a message that the U.S. is ambivalent toward the use of weapons of mass destruction. Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah “are all listening for our silence,” he said.

“This is not the time for armchair isolationism,” Kerry said. “This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter.”

Hagel outlined the military objectives of the limited use of force under Obama’s request.

“The president has made clear that our military objectives in Syria would be to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks, and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons,” Hagel said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., recalling weapons of mass destruction claims that preceded the Iraq War, questioned intelligence assessments that Syria had used chemical weapons, and asked about “dissension between the various (intelligence) agencies.”

Kerry said he was unaware of any divide on Syria assessments.

“I think it’s safe to say that they had a whole team that ran a scenario to try to test their theory to see if there was any possibility they could come up with an alternative view as to who might have done it,” Kerry said, “and the answer is, they could not.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., criticized the administration for choosing to “lead from behind” instead of identifying and equipping moderates in Syria two years ago.

“When America ignores these problems, these problems don’t ignore us,” Rubio said. “We can ignore them but eventually they grow and they come to visit us at our doorstep.”

But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., wondered whether a military strike would “lessen the acuity of the moral atrocity” or serve U.S. interests in the region.

“I don’t think the fact that I and many others struggle with that question means that we lack courage or that we are, frankly, enabling the Syrian regime,” Murphy said.

“I just think it’s that we wonder whether there is a limit to the ability of American military power to influence the politics on the ground in the Middle East,” he said.

Kerry said the choice has consequences beyond Syria, affecting the U.S. relationship with allies in the region.

“You can no way separate one thing from all the rest,” he said. “Relationships are relationships – they are integrated and that’s why this is so important.”

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the decision to approve military force would be “among the most difficult any of us will be asked to make.”

McCain, long an advocate of U.S. action to support Syrian rebels, appeared on several morning news programs Tuesday to say that he would only support Obama’s plan if it would “reverse the situation on the battlefield.” The details of the resolution the White House is asking for – and the scope of the operation outlined in it – will matter, he said at the hearing.

“If it’s the wrong kind of resolution, it can do just as much damage, if not more,” than by taking no action, he said.