Boots on the ground? Yes, no, maybe


    Who knows, maybe bombing Syria for its chemical crimes is the right move, morally and strategically. But it’s hard to get comfortable with the idea when the uber-wordy Secretary of State is hypothesizing and backtracking about boots on the ground.

    Yesterday was like an eerie flashback to the presidential race of 2004, when John Kerry verbally entangled himself by declaring on the stump that he’d been for an Iraq war funding bill – before he was against it. This time, in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he suggested that we should leave the door open for U.S. ground troops in Syria – before he hastened to close it. And he definitely did close it. Sort of.

    No wonder the lawmakers are nervous. They’re being lobbied to vote Yes for a bombing campaign, even as their constituents back home are mostly signaling No. And political perils aside, they have to wonder whether the bombs would spark unintended consequences – like boots on the ground. To paraphrase Shakespeare, once you cry havoc and let slip the dogs of the war, there’s no telling how they’ll bark.

    Doors and tables

    The issue surfaced quickly yesterday, when New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez asked Kerry whether the White House would support a resolution that includes “a prohibition of having American boots on the ground. Is that something that the administration would accept as part of a resolution?”

    To which Kerry replied, “It would be preferable not to,” which was Kerry’s locution-challenged way of saying “No.”

    He said that Obama might need to send soldiers, if certain scenarios occur: “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 al-Nusra (terrorists), or someone else, and it was clearly in the interests 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.”

    There it was, the plausible threat of a wider war. The Syrian regime, peppered by our bombs, could indeed implode; the chemical cache could indeed be vulnerable to theft. What would we do then? Kerry answered that: “I don’t want to take off the table” the option of sending troops.

    But shortly after Kerry opened the door and put it on the table, he tried to close the door and take it off the table. It was all very confusing.

    Republican Sen. Bob Corker told him, “I don’t think there are any of us here that are willing to support the possibility of having combat troops on the ground” – whereupon Kerry pulled his verbal switcheroo: “Let me be very clear now, because I don’t want anything coming out of this hearing that leaves any door open to any possibility. So let’s shut the door now as tightly as we can. All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility….There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”

    Note the loophole. Kerry vowed no ground troops “with respect to the civil war” that currently pits the thug regime against rebels allied with al Qaeda. No way we’d want to get in the middle of that. But even as he (semi-)backtracked, Kerry never swore off the possibility of sending troops to protect the chemical stockpiles. That door remained ajar.

    He did a similar riff with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who also asked about ground troops. Kerry said: “This authorization does not contemplate and should not have any allowance for troops on the ground – I just want to make that absolutely clear….What I was doing (in response to Bob Menendez) was hypothesizing a potential – it might occur at some point in time – but not in this authorization.”

    There it was again, the risk of a wider war: Kerry said that boots on the ground are not an issue right now, “not in this authorization.” This authorization is about sending cruise missiles; sending troops is a “potential” scenario that “might occur at some point in time.”

    Election terrors

    If the lawmakers were looking for clarity and reassurance, Kerry’s word cloud surely failed them. They all have to face the voters at some point – the entire House is on the ballot next year – and they’re risk-averse by nature. The last thing they want is to OK a military action that might be a quagmire on election day. (Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Rubio will have to take a stand, and hope their votes don’t dog them in the 2016 presidential primaries. The lucky man right now is Chris Christie, who can watch silently from afar.)

    Granted, Senate insiders reportedly agreed last night to craft narrow language authorizing President Obama to bomb Syria for just 60 days, with the possibility of 30 more. But what happens after those 90 days are up? Are we to assume that all will be well? As one key player warned earlier this summer, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

    So said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He sat next to Kerry yesterday, ostensibly to display a united front, but he said very little. Now you know why.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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