Live blogging the Syria hearing, Part Two

I’ll pick up now with Sen. Ron Johnson’s questioning. He’s pressing John Kerry hard, probably harder than any other Senator so far.

He wants to know why, if we’re going to strike Assad, we don’t take him out. Is it because we don’t trust the forces that would come into power? No, says Kerry. We’re not willing to bear that cost, and the American people don’t want us to.

Johnson asks about the nature of the opposition. Has it become increasingly more extreme? Kerry claims it has not — is has become more “inclusive.”

Kerry’s answer is deceptive. He’s pretending that the opposition is the group with which he’s been in contact and has worked. He’s ignoring the radical Islamist portions of the opposition. They haven’t become more inclusive.

Sen. Coons (D-Del) is asking the questions now. Coons is on board with authorizing Obama to attack Syria. He thinks the intelligence is solid. He thinks that inaction would be unacceptable. The key is striking the correct balance — making sure that our action is sufficient to “deter and degrade” and send a message to Iran and others, but doesn’t lead us down the road to large-scale involvement.

Kerry and Gen. Dempsey provide the same kind of general assurances they have offered throughout the hearing. Gen. Dempsey says that the broader the resolution, the easier it will be to craft the right response.

Now Sen. Flake is up. He wonders about Obama’s belated decision to go to Congress, especially given that Obama claims he doesn’t need authority.

Kerry becomes quite testy. He expresses astonishment that a Senator, especially a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, would have any concerns about the U.S. president consulting with Congress. Flake obviously touched a nerve with Kerry.

The Secretary says he’s glad Obama is consulting with Congress. Trying to make lemonade out of lemons, he claims that the delay is actually going to be a plus — it will give us time to win over allies, for example. And he insists that it won’t hurt our prospects of military success.

Gen. Dempsey chimes in. He’s more equivocal than Kerry about the military effect of delaying a strike.

Flake asks Kerry what Obama will do if Congress doesn’t approve. Kerry says he doesn’t know, but that our enemies will celebrate. I agree with Kerry about this.

It’s now the turn of Sen. Durbin. He’s engaging in a self-congratulatory review of his past votes on military intervention. Thanks, Dick.

He’s on board with the administration, but wants to shape a narrow resolution. Not surprisingly, this has been a consistent theme of the Democrats on the Committee — e.g., Sens. Boxer and Cardin.

Durbin asks about Syria’s ability to attack nearby countries such as Israel with chemical weapons. He cites a French analysis which rates that ability as considerable. Kerry says this is better addressed in closed session.

It’s John McCain’s turn now. He ridicules Kerry’s claim that the delay isn’t helping Assad hide weapons. It deserves to be ridiculed.

McCain cites a Wall Street Journal story saying that the administration is structuring its proposed attack so as to leave Assad in power. Kerry denies this.

Gen. Dempsey says he’s been ordered to come up with a plan that degrades Assad’s capacity, but not one that shifts momentum in the civil war. But Kerry says that by degrading Assad’s power, there will be “downstream” affects on the civil war.

McCain tries to get Kerry to embrace the idea that the opposition is moderate, rather than extreme Islamist. Kerry agrees to some extent but, significantly, won’t go as far as McCain on this point.

He’s wise to hold back. McCain probably is overly influenced by his contacts with the non-Islamists. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t spent quality time with the extremist forces.

Sen Tom Udall is speaking now. He’s the first Democrat to express major skepticism about authorizing Obama to attack Syria. It seems that Udall will be a “no” vote. We knew that the Democrats wouldn’t be unanimously behind Obama.

He cites the experience in Iraq and the lack of international support. He also argues that a limited strike will, if anything, embolden Assad.

Kerry responds that we’re not just sending a message; we will degrade Assad’s assets and affect his future decision-making.

Udall responds that by degrading Assad, we make extremist forces stronger. Kerry denies this, but he can’t have it both ways. If our efforts hurt Assad, then they necessarily help the opposition, including the undesirable elements of it.

Kerry becomes impassioned. He says that if the U.S. doesn’t act, it’s “guaranteed” that Assad will continue using chemical weapons. As to the bad things that might happen if we do act, Kerry says it’s all speculation, and largely unwarranted.

Udall insists that we shouldn’t give up on the U.N. Kerry says we’re not giving up on it. Udall disagrees.

I don’t agree with Udall’s argument or his position, but he’s clearly a principled guy. I don’t think the same can be said for all of his Democratic colleagues, and I’m not sure that it’s true of all Republican members either.

Now it’s the turn of Sen. Barrasso. He asks what happens if Obama doesn’t get congressional approval. Kerry says they aren’t contemplating that prospect because it’s “too dire.” I hope that President Obama contemplated the prospect before he decided to go to Congress.

Barrasso wants to know what happens if we strike Assad and he uses chemical weapons again. Does Obama go back to Congress with another resolution?

Kerry says there are follow up plans for that contingency. He adds that this can be explored in closed session.

Barrasso doesn’t seem to be tipping his hand as to how he will vote, but his questioning showed no hostility towards attacking Syria.

Now Sen. Chris Murphy has the floor. He’s concerned that our action may not help the situation and could make things worse. He’s sounding very much like a potential “no” vote.

Like Sen. Barrasso, he’s concerned about Obama taking follow up action without coming back to Congress. Kerry agrees that this could happen.

Kerry rails one more time against “doing nothing.” His testimony is becoming quite repetitious.

Things may heat up now. Rand Paul has the floor.

Paul is concerned that Obama isn’t going to abide by Congress’ decision. Kerry says he doesn’t know what Obama will do if he loses the vote. The two disagree about whether Obama has the constitutional authority to proceed without congressional authority.

Paul says that by not committing to abide by the outcome, he’s making Congress into “theater.” He has a point. The question is whether, in this context, Congress deserves to be more than theater.

Paul is asking a series of questions without giving Kerry the opportunity to answer. Unlike Rubio, who was very focused, Paul is all over the place. To me, he’s flailing.

Kerry finally gets an opportunity to respond. He says, to answer one question, that Israel will be more secure if Assad’s chemical weapons are degraded. Paul suggests that Israel may be attacked in reprisal. Kerry says he’s discussed this with the Israelis and they are confident that their security won’t be jeopardized.

Kerry now becomes the inquisitor. He asks Paul whether an American attack will make future chemical attacks by Assad more or less likely. Paul claims that this is “unknowable.”

He’s being disingenuous here. We can’t know with certainty what Assad will do, but in all likelihood a punitive attack would made future use of chemical weapons by Assad less likely. The legitimate questions are: how punitive will the attack need to be and how much more unlikely will an attack make future use of chemical weapons by Assad.

The exchange becomes quite heated. In my view, Kerry is getting the better of it.

Kerry argues that the administration isn’t asking to go to war in the classic sense. That’s true. In the classic sense, war involves boots on the ground. What Obama wants is something less. It can be considered war but it doesn’t carry all that war normally implies or all that Paul is trying to invoke when he characterizes the contemplated action as war.

A needed moment of levity, at last: Kerry asks Gen. Dempsey if he wants to weigh in. Dempsey says, “no, not really.”

We’re getting back to boring. Sen. Tim Kaine has the floor.

My impression is that Kaine is on board with the administration, but it’s not completely clear.

The final Senator is up now — the newly elected Edward Markey.

His remarks are of the “on the one hand, on the other hand” variety. He seems to be on the fence.

He asks: Will a strike prompt the Russians to give more aid to Syria? Gen. Dempsey, the most honest of the witnesses, says this could happen, but it shouldn’t cause us not to act.

Markey wants the U.S. to declassify more intelligence materials so as to help win support from the U.N. and the American public. Kerry says there’s already sufficient declassified material to make the case. Declassifying more intelligence might jeopardize our sources, etc.

That’s it. I will recap briefly in another post.