WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., clashed sharply with Secretary of State John Kerry during a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday as he challenged the Obama administration’s proposal for a limited military strike in Syria.
Udall, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke near the end of the committee’s 3½-hour hearing and immediately established himself as a vocal congressional skeptic of U.S. military intervention.
“I have grave concerns about what the administration is asking of us, of our military and of the American people,” Udall said in his opening statement.
“I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step toward full-fledged war,” he added, before mentioning the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which he voted against. “We’ve been here before.”
The hearing came three days after Obama called on Congress to vote on his Syria proposal, which Udall on Tuesday criticized as open-ended and vague.
“We’re not going to be voting on the administration’s proposal,” Udall said in a Journal interview after Tuesday’s hearing. “They’re going to try come up with compromise language. I don’t see how (Obama’s proposal) pushes us toward a solution, and in all likelihood it deepens our involvement in a civil war.”
Obama administration officials have said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has used chemical weapons on innocent civilians and the action demands a U.S. response.
The Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared to have enough votes Tuesday to support a military strike on Syria, but it remained unclear how the Republican-led House,which is in recess until next week, would respond.
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., has said he would oppose U.S. military intervention in Syria.
As Udall began to question Kerry at Tuesday’s hearing, the two men became increasingly pointed in their remarks. Kerry, a former senator and fellow Democrat, disputed an assertion in Udall’s opening statement that President Barack Obama simply wants to “send a message” to Assad.
“This is not sending a message, per se, this is having an effect, an impact,” Kerry said to Udall, his voice rising. “Let me ask you … are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gases his people yet again and the world says,’Why didn’t the United States act?’ History is full of moments when someone didn’t stand up and act when it made a difference.”
Udall and Kerry then sparred on the U.S. approach to securing help from the international community through the United Nations. Russia and China, which hold veto power on the U.N. Security Council, have opposed military intervention in Syria.
“I don’t believe we should have given up so easily on using the United Nations,” Udall said, prompting Kerry to interrupt.
“We haven’t given up,” Kerry interjected.
“Yes, we have,” Udall said emphatically. “We haven’t taken Russia to task, we haven’t taken China to task, and that’s what we should be pointing out.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., issued a statement Monday that condemned Assad and expressed opposition to any U.S. ground forces in Syria.
“My decision on any resolution for the authorization of military force will be guided by what our country and the international community could hope to achieve through those actions. I believe that if America is to use military force, it must not be an open-ended commitment, but rather a narrow and forceful action designed to minimize the illegal use of chemical weapons in the future,” Heinrich said.
In a Journal interview after Tuesday’s hearing, Udall said the administration should force the international community to go on the record.
“I think the United States should force a public vote in the U.N.,” Udall said. “I’m very concerned that the U.S. has been too quick to give up on the U.N. channels. We didn’t work hard enough to make a case that the full international community must oppose the use of chemical weapons and that (it) would like to help find solutions to this.
“With the growing number of countries condemning this, we should be working with them to try to find a solution,” Udall added. “Instead, we’re talking about going this alone. It undermines U.S. credibility abroad and creates the impression, true or not, that the U.S. will be the world’s policeman.”
Udall told the Journal he hasn’t firmly decided to vote against a strike but is “very skeptical.”
As Udall’s time for questioning expired at Tuesday’s hearing, he complimented Kerry while re-emphasizing his view that military action isn’t the answer.
“I very much appreciate your service, and I know that you are trying very, very hard to try on the diplomatic side, as secretary of state, to find a peaceful resolution.” Udall said.