September 03, 2013

Chairman Menendez Opening Remarks at the Hearing on Authorization of Use of Military Force in Syria

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the below statement, as prepared for delivery, at today’s hearing, “Authorization of Use of Force in Syria.”

The remarks follow:

“Let me welcome Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, to the Committee.

We convene this hearing, as we have convened many before, to make one of the most difficult decisions we are tasked to make: the authorization of the use of American military power – this time in Syria – to respond to the horrific chemical attack of August 21st that took the lives of 1,429 Syrians including at least 426 children.

The images of that day were sickening. In my view the world cannot ignore the inhumanity and horror of this act.

I do not take our responsibility to authorize military force lightly, or make such decisions easily. I voted against the war in Iraq and strongly support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But today I support the President’s decision to use military force in the face of this horrific crime against humanity.

Yes, there are risks to action, but the consequences of inaction are greater and graver still: further humanitarian disaster in Syria; regional instability; the loss of American credibility around the world; an emboldened Iran and North Korea; and the disintegration of international law.

This decision will be among the most difficult any of us will be asked to make. But it is our role as representatives of the American people to make it, to put aside political differences and personal ideologies, forget partisanship and preconceptions, forget the polls, politics, and personal consequences. It is a moment for a profile in courage and to do what one knows is right.

It is our responsibility to evaluate the facts, assess the intelligence we have and then debate the wisdom and scope of a military response fully and publicly, understanding its geopolitical ramifications, and fully aware of the consequences.

At the end of the day, each of us will decide whether to vote for or against a resolution for military action based on our assessment of the facts and our conscience.

The decision rests with us. It is not political. It is a policy decision that must be based on what we believe is in the national security interest of the United States.

To be clear, the authorization we will ultimately seek is for focused action, with a clear understanding that American troops will not be on the ground in combat, and the language before us is but a starting point.

The President has decided to ask Congress for our support.

Now the eyes of the world are upon us. The decision we make, the resolution we present to the Senate, and the votes we take will reverberate around the world.

Our friends and allies await our decisions, as does the despot in Pyongyang, the Ayatollahs of terror in Tehran, and terrorist groups wherever they may be.

What we do in the face of the chemical attack by the Assad regime against innocent civilians will send a signal to the world that such weapons, in violation of international law, cannot be used with impunity.

The question is: Will we send a message that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, by anyone, for any reason?

Will we – in the name of all that is human and decent – authorize the use of American military power against the inexcusable, indiscriminate, and immoral use of chemical weapons? Or will we stand down?

What message do we send the world when such a crime goes unpunished? Will those who have these weapons use them again? Will they use them more widely and kill more children? Will they use them against our allies, or against our troops or embassies? Or will they give them or sell them to terrorists who would use them against us here at home?

Are we willing to watch a slaughter just because the patrons of that slaughter are willing to use their veto at the UN to allow it to happen so their beneficiary can stay in power?

Are we so tired of war that we are willing to silence our conscience and accept the consequences that will inevitably flow from that silence to our national interests?

We will hear the arguments and the options presented to us today and we will look at the facts as we know them according to the declassified assessment released last Friday that Secretary Kerry so passionately presented to the nation.

According to the assessment, we know with high confidence from the intelligence community that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21st.

We know that the Assad regime stockpiled chemical agents including mustard, sarin, and VX gas and has thousands of munitions capable of delivering them.

We know that President Bashar al-Assad makes the decisions when it comes to the regime’s stockpile of chemical agents, and that personnel involved in the program are carefully vetted to ensure loyalty to the regime and the security of the program.

We have evidence that chemical weapons have been used – on a smaller scale – against the opposition on several other occasions in the past year including in the Damascus suburbs; that sarin gas was used on those occasions, and that it was not the opposition that used it.

We know that chemical weapons personnel from the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center – subordinate to the regime’s Ministry of Defense – were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18th until early in the morning on Wednesday August 21st near an area the regime uses to mix chemical weapons including sarin and human intelligence as well as signal and geospatial intelligence have shown regime activity in the preparation of chemicals prior to the attack, including the distribution and use of gas masks.

We have multiple streams of intelligence that show the regime launched a rocket attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st and satellite corroboration that the attacks were launched from a regime-controlled area and struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred clearly tying the pieces together. That is what we know in terms of who may have deployed these weapons.

More evidence is available and we will be looking at all of the classified information in a closed session of the Committee that more clearly establishes the use of chemical weapons by the regime, the military responses available to us, and the results we expect from those responses.

But as of now, in my view, there is a preponderance of evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Assad’s forces willfully targeted civilians with chemical weapons.

Having said that, at the end of the day, the chemical weapons attack against innocent civilians in Syria is an indirect attack on America’s security with broader implications for the region and the world.

If chemical weapons can be used with impunity in violation of a Geneva Protocol crafted by the League of Nations and signed by the United States in 1925 in fact signed by Syria itself in 1968 they can be used without fear of reprisal anywhere, by anyone and, in my view, such heinous and immoral violations of decency demand a clear and unambiguous response.

We are at a crossroads-moment. A precedent will be set either for the unfettered and unpunished use of chemical weapons... or a precedent will be set for the deterrence of the use of such weapons through the limited use of military force that sends a message that the world will not stand down.

We will either send a message to Syria, Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and any other non-state actors that the world will not tolerate the senseless use of chemical weapons by anyone or we will choose to stand silent in the face of horrific human suffering.

We need to consider the consequences of not acting. Our silence would be a message to the Ayatollahs that America and the world are not serious about stopping their march to acquiring nuclear weapons. Israel would no longer believe we have their back and would be hard-pressed to restrain itself.

Our silence would embolden Kim Jong-un, who has a large chemical weapons cache, and would send a message that we are not serious about protecting South Korea and the region from nuclear or chemical weapons. And it would embolden Hezbollah and Hamas to redouble their efforts to acquire chemical weapons and they might succeed.

Clearly, at the end of the day, our national security is at stake.

I want to thank our distinguished witnesses who will present the facts as they know them. We will evaluate them, debate a resolution, and, at the end of the day, each of us will decide whether to send a message to the world that there are lines we cannot cross as civilized human beings, or stand silent and risk new threats.

Let me say, before I turn to Senator Corker for his opening statement, the President is asking for an authorization for the use of limited force. It is not his intention or ours to involve the United States in Syria’s civil war.

What is before us is a request, and I quote, “to prevent or deter the use or proliferation of chemical or biological weapons within, to, or from Syria” and “to protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.”

This is not a declaration of war but a declaration of our values to the world.

A declaration that says we are willing to use our military power when necessary against anyone who dares turn such heinous weapons on innocent civilians anywhere in the world.

We know the facts. We will hear the arguments. We will have the debate, and then it will be up to each of us to search our conscience and make a decision on behalf of the American people.

With that, let me turn to Senator Corker for his opening comments.”


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