The Obama administration's top national security officials testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday afternoon, representing the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as not just a humanitarian crisis, but a direct threat to the United States.
Secretary of State John Kerry said inaction would have grave ramifications and embolden the United States' enemies, invoking Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah and more generally, "the mullahs" to make his case.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that the world is watching not just to see what we decide but it's watching to see how we make this decision, whether in a dangerous world, we can still make our government speak with one voice," Kerry said.
"Iran is hoping you look the other way," he added before saying "North Korea is hoping ambivalence carries the day."
Kerry initially said that he was unwilling to take U.S. forces on the ground off the table in an emergency situation, and then quickly backtracked, saying he was simply "thinking out loud" and that "there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war." He added that the administration was open to amending the language of the resolution the White House originally proposed.
Under questioning from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Hagel conceded that the purpose of the military engagement was not to change the momentum in Syria's civil war but to degrade Assad's ability to stockpile weapons.
"This risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends and partners and to U.S. personnel in the region," Hagel said. "We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use chemical weapons."
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, wondered what kind of an example would be set if after a limited military engagement, Assad still managed to prevail.
"Our allies are going to say, what's the matter with you United States? You didn't finish Assad off and the problem is just as bad as it was," he said.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., asked why regime change was the Obama administration's official stated overall policy on Syria, but it was not the goal of the military strikes.
"The reason is that the president is listening to the American people," Kerry responded.
In direct contrast to the growing libertarian voices of his party, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued that isolation had proved to be ineffective in dealing with problems in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"When America ignores these problems, they don't ignore us," Rubio said.
A Washington Post poll released Tuesday showed that 59 percent of Americans opposed missile strikes against the Syrian government, even if the regime used chemical weapons. Some lawmakers echoed that war-weariness.
"We've been here before," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., adding that limited strikes in Iraq in the early 1990s paved the way for a full occupation later and that diplomatic options in the current situation had not been exhausted. "How can this administration guarantee that our military engagement will be limited?"
"Are you going to be comfortable if Assad … then gasses his people yet again?" Kerry shot back. "We shouldn’t turn our backs and say there’s nothing we can do."
Protesters from anti-war organization Codepink heckled and interrupted the hearing several times, before being removed from the room. They found a sympathetic ear in Kerry, who noted that he had appeared for the first time in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he was 27 years old as an opponent of the Vietnam War.
In 1971, appearing with the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry famously challenged the committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., played off his words this weekend in arguing against intervention. "I had feelings very similar to that protester," he said. "I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view, and we do."