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When discussing the possibility of boots on the ground in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry stumbled at Tuesday's Senate hearing. He twisted himself into a pretzel with hypothetical situations, ultimately saying, "I know the administration has zero intention to put troops on the ground."
But Kerry cannot, and should not even try to promise no boots on the ground, said former CIA director Michael Hayden, now a principal with the Chertoff Group, a risk management firm.
"I can imagine circumstances within a minute or two where you might have to do that. What if we use manned aircraft, penetrate Syria airspace, aircraft goes down, we have to send search-and-rescue after that crew. You put people on the ground," said Hayden.
"This shows the difficulty of trying to craft language that's going to satisfy everyone. At the end of all this, there's just going to have to be some faith and confidence between the president and Congress," said Hayden.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey is skeptical of what force in Syria can accomplish, which he expressed in an exchange with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, at Tuesday's hearing:
Dempsey: The answer to whether I support additional support for the moderate opposition is yes.
Corker: And this authorization will support those activities in addition to responding to the weapons of mass destruction.
Dempsey: I don't know how the resolution will evolve, but I support -
Corker: What you're seeking. What is it you're seeking?
Dempsey: I can't answer that, what we're seeking.
"One thing he's trying to do is not make any guarantees as to what military action can achieve," said former Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command Anthony Zinni, who pointed to something Kerry said at the hearing for clues to U.S. strategy.
"The president is convinced, as I think everybody is, there is no military solution, that ultimately, you want to get to Geneva, you want a negotiated settlement," Kerry said.
"The strategy here is to convince Assad he can't win, and convince the Russians that we need their support, and there's a possible diplomatic solution with an interim government," said Zinni. "General Dempsey's being smart to ensure that no one thinks he can guarantee a military act can achieve these kinds of objectives."
The administration seemed to have something for both the hawks and the doves. For the skeptics, hard limits on scope and duration of any military action in Syria; for the those pushing for more action, administration officials spoke of a broader strategy, and support for the opposition. It's a difficult needle for the administration to thread.
"The administration has articulated what it is they want to do, to be about chemical weapons and deterring and degrading their use. That may have some marginal impact on Assad's overall military power ... but there's no one in uniform that's going to suggest this is going to drive him to a new political position," said Hayden.
The administration has made the claim that a delay does not matter for military effectiveness, which Zinni said he believes.
"There's plenty of targets that we can service there, many of them are fixed, he doesn't have robust redundant systems. He can move some people around and a few things around, but remember he's also in a war himself, he doesn't have many options, and that much freedom of movement," said Zinni.
There was also a tense exchange at the hearing between Secretary Kerry and Senator Rand Paul about calling this intervention a war:
"You've got three people here who's been to war, John McCain who's been to war. There's not one of us who doesn't understand what going to war means, and we don't want to go to war," Kerry testified.
"I just don't consider that going to war in the classic sense of coming to Congress and asking for a declaration of war and training troops and sending people abroad and putting young people in harm's way that's not what the president is asking for here. General do you have anything you want to add?"
"No not really Secretary, thank for offering," said Dempsey.
War is a relative term, said Hayden.
"I'll give you my personal thought – making a political decision to on a relatively significant scale to kill people and break things in someone else's country, that sounds like war. The laws of armed conflict will apply to what it is we do here," said Hayden.
"When you attack a sovereign nation, that's an act of war. We haven't declared war since World War II, but we've fought in plenty of them since those," said Zinni.