WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry at first refused to rule out the possibility of "boots on the ground" in Syria in a response to a question from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in a congressional hearing Tuesday -- only to shut the door minutes later in a follow-up question.
In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing over proposed U.S. intervention in Syria's civil war, Kerry pointed to the possibility that a cache of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of a terrorist group to make the case for military action.
"I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country," he said.
Menendez asked whether that meant the U.S. could send combat troops, and Kerry stumbled for an answer. "Well, assuming in going to protect those weapons, whether or not they had to answer a shot in order to be secure, I don't want to speak to that," he said.
Trying to recover, Kerry gave the "bottom line": "I'm absolutely confident, Mr. Chairman, that it is easy, not that complicated, to work out language that will satisfy the Congress and the American people that there's no door open here through which someone can march in ways that the Congress doesn't want it to while still protecting the national security interests of the country."
The meandering answer instantly gave fodder to critics who charged that the proposal to strike Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons is merely a ruse for a more protracted war. Kerry is known for his waffling answers, and he did not help himself in Tuesday's hearing.
President Barack Obama has flatly said that the Syrian conflict is not like Iraq or Afghanistan. "We're not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach," he said Tuesday.
But many Americans don't trust that U.S. intervention will be limited. A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 47 percent think that airstrikes would lead to sending U.S. troops, and just 25 percent think such strikes would be limited.
Kerry's response did not sit well with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the committee's ranking member. "I didn't find that a very appropriate response," he said.
"Let's shut that door now as tight as we can," said Kerry. "There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war."
But minutes later, Kerry again raised the specter of U.S. military action against the regime of Bashir al-Assad, before backing off.
"If [Assad is] foolish enough to respond to the world's enforcement against his criminal activity, if he does, he will invite something far worse and I believe something absolutely unsustainable for him," Kerry said. "Now, that doesn't mean the United States of America is going to war."
Kerry later circled back to further explain that statement. "I don't want anybody misinterpreting this from earlier," he said. "This authorization does not contemplate and should not have any allowance for troops on the ground."
But his clarification -- that an authorization of airstrikes would not allow for ground troops -- also underscored the potential damage of his first answer.
"What I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential -- it might occur at some point in time. But not in this authorization, in no way, be crystal clear," he said. "There is no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for."