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Senator Webb on Syria: Leadership is about achieving long-term objectives, not "taking precipitant action"

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Location: Washington, DC

At an Armed Services Committee hearing today, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) warned against "precipitant action" in Syria without taking into account "all the ramifications." Senator Webb said he "strongly supported" the policy matrix that the Defense Department was putting into place with respect to Syria, but reiterated concerns about the administration's evolving policy of humanitarian assistance since the intervention in Libya.

"When people are talking about the need for leadership, we need to have a little sense of history. Leadership is not always taking precipitant action when the emotions are going. It is in achieving results that will bring about long-term objectives," said Senator Webb, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. "Probably the greatest strategic victory in our lifetime was the Cold War. That was a conscious, decades-long, application of strategy with the right signals with respect to our national security apparatus."

Senator Webb reiterated his concerns about the precedent set by the President's unilateral decision to use force in Libya, where historical definitions of national security interest were not clearly met. "I have a great deal of concern when you look at the Libya model where the basic justification has been humanitarian assistance, which is very vague and is not under the historical precepts that we have otherwise used," said Senator Webb.

Senator Webb also asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta whether his statement that "any government that indiscriminately kills its own people loses its legitimacy" would apply to the example of the Chinese government's actions in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"Let me put this on a personal view: my personal view would be that that was the case there," responded Secretary Panetta.

"I think it illustrates your comment that in policy terms each situation is unique and that we have to try to use the best building blocks we can in order to best address these types of situations depending on where they happen and what other capabilities any one of these governments might have," Senator Webb concluded. "It clearly demonstrates that there is no one template when we are attempting to resolve differences in philosophy and in policies with different countries."

Partial Transcript:
Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Syria
Witnesses: Honorable Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of Defense
General Martin E. Dempsey, USA, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
March 7, 2012

Senator Webb: I would like to clarify a point that has been a concern to me on this very same issue and that is the difference between the United States acting unilaterally if we decide it is within our national interests -- and it is something that you, Mr. Secretary, have raised in terms of the situation in Syria -- there is a difference between that and the president deciding to act unilaterally in an area that arguably has not been defined as a national security interest. I have made floor remarks on this. I have a great deal of concern when you look at the Libya model where the basic justification has been humanitarian assistance, which is very vague and it is not under the historical precepts that we have otherwise used, like a treaty if you are talking about NATO, or defending Americans who have been captured as in Grenada or retaliating for a certain act as we did in Libya, say, in 1986 when I was at the Pentagon.

I think Senator Sessions has raised a point of concern and I would just like to put a parenthesis around that, but hold the thought. I think there definitely is room for some very serious discussion here in the Congress on the way that the president, any president, can decide unilaterally to use military action and this rather vague concept of humanitarian assistance. But to set that aside, what I really would like to talk about today is my thoughts about your testimony and I would like to say very specifically that I found both of your testimony with respect to the situation in Syria very reassuring. It was careful and forthright. I think there is a lot of wisdom in the approach that you are taking on this.

I think when people are talking about the need for leadership, we need to have a little sense of history here. Leadership is not always taking precipitant action when the emotions are going. It is in achieving results that will bring about long-term objectives and probably the greatest strategic victory in our lifetime was the Cold War. That was a conscious, decades long, application of strategy with the right signals with respect to our national security apparatus. There is no one in the world who will doubt the ability of the United States to put lethality on the battlefield if we decide to do it, but that is not really always the question when we are developing these kinds of policies -- at least not the first question. I thought your testimony was very clear on that from both of you. Secretary Panetta your comment that each situation is unique and General Dempsey, I think your example of the danger of looking at this through a straw is probably the best way to put it. We have to look at all of the ramifications on these sorts of matters. I think the principles that you have laid down -- we should all support this type of logic: to forge an international consensus, to translate that into acts, and at least express our hope that this change can be brought about through a peaceful political transition.

I was taking notes as you made your testimony, Secretary Panetta. I want to ask you about one thing that you said because I think we all need to think about it. You said any government, I think this is a direct quote -- I'm an old journalist here, I can write fast -- "any government that indiscriminately kills its own people loses its legitimacy." Would you say that is a statement of policy of the United States?

Secretary Panetta: I would.

Webb: Would you believe that with the circumstances in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when the Chinese government turned its own soldiers loose and its own tanks loose on its own people and killed more than 1,000 people, would you say that fits into this statement?

Panetta: Let me put this on a personal view. My personal view would be that that was the case there.

Webb: I think it also illustrates your comment that in policy terms each situation is unique and that we have to try to use the best building blocks we can in order to best address these types of situations depending on where they happen and what other capabilities any one of these governments might have.

I actually held a hearing on this on the Foreign Relations Committee talking about what might be viewed as a situational ethics in terms of American foreign policy. But it clearly demonstrates that there is no one template here when we are attempting to resolve differences in philosophy and in policies with different countries. So I would say that I do believe Senator Sessions has a very valid point in terms of presidential authority, but I strongly support the analytical matrix, the policy matrix, that you are putting into place with respect to Syria.


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