The first week of President Barack Obamas bid to build political unity on Syria by bringing in Congress ended in near disarray, with top Cabinet officers and Pentagon officials providing nebulous or even contradictory responses to inquiries from frustrated lawmakers and reporters.
All the clamor on Capitol Hill, at the White House and beyond left Americans uncertain about the costs, consequences and extent of a risky intervention that is still in the works.
Analysts and lawmakers across the political spectrum were openly skeptical that Obama and his aides could make good on their repeated pledges that a U.S. strike would be of limited scope and short duration, likely delivered by Tomahawk cruise missiles and with no American troops in Syria.
Its very difficult to hold the line at this kind of halfway position the president has proposed, said Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department adviser under Obama who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. This is a very important step down a slippery slope, and its unlikely to be the last step.
Despite Secretary of State John Kerrys assurances to Congress during two days of testimony that the president is not asking you to go to war, a bipartisan consensus emerged that once the bombs start flying, all bets are off especially in a country like Syria, torn by two years of civil strife and, more broadly, in a region as volatile as the Middle East.
Regardless of how an initial U.S. strike in Syria would play out, the ghosts of troubled wars past haunted the debate in Congress, from presidents frequent false assurances that the tide was turning in Vietnam to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfelds assertion that U.S. troops in Iraq faced only pockets of dead-enders in March 2003, seven years and 4,300 American deaths before the end of U.S. combat there.
While Obama won a compromised victory with narrow passage of a war resolution by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senators from his own party defected. And the man Obama defeated in the 2008 presidential election, maverick Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, raised red flags by inserting a clause defining one of the U.S. missions purposes as change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria, an ambitious goal that seems beyond the reach of a limited missile strike with no American troops in place.
Much of the damage to Obamas cause was self-inflicted by the men he dispatched to Capitol Hill.
Kerry began his testimony by saying no U.S. warriors would set foot in Syria. But he then sketched a compelling scenario one in which, he said, Syria imploded or chemical weapons might be close to falling into the hands of al-Qaida-linked rebels that might require them to do so. That set off a fusillade of questions from lawmakers about the apparent contradiction.
In the coming days, no boots on the ground became the Obama teams mantra. At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagels spokesman, George Little, used the phrase 18 times in 45 minutes.
Kerry also raised eyebrows when he testified that 15 percent to 25 percent of the Syrian opposition fighting Assad is made up of bad guys radical Islamists, many with al-Qaida ties. That range flew in the face of much higher figures provided to lawmakers by intelligence agencies.
Bruce Riedel, who served under five presidents as a CIA counterterrorism expert, said foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida have been flowing into Syria to take up the fight against Assad and that a U.S. strike against the regime would only strengthen them more.
We should have no illusion that at the end of the day, the more we weaken Bashar Assad, the more were going to end up having a bigger al-Qaida problem in the future, said Riedel, now a Brookings analyst.