WASHINGTON (AP) — How would the U.S. punish Syria for a ghastly chemical weapons attack without getting drawn into another war?
It's the biggest of many unanswered questions that lawmakers had for the Obama administration on Day Five of the White House's sales pitch for a "limited" retaliatory strike. At the second hearing on the request for authorization to strike, lawmakers complained that they don't know much more about President Barack Obama's goal, his contingency plans or much else than they did on Saturday, when the president abruptly announced he'd seek congressional approval.
What, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Obama's top advisers, does the White House mean by a "limited" campaign?
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave some indication, saying the strikes could cost "tens of millions" of dollars.
Are you sure Syrian President Bashar Assad wouldn't strike back, asked Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.?
"Our partners and the United States military is postured to deter his retaliation," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In Syria's complex civil war, who are the bad guys and who does the U.S. trust?
"This is an imperfect situation. There are no good options here. This is complicated," Hagel said. "There is no clarity."
What was clear from two days of hearings on Obama's proposed strikes against Syria was how much remains muddled about the mission, or at least not shared with a public that remains skeptical of getting involved in another military conflict after more than a decade of war.
The administration says that Assad's regime killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 400 children, in the attack. The Syrian government denies responsibility and says rebels fighting to topple Assad's regime were responsible.
Less than a week after Obama pivoted from what many thought was an imminent unilateral strike to campaign for Congress' nod, his advisers shuffled among three hearing rooms in an otherwise largely deserted Capitol complex to press the case that if the United States did not answer Assad for the Aug. 21 attack, no one would.
By Wednesday, the White House had won over three of the top four congressional leaders in the two parties, but it remained unclear whether rank-and-file lawmakers, especially Republicans, would follow when the full Congress resumes next week after a five-week recess.
Those returning a week early complained about the vagueness of the administration's strategy and goals and repeatedly questioned whether U.S. troops would again be in harm's way in a new conflict.
"There will be no boots on the ground," Secretary of State John Kerry repeated. And while Dempsey is correct that certain acts are technically acts of war, "we are not asking America to go to war," Kerry said.
The strikes remained a hard sell. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee that in May voted 15-3 in favor of providing military aid to Syrian rebels mustered a 10-7 majority for what will likely be a cruise missile strike launched from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean Sea.
Back in the House, the hearing churned into a fifth hour in the chilly, lit-for-TV committee room.
At one point, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., invoked other Obama administration headaches — the killings of Americans in Benghazi, Libya, the Internal Revenue Service's tough scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax breaks, and domestic information gathering by the National Security Agency.
Duncan said Kerry "has never been one who's advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts," and that the same is true of Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
"Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you have abandoned past caution in favor of pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?" asked Duncan, who was elected in the tea party-fueled Republican wave of 2010.
Visibly irritated, Kerry responded: "I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn't a cautious thing to do when I did it." Kerry is a decorated Vietnam veteran, commanding a Navy swift boat.
"I'm not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is in respect to this," Kerry added, his voice rising slightly. "We're talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to go talk about Benghazi."