By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Two South Carolina Republican congressmen are refusing to support military strikes against Syria, in part because they say no one has been punished for the 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens tangled with Secretary of State John Kerry at a Wednesday hearing after suggesting the Obama administration is using Syria to distract from the Benghazi incident in which four Americans were killed, including the ambassador, one year ago next week.
Duncan provoked Kerry by holding up a picture of one of the Benghazi victims.
"The American people deserve answers before we move forward talking about military involvement in Syria," Duncan said during the hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve a resolution authorizing military strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to its apparent use of chemical weapons against other Syrians on Aug. 21.
Rep. Joe Wilson also invoked Benghazi during Wednesday's four-hour hearing and asked if the administration is avoiding other controversial issues such as the 2010 health care reform law, the debt ceiling, sequestration and the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative organizations for special scrutiny.
Wilson also asked Kerry why Obama didn't propose military action against Assad when the White House learned his regime had used chemical weapons in April. Kerry said that was a smaller-scale event that prompted the administration to provide some aid to opposition forces in Syria, but not military strikes.
"I think action should have been taken then," Wilson said.
He said after the hearing he will oppose a resolution authorizing military force against Syria, partly because the administration did not respond forcefully enough after the April incident.
Duncan accused Kerry of abandoning what he characterized as Kerry's personal policy of caution and restraint regarding the use of military force.
Kerry shot back that he supported military action in Grenada and Panama.
"I challenge your proposition that I've never done anything but advocate caution," Kerry said. "I volunteered to fight for my country."
Kerry enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1966 and earned combat medals in Vietnam.
Benghazi is a rallying cry for tea party conservatives who believe Obama's administration mishandled security at the compound in Libya and misled the American people about what happened.
Duncan has said Benghazi is only one of the reasons he opposes military action against Syria.
"Are there some other things the U.S. can do within the international community?" he said after the hearing. "We haven't done economic sanctions. This is 15 days old. What else have we done to try to punish Syria before we started beating the war drums?"
Duncan, who has been outspoken in expressing concerns about the threat posed by Iran, dismissed Kerry's argument that allowing Assad to go unpunished would embolden Iran to pursue nuclear weapons.
"There's a whole international community against Iran... and in Syria it looks like we're standing out there all alone," Duncan said.
Late in the hearing, Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., told Kerry the attack in Benghazi has frustrated his constituents. He acknowledged that Kerry was not secretary of state when the attack took place.
"I appreciate that completely," Kerry said, adding, "there is a need for justice to be done." He said he couldn't elaborate because the attack and its aftermath are still under investigation.
"That accountability is a priority for the president," Kerry said.
The hearing, which included Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is part of a week-long campaign by the administration to convince Congress to support the use of military force to punish Assad.
Questions from committee members reflected the divisions among Republicans and Democrats about whether military strikes would be valuable in deterring further use of chemical weapons or would amount to a provocative and expensive intrusion in another country's civil war.
"The world is wondering whether the United States of America is going to consent to silence, to stand aside, while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence," Kerry said.