WASHINGTON – President Obama said Saturday he will ask Congress to approve military strikes against Syria’s government, a risky step likely to delay action for at least 10 days that could signal broad popular support but also could end in rejection by the legislative branch.
Obama’s surprise decision to go to Congress, and his somewhat defiant way of explaining it, were likely to ratchet up the tension in Washington and the nation, where Americans are skeptical about the mission.
As he delivered his 10-minute statement Saturday in the Rose Garden, chants of protesters outside the gates could be heard. And even as Obama made the move toward engaging the people and their representatives in Congress, the White House said the president would not rule out acting on his own if Congress fails to give its consent.
Congress is not scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 9, and its debate is likely to take much of that week. Most lawmakers have refrained from taking any position on Syria but have been unusually unified in demanding more information and a chance to debate.
Many members of the House of Representatives and Senate hailed Obama’s move Saturday, although a few staunch supporters of intervention in Syria criticized the president’s willingness to wait for a congressional debate.
Obama announced the decision after explaining his insistence that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime face consequences for any use of chemical weapons.
“I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Obama said.
The president said the mission’s scope would be limited and he was “confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.”
Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday presented evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack in a Damascus suburb.
The U.S. evidence, Obama said Saturday, “corroborates what the world can plainly see — hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children — young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.”
The attack, Obama said, “is an assault on human dignity,” and “presents a serious danger” to U.S. national security.
“It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.”
Congress wants more details, and senators Saturday were briefed by administration officials, the third such briefing in three days. Another is scheduled Sunday for House members, and more briefings are planned during the week.
Obama administration officials began writing a resolution — but not a declaration for war — for Congress to consider when it returns.
Obama knew last Friday — Aug. 23 — what had taken place in Syria and that the United States needed to respond, but he didn’t know how or when. During the course of the week, Obama spoke to his aides and military leaders about a possible strike, although no one pushed him to seek congressional approval — except members of Congress from both parties.
On Friday, Obama began to think he wanted to seek congressional approval, even though the White House said none of the four congressional leaders asked him to do that. He first bounced the idea off chief of staff Denis McDonough in a 45-minute walk around the South Lawn before phoning his key advisers, including Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. He met with the full National Security Council on Saturday morning for two hours.
Congress’ role in advising and consenting to war has become murky. Though Congress has the constitutional authority to formally declare war, it last did so at the outset of World War II. Recent presidents have often avoided seeking legislative consent before launching military action. The 1973 War Powers Resolution, approved during the turmoil of the Vietnam War, says a president must consult with Congress.
Obama stressed Saturday that he has done that, and has the authority to strike Syria now. Everything is ready, he said.
“The chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I’m prepared to give that order,” the president said.
But, he added, “having made my decision as commander-in-chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.”
He’s probably also mindful that delaying a strike buys him valuable time to build his case. United Nations inspectors left Syria early Saturday, and are expected to take several days to assess their findings.
Obama needs allies and he would like the U.N. imprimatur. In Great Britain, traditionally America’s closest partner in such matters, the House of Commons last week refused to back a strike. Arab League foreign ministers, whose support is also seen as crucial, are scheduled to meet Sunday.
It’s no certainty that Obama will get congressional consent. Republicans control the House of Representatives, and Speaker John Boehner last week sent the White House a series of detailed questions about the White House’s strategy and objectives.
On Saturday, House Republican leaders signaled they were ready for a debate, and suggested it would go for a few days starting Sept. 9.
“This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people,” the House Republican leadership said in a joint statement. “We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised.”
However, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, accused Obama of “abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief” by waiting for a congressional debate.
“If Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians deserves a military response, and I believe it does, and the president is seeking congressional approval, then he should call Congress back into a special session at the earliest date,” King said. “The president doesn’t need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line.”
Obama could have an easier time in the Senate, where both Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and top Republican Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., expressed support.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., had a more measured response. “I have again urged the president to use this time to help the Syrian people defend themselves by assisting vetted elements of the Syrian opposition in obtaining more effective weapons such as anti-tank weapons,” he said.
Some Republicans questioned the need for military action, while others criticized Obama for delaying seeking consent. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., called Obama’s statement “an astonishing change of course . . . it would have been the right course of action months ago.”
And Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he remained “concerned that the mission proposed by the president is not in furtherance of the vital national security interests of the United States.”
Recent tradition shows that war debates usually last about a week. President George H. W. Bush got authority to use force to push Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, after the U.N. Security Council unanimously called for Iraq to leave.
Ten years later, George W. Bush won approval to use force against those who were involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In October 2002, he got congressional consent for military action against Iraq, after months of U.N. pressure on Iraq to disarm.
In addition to the congressional debate, Obama faces international reluctance to back the mission.
Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in Saturday for the first time since the suspected chemical weapons attack. Russia is a key ally of the Syrian regime.
Putin appealed to Obama as a past Nobel Peace Prize winner. “We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world,” he told Russian journalists, according to the Associated Press. “Did this resolve even one problem?”
He said he hoped to discuss the crisis with Obama during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 5 and 6.
In New York, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky also looked ahead, telling reporters that officials were spending Saturday organizing samples for further testing. Before the U.N. can draw any conclusions, he said, “the laboratory process must be completed.”
While U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked for a quick turnaround, Nesirky emphasized, “We are not giving a timeline.”
The U.N. inspectors have been investigating Damascus-area sites. They spent three days observing affected areas and another day talking to patients at a military hospital.
They left Syria Saturday and headed to the Netherlands, with victims’ blood and urine samples, as well as soil samples.