President Obama has approved a military attack on Syria for its use of chemical weapons against rebel forces and civilians. But in a Rose Garden statement Saturday, the President also said he would seek congressional authorization before doing so.
That would delay any such attack beyond this weekend – when many had expected that US Navy destroyers would begin launching Tomahawk cruise missiles – and perhaps beyond the Sept. 9 date when lawmakers are scheduled to return from their recess.
Calling for a debate and a vote in a legislative body half-controlled by Republicans (and where many Democrats are very wary of going to war in Syria) is a political gamble for Obama.
A year ago, he had set a “red line” for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – declaring that the proven use of chemical weapons would demand a response. Now, although he still believes he could act unilaterally, he’s betting that he can persuade lawmakers – and by extension, the American public – not only of the evidence US intelligence officials have gathered but that they should go along with a US military response.
Skepticism abounds, both in the US and abroad.
The chants of antiwar demonstrators could be heard outside White House gates as Obama spoke in the Rose Garden Saturday, reflecting recent polls showing general public opposition to attacking Syria.
American’s closest ally – Great Britain – voted in the House of Commons this week to reject joining the US in such attack, a blow to Tory leader David Cameron as well as to Obama.
And in the United Nations, the US remains stymied by Russia’s pro-Assad seat on the Security Council, preventing any UN resolution approving a military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, even though there is evidence that the regime killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, in a recent chemical attack against rebel forces and civilians.
Obama also had hedged himself in with his 2007 comment to the Boston Globe that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
Obama was a US Senator when he said that, and lawmaker prerogatives in war-making likely were a factor in cabinet discussions about Syria as well. Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry all spent years as US Senators, and they remain close to their former colleagues.
Obama already had begun wooing lawmakers, more than 160 of whom had signed letters asking for congressional involvement in any decisions about Syria. (Polls this week show an overwhelming majority of Americans – 79 percent in an NBC News survey – want congressional approval before any attack on Syria is launched.)
Unclassified telephone conferences on Syria for Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats – separately – were held Saturday. On Sunday, classified briefings are scheduled to be held for lawmakers who remained in Washington or will return there.
In laying out his new position on Syria, Obama was direct and forceful.
"Ten days ago the world watched in horror as men, women, and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century," Obama said, calling the attack an "assault on human dignity.”
"In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted," he said. "After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets…. The military has positioned assets in the region. We are prepared to strike whenever we choose, and I am prepared to give that order."
But with the history of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan no doubt in mind, Obama also acknowledged his need to gain – or at least try to gain – broader political support.
"This morning I spoke with all four congressional leaders [House Speaker John Boehner, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell], and they've agreed to schedule a debate and a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session," he said. "While I believe I have the authority to carry out this action without specific congressional authorization, our country will be stronger if we take this course."
"We should have this debate because the issues are too big for business as usual," Obama said. "What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children in plain sight and pay no price?"
Lawmakers welcomed Obama’s announced willingness to debate the issue publicly and seek congressional authorization.
“At this point in our country’s history, this is absolutely the right decision, and I look forward to seeing what the administration brings forward and to a vigorous debate on this important authorization,” Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee said in a statement.