WASHINGTON — President Barack 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 in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday, 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, though 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.”
Congress wants details
Congress wants more details, and senators Saturday were briefed by administration officials, the third such briefing in three days. Another is scheduled today 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.
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.”
Ready for debate
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.
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.
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 Associated Press. “Did this resolve even one problem?”