President Barack Obama slowed his march toward war, saying he’ll seek authorization from Congress before ordering a military strike against Syria for using chemical weapons.
While Obama said that he’s already decided to take action, he said he’ll give lawmakers the opportunity to debate and vote on it. Congressional leaders have agreed to take up the issue once lawmakers return from their recess on Sept. 9.
Yesterday’s announcement was an overnight shift by the president, who informed his national security advisers of it only the evening before he made it public, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified discussing the deliberations. Obama told his aides lawmaker support would strengthen his position and undercut congressional critics who urged him to seek authorization, the official said.
“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective,” the president said in a televised address from the White House Rose Garden.
Obama sent Congress a draft resolution last night that would authorize him to use “the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation” of Syrian biological or chemical weapons.
Lacking the kind of broad military coalition that lined up alongside the U.S. against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and absent a mandate from the UN Security Council, where Russia has sided with Syria, Obama faced a decision that carried major military and political risks.
Obama’s decision to defer to Congress shows “the president is deeply concerned, even about his own option of a limited military strike,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group. “He realizes it’s filled with all kinds of risks, and he needs to share responsibility for it.”
Nor is delay risk-free. White House officials said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be emboldened to expand his use of poison gas. Another official privy to internal policy debates who asked not to be identified said the president’s decision may reinforce a long-held Syrian view, shared elsewhere in the world, that the dictatorial regime can outlast any American hostility.
Right to Defend
Fayez Sayegh, a Syrian lawmaker, said by phone from Damascus that the united front the Syrians and Iranians presented made “Obama think twice before embarking on an action that could’ve unraveled beyond his control.”
Ali Haidar, Syria’s minister for national reconciliation, said the U.S. has entered the war directly and that Syrians have the right to target U.S. interests.
“I am among those who call for a pre-emptive” response, Haidar said in a phone interview from Damascus. “When Syria is targeted, every Syrian has the right to respond with all means available or possible.”
The danger of reinforcing the belief that “America is short of breath,” as then-Syrian foreign minister Abdel Halim Khaddam said 30 years ago, extends to the nation’s friends in the Middle East. A Syrian opposition spokesman, Michel Kilo, described himself on Al Arabiya television as “confused” by Obama’s speech and upset by the “surreal way” the U.S. is handling the crisis.
Secretary of State John Kerry called Ahmad al-Jarba, the political leader of the main Syrian opposition coalition, to assure him of Obama’s commitment to holding the Assad regime accountable, according to the State Department. Jarba will attend an Arab League meeting today in Cairo to discuss Syria.
While Obama, citing Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an attack “will be effective tomorrow, or next week or one month from now,” the delay creates two less obvious problems, said two other U.S. officials, who also asked not to be identified discussing intelligence information.
The first, they said, is that keeping so many U.S., U.K. and other intelligence assets trained on Syria while Congress debates and votes means fewer spying tools are available to focus on other trouble spots.
The second, the officials said, is the risk that Hezbollah or another terrorist group could attack a U.S. target in an attempt to underscore to the potential cost of an attack on Syria. Such an attempted pre-emptive attack also could take place in cyberspace, the officials said.
The U.S. has forces in place to execute military action, and “I’m prepared to give that order,” Obama said. He called on Congress to approve a military operation “limited in duration and scope” to punish the Syrian government and to reinforce an international norm against such “heinous” acts.
The administration unveiled intelligence on Aug. 30 that it said showed Assad’s regime was responsible for a chemical attack Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children. The declassified intelligence report didn’t provide evidence that Assad ordered the attack.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” today, Kerry said hair and blood samples from Syria tested positive for the nerve agent Sarin. Assad “now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein” in using “these weapons in time of war,” Kerry said.
As Obama spoke in the Rose Garden yesterday, anti-war protesters demonstrated in front of the White House.
“We are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened,” Obama said yesterday. He didn’t say whether he would go forward with a strike if Congress doesn’t authorize it.
Obama first told his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, of his decision to take the issue to Congress as the two took a 45-minute walk around the White House South Lawn on the evening of Aug. 30, according to one of the officials who spoke anonymously. He later discussed it for two hours with other advisers and then with Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, this official said.
His plan drew dissent from some advisers, concerned about what will happen in Congress, before the full National Security Council endorsed the decision, the official said.
One element in Obama’s shift was U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Aug. 29 defeat when he sought backing for military action in the House of Commons, the official said. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News today that “we entirely respect and support what the president announced” and have no “regrets or recriminations” about losing the vote.
Of major U.S. allies in Europe, only French President Francois Hollande has signaled willingness to join in a military operation against Syria. Obama called Hollande yesterday to inform him of the delay. Opposition politicians urged Hollande, who has wide powers to commit French forces without consulting parliament, to give the National Assembly a say on the handling of Syria.
“The risk today is that France becomes a puppet of decisions made in the U.S.,” Bruno Le Maire, an opposition lawmaker and former agriculture minister, said today on BFM television. “The French should be consulted through their representatives.”
Even before this month’s alleged chemical weapons attack, Congress was divided about the civil war in Syria and whether the U.S. should get more deeply involved.
House Republican leaders, led by Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, applauded the president’s decision to include Congress in decision making.
“The president’s role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress,” they said in an e-mailed statement.
Whether he will get that support is uncertain. Some legislators, such as Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, have criticized a proposed missile strike as not enough to topple Assad. Others, such as Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, have faulted the president for risking military involvement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Senate hearings on Obama’s authorization request will begin this week, with a vote the week of Sept. 9.
Obama’s decision squared with U.S. public opinion. Almost 80 percent of Americans said Obama should seek congressional approval before taking military action, according to a poll conducted Aug. 28-29 for NBC News.
Only 42 percent said they would support a U.S. military response, rising to 50 percent for limited cruise-missile strikes on the Syrian infrastructure used in chemical-weapons attacks. The poll of 700 adults has a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.
The public’s reservations are shared by some military, intelligence and diplomatic professionals in Obama’s own administration.
One official, who like others critical of the president’s direction agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said there is no more than lukewarm support for even limited military action. Among the primary concerns expressed by officials were that Assad might respond to a flurry of cruise missiles by using more chemical weapons and that the main beneficiaries could be groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Before Obama’s announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key Assad ally, yesterday urged Obama to “think carefully” before ordering any strikes. Putin called for the U.S. to submit its evidence to the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds a veto.
“Rushing in such cases can lead to results completely contrary to expectations,” Putin told reporters in Vladivostok, eastern Russia.
UN weapons inspectors arrived in The Hague yesterday after probing the attack outside Damascus, the world body said. Assad denies using chemical arms.
The inspection team is determining whether a chemical attack occurred, though not who ordered it and carried it out. The UN needs time to examine the “entire body of evidence” and will produce an “impartial, credible” report on the chemical-weapons allegations, Martin Nesirky, spokesman for the secretary-general, told reporters yesterday in New York.
The threat of a military strike has weighed on markets. U.S. stocks fell on Aug. 30, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index capping its worst monthly drop since May 2012. Even so, West Texas Intermediate crude oil fell for a second day after the U.K. Parliament voted not to participate.
Dubai shares gained the most in 18 months today. The Dubai Financial Market General Index advanced 3 percent, the biggest jump since March 2012, to 2,599.35 at the close in Dubai. The measure slid 6.6 percent last week on concerns a strike would hurt tourism and investments in the emirate. Stocks advanced in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. Stocks in Israel, at risk of being drawn into the conflict, also gained.