Obama asks Congress to say Yes to strike on Syria

Updated
Members of 'Al Safwa Al Islamiyya' brigade, operating under the Free Syrian Army, aim their weapon as they take a defensive position in al-Jdeideh...
Members of 'Al Safwa Al Islamiyya' brigade, operating under the Free Syrian Army, aim their weapon as they take a defensive position in al-Jdeideh...
Muzaffar Salman/Reuters

President Obama Saturday asked Congress to approve a military strike on Syria after what his administration called undeniable proof that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had killed more than 1,400 Syrians with a nerve gas attack last week.

The president, as well as senior administration officials, such as Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, have spent the last week briefing Congress, the public, and international allies on why they believe a military strike is a necessary response after a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government.

Obama said Saturday he believed the U.S. “should take military action” against Syria, but that he would first ask Congress to debate and vote on the issue. A number of Congressional leaders had called on the administration in recent days to seek their approval prior to any U.S. action, and Americans overwhelmingly—79%–wanted the president to get the OK from Congress, according to a NBC News poll.

Obama said that the potential strikes would be “designed to be limited in duration and scope.” The White House sent a draft resolution authorizing military action to Congress on Saturday.

Congress is currently out of session and is not scheduled to return until Sept. 9. House Speaker John Boehner said Saturday that the House would take up the debate when it returns from summer recess—essentially ruling out the idea of calling lawmakers back early.

“This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people,” Boehner said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement that he agreed with the president that the “use of military force against Syria is both justified and necessary” and that the full Senate would vote on the resolution no later than the week of Sept. 9.

The move appears to buy Obama some time to continue diplomatic efforts aimed at removing Assad from office, and it forces Republicans to take a stance on the issue of military action—something many had appeared loath to do.

The U.S. government disclosed evidence Friday that it said confirmed that the Syrian government used rockets and artillery to fire a nerve agent into a Damascus suburb that is a rebel stronghold. The intelligence shows “that more than 1,400 died as a result of that attack, including more than 400 children.”

Obama called the attack the “worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century,” and “an assault on human dignity.” He added that it threatens U.S. national security and poses a risk to our allies in the region.

But nonetheless, he said he intended to ask lawmakers for authorization before proceeding. “While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I believe that the country will be stronger” with such approval, he said.

Obama said he was not willing to wait for the U.N., which he described as “completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.”

He said that the chairman of the joint chiefs has told him that our capacity to strike is “not time-sensitive,” adding: “It will be effective tomorrow, or one week from now.”

The president did not outline what he intended to do if Congress refuses to sign off on military action. But he made a forceful case for such action.

“What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” Obama asked.

“I know well that we are weary of war,” Obama continued, and added that “we cannot resolve the underlying conflict with our military.”

But, he said, “we are the United States of America, and we cannot, and must not, turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.”

Anti-war protesters, gathered outside the White House, could be heard chanting before the president spoke, NBC News reported—a stark reminder of the public’s deep skepticism about another Mideast military venture.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain responded to Obama’s speech via Twitter: “I understand and support Barack Obama’s position on #Syria.” On Thursday, British lawmakers rejected a proposal to authorize military action, which Cameron supported.

Speaking before Obama’s speech, Russian president Vladimir Putin dismissed the Obama administration’s claim that Assad was behind the Damascus chemical weapons attack as “nonsense.”

Member of Congress from both parties had urged Obama to seek lawmakers’ approval before acting.

In a statement released after Obama’s speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said:

“Today the President advised me that he will seek an authorization for the use of force from the Congress prior to initiating any combat operations against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons. The President’s role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress.”

The top four GOPers in the House, Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, also issued a joint statement Saturday.

“Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress.  We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised.  In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th.  This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”

Obama asks Congress to say Yes to strike on Syria

Updated