(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama slowed his march toward war, saying Saturday that 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 military 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.
The announcement was an overnight shift by the president, who informed his national security advisers of it only last night, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified discussing the deliberations. Obama told his aides that support from lawmakers would strengthen his position and undercut congressional critics who've called on him to seek authorization, according to the official.
"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.
Lacking the kind of broad military coalition that lined up alongside the U.S. against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi 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 with Congress."
Nor is delay risk-free. White House officials said Syrian President Bashar Assad could be emboldened to expand his regime's use of poison gas. Another official privy to internal policy debates who asked not to be identified said the president's decision is likely to reinforce a long-held Syrian view, shared elsewhere in the world, that the dictatorial regime can outlast any American hostility.
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."
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 Mideast. A Syrian opposition spokesman, Michel Kilo, described himself on Al Arabiya Saturday 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.
While Obama, citing Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an attack "will be effective tomorrow, or next week or one month from now," the hold 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 legislators and the public the potential cost of an attack on Syria. Such an attempted preemptive 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 on Friday unveiled intelligence that Assad's regime was responsible for a chemical attack August 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.
"We are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus," Obama said Saturday. He didn't say whether he would go forward with a strike if Congress doesn't authorize it.
As Obama spoke in the Rose Garden, anti-war protesters demonstrated in front of the White House. Obama later left to play golf with a group including Vice President Joe Biden.
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 Friday evening, according to one of the officials who spoke anonymously. He later discussed it for two hours with other advisers and then with 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 unexpected Aug. 29 defeat when he sought backing for military action in the House of Commons, the official said. 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 Saturday to inform him of the delay. France, which had indicated it would join in taking military action, followed suit, saying it would wait for its parliament before taking action, according to the Associated Press.
Obama sent Congress a draft resolution Saturday 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.
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, on Saturday 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 emailed 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 criticized the president for risking military involvement. Still others fall between those positions.
One Republican, Representative Peter King of New York, said Obama was "abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents" by awaiting a go-ahead from Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Senate hearings on Obama's authorization request will begin next week, with a vote the week of Sept. 9.
Obama's decision squared with U.S. public opinion. Almost 80 percent of Americans say 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 that carried out 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 of a strike could be rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaida.
Earlier on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's main ally, urged Obama to "think carefully" before ordering any strikes. Putin called for the U.S. to submit its evidence that Syrian government forces carried out the attack 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 Saturday 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 Saturday in New York.
The threat of a military strike has weighed on markets. U.S. stocks fell Friday, 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.
With assistance from Donna Abu-Nasr and Dana El Baltaji in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Mark Deen in Paris, Robert Tuttle in Doha, Qatar, Gopal Ratnam, Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Nicole Gaouette, Tony Capaccio, David Lerman, John Walcott, Timothy R. Homan, Heidi Przybyla, Roger Runningen, Dave Michaels and Roxana Tiron in Washington, Sangwon Yoon at United Nations, Ksenia Galouchko and Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow and Eddie Buckle in London.