WASHINGTON — President Obama abruptly changed course Saturday and postponed a military strike against the Syrian government in retaliation for a suspected chemical-weapons attack so he could seek authorization first from a deeply skeptical Congress.
In one of the riskiest gambles of his presidency, Obama effectively dared lawmakers to either stand by him or, as he put it, allow President Bashar Assad of Syria to get away with murdering children with unconventional weapons.
By asking them to take a stand, Obama tried to break out of the isolation of the past week as he confronted taking action without the support of the United Nations, Congress, the public or Britain, a usually reliable partner in such international operations.
“I’m prepared to give that order,” Obama said in a Rose Garden speech as U.S. destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles waited in the Mediterranean Sea. “But 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.”
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Although congressional leaders hailed his decision to seek the permission of lawmakers who had been clamoring for a say, the turnabout leaves Obama at the political mercy of House Republicans, many of whom have opposed him at every turn and have already suggested Syria’s civil war does not pose a threat to the United States.
His decision raises the possibility that he would be the first president in modern times to lose a vote on the use of force, much as Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain did in Parliament last week.
Obama overruled the advice of many of his aides who worried about just such a defeat. Republican congressional officials said House Speaker John Boehner told the president Saturday that if a vote were taken immediately, the Republican-controlled House would not support action. Interviews with more than a dozen members of Congress made clear the situation was volatile even in the Senate, where Democrats have a majority.
“Obama hasn’t got a chance to win this vote if he can’t win the majority of his own party, and I doubt he can,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “Democrats have been conspicuously silent. Just about his only support is coming from Republicans. He is a war president without a war party.”
Yet the debate may also put on display the divisions in the Republican Party between traditional national-security hawks and a newer generation of lawmakers, particularly in the House, resistant to entanglements overseas and distrustful of Obama.
“It will be an uphill battle for the president to convince me because I think he has handled this entire situation quite poorly,” said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark.
“And frankly I am reluctant to give him a license for war when, with all due respect, I have little confidence he knows what he is doing.”
Even Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, two Republicans who have pressed Obama to intervene more aggressively in Syria, said Saturday that they might vote no because the president’s plan is too limited.
“We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield,” they said in a statement.
White House officials drafted a proposed measure that tried to strike a balance between being too expansive and too restrictive, and sent it to Congress on Saturday evening.
Congress back Sept. 9
The proposal would empower Obama to order military action to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation” of chemical or biological weapons “within, to or from Syria” and to “protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.”
Still, White House officials indicated Obama might still authorize force even if Congress rejects it.
As Syrian forces braced for attack, the president’s decision effectively put it off for more than a week, because Congress is not due back in Washington until Sept. 9. Obama did not push Congress to come back sooner, and House leaders opted to keep to their schedule. Senate leaders were considering coming back Friday for a weekend of debate.
In the interim, though, lawmakers will be in their home states, where polls show their constituents are not eager to attack Syria. “One constituent said to me, ‘It is horrendous that these children were killed, but they are being killed in other ways also. What’s the difference?’ ” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Obama’s decision also means that the period of vacillation before a strike will extend until after he travels to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a meeting of the Group of 20 nations, a session that now seems certain to be dominated by the question of what to do about Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, the host of the meeting, has effectively blocked U.N. action; on Saturday, he suggested the suspected chemical attack was a provocation by rebels intended to draw the United States into their war against Assad.
The president’s announcement — televised live in the United States and on Syrian state television with translation — represents a significant political risk. If Congress defeats the proposal, Obama could emerge as a weakened leader, finding it even more difficult to push his proposals through Congress, including his top priorities of passing a budget and rewriting the nation’s immigration laws.
“Ultimately, I think he felt he was going to be a target from both the left and the right if he did it alone, and with few significant allies overseas, I don’t think he wanted to be isolated,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York.
“This puts the ball in Congress’s court and they either join and he gets policy and political cover or they oppose,” Miringoff said.
Administration officials said Obama would not rule out acting on his own if lawmakers fail to act. If that happened, he would only further antagonize a divided Congress that already rejects many of his proposals.
Share the responsibility
Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East adviser to presidents, said Obama made a persuasive case for action even as he jeopardized it. It “shows just how concerned he is about being alone and his understanding of the realities that even a limited strike can be risky, and he wants to share the responsibility,” he said.
The surprise Syria vote will come as a deeply divided Congress was already gearing up for bitter fights this fall over federal spending, the debt ceiling, immigration and government surveillance. And it will invite a complicated, multilayered debate crossing party lines and involving other actors like Israel supporters who worry that failure to follow through in Syria will embolden Iran.
Even as he made the request to Congress, Obama argued more forcefully than he ever had for military action, echoing some of the moral outrage expressed by Secretary of State John Kerry a day earlier.
“What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” Obama said.
To shore up support, the White House assigned Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top officials to brief both parties in the Senate by telephone Saturday and scheduled a classified briefing in person on Capitol Hill on Sunday for any lawmakers in town.
U.N. inspectors left Syria on Saturday after four days of efforts to investigate the Aug. 21 attack.
The inspectors were heading to The Hague with blood and urine samples taken from victims of the attack and soil samples from where the attacks took place. The samples will be divided so each can be sent to at least two separate European laboratories for testing.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the inspectors’ mandate was to find out whether chemical weapons were used, not who was responsible. He offered no estimate of how long the process would take.
Obama administration officials have said that the U.N. findings would be redundant, since U.S. intelligence had already concluded, based on human sources and electronic eavesdropping, that Assad’s government was responsible for launching nerve agents in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, Syria’s capital.
Material from McClatchy Washington Bureau and The Associated Press is included in this report.