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Governing

Obama Asks Congress To Approve Action On Syria

Originally published on Sun September 1, 2013 9:06 am

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

It was a stunner today for pundits on the Potomac. President Obama announced in the Rose Garden that while he has the authority to unilaterally attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons, he won't use it. Only 24 hours after Secretary of State John Kerry made the case for military action, the president made the case for congressional approval.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We all know there are no easy options, but I wasn't elected to avoid hard decisions and neither were the members of the House and the Senate.

LYDEN: The social media world in Syria and the Middle East lit up with Syrian rebels and other Assad opponents saying, what did we go through all that for? Asked a woman in Damascus, Assad is victorious. But Congress seemed generally to welcome the deliberation, a debate the president said the country should have.

We'll get more on congressional response in a few minutes. But first, NPR's Scott Horsley has more on the president's about-face.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama says he's prepared to order a military strike on Syria to deter any additional use of chemical weapons and degrade the Syrian government's ability to carry out such attacks. That was hardly a surprise. The president's been telegraphing such an action all week. It was the second decision Obama announced in the White House Rose Garden, though, that caught many observers off guard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: 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. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

HORSLEY: And so without ceding any legal ground, the president said he will ask Congress to authorize a military strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: White House aides acknowledge there are risks to this approach. While a yes vote from Congress would strengthen the president's hand, he could also suffer a stinging rebuke from lawmakers, much as British Prime Minister David Cameron did this past week when the British Parliament voted against military action in Syria. Obama's move is a gamble that surprised Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

AARON DAVID MILLER: I have to tell you, I found this to be remarkable and extraordinary. Five times in the last 30-some years, presidents have initiated military action without seeking formal authorization from Congress. I found it remarkable that having made the case for - not for war but for a limited strike, the president has now surrendered the initiative to a legislative process that could now risk it.

HORSLEY: As late as yesterday, the administration wasn't planning to seek congressional approval. Aides say none of the congressional leadership was even asking for such a vote. The president decided he would go to Congress only after a 45-minute walk around the South Lawn last night with chief of staff Denis McDonough. White House officials aren't saying what the president would do if Congress voted against military action, only that they're confident lawmakers will give a green light.

Obama says he understands the reservation some members of Congress have, but he argues the U.S. cannot ignore a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide? We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say.

HORSLEY: Administration officials provided a telephone briefing from members of the Senate this afternoon on intelligence surrounding the chemical weapons attack. There will be another session tomorrow for House members in person, and that will include classified information. Congress is not scheduled to return from recess for another week, and the administration plans to use that time to build its argument for military authorization. Obama says he'll also be seeking support from other countries around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: Privately, we've heard many expressions of support from our friends. But I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publically behind our action.

HORSLEY: The decision to seek congressional authorization will delay any military strike for at least a week. But Obama says military leaders have assured him they'll be equally ready to attack tomorrow, next week or a month from now. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.