President Obama meets in the Situation Room with his national security advisors to discuss strategy in Syria on Aug. 31. (Pete Souza / White House)
WASHINGTON — The president’s decision to seek congressional approval for a military strike against Syria came out of the blue — none of his national security team saw it coming, according to three senior administration officials.
Obama told some of his senior advisers during a National Security Council meeting last weekend that he was leaning toward taking action against Syria, but had not made a final decision, said the officials, who spoke on the condition they not to be identified discussing internal deliberations. As Obama mulled his next steps, the aides advised him not to seek congressional authorization for a military strike, they said.
But when Obama convened his senior advisers Friday night to tell them he had settled on launching a narrowly focused strike against the Bashar Assad regime, he also told them something stunning: He would ask Congress to authorize it first.
The president raised this idea to his national security team for the first time Friday night after a one-on-one chat with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. In discussions Friday night and again Saturday morning in the Situation Room, Obama laid out his reasoning to his aides, some of whom were opposed to seeking congressional approval, according to the officials who declined to name the skeptics.
“Many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress, and undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the prime minister supported taking action,” Obama told the nation Saturday. “Yet, 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.”
In the months leading up to Saturday’s announcement, Obama made clear his desire to have broad support for any potential action against Syria — crystallizing his long-held view that the credibility of military action comes with numbers. But Russia, Syria’s most powerful patron, would block any United Nations Security Council resolution against Syria. After the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for military action last week, it became clear to Obama that a groundswell of international was not coming.
Notably, Obama called President Francois Hollande of France — the one major U.S. ally that has endorsed a military strike — before he publicly announced his decision to seek backing from Congress.
Still, as Obama edged toward calling for a limited military strike against the Assad regime following Syrian forces’ alleged killing of more than 1,400 in a chemical attack in rebel stronghold outside of Damascus Aug. 21, White House officials maintained their view that the president did not need to seek congressional approval.
But aides said Obama, who as a candidate for the White House criticized President George W. Bush’s for rushing to war in Iraq, saw formal consultation with Congress as a central part of his desired legacy to take the United States off a permanent war footing.The president was further convinced that this was the best course of action after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told him a Syria operation was not time-sensitive, and there was no negative impact for waiting, the officials said.
Congress is set to return from its summer recess Sept. 9 and is expected to debate and vote on an authorization that week. Obama would not rule out taking action immediately if Assad deploys chemical weapons before Congress is set to vote, the officials said.
The officials also stressed that the president changed his own mind, and no congressional leaders directly asked him to seek authorization, even though about a third of rank-and-file House members have called for it. They won’t speculate what Obama would do if Congress does not approve use of force, while maintaining that Obama retains the authority to go it alone.
Obama made clear in his remarks on Saturday that a “no” vote would send the wrong message to Assad and America’s enemies. “Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” Obama said.
“What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”