President Obama said today that the U.S. should pursue military intervention against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for use of chemical weapons in that country's civil war, but only after his administration seeks approval from Congress.
The president said he hopes Congress will debate and vote on a U.S. strike when members return from their summer recess, scheduled to end Sept. 9.
"While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective," Obama said from the White House's Rose Garden. "We should have this debate.
"This attack is an assault on human dignity," the president added. "It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who'd do our people harm. In a world with many dangers this menace must be confronted."
Obama then left with Vice President Biden for a golf game.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this evening that the committee's debate over authorization for use of force will begin Tuesday.
"Senior Administration witnesses will testify before the Committee and the Congress will debate this issue actively, fully, and publicly," he said in a statement. "It is my view that the use of military force in Syria is justified and necessary given the Assad regime's reprehensible use of chemical weapons and gross violation of international law. I look forward to sharing these views with my colleagues in the days ahead as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convenes to take up this vital national security issue."
The president's declaration today's came after lawmakers voiced concern this week that the White House would strike without collaboration with Capitol Hill and the same day top White House security staff briefed the Senate's political parties in an unclassified conference call.
The decision to go to Congress before taking any action against the Assad regime was welcomed by many lawmakers, including some of the president's toughest critics.
Obama said he reached agreement on seeking authorization with the big four in Capitol Hill leadership: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
As recently as Friday, Obama said that although his administration believes it had obtained proof that chemical weapons deployed by the Syrian government, he had not yet reached a decision on how to proceed. Publicly available White House reports state that 1,429 were killed in a chemical weapon attack on August 21, including at least 426 children.
"After careful deliberation, I've decided that the Unites States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," Obama said today. "This would not be an open-ended intervention, we'd not put boots on the ground. Instead our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior and degrade their capacity to carry it out."
The president did not put a timetable on a possible attack, stating an order to the military to proceed would be "effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now.
"Many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress," he continued. "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."
Acknowledging the realities of a war-weary public and a seemingly perpetual state of congressional gridlock, the president made a plea to lawmakers:
"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? 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 worlds' people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?"
Today also marks the end of a United Nations investigative delegation to the war-torn country to investigate the chemical attacks. While the international body would not give a timetable on when it would release its final report, the president implored the global community for expedience.
"We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us," he concluded. "Just as I will take this case to Congress I will also deliver this message to the world. While the UN investigation has some time to report on its findings, we will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons is not simply investigated, it must be confronted."
Obama did not take questions from reporters today and ignored a shouted question from a pooled press reporter over whether he would forgo a strike if Congress ultimately disapproves. A low din of chanting could be heard during the president's remarks as demonstrators both for and against U.S. intervention staged afternoon rallies outside the White House compound.
There has been deep criticism in Congress over the prospect of an American strike in Syria, from members of both parties. On Friday Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., disparaged what he predicted would be an attack that does not go far enough.
"The president apparently wants to have a kind of cosmetic strike, launch a few missiles and then say, 'Well, we responded,'" McCain said on NBC's "Tonight Show." "This is the same president that, two years ago, said Bashar Assad had to go. It's also the president that said that there would be a red line if they used chemical weapons. Maybe that red line was written in disappearing ink."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., is one of a number of members fearful of a unilateral or U.S.-led strike.
"The United States should not undertake a kinetic strike before the U.N. inspectors complete their work," he said in a statement Friday. "And that the impact of such a strike would be weakened if it does not have the participation and support of a large number of nations, including Arab nations."
Still left are lawmakers including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who protested on libertarian grounds of non-intervention. More than 100 members had written to the president/a> imploring him to seek congressional approval.
Speaker Boehner voiced approval for president's move to seek authorization in a statement following the announcement.
"Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress," he wrote. "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 9. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people."
The debate has also opened up new discussion of the 1973 War Powers Act, which gives the commander-in-chief the authority to conduct military activity for 60 days without a formal declaration of war from Capitol Hill. Congress has not formally declared war since World War II: The Korean War, Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently Libya were all conducted without an official declaration.