WASHINGTON -- President Obama said Saturday that he believes the United States “should take military action” in response to last week’s chemical attack in Syria, but he will seek congressional approval for ordering a strike.
In a brief statement delivered in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said the U.S. military was prepared to launch a strike against the Syrian government, but that readiness was "not time sensitive."
Obama said he believes he has the authority to act without congressional approval, but asked lawmakers to weigh in and shoulder the responsibility for the decision.
“The country will be stronger if we take this course,” Obama said. “We should have this debate.”
Obama said congressional leaders have agreed to take up an authorization measure as soon as they return from their August recess.
The White House has been under pressure to seek lawmakers’ approval for any military action, but officials had been indicating the president was unlikely to take the route. Obama is far from assured of winning such a vote and a debate could turn into an embarrassing and divisive fight.
The White House has been deliberating about a response since the Aug. 21 attack, which came a year after the president declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Syria government against its own people was the “red line” that would trigger a U.S. response. For days, the administration suggested that the apparent size and scope of the attack on the Damascus suburb would prompt a military action -- likely missile strikes on targets controlled by Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
Mindful of war fatigue among the American public and its allies after years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, officials emphsized that the goal of any action would not be “regime change” and would be limited.
After initially calling on United Nations inspectors to investigate the attack, the Obama administration switched course and declared that the U.N. team would not learn more than what U.S. intelligence agencies had already uncovered. The White House released an intelligence assessment Friday concluding that a special chemical weapons unit of the Syrian government used nerve gas to kill more than 1,400 people, including at least 426 children, far more than most previous estimates.
Obama on Saturday called it “the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21 century” and an “assault on human dignity.”
Still, Obama had largely failed to win over key international partners and seemed prepared Friday to forge ahead without United Nations support or NATO allies. Only France has indicated it would back some military action.
As Obama made his remarks, the weight of his dilemma was clear outside the White House. Protesters crowded Pennsylvania Avenue chanting “President Obama, hands off Syria!” and carrying yellow signs reading: “Not Our War.” They mingled with another demonstration calling for Obama to intervene in Egypt, where protesters have clashed with military-led government.