• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 9:11am

Obama back-tracks with decision to seek congressional support for Syria strike

After a week of pro-strike rhetoric, Obama stunned senior aides by deciding to wait for congressional support for military action

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 9:42am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 6:17am


  • Yes: 29%
  • No: 71%
1 Sep 2013
  • Yes
  • No
Total number of votes recorded: 411

US President Barack Obama's aides were stunned at what their boss had to say when he summoned them to the Oval Office at 7pm Friday, on the eve of what they believed could be a weekend when American missiles streaked again across the Middle East.

In a two-hour meeting of passionate, sharp debate in the Oval Office, he told them that after a frantic week in which he seemed to be rushing toward a military attack on Syria, he wanted to pull back and seek congressional approval first.

He had several reasons, he told them, including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament. But the most compelling one may have been that acting alone would undercut him if in the next three years he needed congressional authority for his next military confrontation in the Middle East, perhaps with Iran.

If he made the decision to strike Syria without Congress now, he said, would he get Congress when he really needed it?

"He can't make these decisions divorced from the American public and from Congress," said a senior aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Who knows what we're going to face in the next 3½ years in the Middle East?"

The Oval Office meeting ended one of the strangest weeks of the Obama White House, in which a president who had drawn a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons, and watched Syrian military forces breach it with horrific consequences, found himself compelled to act by his own statements.

But Obama, who has been reluctant for the past two years to get entangled in Syria, had qualms from the start.

Even as he steeled himself for an attack this past week, two advisers said, he nurtured doubts about the political and legal justification for action, given that the UN Security Council had refused to bless a military strike that he had not put before Congress. A drumbeat of lawmakers demanding a vote added to the sense that he could be out on a limb.

On Sunday, the White House issued a statement dismissing the need to wait for UN investigators because their evidence, the statement said, had been corrupted by the relentless shelling of the sites.

By Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry, who had long advocated a more aggressive policy on Syria, delivered a thunderous speech that President Bashar al-Assad was guilty of a "moral obscenity."

By midweek, administration officials were telling reporters that the administration would not be deterred by the lack of an imprimatur from the Security Council, where Syria's biggest backer, Russia, held a veto.

Beyond the questions of political legitimacy, aides said, Obama told them Friday that he was troubled that authorising another military action over the heads of Congress would contradict the spirit of his speech last spring, in which he attempted to chart a shift in the US from the perennial war footing of the post-September 11 era.

All of these issues were on Obama's mind when he invited his chief of staff, Denis R McDonough, for an early evening stroll on the south lawn of the White House. In the West Wing, an aide said, staff members hoped to get home early, recognising they would spend the weekend in the office.

Forty-five minutes later, shortly before 7pm, Obama summoned his senior staff to the Oval Office.

"I have a pretty big idea I want to test with you guys," he said to the group, which included McDonough and his deputy, Rob Nabors; the national security adviser, Susan E Rice, and her two deputies, Antony Blinken and Benjamin J Rhodes; his senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, and several legal experts to discuss the War Powers Resolution.

The resistance from the group was immediate. The political team worried that Obama could lose the vote, as Cameron did, and that it could complicate the White House's other legislative priorities. The national security team argued that international support for an operation was unlikely to improve.

At 9pm, the president drew the debate to a close and telephoned Kerry and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel to tell them of his plans.


War Congress

1941 The last time that a formal declaration was adopted by Congress was in 1941, when the US entered the second world war.

1973 The War Powers Resolution, initiated in response to the deeply unpopular Vietnam War, in theory requires the president to seek authorisation from lawmakers for any military intervention lasting beyond 60 days.

1992 Operations in Somalia and Haiti (1994) also took place without congressional approval.

1995 President Clinton ordered 20,000 troops into Bosnia-Herzegovina despite Congress's failure to agree on several draft resolutions.

1998 Clinton approved cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan following the twin bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

1999 Clinton ordered air strikes without congressional approval, hitting Yugoslavia for 78 days in the Kosovo conflict.

2003 President Bush sought and received authorisation under the resolution before launching the invasion of Iraq.

2011 Obama justified military intervention in Libya on the grounds of a UN Security Council resolution despite Congress' request that it be consulted.

Agence France-Presse


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This article is now closed to comments

He didn't really put it "on hold". You know the US congress will approve it. It's actually surprising that they haven't mandated the strikes already, given the people like McCain and Peter King in there, who are even more hawkish than Obama. If he really wanted to make the attack legit, he should have sought approval from the UN instead.
great, we will send your child over there to fight , ok?
or have you pay for it
did not think so
so shut your big fat mouth
"Better to do the right thing some of the time than none of the time."
Who's being meaningless now?
The comments about Russia are too simplistic. Are you aware of the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia's decision? The close connection between the Russian and Syrian churches? The protection the Assad dictatorship has provided to the Christians in Syria? What do those who comment know about the Alawaite sect versus the Sunni and Shias? Who used the nerve gas - insufficient time to say with 100% certainty who the perpetrators are? I don't support Assad at all. However, I don't put it past the muslim fundamentalists who are fighting Assad of doing this either. The vote in the UK Parliament was fantastic. The relentless drumbeat of the war complex machine came to a grinding halt and now there is no timetable for this so called surgical strike which is totally pointless. The west's policy towards the Middle East is not one of principle - just look at the bloodshed in Eqypt - US twisting on a dime to avoid calling the actions of the Egyptian military a coup. Yes, take a step back from the brink from following in the same steps as George W and Tony Bliar.
Re: caractus
We can take it then. that you are not Syrian. I wonder how you would feel if your country was subjected to a military strike because of some alleged crime committed by your leaders. Never mind knee-jerk reactions, why do you believe that Syria should come to heel? Are you the master, and they the dog? Are you the civilized nation and they the uncivilized? Is your culture superior to theirs? Are your beliefs more correct than theirs?
The thing about modern law is that it has evolved beyond the lynch mob mentality that you are supporting. This proposed murder of innocent civilians, that the US seems happy to accept as the norm, is being carried out without a trial. Were you, caractus, to be sentenced to death without a trial, I wonder if you might come down out of your ivory tower and see the proposed bombing for what it actually is. Murder is murder.
The real issue here is that a national government - a member of the UN, is using chemical weapons against its own people. That is against international law and treaties against the use of such weapons.
As usual, Russia and China, acting under a Cold War era knee jerk reaction to support a regime friendly to them, no matter how evil, block any attempts to bring Assad's hereditary dictatorship to heel. Shame on them.
Support to the US and the Free Syrian Rebels. The purpose of an American strike may be purely symbolic, but it is important nonetheless. Down with all the world's Dictators.
The US approved when Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran in their war in the 1980's. They also stood by when he used chemical weapons on the Kurds in 1988.



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