WASHINGTON — Delaying what had loomed as an imminent strike, President Barack Obama abruptly announced Saturday he will seek congressional approval before launching any military action meant to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack that killed hundreds.
With Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action and that he believes he has “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.”
At the same time, he said, “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective.” Congress is scheduled to return from a summer vacation on Sept. 9.
The president didn’t say so, but his strategy carries enormous risks to his and the nation’s credibility, which the administration has argued forcefully is on the line in Syria. Obama long ago said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not be allowed to cross with impunity.
Only this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when the House of Commons refused to support his call for military action against Syria.
Either way, the developments marked a stunning turn in an episode in which Obama has struggled to gain international support for a strike, while dozens of lawmakers at home urged him to seek their backing.
Halfway around the world, Syrians awoke Saturday to state television broadcasts of tanks, planes and other weapons of war, and troops training, all to a soundtrack of martial music. Assad’s government blames rebels in the Aug. 21 attack, and has threatened retaliation if it is attacked.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was appealing to a Nobel Peace laureate rather than to a president, urged Obama to reconsider. A group that monitors casualties in the long Syrian civil war challenged the United States to substantiate its claim that 1,429 died in a chemical weapons attack, including more than 400 children.
By accident or design, the new timetable gives time for U.N. inspectors to receive lab results from the samples they took during four days in Damascus, and to compile a final report. After leaving Syria overnight, the inspection team arrived in Rotterdam a few hours before Obama spoke.
The group’s leader was expected to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday.
Republicans expressed satisfaction at Obama’s decision, and challenged him to make his case to the public and lawmakers alike that American power should be used to punish Assad.
“We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other House Republican leaders said in a joint statement.
“In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”
It appeared that effort at persuasion was already well underway.
The administration arranged a series of weekend briefings for lawmakers, both classified and unclassified, and Obama challenged lawmakers to consider “what message will we send to a dictator” if he is allowed to kill hundreds of children with chemical weapons without suffering any retaliation.
While lawmakers are scheduled to return to work Sept. 9, officials said it was possible the Senate might come back to session before then.
Obama said Friday he was considering “limited and narrow” steps to punish Assad, adding that U.S. national security interests were at stake. He pledged no U.S. combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.
With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Putin urged him to reconsider his plans. “We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world, said Putin, a strong Assad ally. “Did this resolve even one problem?”
Even the administration’s casualty estimate was grist for controversy.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organization, said he was not contacted by U.S. officials about his efforts to collect information about the death toll in the Aug. 21 attacks.
“America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda,” he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.
Obama was buffeted, as well, by some lawmakers challenging his authority to strike Syria without congressional approval, and also by others who urged him to intervene more forcefully than he has signaled he will.
In the hours before Obama’s Rose garden announcement, he was joined at the White House by top advisers.
Vice President Joseph Biden, who had planned a holiday weekend at home in Delaware, was among them. So, too, were Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials.
In the famously flammable Middle East, Israel readied for the possible outbreak of hostilities. The Israeli military disclosed it has deployed an “Iron Dome” missile defense battery in the Tel Aviv area to protect civilians from any possible missile attack from next-door Syria or any of its allies.
Missile defenses were deployed in the northern part of the country several days ago, and large crowds have been gathering at gas mask-distribution centers to pick up protection kits.
ACROSS US: FEARS , AMBIVALENCE, ANGUISH OVER SYRIA
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The specter of U.S. military action against Syria and further intervention in the Muslim world is generating troubled and conflicting emotions throughout America.
People cite misgivings about their country’s role as “world policeman.” They express moral outrage at atrocities in a faraway nation, tempered by dismay about trying to decide who’s good and who’s bad in a sectarian slaughter. There’s a deep ambivalence about how to use American military power for good without committing the United States to another intractable war.
Those sentiments are reflected in a series of interviews conducted Friday by The Associated Press across the country and borne out in recent polling.
In town after town, Americans weary of war after a dozen years of it are expressing unease, concern, fear and often resignation.
Some adamantly oppose any U.S. action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, even though the Obama administration says he used chemical weapons to kill 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. Obama said Saturday he would seek congressional approval before launching any strike.
With Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea ready to strike, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action, but also determined “our country will be better off” if Congress renders its own opinion.
At the same time, he challenged lawmakers to consider “what message will we send to a dictator” if he is allowed to killed hundreds of children with chemical weapons without suffering any retaliation.
Lawmakers will return to session on Sept. 9.
Most are struggling to sort out conflicting hopes and anxieties. Painful lessons from Vietnam and Iraq color the conversations. Pride in America’s strength and morality often seem pitted against fears of arrogance that can lead to conflicts much easier to start than to finish.
“I think he has to do something,” Ralph Whitney of Groton, Conn., said of Obama, even if it means “stirring up a hornet’s nest.”
Opinion polls quantify the serious reservations.
An NBC News survey suggests that the Assad government’s alleged use of chemical weapons has not persuaded more people in the U.S. to support military intervention. Half of those surveyed said the U.S. should not take military action, while 42 percent said the U.S. should.
Only 1 in 5 said military action is in the U.S. national interest.
The poll was conducted Wednesday and Thursday, before the administration’s release Friday of an unclassified intelligence assessment that cited “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out the attack.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll from December showed 63 percent in favor of U.S. military involvement if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people.
The NBC poll found scant support for arming Syrian rebels. About one-fourth of those questioned favor U.S. military action to help stop the killing of Syrian civilians, while just 6 percent prefer arming the rebels.
Americans with firsthand knowledge of Syrian refugees’ plight talked in Des Moines about their wariness of U.S. military intervention.
“The pain and the despair people have experienced, and the loss of life, it’s created a situation where people don’t even know who they are anymore,” Kate Altmaier, a 30-year-old administrative assistant, said in between sips of coffee outside a cafe.
Altmaier had just returned from the Mideast. In Lebanon, she saw the struggles of those refugees.
Anyone who thinks America’s proper response is easy or obvious, she said, is misguided.
“Fighting evil with more darkness,” said Altmaier, a self-described born-again Christian, is not the answer. “If someone has a good answer, I’ll say they don’t understand it. Even people who know a lot about it and have spent so much time there, it’s a spider web.”
Nearby, Elizabeth Jack was rocking her 5-month-old after the weekly story hour at the city’s downtown public library. A family of Syrian immigrants lives in her neighborhood, she said, and the kids in the two households play together.
The Syrian parents fear for relatives still in the Middle East. “I know they are worried, and want someone to help,” Jack said.
Despite her sympathies, Jack opposes a U.S. strike.
“We’re stretched so thin,” she said. “We are policing the world.”
She said her views sometimes create awkwardness with her Syrian neighbors.
Jack said she feels helpless to change America’s military role in the region. “I do feel like it’s just the way it’s going to be,” she said.
Jimmy Tynes, 64, of Hattiesburg, Miss., said his initial thought on airstrikes against Syria was, “I’m against it. I just don’t know what we’d be doing over there.”
But as he spoke longer during a visit to Atlanta, Tynes equivocated.
“Of course, none of us can see everything that the president is looking at,” he said. “If that’s his decision, I’ll support him.”
Tynes, who served in the Army Reserves in the Vietnam War era, warned against portraying Syria’s rebels as heroes. “It’s our enemies on both sides over there,” he said.
Jennifer McConkley, 45, shared coffee in Des Moines with Altmaier, a co-worker. She also shares Altmaier’s ambivalence about military action in Syria.
McConkey, who voted for Obama last year, said she was troubled by Obama’s declaration that Syria’s government would be crossing a “red line” if it used chemical weapons against its citizens. Still, she said, the United States has a moral role to stem such abuses.
“I just hate for us to have to go that far,” McConkey said. “That’s not going to solve the issue. But we have to take some kind of stand and send a clear a message about what we’ll tolerate.”
She worries about her son Alex, 11, and the possibility he may be called someday to serve in the Middle East, where a U.S. military role seems likely for years.
“I hope for a time when we wouldn’t have to be there,” McConkey said. “But given the complex situation, we’ll probably always have some kind of presence there. At least within my lifetime.”
McConkey wasn’t the only person who mentioned Obama’s “red line” warning.
Retired Army veteran Lee Thompson of Atlanta said the president “offered all those references to a ‘red line.’ To do nothing now makes the United States look weak.”
Thompson, 71, urged Obama to avoid the ways America got involved in Vietnam and Iraq. “Anything we do must have a defined purpose,” he said. “Otherwise there’s no ‘win’ in this war, nothing to say we won and it’s time to come home.”
David Kabel of West Des Moines, Iowa, said Obama’s “red line” warning leaves him without a good option. “I bet he wishes he hadn’t said that,” said Kabel, 65.
Even a tightly defined intervention in Syria will be hard to control, he said. But he said he fears Obama will be viewed as weak if he doesn’t act.
That’s troubling, Kabel said, because “we’re already overextended. And the country at large is suffering from war fatigue.”
Dilemmas such as Syria inevitably divide couples.
Among them are Joann and Scott Johnson of Baldwin, N.Y., who vacationed this weekend along the Potomac River in suburban Virginia, just outside Washington.
Joann, 49, runs a children’s day care center. She said the United States “absolutely” must punish Assad.
“I just feel like the destruction he’s doing to his own people, to me, that’s a monster,” she said.
Her husband disagrees.
“Why can’t they take care of their own country and own problems?” said Scott Johnson, 51, who works in retail and delivers newspapers in the morning. “Why is it our problem?”
“We’re always getting the blame for being the peacemaker,” Johnson said. “That’s why other countries hate us so much.”
The issue creates a somewhat gentler divide between Ralph and Sally Whitney of Groton, Conn., who were in northern Virginia for a wedding. She thinks a military strike is a terrible idea; he thinks it’s probably inevitable.
“Don’t take us to war!” said Sally Whitney, a 58-year-old town clerk, as soon as the topic came up. “If we are invited to help a country, that would be it,” she said. “But we can’t go and police it.”
Ralph Whitney said Obama is virtually obligated to act because of his earlier warnings about chemical weapons use. But that doesn’t mean the 65-year-old engineer thinks it’s a good idea.
Syria “is a sovereign country,” he said, “and we have no right to interfere in a sovereign country.”
Time after time, Americans fretted about being the world’s moral enforcer.
“I’m sick and tired of America having to police everyone,” said Tristan Wright, 37, a banker from Alexandria, Va.
“We just got finished up with Iraq, and that was an utter waste,” Wright said as he sipped iced coffee on a warm day. “We have enough problems here,” he said, citing struggling school districts, Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy and high rates of U.S. poverty and homelessness.
“There is always going to be a new Syria,” Wright said.
During lunchtime at an outdoor market in downtown Los Angeles, George Carrillo and Henry Chase summarized Obama’s options.
Carrillo, manning a bakery stall whose proceeds help former gang members, said the president “has got to be strong, man, he’s our leader.”
Carrillo favors multiple airstrikes in Syria, saying such tactics helped stop ethnic warfare in Kosovo in 1999. “When you see little kids and families just right there all gassed up,” he said of Syria, “it’s heartbreaking. We’ve got to put it to a stop.”
In a separate interview, Chase, a 64-year-old financial sector employee eating lunch nearby, urged caution. Noting that thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed by nonchemical weapons, he said, “What’s the rush, because now there’s some unique way” of slaughtering people?
Chase worries that the White House hasn’t thought through actions that could drag Iran and even Israel into a wider conflict, or even lead to an attack on U.S. soil.
If Obama approves an airstrike, Chase said, “he ought to give his (Nobel) Peace Prize back” because hundreds or thousands of civilians would be killed.
Thomas reported from Alexandria, Va. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles, Charles Babington in Washington and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.