President Obama today refused to rule out attacking Syria anyway even if Congress fails to support him, though he will address the nation Tuesday from the White House to try to build support for his decision and put pressure on Congress to approve it.
Obama, who spoke during a press conference at the conclusion of the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, hinted at a possible justification for acting unilaterally by noting that his decision to put the matter before Congress was not just motivated by a desire for Congressional approval, but to prompt debate about the issue and make sure the American people fully understand why he wants to bomb Syria.
Asserting the critical need to uphold the principle of preventing the use of chemical weapons in the world, Obama said he wanted to make “sure that the American people understand it is important before I take action.”
Obama said Americans need to hash this out because the threat posed by chemical weapons is the type America will be facing in coming years. “I think it’s the right thing to do,” Obama said of the decision to prompt a debate in Congress. “I think it’s good for our democracy.”
But the president also suggested he might be constrained from acting without Congress, noting that part of the reason he sought a vote was that he “could not honestly claim” the situation “was a direct or imminent threat to the United States” that would force him to move quickly without Congress. And in contrast to Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi was about to crush his opposition, the U.S. response to the Syrian chemical weapons attacks could wait a bit.
Obama repeatedly suggested that with polls showing a strike against Syria unpopular, lawmakers might want to consider acting against the will of their constituents. He argued that action to prevent the genocide in Rwanda – the lack of which is widely lamented – would “probably wouldn’t poll very well” if it were at issue today. He even noted that helping the British during the German Blitz was not popular either with the public or Congress.
The president, who has frequently referred to the need for international approval before moving militarily, sought to justify his decision to ignore the United Nations this time by charging that the UN was failing to abide by its own rules by not seeking to enforce the international ban on chemical weapons.