There was a fancy dinner at a palace in St Petersberg last night where attendees of the G20 summit jostled over audience appeal for a strike on Syria. “Clear split” was the verdict of one attendee, but I doubt if it was down the middle.
With discontent over a strike swelling here at home, curiosity over whether Obama would take action sans congressional approval has peaked. When reporters queried Obama on the crucial issue he ducked, swerved and then bluntly blurted out: “You’re not getting any direct response.” Then news spread fast when one of Obama’s national security advisors told a reporter:
But Antony Blinken, his principal deputy national security adviser, told NPR that while the president maintains he has the authority to act regardless of Congress, “it’s neither his desire nor his intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him.”
Obama somewhat walked that back today during a press conference in Russia, Time Magazine‘s Swampland offers the transcript.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up (OFF-MIKE) full congressional approval (OFF-MIKE) Senate (OFF-MIKE) and the House does not (OFF- MIKE) would you go ahead with the strike?
OBAMA: You know, Brianna (ph), I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate, because right now I’m working to get as much support as possible out of Congress.
If Congress fails to authorize this, will you go forward with an attack on Syria?
OBAMA: Right. And you’re not getting a direct response.
Brianna (ph) asked the question very well, you know?
QUESTION: It’s a pretty basic question.
OBAMA: You know, I was gonna give you a different answer? No. (LAUGHTER)
What I have said, and I will repeat, is that I put this before Congress for a reason. I think we will be more effective and stronger if, in fact, Congress authorizes this action. I’m not going to engage in parlor games now, Jonathan, about whether or not it’s going to pass, when I’m talking substantively to Congress about why this is important and talking to American people about why this is important.
Now, with respect to Congress and how they should respond to constituency concerns, you know, I do consider it part of my job to help make the case and to explain to the American people exactly why I think this is the right thing to do.
And it’s conceivable that at the end of the day, I don’t persuade a majority of the American people that it’s the right thing to do. And then each member of Congress is gonna have to decide, if I think it’s the right thing to do for America’s national security and the world’s national security, then how do I vote?
And you know what? That’s — that’s what you’re supposed to do as a member of Congress. Ultimately, you listen to your constituents, but you’ve also got to make some decisions about what you believe is right for America.
And that’s the same for me as president of the United States. There are a whole bunch of decisions that I make that are unpopular, as you well know.
But I do so because I think they’re the right thing to do, and I trust my constituents want me to offer my best judgment, that’s why they elected mean. that’s why they re-elected me, even after there were some decisions I made that they disagreed with. And I would hope that members of Congress would end up feeling the same way.
The last point I would make. Those kinds of interventions, these kinds of actions are always unpopular, because they seem distant and removed.
QUESTION: But your deputy national security adviser said that it is not your intention to attack if Congress doesn’t approve it. Is he right?
OBAMA: I don’t think that’s exactly what he said, but I think I’ve answered — I’ve answered the question.
Earlier in the briefing he deftly justified skipping U.N. approval through the Security Council which he characterized as being “paralyzed”:
It is my view, and a view that was shared by a number of people in the room, that given Security Council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use, then an international response is required and that will not come through Security Council action.
And that’s where I think the division comes from. And I respect those who are concerned about setting precedents of action outside of a U.N. Security Council resolution. I would greatly prefer working through multilateral channels and through the United Nations to get this done.
But ultimately what I believe in even more deeply, because I think that the security of the world and my particular task looking out for the national security of the United States requires that when there’s a breach this brazen of a norm this important and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn’t act, then that norm begins to unravel.
Read the entire transcript here.