Will President Barack Obama order military strikes on Syria even if Congress rejects using force? Asked that hugely consequential question on Friday, a senior White House official strongly suggested that the answer is no.
"As the President has said, he has the authority to act, but his intention is to do so with the approval of the Congress. As he said in Sweden, he believes they will vote to authorize the use of military force. I'm not going to speculate on the President's decision-making if they don't approve; we think they will," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Yahoo News.
Her comments, and an earlier interview with Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken lent weight to a New York Times report published Friday that cited unnamed officials as saying that Obama views going to war if Congress says no as “almost unthinkable” – and even a potential trigger for impeachment proceedings against him.
Blinken, on NPR, also played down the prospects that American military strikes on Syria would result in retaliatory attacks against America by Syria or its patron Iran or the Iran-aligned Hezbollah Islamist militia – but could not completely rule it out.
“We spend a lot of time, when we think about these things, trying to game out every possible contingency, every possible unintended consequence. And no one can give you a 100% guarantee,” he told NPR.
“We work to make sure that If anyone tries to do anything to escalate, we’re in a position to respond -- but our best assessment, including by our intelligence community, is that none of these countries have an incentive to pick a fight with the United States,” the official said.
Hayden and Blinken's comments came as Republican and Democratic vote-counters in the House of Representatives warned privately that, if a vote on authorizing the use of force came today, Obama would lose. That may not mean much -- Congress formally returns to work next week, and Obama has led the administration's effort to reach out to wavering lawmakers. Many officially undecided lawmakers are thought to have made up their minds but are fearful to expose themselves to public blowback.
But with public opinion strongly against military action, the political realities have led supporters of attacking Syria to call on Obama to make a national address to lay out his case for war.
The president has said that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad must be punished for an alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack by his forces that left an estimated 1,400 dead, including hundreds of children.
But lawmakers have questioned whether American strikes will be effective or even could lead to an escalating U.S. involvement in a 2 1/2 year old civil war that has left 100,000 Syrians dead.