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Syria debate in Oval Office focused on whether to put a military strike before Congress

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President Obama campaigned for office as a critic of the Bush administration’s lack of regard for international consensus to resolve the most pressing issues of the day — whether climate change or the invasion of Iraq.

And yet, after a week of discussions over evidence showing that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons, Obama was believed by some of his closest aides to be willing to launch a military strike against Syria — even if his administration lacked the support of the United States’ closest ally, Britain, and the authorization of Congress. It would amount to perhaps the weightiest and riskiest solo action by Obama since his decision to approve the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

At 7 p.m. Friday, a handful of Obama’s closest aides, including national security adviser Susan E. Rice and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, were summoned to the Oval Office, according to senior administration officials. The president had concluded he would allow a sharply divided and generally hostile Congress to debate whether the United States should proceed.

It was not the decision some of Obama’s advisers, including Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — who were said to be among the officials in favor of a missile barrage against Assad’s military assets in the coming days — were expecting to hear.

After two hours of debate, however, Obama was not dissuaded in his determination to have Congress debate the issue.

“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” the president said Saturday in an address in the Rose Garden. “We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”

Senior administration officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said the debate late Friday focused on the possible consequences of introducing a proudly obstructionist Congress into an urgent foreign policy issue, the implications of ceding executive authority over war powers to the legislative branch, and the risks of not setting a time frame for a U.S. military strike.

Aides said the president believes strongly that the Assad government was behind the use of chemical weapons that killed almost 1,500 people — nearly a third of them children — and that it needs to face consequences. But they added that the issue for the president is not solely about a humanitarian crisis, but also about containing chemical weapons.

“The situation we’re presented with is not a principally humanitarian interest,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication. “We have not turned to military action for a variety of reasons in Syria, in part because we didn’t think military action would help the humanitarian situation.”

But Rhodes added that Obama, who has made restricting the spread of chemical and nuclear weapons a chief policy priority, assesses that taking action in Syria will also further his goal to limit the use of illicit weapons that pose a serious threat to U.S. national security interests.

Late Friday afternoon, the president walked around the South Lawn grounds with McDonough, a ritual of the restless chief of staff. Obama and his aides had spent a week discussing what to do, poring over gruesome intelligence gathered in the Damascus suburbs.

The president told McDonough, a Capitol Hill veteran, that he wanted Congress to draft new authorization of military force against the Syrian government and have the value and limitations of any military action put up for a vote on the merits.

Obama told McDonough two reasons for his approach to enlist Congress in any strike against Syria.

He wanted there to be political accountability — lawmakers from both parties, he believed, should be on the record in support or against the war.

Obama told advisers that congressional support, far from certain, given the animosity that extends the length of Pennsylvania Avenue, would ultimately strengthen support for the war and perhaps protect public opinion for a sustained operation.

The other reason? Unlike the U.S.-led military operation in Libya in 2011 — which was supported by the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League — the United States did not have the same level of international backing.

Obama’s proposal to invite Congress dominated the Friday discussion in the Oval Office. He had consulted almost no one about his idea. In the end, the president made clear he wanted Congress to share in the responsibility for what happens in Syria.

As one aide put it, “We don’t want them to have their cake and eat it, too.”

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