Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the case for a unilateral U.S. military response to last week's chemical attack in Syria in stark terms, telling the American people that the evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces conducted the chemical attack is "clear and compelling."
Even though he said the Obama administration is still deeply committed to gathering international support, Kerry said the U.S. would make a decision about its response on its own terms.
“The United States makes our own decisions on our timelines based on our own values and our own interests,” he said.
President Obama later told reporters that he had not made a decision but was considering a “limited, narrow act.”
“We're not considering any open-ended commitment,” he told reporters after a meeting with leaders in Estonia and Latvia. “We're not considering any boots on the ground approach.”
“We have consulted with allies. We have consulted with Congress,” Obama added.
In his remarks, Kerry acknowledged that the American public is war-weary after spending most of the last decade engaged in two wars in the Middle East, but he argued that the United States still has a duty to stand up against horrific breaches of international norms.
“Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility,” he said.
Exhorting the American people and dissenters in the international community to get behind any U.S. military action, Kerry said it is time to let Assad know that his unconscionable and indiscriminate gassing of his own people will not stand.
“So the primary question is no longer, what do we know,” he said. “The question is what are we, collectively, what are we in the world going to do about it?
As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way,” he said. “History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference and especially against silence when it mattered most.
Our choices then in history had great consequences, and our choice today has great consequences,” he continued.
In an attempt to quell fears about an Iraq redux based on faulty intelligence, Kerry unequivocally stated that the administration would not repeat the mistake of starting a long war based on mistaken evidence about weapons of mass destruction.
“We will not repeat the Iraq moment ...,” he said. “Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify information so people can judge for themselves.”
Kerry’s statement was his second major public address of the week, and while he was speaking the White House released an intelligence assessment of the evidence against the Assad regime. Among the findings: 1,429 people were killed in the Aug. 21 attack and the U.S. asserts that the rockets carrying chemical weapons came only to regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled neighborhoods.
“I'm not asking you to take my word for it,” he said. “Read for yourself, everyone, those listening, all of you ... the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available, and read for yourselves the verdict reached by our intelligence community about the chemical weapons attack the Assad regime inflicted on the opposition.”
The Obama administration's public case for action in Syria comes after the British Parliament on Thursday evening voted down a resolution that called for military action. But France is still ready to take action in Syria alongside the U.S. French President Hollande told Le Monde newspaper a strike within days could not be ruled out and he would support it.
President Obama spent Friday morning huddled with his National Security Council to “discuss the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime on Aug. 21,” a senior administration official told the Washington Examiner.
The U.S. will continue to seek a coalition, but may Obma is reserving his right to act without broad support from allies and without a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force. The U.N. is investigating clams that the Syrian forces used chemical weapons, which Assad vehemently denies.
U.N. chemical weapons inspectors continued to collect evidence outside Damascus but the Syrian government has limited their movements. The whole inspection team plans to leave Syria by Saturday. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the inspectors will then brief him on their preliminary findings.
Members of Obama's national security team consulted Congress during a 90-minute conference call Thursday night. After Kerry's remarks today, a spokesman for Speaker Boehner, R-Ohio, said more Congressional consultation is required before Obama acts.
As we have said, if the president believes this information makes a military response imperative, it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action. We – and the American people – look forward to more answers from the White House,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.
If he decides to launch a strike into Syria, he also will be rejecting the public opinion at home, where half of all Americans oppose any type of military reprisal for Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own citizens last week.
A new NBC News poll found that nearly half of all Americans wouldn’t support military action against the Syrian government, and nearly 80 percent want Obama to win approval from Congress before acting.
The poll also shows little public approval for Obama’s handling of Syria in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack that killed an estimated 1,400 Syrian civilians and injured hundreds more. Only 35 percent said they approve of the way Obama has handled the thorny foreign policy challenge.
The good news for Obama is that the same poll shows that about half of Americans would support a more limited military action to punish Assad like a cruise-missile strike from U.S. naval ships targeting Syrian military units and the infrastructure in place to carry out chemical attacks.
In addition, six in 10 Americans support Obama making good on his red line threat last year. If Assad is proven to have used chemical weapons, the U.S. should have a significant response and that response should include possible military action.
The poll demonstrates just how divided Americans are over another military mission, with only a fifth saying military action is in the U.S. national interest, and only 27 percent saying they believe a military strike would improve the situation in Syria.
If Obama launches a military strike, 56 percent said the goal should be to deter any further chemical weapons attacks, but 16 percent said the U.S. should go much further and remove Assad, end the civil war and try to transition the government to democracy.
Overall, the poll showed that the Syria issue has dealt a body blow to Obama’s approval numbers, which dropped to 44 percent, his lowest since November 2011.