President Barack Obama will take his case for military strikes on Syria on Tuesday night to the American people in a prime-time address — but refused to say whether he'll act if he doesn't get the congressional go-ahead.
"I will make the best case that I can to the American people as well as to the international community to take necessary and appropriate action," Obama said on Friday in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the G-20 summit.
The president was asked multiple times what he would do if his fight to get Congress on board fails.
Each time, he declined a direct answer.
"Right now I am trying to get as much support as I can from Congress," he said.
The questions came after deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken indicated on NPR that the answer is likely no.
“The president, of course, has the authority to act. But it’s neither his desire, nor his intention, to use that authority absent Congress backing him,” Blinken said.
Blinken’s comments lent weight to a New York Times report published on 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.
A White House spokeswoman later seemed to dial back from Blinken and the Times report.
"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.
Blinken 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 he 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 percent 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 might 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.