Many In Washington Were Surprised By Obama's Syria Decision

President Obama on Saturday announced that he would wait on military action against Syria until members of Congress could vote on the resolution. Congress still has a week to go before its recess ends and lawmakers can discuss the matter.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the president's decision to wait until Congress could vote on military action caught Syrians by surprise, much of the world by surprise, even Washington by surprise.

Joining us as she does most Mondays is Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Welcome back.

INSKEEP: Thank you, delighted to be back, delighted to be talking with you. Now, I wondered after the president's surprise announcement, Cokie, if all that hard talk of war in the days beforehand was actually the sound of the administration trying to convince itself that it wanted to go through with these strikes and in the end the president wasn't quite convinced.

ROBERTS: Well, I'm not sure about that. I suspect that one of the people most surprised on Saturday when the president said he was going to go to Congress was the secretary of State, who had come out on Friday, of course, saying that action was imminent and necessary. And then the good soldier that he is, he went out yesterday on five, count them, five Sunday talk shows to make the case for the administration.

Apparently the president was somewhat taken aback by the vote in the British parliament. After all, that's a parliamentary system where the prime minister usually gets what he wants, but the British parliament saying no to any action. And then an NBC poll where 80 percent of the people said go to Congress, that that would be a better way to go before going to war.

And the Congress has been carping and so now the ball is in their court.

INSKEEP: So if it works, if the president gets the vote that he wants, what does it accomplish?

ROBERTS: Well, it shares the responsibility, it brings elected officials along and with any luck, from his perspective, that brings along their constituents. It also means the Congress can't just sit there and criticize him, that they have to take a stand. Now, of course some, like Senator John McCain, is critical of that, saying the president should just act, and others, like Senator Saxby Chambliss, yesterday said it makes the president look very weak.

Now, at some point, though, they have to just stop talking and vote, and I think that that is something that the president thinks is probably a good thing for him.

INSKEEP: Well, you realize this is supposed to be a solemn moment for Congress, a solemn responsibility, decisions about war and peace, but the very reason that presidents maybe don't always go to Congress is they're not sure that they can trust Congress to do as they hope it will. So is Congress up to this?

ROBERTS: Well, particularly this president and this Congress, where they have been at swords points all along. But generally, Steve, these debates are very serious things. Congress does rise to the occasion. We certainly saw that in the debate over the first Persian Gulf War. But the question is whether that can be true with this Congress. At that point there were World War II vets weighing in with very strong voices of authority and experience.

Now there's no one like that in this Congress, so I think it's going to really be a test of the institution to see how they handle this debate, whether they really do show a seriousness of purpose. Now, yesterday, over Labor Day weekend, dozens of them did come back for a briefing, and so I think that that did show a certain degree of willingness to take this quite seriously. That's the good news for the president.

The bad news is, is that many of those members emerged from the briefing very skeptical and saying that the resolution that the White House sent up to Congress has to be rewritten, that it's too open-ended.

INSKEEP: What if Congress votes no?

ROBERTS: If Congress votes no, it's a big problem for the president. Now, he says he can still go ahead with any action against Syria, but it really does put his second term in terrible shape. It means that he is very much weakened, both in foreign policy and at home.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much as always. That's Cokie Roberts, who joins us on Monday mornings here on MORNING EDITION.

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