McDonough: 'Absolutely Understandable' Americans Oppose Striking Syria. But...

By Susan Jones | September 9, 2013 | 8:04 AM EDT

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spoke for President Obama on the Sunday talk shows, defending the president's case for U.S. intervention in Syria. (AP File Photo)

( - With the American public inclined to oppose U.S. military intervention in Syria, how will President Obama change minds when he addresses the nation Tuesday night?

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" that he wouldn't "front run" the president by previewing what he will say. But McDonough did say it's "absolutely understandable" that many Americans oppose a U.S. strike in Syria to make a point about the regime's use of chemical weapons.

"That's an absolutely understandable sentiment, given all the sacrifice and investment the United States has made and our Armed Forces have made for the last 11 and 12 years," McDonough said. That's why President Obama has called for a "limited, targeted, consequential action," he added.

"Let me tell you what this is not. This is not Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not Libya, a sustained military air campaign. This is not boots on the ground. This is a targeted effort to reinforce a prohibition that goes back nearly a hundred years, a prohibition that has benefited our troops greatly, by the way."

McDonough said several times that America's enemies are waiting to see what the United States will do:

"The risks of inaction, Chris, outweigh the risks of action. This is a person who has gone from using overwhelming conventional force to using napalm on children to now using chemical weapons to the tune -- with a scale and scope we have not seen in nearly three decades. And the question for Congress this week is simply that. They do not dispute the intelligence when we speak with them.

"The question then becomes, should there be consequence for this? The Iranians are going to watch that answer. The Syrians are going to watch that answer. Hezbollah is going to watch that answer. Many others are going to watch that answer."

Asked if President Obama will blame Congress for "any future atrocities" if Congress says no to a U.S. attack on Syria, McDonough refused to "pile hypothetical upon hypothetical."

"Now, we don't intend to have a loss in this vote. So any kind of hypothetical that extends from that position is one that I'm not going to engage in."

Wallace asked McDonough, "If the president goes to Congress and says that this is in our national security (interests) and Congress rejects him, if at the end of this process the president loses, doesn't he become a lame duck the next day?"

"No, well look, Chris, again, I'm -- the question before us right now is how do we make sure that there's consequences and how do we make sure that the Syrian government's held to account for what is the worst chemical attack in nearly three decades. Whatever the political ramifications of this debate are are something that maybe somebody else here, or you guys, will debate or somebody else will resolve.  We're approaching this question simply for the national security implications that it entails."

Wallace persisted: "But you don't think this will -- you don't think this would have an impact on the president's ability over the next four years -- three years to push his agenda as he faces a fight over the budget, as he faces a fight over the debt limit? Don't you think a defeat here is going to really endanger his presidency?"

"Chris, what endangers -- what endangers our national security today is one of the world's largest chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, one that unless that government is makes -- made to understand that the use of that dastardly weapon is beyond the pale and unless that government makes sure that it remains secure and therefore not proliferated and threatening our troops or our friends, that's the issue here. The politics is somebody else's concern. The president's not interested in the politics of this. The president's interested in making sure that our national security is protected. That's the question first and foremost for us."