President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the red line he spoke of last year regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons came from international treaties and past congressional action, and he challenged the international community to join him in enforcing bans on such armaments.
In direct and confrontational remarks to reporters in Sweden, Obama laid out his rationale for wanting to attack Syria on the same day a Senate committee in Washington will vote on a proposed resolution authorizing limited U.S. military strikes.
He also insisted he had the authority to order attacks on Syria — expected to be cruise missile strikes on Syrian military command targets — even if Congress rejects his request for authorization.
America “recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws, governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time this world becomes less safe,” Obama said. “It becomes more dangerous not only for those people who are subjected to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity.”
He cited World War II as an example, saying “the people of Europe are certainly familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act.” At the same time, “as commander in chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security,” Obama said.
Conservative critics have said Obama painted himself into a corner with his statement last year that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was a red line that would change his approach to the civil war in the Middle Eastern country.
“A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said in August 2012. “That would change my calculus.”
Now, critics on the right say, he must respond to what U.S. officials call a major chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime that killed hundreds in suburban Damascus or lose credibility.
The administration and top congressional leaders pushed back against that criticism Tuesday during debate on Capitol Hill. Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said any president would have drawn that red line based on international norms.
Obama made that same argument Wednesday, saying: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”
“The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war,” he said at a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on the first day of a four-day trip that includes the G-20 summit in Russia.
“Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty,” Obama continued. “Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the “Syria Accountability Act” that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.”
Asked about whether he was seeking to save face, Obama insisted that “my credibility is not on the line — the international community’s credibility is on the line.”
He framed the question for the United Nations and the global community at large as: “Are we going to try to find a reason not to act? And if that’s the case, then I think the (world) community should admit it.”
Opposition by Russia, a Syrian ally, has scuttled U.S. and British efforts to get the U.N. Security Council to authorize a military response against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
U.N. inspectors returned from Syria last week from their mission to confirm if chemical weapons were used, but Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday it would take three weeks for samples collected to analyzed and results announced.
“I respect the U.N. process,” Obama said while standing next to Reinfeldt, who opposes military intervention without U.N. approval.
“We agree that the international community cannot be silent,” Obama added, saying also that the U.N. investigators had done “heroic work.”
Noting the U.N. team’s mandate was only to determine the use of chemical weapons, and not identify who used them, Obama repeated past statements that U.S. intelligence has confirmed chemical weapons use beyond any reasonable doubt and has further confirmed that al-Assad’s regime “was the source.”
“I do think that we have to act, because if we don’t, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue resolutions and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity,” Obama said.
International norms then “begin to erode,” he added, and “other despots and authoritarian regimes can start looking and say, ‘that’s something we can get away with.'”
He described the intended U.S. response as “limited in time and in scope, targeted at the specific task of degrading (al-Assad’s) capabilities, and deterring the use of those weapons, again.”
Later Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to consider a revised resolution to set a 60-day deadline for use of force in Syria, with an option for an additional 30 days.
The United Nations has said more than 100,000 people — including many civilians — have been killed since the popular uprising spiraled into a civil war in 2011.
On Tuesday, top U.S. officials faced tough questions from senators about plans for attacking Syria as House leaders lined up behind Obama’s push for a military response.
Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, later said he and the committee’s ranking Republican, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, successfully negotiated a revised resolution authorizing military strikes.
According to a copy of that text, provided by a legislative source, the measure puts a time limit on the authorization and makes clear there would be no U.S. boots on the ground.
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate panel to press for approval of authorization.
Obama isn’t asking the United States to go to war, but to “degrade and deter” the capacity of al-Assad’s regime to launch another chemical attack, Kerry said.
However, senators on the panel wondered if giving the administration the green light to attack Syria would draw the United States into that country’s civil war.
“Americans are understandably weary after the fiasco in Iraq and over a decade of war,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico. “How can this administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited? How can we guarantee that one surgical strike will have any impact other than to tighten the vise grip that Assad has on his power, or allow rebels allied with al Qaeda to gain a stronger foothold in Syria?”
Kerry said the administration has no intention of sending American ground troops to Syria “with respect to the civil war.” But he opposed any effort to put a ban on deploying ground forces into a congressional resolution authorizing military action, leaving open the possibility that U.S. troops may have to seize chemical weapons “in the event Syria imploded” or if extremist groups were poised to obtain them.
The session was interrupted early on by a member of the anti-war group Code Pink, who shouted “The American people do not want this” as she was dragged out of the room by police.
Kerry first became famous decades ago as a former Navy officer testifying against the war in Vietnam in front of the same committee. He responded to the Code Pink protest by saying that “Congress will represent the American people, and I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view.”
Earlier Tuesday, the leaders of both parties in the House of Representatives emerged from a White House meeting to support Obama’s call for American strikes.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters the use of poison gas was “a barbarous act” to which only the United States is capable of responding. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, added that Washington must respond to actions “outside the circle of civilized human behavior.”
In a written statement later, Boehner said it is up to Obama “to make his case to the American people and their elected representatives” — including securing support from individual members.
“All votes authorizing the use of military force are conscience votes for members, and passage will require direct, continuous engagement from the White House,” the speaker said.
Most of the focus of administration lobbying has been on the House, which returns from its summer recess on Monday.
In the Senate, a Democratic source familiar with Majority Leader Harry Reid’s thinking said that Reid is confident any authorization measure will pass his chamber. The source said it is likely 60 votes will be needed to overcome a filibuster, and Reid thinks the votes are there.
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