Carrying limited backing from Republicans at home, President Barack Obama traveled to Europe on Wednesday and declared that punishing Syria for using chemical weapons was a matter of upholding the credibility of the world.
The president landed in Stockholm and, at a press conference with the Swedish prime minister, outlined the administration’s case for action.
“I didn’t set a red line — the world set a red line,” Obama said, responding to a question about his saying last year that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” that would change his thinking.
“The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important,” he added. “And when those videos first broke and you saw images of over 400 children subjected to gas, everybody expressed outrage. How can this happen in this modern world? Well, it happened because a government chose to deploy these deadly weapons on civilian populations.”
Obama appeared at risk of losing the support of a critical Republican ally, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He told NBC News that he would not back a draft of a Senate resolution authorizing force against Syria because it does not address “changing the momentum on the battlefield” and arming rebels who have fought the Syrian government for more than two years.
The leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed Tuesday on the draft. A vote could come as early as next week.
Asked Wednesday in Sweden whether he would strike Syria even if Congress votes down a resolution authorizing military force, Obama said: “I believe that Congress will approve it.”
He added: “I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress, but I did not take this to Congress just because it’s an empty exercise. I think it’s important to have Congress’ support on it.”
The president said he was mindful that memories of the Iraq war were fresh, particularly in Europe.
“Keep in mind I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq, and am not interested in repeating mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence,” he said. “But having done a thoroughgoing evaluation of the information that is currently available, I can say with high confidence that chemical weapons were used.”
On Tuesday, some Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, lent their support to a limited attack on the Syrian government for using poison gas against rebels outside the Syrian capital Aug. 21.
The resolution would limit American involvement to two months, with a possible one-month extension, and would bar the use of ground forces. The administration has said punishing Syria would not mean putting “boots on the ground.”
“The president is not asking you to go to war,” Secretary of State John Kerry told Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and a skeptic of a Syria strike, during a hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
Kerry and other administration officials will testify before the Senate committee again Wednesday in session closed to the public. They will also appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Obama on Thursday heads for Russia for a summit of the so-called Group of 20 economic powers. President Vladimir Putin, in something of a surprise, gave an interview in which he did not rule out military action against Syria.
Putin, in an interview with The Associated Press, said that Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a United Nations resolution on a strike — if it is proved that the Syrian regime indeed used poison gas on its people.
The United States says it has incontrovertible proof that Syrian leader Bashar Assad gassed more than 1,400 people in a rebel-held neighborhood.
But Putin said that it seems “absolutely absurd” that Syria, an ally of Russia, would use chemical weapons. Syria has the upper hand against the rebels, Putin said, and Syria knows that using chemicals would trigger an international response, perhaps forceful.
Further, Putin said Wednesday that Congress had no right to “legitimize aggression” against Syria, and accused Kerry of lying to Congress about al Qaeda’s role in the conflict, Reuters reported.
Foreign affairs analysts have said that Russia and China, both of which hold veto power as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, would block any American effort to secure U.N. support for a strike.
And in Britain, a fierce ally of the United States, Parliament rejected military involvement last week, a rebuke to Prime Minister David Cameron.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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First published September 4 2013, 9:02 AM