STOCKHOLM – President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the “red line” he described last August was an international norm rather than a personal belief about the need for retaliatory action if Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in that country’s civil war.
“I didn't set a red line,” Obama said during a press conference in Stockholm. “The world set a red line.”
During an appearance with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, the president continued to mount a forceful defense of the need to act in Syria in light of reports that the Syrian regime used sarin gas on civilians, resulting in over a thousand deaths.
“My credibility is not on the line,” said the president, who on Saturday announced that he will seek congressional approval for the use of force against the Assad regime. “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 idea that these international norms are important.”
His comments come as the Senate continues to hold hearings today on whether to authorize the use of military force.
The president would not say directly whether or not he would go ahead with targeted strikes even if Congress votes down authorization, maintaining that he’s confident that he will win the votes slated for next week.
“As commander in chief I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security,” 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’s support on it.”
Obama's statement Wednesday offered a new defense of his use of the "red line" term, coming as his opponents continue to criticize him for laying out the marker last year.
Critics have said that Obama’s use of the phrase “red line” last year to describe the U.S. response to possible chemical weapons use was a strategic mistake that forced the administration into taking action in Syria merely to save face.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said during a press conference last year. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Reiterating that he believes “we have to act," Obama pushed back on the idea that the world should wait for the United Nations investigation to conclude – an area of disagreement between Obama and Reinfeldt.
“When I said that I have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that the Assad government, through their chain of command, ordered their use, that was based on public sourcing, intercepts, evidence that we feel very confident about,” Obama said.
Acknowledging Americans’ concerns about engaging in another conflict far from U.S. shores, the president said that he would prefer to be focused on questions of domestic policy.
“But frankly, as president of the United States, I can’t avoid those questions because as much as we are criticized, when bad stuff happens around the world, the first question is ‘what is the United States going to do about it?’” he said.
Carrie Dann contributed to this report.