While saying he sympathizes with current public distaste for more war, President Obama on Friday made the case that the U.S. must live up to its global responsibilities, and for the first time raised the possibility that additional military action — beyond what's on the table now — may be necessary if Syrian President Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons again.
Mr. Obama made the comments at a press conference in Saint Petersburg, Russia, just hours before he departs the G-20 Summit and returns to Washington without achieving the international consensus on Syria that he'd hoped.
In blunt terms, the president also cast himself as a man who seeks peace but has been thrust into the position of involving the U.S. into another Middle East conflict.
Not doing so, he said, would carry grave consequences not just for America, but for the entire world.
"I was elected to end wars, not start them," he said. "I spent the last four-and-a-half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power as a means of meeting our international obligations and protecting the American people. But what I also know is that there are times when we have to make hard choice if we're going to stand up for the things we care about. I believe this is one of those times."
Mr. Obama spent much of the G-20 gathering of industrial and leading developing nations trying to rally support for action in Syria, but efforts to build a grand international coalition have failed. Any action by the United Nations surely will be blocked by Russia, and while Mr. Obama said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in a private "full airing of views" on Syria, the two men still are far apart on how the global community should proceed.
Meanwhile, the White House continues to stress that any action against the Assad government would be "limited," both in time and scope.
But for the first time, Mr. Obama on Friday spoke of how the U.S. would further involve itself in the Syrian conflict if Mr. Assad deploys chemical weapons again.
"I think, at that point, mobilizing the international community would be easier, not harder," Mr. Obama said. "I think it would be pretty hard for the United Nations Security Council to resist the requirement for action, and we would gladly join with an international coalition to make sure it stops."
Mr. Obama will address the nation on Tuesday from the White House, a last-ditch attempt to convince lawmakers and the American people that action is necessary. Both the House and Senate are expected to vote next week on resolutions authorizing military force against the Assad regime.
He conceded that efforts to pass those measures will continue to be a "heavy lift," adding that he expects significant resistance from within his own party and among his supporters because they "remember that I opposed the war in Iraq."
While in Saint Petersburg, however, the president focused most of his comments on the U.S. role in the world — a role that the nation may not always enjoy, he said, but one that Americans must accept.
"If we're just issuing another statement of condemnation, if we're passing resolutions saying, 'Wasn't that terrible?', if people who decry international inaction in Rwanda and say how terrible it is that there are these human rights violations around the world, and why aren't we doing something about it — they always look to the United States," Mr. Obama said.
The president also disputed recent reports that he's ordered military leaders to expand the list of Syrian targets, calling that claim "inaccurate" but declining to further discuss the "operational issues" of a potential American strike.
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