Making his most passionate plea to date for military strikes in Syria, President Obama on Wednesday said the credibility of the United States — and that of the international community as a whole — is on the line, and a failure to act against the regime of Bashar Assad will embolden war criminals, dictators and despots for years to come.
Speaking at a press conference in Stockholm, Mr. Obama said he believes Congress ultimately will approve action against Mr. Assad’s government, which U.S. intelligence officials have concluded has used chemical weapons against its own people repeatedly in the country’s ongoing civil war.
Although Mr. Obama explicitly cited the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “red line” for him in April, he argued in Sweden that the original red line was laid down by the world community, not by him, in its past treaties and bans on the use of chemical weapons.
“The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America’s and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important,” Mr. Obama said, with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt alongside him. “I do think 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 and those international norms begin to erode and other despots and authoritarian regimes can start looking and saying, ‘That’s something we can get away with.’”
He also admonished other world leaders to “admit it” if they’re looking for a way to avoid taking action.
“Are we going to try to find a reason not to act? If that’s the case, I think the world community should admit it,” Mr. Obama said. “You can always find a reason not act.”
While much of the press conference focused specifically on Syria, Mr. Obama also was asked the bigger-picture question of how he’s reconciling his calls for military strikes with the fact that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 — an award he told reporters he felt “unworthy” of when compared to past recipients.
Speaking deliberately, Mr. Obama described how the Syrian conflict is just the latest example of “the challenge all of us face when we believe in peace but we confront a world that is full of violence.”
“The question that all of us face, not just me, our citizens face, not just political leaders [is]: At what point do we say we need to confront actions that are violating our common humanity? I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas … the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing,” Mr. Obama said. “But it’s difficult. This is the part of my job that I find most challenging. I would much rather be talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education than I would spending time thinking about how can I prevent 3- and 4-year-olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas.”
Mr. Reinfeldt agreed that action must be taken against the Assad government, but he said that the United Nations must lead the charge. In fact, when pressed by an American reporter, he made clear that Sweden — regardless of what the U.S. decides to do — will follow the lead of the U.N.
“Just to remind you: You are now in Sweden, a small country with a deep belief in the United Nations,” he said, adding that he believes that before making any final decisions, it is best to wait for a full report from U.N. inspectors who investigated chemical weapons use in the Syrian conflict.
But any action by the U.N. looks unlikely, with Russia already having blocked a Security Council resolution that simply condemned the sarin gas attacks without even assigning blame.
Any military action or resolution carrying real consequences surely would be blocked by Russia, a key ally of Mr. Assad’s, and possibly by China as well.
With the British Parliament having already rejected military intervention, it appears the U.S. once again will do the heavy lifting in a Middle Eastern conflict.
Before any action is taken, intervention will be voted on in Congress; that process could begin as early as Wednesday.
A key Senate panel is expected to soon vote on a new resolution authorizing military force but also establishing a 90-day timetable for action and explicitly prohibiting any American ground troops in Syria. A similar proposal is being discussed in the House.