Seeking to enlist more global partners for a U.S. military strike against Syria, President Obama on Wednesday found himself in a fresh debate over whether he was backing away from his own “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
After strongly criticizing the foreign policy of President George W. Bush, Mr. Obama suddenly finds himself in a position similar to that of his predecessor: potentially leading a largely isolated U.S., minus many of its key allies and against the will of other countries and of the United Nations, into armed conflict in the Middle East.
But Mr. Obama’s effort Wednesday to press other nations to join the campaign against Syria brought more controversy as the president denied that his own credibility was on the line in the crisis and insisted that it was the international community — not him — that first laid down the “red line” marker over chemical weapons. During an August 2012 White House press briefing, Mr. Obama famously declared that the deployment of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be his personal “red line” that would “change my calculus” on direct U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war.
But at a news conference alongside Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt during a brief visit to Stockholm, Mr. Obama contended, “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line.”
He fiercely rejected the notion that his credibility was at stake in the Syria debate and instead tried to saddle the rest of the world — and U.S. lawmakers — with the blame if the Assad regime gets away with what U.S. intelligence agents have concluded is the use of sarin gas against his own people.
“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,” Mr. Obama said at the news conference a day before heading to Russia to attend the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg.
“I do think we have to act,” he said. “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.’”
The president’s rhetorical swerve provoked an immediate and sharp response from conservatives and from critics of his drawn-out strategy for confronting the Syria crisis.
Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh called the president’s red line parsing “Clintonesque,” adding, “If we didn’t draw the red line, what the hell are we doing voting on the use of force?”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, told Politico that Mr. Obama “needs to go back and read his own quote.”
The online and media pushback was so intense that White House officials mobilized during the day to insist that Mr. Obama was not contradicting himself or trying to duck responsibility.
“The president’s exactly right — there’s a red line going back 100 years,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser Antony J. Blinken told Fox News, citing the international accord after World War I to bar the use of chemical weapons. Congress, Mr. Blinken argued, implicitly laid down its own red line by ratifying a treaty against chemical weapons and passing the 2004 Syria Accountability Act calling in part for a halt to Syria’s weapons of mass destruction programs.
For a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president who came into office in 2009 determined not to follow in the foreign policy footsteps of Mr. Bush, Wednesday’s comments represented a last-ditch attempt by Mr. Obama to muster multilateral support for a Syrian strike. The pushback he has received from the United Nations and other nations, urging the U.S. to avoid action that lacks global support, is yet another reminder that his lofty campaign rhetoric and desire to build international bridges have crashed head-on with the realities of occupying the Oval Office.
“Here we have a situation where the rubber meets the road with respect to the president’s commitment to international laws and rules versus wanting to do things abroad. When forced to confront a situation where there’s no international alliance, he still thinks it’s wise to act,” said Benjamin Friedman, a fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute. “Values compete. The president wants to do things multilaterally. But he has another value that he wants to enforce red lines, the norms against using chemical weapons.”
Mr. Obama acknowledges, as he did again Wednesday, that his desire for international partnerships and global peace sometimes is outweighed by the need to respond quickly to brutal acts of dictators and despots.
“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,” he said. “This is the part of my job that I find most challenging. I would much rather be talking 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.”
He told other world leaders that they should “admit it” if they are looking for an excuse not to act against Mr. Assad.
But just moments later, he was reminded by his Swedish host how hard it will be to recruit partners, even in the face of dead children in the streets of Syria.
“This small country will always say, ‘Let’s put our hope in the United Nations,’” Mr. Reinfeldt said, echoing the sentiments of U.N. leaders who have cautioned against America going it alone.
While France and a few other nations appear willing to contribute, other key allies do not. Great Britain is unlikely to join in the effort after Parliament last week voted down military action.
When he arrives in St. Petersburg, Mr. Obama surely will face resistance from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nation has blocked U.N. resolutions that simply condemn the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Russia’s position makes it all but certain that the U.N. Security Council will not authorize any action in Syria, although Mr. Putin, in an interview with The Associated Press, hinted that the door wasn’t entirely closed for action against Moscow’s longtime ally.
In the AP interview, the Russian leader warned against taking unilateral action in Syria but also said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes — if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people.
Mr. Obama’s talk of coalition building, analysts say, is important given the president’s statements on the issue. But in terms of military reality, the U.S. is more than able to carry out retribution against Mr. Assad’s government and doesn’t necessarily need help.
“From a military perspective, I don’t think it matters much given the mission we’ve heard about,” Mr. Friedman said.