President Obama remained fuzzy on whether he’ll strike at Bashar al-Assad without approval from Congress, telling reporters at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg that he won’t engage in “parlor games” before the whipping and final vote is done.
Insisting he’s not “itching for a military action,” the president also compared the current situation Americans face to the intervention questions posed by the blitzkrieg on Britain and the Rwandan genocide, noting that getting involved today “probably wouldn’t poll very well.”
Obama’s statement at the press conference focused on economic issues, yet “even as we focused on our shared prosperity — and although the primary task of the G-20 is to focus on our joint efforts to boost the global economy — we did also discuss a grave threat to our shared security: and that’s the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.”
He announced that he would directly make a case to the American people from the White House on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office hasn’t yet released the floor schedule for Monday. The Foreign Relations Committee sent an amended version of Obama’s use of force authorization to the full Senate in a 10-7-1 vote this week. It’s unknown yet if the bill has the 60 votes needed to overcome any procedural block.
Obama gave Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, “credit” for holding a dinner with member nations last night where “a full airing of views on the issue” was heard.
“Obviously, this is disputed by President Putin, but if you polled the leaders last night, I’m confident that you’d get a majority who said it is most likely, we are pretty confident, that the Assad regime used it,” he said. “Where there is a division has to do with the United Nations. You know, there are number a of countries that just as a matter of principle believe that if military action is to be taken, it needs to go through the U.N. Security Council.”
He stressed “I was elected to end wars, not start them.”
“I’ve 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,” the president continued. “…This is not convenient. This is not something that I think a lot of folks around the world, you know, find an appetizing set of choices.”
“You know, if people who, you know, decry international inaction in Rwanda and, you know, say how terrible it is that there are these human rights violations that take place around the world, then why aren’t we doing something about it? And they always look to the United States. Why isn’t the United States doing something about this? The most powerful nation on Earth. Why are you allowing these terrible things to happen?”
In 2009, President Clinton apologized to survivors in Kigali for doing nothing in 1994 to stop the slaughter of 800,000 people in the Rwandan genocide.
Obama theorized that after the UN inspectors’ report is complete, “it may be more difficult for Mr. Putin to maintain his current position about the evidence.”
“You know, and what I’ve tried to explain is, look, we may not solve the whole problem, but this particular problem of using chemical weapons on children, this one we might have an impact on and that’s worth acting on.… And that is something that can only come about I think if, as different as our perspectives may be, myself, Mr. Putin, and others, are willing to set aside those differences and put some pressure on the parties on the ground.”
Asked about growing opposition in Congress, Obama acknowledged he “knew this was going to be a heavy lift.” He disputed some members’ assertions that they’re coming out of administration briefings more skeptical of military action.
“I think that when they go through the classified briefings, they feel pretty confident that, in fact, chemical weapons were used and that the Assad regime used them,” he said. “Where you will see resistance is people being worried about a slippery slope and how effective a limited action might be.”
“…Now, is it possible that Assad doubles down in the face of our action and uses chemical weapons more widely? I suppose anything’s possible, but it wouldn’t be wise.”
Obama jabbed at lawmakers who have criticized him for ignoring Syria’s plight for the past two-and-a-half years and are planning to vote against the strike authorization. “And you’ll have to ask them exactly how they square that circle,” he said.
On moving forward without congressional approval: “I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate, because right now I’m working to get as much support as possible out of Congress.”
“I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism. I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States,” the president continued. “…There are very few countries who are going to go at us directly. I mean, we have to be vigilant, but our military is unmatched. Those countries that are large and powerful like Russia or China, you know, we have the kind of relationship with them where we’re not getting in conflicts of that sort.”
“So the kinds of national security threats that we’re going to confront, they’re terrorist threats. They’re failed states. They are the proliferation of deadly weapons. And in those circumstances, you know, a president’s going to have to make a series of decisions about which one of these threats, over the long term, starts making us less and less safe. And where we can work internationally, we should.”
Obama said bringing the measure before Congress also kept up the “sense of urgency” so people wouldn’t forget about Assad’s chemical weapons use.
“Frankly, if we weren’t talking about the need for an international response right now, this wouldn’t be what everybody would be asking about. You know, there would be some resolutions that were being proffered in the United Nations and usual hocus-pocus, but the world and the country would have moved on,” he said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters yesterday that briefings have indicated Assad used chemical weapons to smaller degrees at least 11 to 14 times before the Aug. 21 attack.
Pressed further on whether he’ll move without Congress, Obama promised “you’re not getting a direct response.”
“What I have said, and I will repeat, is that I put this before Congress for a reason. I think we will be more effective and stronger if, in fact, Congress authorizes this action. I’m not going to engage in parlor games now about whether or not it’s going to pass, when I’m talking substantively to Congress about why this is important and talking to American people about why this is important,” he said.
“And it’s conceivable that at the end of the day, I don’t persuade a majority of the American people that it’s the right thing to do. And then each member of Congress is gonna have to decide, if I think it’s the right thing to do for America’s national security and the world’s national security, then how do I vote?”
On negative constituent response reported by most lawmakers’ offices and polling against intervention in Syria, Obama noted “these kinds of actions are always unpopular, because they seem distant and removed.”
“I’m not drawing an analogy to World War II, other than to say when London was getting bombed, it was profoundly unpopular, both in Congress and around the country, to help the British,” the president said. “…You know, to bring the analogy closer to home, you know, the intervention in Kosovo, very unpopular. But ultimately I think it was the right thing to do, and the international community should be glad that it came together to do it.”
“When people say that it is — it is a terrible stain on all of us that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Rwanda, well imagine if Rwanda was going on right now. And we asked: Should we intervene in Rwanda? I think it’s fair to say that it probably wouldn’t poll real well. So, you know, typically when any kind of military action is popular, it’s because either there’s been a very clear, direct threat to us — 9/11. Or an administration uses various hooks to suggest that American interests were directly threatened, like in Panama or Grenada. And sometimes those hooks are more persuasive than others.”
Reminded that his deputy national security adviser said it’s not Obama’s intention to attack if Congress doesn’t approve, the president responded, “I don’t think that’s exactly what he said, but I think I’ve answered — I’ve answered the question.”
“I’m not itching for military action,” he added. “Recall that I have been criticized for the last couple of years by some of the folks who are now saying they would oppose these strikes, for not striking. And I think that I have a well-deserved reputation for taking very seriously and soberly the idea of military engagement.”