Politics

September 4, 2013

Obama: 'I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line'

As the president made his case overseas during a visit to Sweden, his appeal for military intervention in Syria ran into trouble on Capitol Hill.

By Bradley Klapper and Julie Pace / The Associated Press

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U.S. President Barack Obama fields questions during a press conference with the Swedish prime minister at the chancellery Rosenbad in Stockholm, Sweden, on Wednesday.

AP

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"I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line," he said. "The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of world population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent." He added that "Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top members drafted a resolution late Tuesday that permits Obama to order a "limited and tailored" military mission against Syria, as long as it doesn't exceed 90 days and involves no American troops on the ground for combat operations.

"We have pursued a course of action that gives the president the authority he needs to deploy force in response to the Assad regime's criminal use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, while assuring that the authorization is narrow and focused," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who drafted the measure with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel's senior Republican.

"We have an obligation to act, not witness and watch while a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in plain view," Menendez said.

Asked whether he would take action against Syria if he fails to get approval from Congress, the president said his request to lawmakers was not "an empty exercise," but that as commander in chief, "I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security."

To get a green light from Congress, Obama needs to persuade a Republican-dominated House that has opposed almost the entirety of Obama's agenda since seizing the majority more than three years ago. Several conservative Republicans and some anti-war Democrats already have come out in opposition to Obama's plans, even as Republican and Democratic House leaders gave their support to the president Tuesday.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Cal., said that while it would be important to deter the use of chemical weapons by Assad and others, there remained many unanswered questions, including what the U.S. would do if Assad retaliated to an American attack.

"The administration's Syria policy doesn't build confidence," Royce said in his prepared remarks.

The audience at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing included several people wearing signs opposing U.S. action against Syria and who had colored the palms of their hands red.

House Speaker John Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and declared that the U.S. has "enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary."

Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, also backed action. But he acknowledged the split positions among both parties and said it was up to Obama to "make the case to Congress and to the American people that this is the right course of action."

Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, made that argument before the House Foreign Affairs panel. They and other senior administration officials also provided classified briefings to the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.

In prepared testimony for the House committee, Kerry told lawmakers that "the world is watching not just to see what we decide. It is watching to see how we make this decision — whether in this dangerous world we can still make our government speak with one voice." Hagel, in his prepared text, seconded Obama's warnings about the potential scope of danger from failing to uphold international standards, saying "a refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments — including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."

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