- September 4, 2013, 11:15 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt at the chancellery in Stockholm, September 4, 2013.
In a press conference in Sweden on Wednesday, President Barack Obama said he retains the right to launch strikes against Syria even if the Congress doesn’t authorize them, but is seeking approval from U.S. lawmakers because he thinks it will strengthen America’s response. He also answered questions on “red lines,” Russia and America’s credibility. Here are his comments on key themes as provided byFederal News Service (www.fednews.com).
On “red lines” and chemical weapons
I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.
Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that — in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.
And so when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it
On American credibility
[M]y credibility’s not on the line. 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. And when those videos first broke and you saw images of over 400 children subjected to gas, everybody expressed outrage. How can this happen in this modern world? Well, it happened because a government chose to deploy these deadly weapons on civilian populations.
And so the question is how credible is the international community when it says this is an international norm that has to be observed? The question is how credible is Congress when it passes a treaty saying we have to forbid the use of chemical weapons? And I do think that 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, and that then calls into question other international norms and laws of war and whether those are going to be enforced.
On Congress’s approval of Syria attack authorization
[W]hat happens if Congress doesn’t approve it? I believe that Congress will approve it. I believe Congress will approve it because I think America recognizes that, as difficult as it is to take any military action — even one as limited as we’re talking about — even one without boots on the ground — that’s a sober decision. But I think America also recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards and laws governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time, this world becomes less safe.
It becomes more dangerous, not only for those people who are subjected to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity. And we’ve seen that happen again and again in our history. And the people of Europe are certainly familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act.
And I would not have taken this before Congress just as a symbolic gesture. I think it’s very important that Congress say that we mean what we say. And I think we will be stronger as a country in our response if the president and Congress does it together. As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security. I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress, but I did not take this to Congress just because it’s an empty exercise. I think it’s important to have Congress’ support on it.
On being a Nobel Peace Prize winner now calling for an attack:
I’ve made every effort to end the war in Iraq, to wind down the war in Afghanistan, to strengthen our commitment to multilateral action, to promote diplomacy as the solution to problems. The question, though, 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? And I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas, over 1,400 innocent civilians dying senselessly in an environment in which you already have tens of thousands dying, and we have the opportunity to take some action that is meaningful, even if it doesn’t solve the entire problem, may at least mitigate this particular problem, then the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.
But it’s difficult.
.. [A]s president of the United States, I can’t avoid those questions because as — as much as we are criticized, when bad stuff happens around the world, the first question is what is the United States going to do about it? That’s true on every — every issue. It’s true in Libya. It’s true in Rwanda. It’s true in Sierra Leone. It’s now true in Syria. That’s part of the deal.
On U.S. relationship with Russia:
Now, there’s no doubt that, as I indicated a while back, we’ve kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress. But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues. And where our interests overlap, we should pursue common action.
Where we got differences, we should be candid about them, try to manage those differences but not sugar-coat them.
One area where we got a significant difference right now is the situation in Syria. Russia has a long-standing relationship with the Assad regime. And as a consequence, it has been very difficult to get Russia working through the Security Council to take knowledge the — some of the terrible behavior of the Assad regime and to try to push towards the kind of political transition that’s needed in order to stabilize Syria.
And I’ve said to Mr. Putin directly, and I continue to believe, that even if you have great concerns about elements in the opposition — and we’ve got some concerns about certain elements of the opposition, like al-Nusra — and even if you’re concerned about the territorial integrity of Syria — and we’re concerned about the territorial integrity of Syria — if you, in fact, want to end the violence and slaughter inside of Syria, then you’re going to have to have a political transition because it is not possible for Mr. Assad to regain legitimacy in a country where he’s killed tens of thousands of his own people. That will not happen. So far, at least, Mr. Putin has rejected that logic. …
And you know, do I hold out hope that Mr. Putin may change his position on some of these issues? I’m always hopeful and I will continue to engage him because I think that international action would be much more effective and, ultimately, we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach to these problems.