Obama: International community's credibility is on the line in Syria

President Obama took his case for intervention in Syria to the foreign stage on Wednesday, telling a Swedish audience - and a broader European community that has largely resisted American calls for support - that the "international community's credibility is on the line" as it decides how to respond to evidence that the Syrian government, under President Bashar al Assad, used chemical weapons to kill over 1,400 civilians.

Where the use of such weapons is concerned, Mr. Obama said, "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

And the question the world faces, Mr. Obama said, is "Are we going to find a reason not to act? And if that's the case, I think the world community should admit it."

The president repeatedly stressed that the American intelligence community has "high confidence" that the chemical weapons attack on August 21 in a suburb of Damascus was perpetrated by the regime, reiterating much of the evidence his administration has presented to Congress and the American people.

As he has before domestic audiences, the president sought to demarcate the debate over Syrian engagement from the prior debate over the war in Iraq, which was attended by faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction.

"Here in Europe, in particular, there are still memories of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction accusations and people being concerned about how accurate this information is," he explained. But based on a "thoroughgoing evaluation" of the available evidence, he said, there is little doubt that Assad's regime was responsible for the August 21 chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus.

He stressed that virtually nobody - not Syria, not Iran - questions whether chemical weapons were used, saying the only remaining question is who used them. And the preponderance of evidence, he said, points to the Syrian government.

"Keep in mind I'm somebody who opposed the war in Iraq," he said. "I'm not interested in repeating mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence."

"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," he said.

He even alluded to the European community's failure to contain the rise of Nazi Germany before World War II - and the human tragedy of the Holocaust that resulted - as a lesson in the perils of disengagement: "The people of Europe are certainly familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act."

He said that he is "respectful" of the United Nations investigation of the chemical weapons attack, but he noted that the U.N.'s purview was limited to determining whether an attack had occurred, not who was responsible.

To the Russians - close allies of Syria who have stymied United Nations efforts to contain the civil war - he said that he shares their concerns about the terrorist elements among the Syrian opposition and Syria's territorial integrity.

But even given those concerns, he stressed the need for a "political transition" that ousts the regime, saying it's "not possible for Assad to regain legitimacy" after he's slaughtered so many of his own people.

As he has before, the president reserved the right to act unilaterally even if Congress votes against the authorization of the use of force. A draft resolution is currently making its way through both houses of Congress. Several important leaders - including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. - have signaled their support, but the resolution still faces an uncertain future, its passage threatened by hawks who believe it does not go far enough and doves who are reluctant to intervene at all.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sits squarely in the hawks' camp, said Wednesday that he does not support the resolution "in its current form." The draft under consideration in the Senate prohibits the U.S. from putting boots on the ground in Syria and limits U.S. military action to 90 days from the date of passage. McCain is pushing for greater support for the rebels and a broader strategy to oust Assad, rather than just a punitive strike in response to the chemical attack.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is pushing members to support the draft resolution, saying, "We have an obligation to act, not witness and watch while a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in plain view."

  • Jake Miller

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