Obama to address Americans in bid for support for Syria airstrikes


McClatchy Washington Bureau

President Barack Obama won qualified support from allies Friday in his charge that Syria used chemical weapons against its people, but he walked away from a summit without expanding his coalition of explicit support for a military strike. Facing a divided country at home as well, Obama said he’d address the nation Tuesday to make his case as Congress weighs its approval.

Speaking at the end of a two-day economic conference overshadowed by his call to strike Syria, Obama said he’d “make the best case that I can” to a nation that polls show is widely opposed to military intervention.

“There are times where we have to make hard choices if we’re going to stand up for the things that we care about,” the president said. “And I believe that this is one of those times.”

He cast the regime’s “brazen use” of chemical weapons and the deaths of hundreds of children as a violation of international norms and said failure to act would empower other “rogue nations, authoritarian regimes and terrorist organizations” to develop and use weapons of mass destruction.

“The kind of world we live in, and our ability to deter this kind of outrageous behavior, is going to depend on the decisions that we make in the days ahead,” Obama said.

But the American president left the Group of 20 meeting of the leading rich and emerging economies without a strong mandate for military action, underscoring what he acknowledged would be a “heavy lift” to sell Congress and the public on a show of military force.

The White House issued a statement of support at the close of the summit from 10 U.S. allies – Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom – that said they backed “efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”

The statement didn’t mention military strikes and didn’t say the countries would join the U.S. militarily or monetarily. But a White House spokesman, speaking only on the condition of anonymity per White House policy, said the statement confirmed support for U.S. efforts to enforce the chemical weapons ban and that Obama “has been very clear about how he intends to do that, with tailored military action.”

Yet French President Francois Hollande, a key ally who met with Obama at the summit Friday, appeared to edge away, saying he’d wait for a United Nations investigation and a congressional vote before making a move.

And close ally Germany didn’t make the count, noted Heather Conley, a former State Department official who’s the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center.

“President Obama has a long slog ahead to build something beyond a coalition of the morally outraged,” Conley said.

Obama made no progress with the Syrian regime’s chief military and political supporter, Russian President Vladimir Putin, though the two talked for nearly 20 minutes at the summit, an unscheduled tete-a-tete that came even as Obama had scrapped a pre-summit meeting with Putin over mounting frustration with Moscow.

Obama characterized the meeting between the two as candid and constructive and said they’d agreed to keep working on a political solution to the Syrian crisis. The Russians have pinned the use of chemical weapons on the Syrian opposition, a charge the administration has dismissed.

Putin, at a news conference that preceded Obama’s by just minutes, called the conversation “very friendly,” but said the two “stuck to our guns.” He said Syria was the sole topic. The issue of Russia granting intelligence leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum wasn’t broached, he said.

Putin said that most countries at the summit didn’t back a military strike, and he listed India, Indonesia, China, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Italy as opponents, along with the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Obama said the leaders were unanimous that chemical weapons had been used and that a majority were “comfortable” with the U.S. conclusion that the Assad government was responsible.

He acknowledged that some countries were reluctant to act without a U.N. Security Council resolution. But with China and Russia blocking sanctions against Syria from their perches on the Security Council, Obama charged that the “international community is paralyzed” and that the U.S. needs to act.

With the U.N. gridlocked, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said diplomatic approaches had run their course with Assad and there was no alternative left but military action.

“We could try again to pursue economic sanctions, but even if Russia budged, would more asset freezes, travel bans and banking restrictions convince Assad not to use chemical weapons, when he has a pipeline to the resources of Hezbollah and Iran?” Samantha Power said. “Does anybody really believe that deploying the same approaches we have tried for the last year will suddenly be effective?”

Using force to punish and deter those who use chemical weapons is crucial not just in Syria, she said, but also across the globe.

“We cannot afford to signal to North Korea and Iran that the international community is unwilling to act to prevent proliferation or willing to tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction,” Power said. “If there are no consequences now for breaking the prohibition on chemical weapons, it will be harder to muster international consensus to ensure that Hezbollah and other terrorist groups are prevented from acquiring or using these weapons themselves.”

Before leaving St. Petersburg for home, Obama repeatedly declined to say whether he’d launch a military strike if Congress fails to authorize him to do so, at one point saying, “You’re not getting any direct response.”

Whether the president can win congressional approval is unknown. The Senate isn’t likely to take a test vote until Wednesday, and prospects remain uncertain, despite the cautious optimism of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that he has the votes. Vice President Joe Biden is to have dinner with a group of senators at his residence Sunday night.

The House of Representatives hasn’t announced its schedule yet, but the Senate is expected to vote first.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, endorsed the Tuesday speech, saying that “members of Congress represent the views of their constituents, and only a president can convince the public that military action is required.”

Added spokesman Brendan Buck, “We only hope this isn’t coming too late to make the difference.”

Congressional leaders have spent the week wrestling with the call for authorization, and Obama said he hoped they’d consider the situation beyond what they might be hearing from voters.

“Ultimately, you listen to your constituents, but you’ve also got to make some decisions about what you believe is right for America,” the president said.

He called reports that he was looking to expand the targets for a strike inaccurate, and said he was looking at a “limited, proportional strike” without military officials on the ground.

“Not some long, drawn-out affair,” he said. “Not without any risks, but with manageable risks.”

He said the U.S. had a particular responsibility to act. He cited past interventions that were unpopular at the time, from World War II to Kosovo.

“It’s tough, because people do look to the United States,” Obama said. “And the question for the American people is ‘Is that a responsibility that we’re willing to bear?’ ”

David Lightman and William Douglas contributed to this article from Washington..

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark

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