President Obama gestures during a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on Sept. 4. (Frank Augstein / AP)
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WASHINGTON — In an impassioned appeal for support both at home and abroad, President Obama said Wednesday the credibility of the international community and Congress is on the line in the debate over how to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. As Obama made his case overseas, legislators on Capitol Hill debated whether a proposed resolution authorizing military force would shift the momentum after more than two years of Syrian civil war.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed its public meeting and remained huddled in private after Sen. John McCain, an outspoken advocate of intervention, said he did not support the latest version of the Senate resolution to authorize force. The Arizona Republican said he wants more than cruise missile strikes and other limited action.
On the other side of the debate, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he was not persuaded to support military action, saying the military has been “decimated” by budget cuts and “we’re just not in a position to take on any major confrontation.”
The Foreign Relations Committee’s public meeting on the resolution was delayed, but Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel’s senior Republican, said there was a “reasonable chance” of a consensus developing and senators proceeding to a vote.
Inhofe spoke as he emerged from a closed-door briefing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that lasted more than two hours.
Obama, asked in Sweden about his own past comments drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, said it was a line that had first been clearly drawn by countries around the world and by Congress, in ratifying a treaty that bans the use of chemical weapons.
“That wasn’t something I just kind of made up,” he said. “I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it.”
Obama said that if the world fails to act, it will send a message that despots and authoritarian regimes “can continue to act with impunity.”
“The moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing,” he declared at a news conference in Stockholm with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
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 he said that as commander in chief, “I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security.”
With Obama in Europe, the president’s top national security aides were briefing legislators in a series of public and private hearings, hoping to advance their case for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in retaliation for what the administration says was a deadly sarin gas attack by his forces outside Damascus last month.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s vote would be the first in a series as the president’s request makes its way through Senate and House committees before coming before the two chambers for a final vote. After briefing the committee in private, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked whether it was too soon for a vote, and said: “You have to ask the gentlemen. We had a good meeting.”
In an initial survey, the AP found 17 senators supporting or leaning in favor of the resolution approving a U.S. military response in Syria, and 14 against or leaning against it. There were 69 senators who either said they were undecided or whose views were unknown. Of those supporting or leaning in favor of the resolution, 13 were Democrats and four were Republicans. Those against or leaning against the resolution were 2 Democrats, 11 Republicans and one independent.
Sending a message to Congress from afar, Obama insisted there was far more than his own credibility at stake.
“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.
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 committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, said he backed Obama’s call for military action against Syria but said it should be limited and not involve U.S. ground troops.
“If we do not pass the authorization measure, what message will Assad get,” said Engel. “What message will Iran receive, Hezbollah?”
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.
As anti-war demonstrators seated behind him silently raised their red-colored hands, Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the world’s nations were watching Congress.
“They want to know whether or not America is going to rise to this moment,” said Kerry.
Hagel 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.”
Obama, who arrived in Stockholm early Wednesday, was hoping to maintain the momentum toward congressional approval that he has generated since Saturday, when he announced he would ask lawmakers to authorize what until then had appeared to be imminent military action against Syria.
On Monday, the president met privately at the White House with the Senate’s two leading Republican hawks, McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and persuaded them to support his plans for an intervention on condition that he also seek to aid the Syrian rebels seeking to oust Assad.
A day later, he sat down with Boehner, Cantor and several other senior lawmakers to make a similar case that Assad must be punished for breaching the nearly century-old international taboo of using chemical weapons. After gaining significant support, Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey appeared to get the backing of most senators at Tuesday’s hearing.
However, even proponents of military action urged Obama to do more to sell his plans to an American public that is highly skeptical after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama, who will travel from Sweden’s capital to an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday, has little international support for action right now. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the United States in a strike, although President Francois Hollande says he’ll await Congress’ decision.
Obama had canceled a one-on-one meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid tensions over Russia’s granting of asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Putin expressed hope that the two would have serious discussions about Syria and other issues in St. Petersburg. Putin has warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria but also said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people.
Obama, for his part, said that he is “always hopeful” that Putin will change his position on taking action in Syria.
Pace reported from Stockholm, Sweden. Associated Press writers David Espo, Josh Lederman, Donna Cassata, Alan Fram, Jennifer C. Kerr and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.