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Arguing World Credibility at Stake, Obama Seeks Support for Syria Strike Abroad

September 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama went to Europe today for a previously economic summit, but Syria stayed at the top of his agenda. The administration’s push for military action advanced in Congress, even as the president issued a new appeal to the world.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.

GWEN IFILL: Arriving in Stockholm today, the president immediately moved to turn up the pressure on potential allies, and he defended his year-old statement saying Syria shouldn’t cross a red line by using chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war.

BARACK OBAMA: First of all, 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.

GWEN IFILL: Syria never signed the 1993 international convention on chemical weapons, but Mr. Obama insisted Bashar Assad’s government must not be allowed to act with impunity. Instead, he appealed again for Russia, a major ally of the Assad regime, to stop blocking U.N. Security Council action on Syria.

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

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GWEN IFILL: The president heads to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a G20 meeting this week, but, in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the U.S. appeal. He warned the West has no right to initiate military action without U.N. support.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): I do not exclude this, but I would like to draw your attention to one absolutely key aspect. Only the U.N. Security Council could sanction the use of force against a sovereign state. Any other pretext is inadmissible and can only be interpreted as an aggression.

GWEN IFILL: Back in Washington, President Obama’s policy passed its first test in Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorizing the limited use of force, but it bars any deployment of American combat troops.

Republican John McCain won approval of an amendment that also advocates a broader strategy of strengthening the Syrian rebels.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: I feel in the strongest terms that we need to have that provision that calls for reversal of momentum on the ground battle against Bashar Assad. If Bashar Assad remains in an advantageous position, he will never leave Syria. He has to know that he is losing, and that way, you get a negotiated settlement for his departure.

GWEN IFILL: Today’s committee action marked the first vote approving military strikes since October 2002, when Congress authorized the invasion of Iraq. On the other side of the Capitol, the House Foreign Affairs Committee heard from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Anti-war protesters waved hands painted red, simulating blood, as Kerry spoke.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: There are risks of acting, but, believe me, it is our judgment collectively and the president’s that the greater risks are not acting. We will have said to him, nobody cares, gas your people, you do what you need to, to stay in office, and we’re backing off. That would be — I honestly find — I mean, that would be one of those moments that will live in infamy.

GWEN IFILL: The president reaffirmed his desire for congressional support in his Stockholm appearance today, but he suggested a no-vote wouldn’t tie his hands.

BARACK OBAMA: 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 didn’t take this to Congress just because it’s an empty exercise. I think it’s important to have Congress’ support on it.

GWEN IFILL: In Paris, the French Parliament began its own debate on a military response as the prime minister echoed the warnings from Washington.

PRIME MINISTER JEAN-MARC AYRAULT, France (through interpreter): To not act would be to put in danger peace and security in the entire region, but also beyond that our own security. I ask the question, what credibility would our international commitments have against nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons?

GWEN IFILL: Meanwhile, the fighting in Syria continued, unaffected by debates around the globe. Rebels and regime forces engaged in heavy gun battles on the outskirts of Damascus.