ST. PETERSBURG — President Barack Obama on Friday acknowledged the American public’s deep reservations about another military engagement in the Middle East but argued that the United States has a moral responsibility to retaliate against Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Acknowledging that he faces a “heavy lift” in persuading Congress to authorize a military strike in Syria, Obama made a direct appeal to people’s consciences. The president drew parallels to World War II, which the United States was reluctant to enter, and to its efforts helping end genocide in Kosovo in the 1990s, which was unpopular at the time but which Obama said was the right thing to do.
“I was elected to end wars, not start them,” he said. “I’ve spent the last 4½ years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power as a means of meeting our international obligations and protecting the American people. But what I also know is that there are times where we have to make hard choices if we’re gonna stand up for the things that we care about. And I believe that this is one of those times.”
The comments — which came in a news conference at the end of a Group of 20 summit in Russia — marked Obama’s lengthiest explanation to date of his decision to seek congressional authorization for a U.S.-led military strike in Syria. After returning Friday night to Washington, Obama will continue building his case for action, and he said he plans to address the nation Tuesday from the White House.
Obama faces heavy opposition on Capitol Hill. In the House, a majority of members are now on the record as either being against or leaning against a proposed administration resolution on Syria, according to a Washington Post analysis. Members of the House and Senate who have not reviewed classified information on the chemical weapons attacks will be able to do so Monday on Capitol Hill.
In the Senate, a majority of senators remain undecided, according to The Post’s analysis. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Friday formally introduced the resolution to allow limited military strikes against Syria, setting in motion a key test vote that will probably take place Wednesday.
During Friday’s news conference, Obama said he was not “itching for military action.” But he said an alleged Aug. 21 sarin gas attack on hundreds of civilians — which he said was carried out by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime — could not be ignored.
“You know, over 1,400 people were gassed,” Obama said. “Over 400 of them were children. This is not something we’ve fabricated.”
He added, “Sometimes the further we get from the horrors of that, the easier it is to rationalize not making tough choices. And I understand that. This is not convenient. This is not something that I think a lot of folks around the world, you know, find an appetizing set of choices. But the question is, do these norms mean something? And if we’re not acting, what does that say?”
Obama arrived in St. Petersburg hoping to demonstrate broad international support for military action. But after several hours of private talks with other world leaders, Obama left with no consensus about how the United States should respond.
The White House cited progress enlisting international support, releasing a joint statement signed by 11 of the summit’s participants that calls for a “strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules and conscience” and expresses support for U.S. and allied efforts “to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
But in his own news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his categorical opposition to a U.S. strike and said that of the 20 nations at the summit, only four — Canada, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — had offered Obama their full support.
Also Friday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered his sharpest criticism of potential military action in Syria. While not referring directly to U.S. plans for a strike, Ban made it clear that such action could be counterproductive.
“I must warn that ill-considered military action could cause serious and tragic consequences, and with an increased threat of further sectarian violence,” Ban said. “We should explore ways to avoid further militarization of the conflict and revitalize the search for a political settlement instead.”