Barack Obama warns credibility of international community on the line over Syria
Barack Obama has warned that the credibility of the entire international community was on the line over the Syria crisis as he said the world had to stop paying "lip service" to its obligations on chemical weapons.
Setting out both the moral and security rationale for military action, Mr Obama said it was not him, but the world that had drawn a "red line" against chemical weapons use.
He challenged the international community to "confront actions that are violating our common humanity" and refuted claims that plans for limited military strikes were a personal face-saving gesture.
"My credibility isn't on the line, the international community's credibility is on the line," he said on a visit to Sweden. "And America and Congress's credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important."
Despite his personal conviction that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime cannot go unanswered, Mr Obama is facing a struggle to convince US legislators to back punitive military strikes against Syria.
He also continues to face a sceptical US public, with the latest polls showing 60 per cent against military action, and an international community wary of American unilateralism.
Mr Obama spoke on Wednesday as key members of his administration, including John Kerry, the secretary of state, Chuck Hagel the secretary of defence, went to Capitol Hill for a second day of hearings at which they attempted to persuade war-weary politicians and a sceptical public of the case for intervention.
They encountered hostile questioning from members of the House of Representatives who raised concerns about the cost of intervening, the muddled strategic goal of any intervention and whether Mr Obama was trying to save face after David Cameron's defeat in the commons.
A key Senate committee last night narrowly passed the resolution to use force, the first step towards confirmation by the full Senate for a final vote early next week.
The amended resolution, which sets out the limits of US intervention, widens the options available to Mr Obama and says the US should aim to "reverse the momentum of the battlefield in Syria" in favour of the rebels against regime forces.
The amendment is a victory for John McCain, the hawkish Republican, but may complicate the final passage of the resolution through Congress, where there continues to be opposition to any involvement in Syria's civil war. That resolution will go the full Senate early next week.
Efforts on the House side were less advanced, with a number of competing resolutions being circulated by both Democrats and Republicans. Leaders in the Senate and the House have both promised votes early next week.
After outlining the intelligence case, based on communications intercepts and tracking of rockets from regime positions to opposition neighbourhoods, Mr Obama challenged the international community to live up to its responsibilities, or at least be honest about the fact it was reneging on them.
"Having gone through all of this, are we going to find a reason not to act?" he asked, "And if that's the case then I think the world community should admit it. Because you can always find a reason not to act – this is a complicated difficult situation."
Alluding to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler, Mr Obama said the people of Europe were "familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act", and that he was not choosing the path of military action lightly.
"I would much rather spend my time talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education than I would spending time thinking about how can I prevent 3- and 4-year-olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas," he said." Unfortunately, that's sometimes the decisions that I'm confronted with as president of the United States.
"America also recognises that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws governing how countries interact and how people are treated that over time this world becomes less safe, it becomes more dangerous not only for those people who are subjected these horrible crimes but for all of humanity." Mr Obama again refused to say whether he would follow David Cameron's example and abandon military action if he was defeated in Congress.
Insisting that "we have to act", he also said: "I did not take this to Congress just because it's an empty exercise" Addressing the reality that Russia continues to block any unified action against Syria in the UN Security Council, Mr Obama said he could only hope that Mr Putin would come to accept that Assad could never be part of the solution in Syria, having [presided over a conflict that] already killed 100,000 of his countrymen.
"Do I hold out hope that Mr Putin may change his position on some of these issues? I'm always hopeful," he said, wearily, promising that he would "continue to engage" Mr Putin. Mr Obama will be in Russia today and Friday for the G20 meeting in St Petersburg.
In the press conference's closing moments, Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, dealt a gentle rebuke to Mr Obama's determination to press ahead without the backing of the UN.
"Just to remind you, you're now in Sweden, a small country with a deep belief in the United Nations," Mr Reinfeldt said, reminding that the UN chemical weapons team dismissed as "redundant" by the White House was led by a Swede.
However, he acknowledged the dangers of allowing the use of chemical weapons to go unchallenged and Russia's determination to block action at the UN Security Council. "If you balance all these sentences, that shows how difficult this is," Mr Reinfeldt said.
By Peter Foster, and Raf Sanchez in Washington