Obama seeks global backing on Syria: ‘I didn’t set a red line. The world did’


Barack Obama speaks about Syria in Sweden

President plays down personal role in response to chemical weapons attack amid uphill battle to win over politicians at home
Obama pauses while speaking about Syria during a joint news conference with Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Barack Obama appealed to the international community to back his plan to punish Syria with a military strikes, saying the “world had set a red line” over the use of chemical weapons, not him.

Speaking in Stockholm, Obama sought to play down his personal role in the response to the allegations that the Assad regime had gassed its own people in attacks outside Damascus on 21 August.

He also left open the possibility of ignoring a vote against military action in the House of Representatives, saying he did not believe there was a constitutional need for congressional approval.

Although efforts to win over Republican hawks appear close to gaining sufficient support in the Senate, the White House continues to face an uphill struggle to persuade enough members of Congress from both parties to authorise its planned strike against Syria in the House.

But the president claimed there was legal flexibility when asked directly about the possibility of continuing to attack without the full backing of Congress.

“As commander-in-chief I always preserve the right and the responsibilty to act on behalf of America’s national security,” he said. “I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress but I did not take this to Congress just because it’s an empty exercise. I think it is important to have Congress’s support.”

He also sought to turn attention to world leaders gathering in St Petersburg for a summit later this week. “The international community’s credibility is on the line,” he said. “We have to act because if we don’t we are effectively saying ‘someone who is not shamed can continue to act with impunity’.”

Obama also gave more detail about his unexpected decision on Friday to seek a congressional mandate, saying advice from military commanders that US attacks on Syria would have the same impact in a few weeks time meant there were little harm trying to secure extra political buy-in.

“This had been brewing in my mind for a while,” he said. “Had I been in the Senate in the midst of this period, I would probably have suggested to the president that Congress have an ability to weigh in on an issue like this that is not immediate, imminent and time-sensitive.”

“It is important for us to get out of the habit of just saying we’ll let the president stretch the boundaries of his authority as far as he can and Congress will sit on the sidelines and snipe,” added the president.

Crucially, the leadership of both parties have already openly backed the White House plan and Obama’s threat to defy any rebellion from more junior members was also endorsed by the most senior Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the minority leader said it was a myth that presidents could not defy lawmakers in such circumstances.

“I have been reading what you have written that the president has never gone forward if Congress has opposed the issue,” she said. “I remind you that in 1999 President Clinton brought us all together to talk about going to into the Balkans and the vote was 213 to 213 … he went and you know what happened there. I don’t think that congressional authorisation is necessary. I do think it’s a good thing and I hope we can achieve it.”

Such an interpretation of US constitutional law is controversial, however. Republican senator Rand Paul claimed on Tuesday that the founding fathers had been careful to require the executive to seek a mandate in just such circumstances and that presidents could only act independently when there was a direct threat to US national security.

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