Excerpts from the American president's interaction with the media during his Joint Press Conference with Prime Minister Reinfeldt of Sweden in Sweden
We of course discussed the appalling violence being inflicted on the Syrian people by the Assad regime, including the horrific chemical weapons attacks two weeks ago. I discussed our assessment, which clearly implicates the Syrian government in this outrage. The Prime Minister and I are in agreement that in the face of such barbarism the international community cannot be silent, and that failing to respond to this attack would only increase the risk of more attacks and the possibility that other countries would use these weapons as well.
I respect—and I’ve said this to the Prime Minister—the U.N. process. Obviously, the U.N. investigation team has done heroic work under very difficult circumstances. But we believe very strongly, with high confidence, that, in fact, chemical weapons were used and that Mr. Assad was the source. And we want to join with the international community in an effective response that deters such use in the future.
So I updated the Prime Minister on our efforts to secure congressional authorization for taking action as well as our effort to continue to build international support for holding the Assad regime accountable in order to deter these kinds of attacks in the future.
And we also discussed our broader strategy. The United States and Sweden are both major donors of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. We will continue those efforts. We’re going to continue to try to strengthen the capabilities of an inclusive and representative opposition, and to support the diplomacy that could bring an end to all the violence and advance a political transition and a future in Syria where all people’s rights are upheld. Those are goals that we share. And we will keep working towards those goals.
Have you made up your mind whether to take action against Syria whether or not you have a congressional resolution approved? Is a strike needed in order to preserve your credibility for when you set these sort of red lines? And were you able to enlist the support of the Prime Minister here for support in Syria?
Barack Obama: Let me unpack the question. 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.
Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that—in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act—that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.
And so when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of the chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it. That’s point number one.
Point number two—my credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.
And when those videos first broke and you saw images of over 400 children subjected to gas, everybody expressed outrage: How can this happen in this modern world? Well, it happened because a government chose to deploy these deadly weapons on civilian populations. And so the question is, how credible is the international community when it says this is an international norm that has to be observed? The question is, how credible is Congress when it passes a treaty saying we have to forbid the use of chemical weapons?
And I do think that we have to act, because if we don’t, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue resolutions, and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity. And those international norms begin to erode. And other despots and authoritarian regimes can start looking and saying, that’s something we can get away with. And that, then, calls into question other international norms and laws of war and whether those are going to be enforced.
So, as I told the [Swedish] Prime Minister, I am very respectful of the U.N. investigators who went in at great danger to try to gather evidence about what happened. We want more information, not less. But when I said that I have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that the Assad government through their chain of command ordered their use, that was based on both public sourcing, intercepts, evidence that we feel very confident about, including samples that have been tested showing sarin from individuals who were there.
And I’m very mindful of the fact that around the world, and here in Europe in particular, there are still memories of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction accusations, and people being concerned about how accurate this information is. Keep in mind, I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq and not interested in repeated mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence.
But having done a thoroughgoing evaluation of the information that is currently available, I can say with high confidence chemical weapons were used. And, by the way, Iran doesn’t deny it. Even Syria doesn’t actually deny that they were used. And that is what the U.N. investigators are supposed to be determining. And, frankly, nobody is really disputing that chemical weapons were used. The only remaining dispute is who used them, which is outside the parameters of the U.N. investigation. So the U.N. investigation will not be able to answer that preliminarily; they’re not supposed to.
But what we know is, is that the opposition doesn’t have the capability to deliver weapons on this scale. These weapons are in Assad’s possession. We have intercepts indicating people in the chain of command, both before and after the attacks, with knowledge of these attacks. We can show that the rockets that delivered these chemical weapons went from areas controlled by Assad into these areas where the opposition was lodged. And the accumulation of evidence gives us high confidence that Assad carried this out.
And so the question is, after we’ve gone through all this, are we going to try to find a reason not to act? 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. And an initial response will not solve the underlying tragedy of the civil war in Syria. As Fredrik mentioned, that will be solved through, eventually, a political transition.
But we can send a very clear, strong message against the prohibition—or in favour of the prohibition against using chemical weapons. We can change Assad’s calculus about using them again. We can degrade his capabilities so that he does not use them again. And so what I’m talking about is an action that is limited in time and in scope, targeted at the specific task of degrading his capabilities and deterring the use of those weapons again.
And, in the meantime, we will continue to engage the entire international community in trying to find a solution to the underlying problems, which brings me to the last question. And that is what happens if Congress doesn’t approve it. I believe that Congress will approve it. I believe Congress will approve it because I think America recognizes that, as difficult as it is to take any military action—even as one as limited as we’re talking about, even one without boots on the ground—that’s a sober decision. But I think America also recognizes 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 to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity.
And we’ve seen that happen again and again in our history. And the people of Europe are certainly familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act.
And I would not have taken this before Congress just as a symbolic gesture. I think it’s very important that Congress say that we mean what we say. And I think we will be stronger as a country in our response if the President and Congress does it together.
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 did not take this to Congress just because it’s an empty exercise; I think it’s important to have Congress’s support on it.
Mr. President, you’ve given very eloquent talks about the moral force of nonviolence. I was wondering, could you describe the dilemma to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner and getting ready to attack Syria?...
I would refer you to the speech that I gave when I received the Nobel Prize. And I think I started the speech by saying that, compared to previous recipients, I was certainly unworthy. But what I also described was the challenge that all of us face when we believe in peace but we confront a world that is full of violence and occasional evil. And the question then becomes, what are our responsibilities?
So I’ve made every effort to end the war in Iraq; to wind down the war in Afghanistan; to strengthen our commitment to multilateral action; to promote diplomacy as the solution to problems. The question, though, that all of us face—not just me—our citizens face, not just political leaders—is at what point do we say we need to confront actions that are violating our common humanity?
And I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas, over 1,400 innocent civilians dying senselessly in an environment in which you already have tens of thousands dying, and we have the opportunity to take some action that is meaningful, even if it doesn’t solve the entire problem may at least mitigate this particular problem, then the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.
But it’s difficult. This is the part of my job that I find most challenging every single day. 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.
Unfortunately, that’s sometimes the decisions that I’m confronted with as President of the United States. And, frankly, as President of the United States, I can’t avoid those questions because, as much as we are criticized, when bad stuff happens around the world, the first question is what is the United States going to do about it. That’s true on every issue. It’s true in Libya. It’s true in Rwanda. It’s true in Sierra Leone. It’s now true in Syria. That’s part of the deal.
On taking the issue to Congress and whether President Putin of Russia shares any burden of the responsibility for Mr Assad’s actions
One area where we’ve got a significant difference right now is the situation in Syria. Russia has a longstanding relationship with the Assad regime and, as a consequence, it has been very difficult to get Russia, working through the Security Council, to acknowledge some of the terrible behavior of the Assad regime and to try to push towards the kind of political transition that’s needed in order to stabilize Syria.
And I’ve said to Mr. Putin directly, and I continue to believe that even if you have great concerns about elements in the opposition—and we’ve got some concerns about certain elements of the opposition like al Nusra—and even if you’re concerned about the territorial integrity of Syria—and we’re concerned about the territorial integrity of Syria—if you, in fact, want to end the violence and slaughter inside of Syria, then you’re going to have to have a political transition, because it is not possible for Mr. Assad to regain legitimacy in a country where he’s killed tens of thousands of his own people. That will not happen. So far, at least, Mr. Putin has rejected that logic.
As far as security action—Security Council action—we have gone repeatedly to the Security Council for even the most modest of resolutions condemning some of the actions that have taken place there, and it has been resisted by Russia.
And do I hold out hope that Mr. Putin may change his position on some of these issues? I’m always hopeful. And I will continue to engage him 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.
In terms of my decision to take the issue to Congress, this had been brewing in my mind for a while. Some people have noted—and I think this is true—that had I been in the Senate in the midst of this period, I probably would have suggested to a Democratic or a Republican President that Congress should have the ability to weigh in on an issue like this that is not immediate, imminent, time-sensitive. When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mr. Dempsey, indicated to me that whether we struck today, tomorrow, or a month from now, we could still do so effectively, then I think that raised the question of why not ask Congress to debate this in a serious way?
Because I do think it raises issues that are going to occur for us and for the international community for many years to come. The truth of the matter is, is that under international law, Security Council resolution or self-defence or defence of an ally provides a clear basis for action. But increasingly, what we’re going to be confronted with are situations like Syria, like Kosovo, like Rwanda, in which we may not always have a Security Council that can act—it may be paralyzed for a whole host of reasons—and yet we’ve got all these international norms that we’re interested in upholding. We may not be directly, imminently threatened by what’s taking place in a Kosovo or a Syria or a Rwanda in the short term, but our long-term national security will be impacted in a profound way, and our humanity is impacted in a profound way.
And so I think it’s important for us to get out of the habit in those circumstances—again, I’m not talking about circumstances where our national security is directly impacted, we’ve been attacked, et cetera, where the President has to act quickly—but in circumstances of the type that I describe, it’s important for us to get out of the habit of just saying, well, we’ll let the President kind of stretch the boundaries of his authority as far as he can; Congress will sit on the sidelines, snipe; if it works, the sniping will be a little less; if it doesn’t, a little more; but either way, the American people and their representatives are not fully invested in what are tough choices.
And we as a country and the world are going to start having to take tough choices. I do get frustrated—although I understand how complex this is, and any time you’re involving military action, then people will ask, well, this may do more harm than good. I understand those arguments; I wrestle with them every day. But I do have to ask people, well, if, in fact, you’re outraged by the slaughter of innocent people, what are you doing about it?
And if the answer is, well, we should engage diplomatically—well, we’ve engaged diplomatically. If the answer is, well, we should shine the spotlight and shame these governments—well, these governments oftentimes show no shame. Well, we should act internationally—well, sometimes because of the various alignments it’s hard to act through a Security Council resolution.
And so either we resign ourselves to saying there’s nothing we can do about it and we’ll just shake our heads and go about our business, or we make decisions even when they’re difficult. And I think this is an example of where we need to make decisions even though they’re difficult. And I think it’s important for Congress to be involved in that decision.