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Recent Presidential Remarks on Syria

Lauren Bateman
Wednesday, September 4, 2013, 6:25 PM
President Obama has recently made the case for taking action in Syria in two very different arenas: yesterday, in a statement made prior to his meeting with Members of Congress; and today, in Stockholm, during a joint press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Among the most notable moments: yesterday, when asked directly whether he was confident that he could get Congress to vote for action, he flatly responded, "I am."  And today in Stockholm, President Obama said that when it comes to Assad's use of chemical weapons, "I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line."

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President Obama has recently made the case for taking action in Syria in two very different arenas: yesterday, in a statement made prior to his meeting with Members of Congress; and today, in Stockholm, during a joint press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Among the most notable moments: yesterday, when asked directly whether he was confident that he could get Congress to vote for action, he flatly responded, "I am."  And today in Stockholm, President Obama said that when it comes to Assad's use of chemical weapons, "I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line."
Below the fold you'll find the full text of the President's stateside remarks, followed by Syria-related excerpts from his remarks in Stockholm.
Remarks by the President Before Meeting with Members of Congress on the Situation in Syria, September 3, 2013
Cabinet Room
9:51 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT:  I want to thank the leaders of both parties for being here today to discuss what is a very serious issue facing the United States.  And the fact that I've had a chance to speak to many of you, and Congress as a whole is taking this issue with the soberness and seriousness that it deserves, is greatly appreciated and I think vindicates the decision for us to present this issue to Congress.
As I've said last week, as Secretary Kerry made clear in his presentation last week, we have high confidence that Syria used, in an indiscriminate fashion, chemical weapons that killed thousands of people, including over 400 children, and in direct violation of the international norm against using chemical weapons.  That poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region, and as a consequence, Assad and Syria needs to be held accountable.
I've made a decision that America should take action.  But I also believe that we will be much more effective, we will be stronger, if we take action together as one nation.  And so this gives us an opportunity not only to present the evidence to all of the leading members of Congress and their various foreign policy committees as to why we have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that Assad used them, but it also gives us an opportunity to discuss why it's so important that he be held to account.
This norm against using chemical weapons that 98 percent of the world agrees to is there for a reason:  Because we recognize that there are certain weapons that, when used, can not only end up resulting in grotesque deaths, but also can end up being transmitted to non-state actors; can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey; and unless we hold them into account, also sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don't mean much.
And so I'm going to be working with Congress.  We have set up a draft authorization.  We’re going to be asking for hearings and a prompt vote.  And I’m very appreciative that everybody here has already begun to schedule hearings and intends to take a vote as soon as all of Congress comes back early next week.
So the key point that I want to emphasize to the American people:  The military plan that has been developed by the joint chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional.  It is limited.  It does not involve boots on the ground.  This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan.
This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences.  It gives us the ability to degrade Assad’s capabilities when it comes to chemical weapons.  It also fits into a broader strategy that we have to make sure that we can bring about over time the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic and economic and political pressure required so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability not only to Syria but to the region.
But I want to emphasize once again:  What we are envisioning is something limited.  It is something proportional.  It will degrade Assad’s capabilities.  At the same time, we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition, allow Syria ultimately to free itself from the kinds of terrible civil wars and death and activity that we’ve been seeing on the ground.
So I look forward to listening to the various concerns of the members who are here today.  I am confident that those concerns can be addressed.  I think it is appropriate that we act deliberately, but I also think everybody recognizes the urgency here and that we’re going to have to move relatively quickly.
So with that, to all of you here today, I look forward to an excellent discussion.
Q    Mr. President, are you prepared to rewrite the authorization, and does that undercut any of your authority, sir?
THE PRESIDENT:  I would not be going to Congress if I wasn’t serious about consultations, and believing that by shaping the authorization to make sure we accomplish the mission we will be more effective.  And so long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad degrading his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future as long as the authorization allows us to do that, I’m confident that we’re going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark.
Q    Are you confident that you'll get a vote in favor of action?
THE PRESIDENT:  I am.  Thank you, guys.
END 9:56 P.M. EDT
Remarks by President Obama in a Joint Press Conference With Prime Minister Reinfeldt of Sweden, September 4, 2012
I had a chance to visit with Prime Minister Reinfeldt in the White House during my first year in office. And he has always proved to be a thoughtful and deliberative partner on a whole host of international issues, and I’m pleased that we’ve been able to strengthen that partnership in our discussions here today.
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.
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, sir. 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?
PRESIDENT 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 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 favor 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.
Q: You have expressed some doubts about military action in Syria, and I’m wondering if you could be a little bit more specific about what you’re concerned the consequences may be and whether you believe that President Putin has any bear of -- shares any burden of the responsibility for Mr. Assad’s actions. Thank you.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: OK. I mean, I’m just -- I’m going to try to remember all this.
First of all, the reset in the Russian relationship was not done on a whim. There were specific U.S. interests that I believed we could pursue with Russia where interests overlapped that would help us both on our long-term national security and our economy. And we succeeded. We succeeded in passing a new START treaty that reduced nuclear stockpiles for both the United States and Russia. Russia joined the WTO, which bound them to a set of international rules governing trade, which I think ultimately will be good for the Russian economy but is also good for its trading partners and potential companies that are investing in Russia, and that includes U.S. companies.
You know, we worked together on counterterrorism issues. They have provided us significant assistance in supplying our troops in Afghanistan. There were a whole host of outcomes from that reset that were valuable to the United States.
Now, there’s no doubt that, as I indicated a while back, we’ve kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress. But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues. And where our interests overlap, we should pursue common action.
Where we got differences, we should be candid about them, try to manage those differences but not sugar-coat them.
One area where we got a significant difference right now is the situation in Syria. Russia has a long-standing relationship with the Assad regime. And as a consequence, it has been very difficult to get Russia working through the Security Council to take knowledge the -- 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 you know, 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 had 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 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 a 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.
I mean, the truth of the matter is that under international law, Security Council resolution for self-defense or defense 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, 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 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 described, 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 -- 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 -- have to take tough choices.
I do get frustrated, although I’m -- you know, I understand how complex this is. And anytime 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. 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 take -- make decisions even though they’re difficult, and I think it’s important for Congress to be involved in that decision.

Lauren Bateman is a student at Harvard Law School, where she is an editor of the Harvard Law Review. She previously worked as a National Security Legislative Correspondent for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and she takes a special interest in legislative procedure. She also interned for the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Nevada, and was a Research Fellow for the Project on National Security Reform. She graduated with a B.A., magna cum laude, in History and Government from The College of William & Mary in 2009.

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