President Obama on Wednesday defended his framing of chemical weapons use in Syria as a “red line” for U.S. intervention in the deadly civil war, insisting that his personal credibility was not at stake as Congress weighs his bid to strike the Middle Eastern nation.
“First of all, I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said during a joint press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in Stockholm. “My credibility's not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line, and America and Congress's credibility is on the line."
Obama’s remarks came as he attempts to ratchet up pressure on international leaders — many of whom don’t back U.S. calls to strike Syria — on the eve of the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, which will focus heavily on the Syrian conflict.
The White House Wednesday was clearly trying to lessen blowback for a president whose own comments about Syria more than a year ago created expectations of a significant U.S. response to the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad.
Obama made his case for intervention in Syria ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's second day of testimony before Congress.
The president is also seeking to convince a war-weary public — and lawmakers — that involvement in Syria would not amount to extended military clashes like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Keep in mind I'm somebody who opposed the war in Iraq, and I'm not interested in repeating mistakes about basing decisions on faulty intelligence," Obama said.
A series of recent public-opinion polls show that a majority of Americans oppose taking military action in Syria.
And the international community hasn’t been the most receptive audience for Obama's call for action.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was handed a humiliating defeat on Syria by Parliament, forcing him to rule out any future military action. And even Reinfeldt, sharing the stage with Obama Wednesday, said he preferred that any military response be coordinated through the United Nations.
“I think the main problem is that we have a war without a clear political solution,” Reinfeldt said.
The debate in Washington has clearly evolved from whether chemical weapons were deployed by Assad to whether the U.S. military could even improve the situation on the ground.
Obama received rare bipartisan political cover from House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday when the Republican leaders endorsed his call for military action. But even with the help of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also backing the White House, liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans in particular remain suspicious of a U.S. attack on Syria.
Some have accused the president of consulting Congress only to spread the blame if the situation in Syria deteriorates further. But for his part, the president insisted Wednesday that his surprise decision was a genuine attempt to include lawmakers in a serious policy debate.
"I would not have taken this before Congress just as a symbolic gesture," Obama said.
Obama didn’t directly say how he would proceed if lawmakers reject his Syria blueprint, but as commander in chief, he reminded reporters of his authority to protect the homeland without congressional approval.