"I was elected to end wars, not to start them," President Obama said at the G20 economic summit in St. Petersburg on Friday. But, he explained, action in Syria was warranted, whether or not international allies help. "The question is: Do these international norms mean something?" Obama announced that he would make his case for action in Syria in a speech to Americans next Tuesday. His effort to convince the world leaders at the summit, however, appears to have not made much progress.
I would greatly prefer working through international channels to get this done. But ultimately, what I believe in even more deeply, is … that when there's a breach this brazen of a norm this important, when the international community is frozen and doesn't act, then that norm begins to unravel. And if that norm unravels then other norms start unraveling. And that makes a more dangerous world.
The president described where international agreement begins and ends. At a dinner between the leaders in attendance — representing leaders of major economies in Europe from around the world — Obama described the response to this argument.
It was a unanimous conclusion that chemical weapons were used in Syria. There was a unanimous view that the norm against using chemical weapons has to be maintained, that these weapons were banned for a reason and that the international community has to take those norms seriously. I would say the majority of the room was comfortable with our conclusion that the Assad government was responsible for their use.
Obviously this is disputed by President Putin. But if you polled the leaders last night, I'm confident you'd get a majority that said it is most likely that the Assad regime used them.
Obama also again noted how Russia's obstinance prevents international agreement. "If we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use," he said, "then an international response is required and that will not come through Security Council action."
As we reported Friday morning, the president's effort to convince the American people has become urgent in his effort to convince Congress to act. On Tuesday, September 10, he intends to give a public address to continue to make the same case. "I knew this was going to be a heavy lift," he repeated, later adding, "I understand the skepticism." And why public support wasn't strong at this point.
Typically, when any military action is popular, it's because there's been a direct threat to us — 9/11 — or an administration uses various hooks to suggest that American interests were threatened, like Panama or Grenada. Sometimes those hooks are more persuasive than others.
Asked if he would strike without Congressional action — three times — Obama didn't directly answer the question. "I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate," he said, but indicated that since "these are the kinds of national security threats most likely to occur" — indirect and not posing an imminent threat — he felt that Congressional authorization was warranted. Obama added, "It's a hard sell, but it's something I believe in."
Syria wasn't the only contentious issue Obama addressed with his foreign counterparts. He held bilateral meetings with the leaders of Mexico and Brazil in part to alleviate their concerns about NSA spying in their countries, according to reports. The president explained that one issue was scale — that America's intelligence dominance was equal to its military dominance, which was part of the reason he called for review of how technology was used. As for the charges of spying on those leaders, Obama suggested he wasn't clear if the claims were true. "Part of the problem is we get these [reports] through the press, and then I've got to go back and find out whats going on," he said. "I don't subscribe to all these newspapers, though I think the NSA does — now at least."
Update, 11:00 a.m.: The White House released a joint statement from eleven of the 20 participants in the summit. It reads, in part:
The Leaders and Representatives of Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America made the following statement on the margins of the Group of 20 Nations Leader’s Meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia:
The international norm against the use of chemical weapons is longstanding and universal. The use of chemical weapons anywhere diminishes the security of people everywhere. Left unchallenged, it increases the risk of further use and proliferation of these weapons.
We condemn in the strongest terms the horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21st that claimed the lives of so many men, women, and children. The evidence clearly points to the Syrian government being responsible for the attack, which is part of a pattern of chemical weapons use by the regime.
We call for a strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules and conscience that will send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated. Those who perpetrated these crimes must be held accountable.
Signatories have consistently supported a strong UN Security Council Resolution, given the Security Council's responsibilities to lead the international response, but recognize that the Council remains paralyzed as it has been for two and a half years. The world cannot wait for endless failed processes that can only lead to increased suffering in Syria and regional instability. We support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.