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Friday, August 30, 2013

Obama: U.S. Has Obligation As World Leader To Act

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Update 2:50 PM: President Barack Obama says he recognizes the world and the U.S. are war-weary in the face of potential military action against Syria.

But he says the United States has an obligation “as a leader in the world” to hold countries accountable if they violate international norms.

Obama says he has strong preference for multilateral action. But he says, quote, “we don’t want the world to be paralyzed.”

Regarding the U.N., Obama says, quote, “there is an incapacity for the Security Council to move forward.”

Despite a vote in Britain against taking action in Syria, Obama indicates that France is with him.

Obama’s comments came as his administration made its intelligence case against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for a chemical attack against civilians earlier this month.

Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement about Syria at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement about Syria at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

1:35 PM: Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. knows based on intelligence that the Syrian regime carefully prepared for days to launch a chemical weapons attack.

Kerry says Syrian regime personnel were at the site of the attack for three days beforehand, making preparations.

He says regime elements were told to prepare by putting on gas masks.

Kerry says the U.S. also knows where the rockets were launched from. He says the rockets came from regime-controlled areas.

Kerry also says a senior regime official confirmed that the weapons were used and was afraid it would be discovered.

The U.S. is releasing a public report on intelligence gathered about last week’s deadly attack. President Barack Obama is preparing for a possible military strike in response.




PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A chemical weapons attack that killed well over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. This follows the horrific images that shocked us all.

This kind of attack is a challenge to the world. We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale. This kind of attack threatens our national security interests by violating well-established international norms against the use of chemical weapons by further threatening friends and allies of ours in the region like Israel and Turkey and Jordan. And it increases the risk that chemical weapons will be used in the future and fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us.

So I have said before, and I meant what I said, that the world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons.

Now, I have not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken to help enforce that norm. But as I've already said, I have had my military and our team look at a wide range of options. We have consulted with allies. We've consulted with Congress. We've been in conversations with all the interested parties.

And in no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground, that would involve a long-term campaign. But we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria but others around the world understands that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm.

But again, I repeat, we're not considering any open-ended commitment. We're not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach. What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there's not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that's taking place in Syria. And I will continue to consult closely with Congress.

In addition to the release of the unclassified document, we are providing a classified briefing to congressional staffs today, and we'll offer that same classified briefing to members of Congress, as well as our international partners. And I will continue to provide updates to the American people as we get more information.

With that, I want to welcome President Ilves, President Grybauskaite, and President Berzins to the White House. These countries that they represent all share very deep ties to the United States, both as allies and because of the extraordinary people, the people relations that we have with these countries.

I want to thank all the presidents who are here and their nations for all that they do to promote democracy, not only in their own countries but around the world. And the Baltics are among our most reliable allies in NATO. And our commitment...


We're listening to the president of the United States speaking moments ago at the White House, making comments about Syria just about an hour after Secretary of State John Kerry made comments about Syria and made the case for U.S. action against Syria. I want to bring in our guests, Rick Klein, political director for - of ABC News, Chris Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and Bob Scales is a retired Army major general and former commandant of the Army War College.

Rick Klein, first to you. The president said there he has not made a final decision, but this just after John Kerry said that the use of chemical weapons was a crime against conscience. It matters to us and it matters to who we are. It matters to leadership and our credibility in the world. What do you make of that?

RICK KLEIN: I think it is a pretty fine semantic argument being made here. It's clear that the United States is going to act. The decision to act has already been made. The question of timing, the question of precisely what that act may be, maybe the decision that we're talking about here. It's unfathomable to me that the president of the United States would be out there talking about this is a challenge to the world community and is such an affront to humanity, and then there not be an action that follows it very shortly.

In fact, the delay, as it is, has got a lot of people asking what the hold up really is. There are still U.N. inspectors on the ground. That changes tomorrow. The assumption in Washington and certain people I've talked to is that the window for actual action opens up sometime tomorrow.


Yeah. And Army Major Gen. Bob Scales, it did sound as if he was saying, you know, we're going. We just haven't decided how. But he did underscore in a limited, narrow act that would send a message that the U.S. cares about keeping the norm against the use of chemical weapons. No boots on the ground, no campaign, no open-end commitment. You say what?

MAJOR GEN. ROBERT H. SCALES: Well, I say the Syrian army is breathing a huge sigh of relief, number one. And number two, once the president talks, it's all in. I think the debates are over. I think we can start counting down the days, hours until this strike goes in. And sadly, what it also means is the president just said, particularly to the Syrians and the rest of the world, that's going to be all there is.

To Chris' point earlier, it would've been nice if he would've said that, for instance, we're going to redouble our efforts to supply the Free Syrian Army and the moderates with substantial, effective modern weapons that are capable of killing tanks and shooting down airplanes. He didn't do that. He didn't say words to the effect that if this first strike doesn't work, be prepared. There may be a second strike. Nor did he commit the U.S. military to any form of long-term engagement in Syria. So what this is, is a one-pulse, one-shot, feel-good strike, after that, we back off and let the war continue.

HOBSON: He actually said he's not considering any open-ended commitment or boots on the ground. Chris Harmer, let me bring you in with your thoughts on what we heard from the president.

CHRIS HARMER: Sure. I'd like to echo what General Scales said regarding a huge sigh of relief out of the Syrian Arab army. They know this attack is coming and they know then that it's been pretty well-bounded as a limited attack, not an ongoing issue. And as a result, they're taking their concentrations of forces there, disbursing them. That makes a lot more difficult for U.S. cruise missiles to strike.

Cruise missiles are very effective long-range weapons against what we call soft to medium targets, targets that are static, that are not heavily defended. An example of this would be a fixed radar site at an airport. You can take that out very easily with a cruise missile. We were talking about mobile issues, you know, like Scud missiles on their truck. If those are moving around, a cruise missile can do that, but it's very difficult and it really does require a significant degree of intelligence that we're just not going to have.

So the Syrian Arab Army right now is saying, we're going to take some medicine, we're going to take a slap on the wrist, but structurally, fundamentally, nothing is going to change. One follow-on on comment, if we have no open-ended commitment here, then, by default, we're saying we have no strategic interest.

YOUNG: Yeah.

HARMER: If we have a strategic interest, that means we have to have a full commitment. The absence of a full commitment just means this is a statement and a posture.

YOUNG: Well, we're circling back to where we were a while back which is that this is seen as a punitive and people in Britain and Parliament yesterday were questioning, is this what war is now, that you punish people? But then others say, if you've got a contractual agreement in a treaty, you have to respond to things like chemical attacks. Rick Klein, just what do you think - we have a few minutes left here - what do you think the president is facing? And by the way, anyone jump in, what's the legality here? What does he have to do to guarantee to who that this is legal and the right thing to do?

KLEIN: What's so interesting to me about this, Robin, is that a lot of this is responding to the president's own action. He's the one that drew the red line a year ago. And that is what has put him in the position now of needing to respond. The President of the United States goes out and says, if you do this, I will get you. It's like a parent that tells the kid that they're not going to get dinner. If you don't - if you then give them dinner anyway, they're going to go do it the next time. That's (unintelligible).

YOUNG: But Cameron didn't draw a red line, and felt that he's obligated by treaties to respond.

KLEIN: And Cameron lost the vote in Parliament...

YOUNG: Right.

KLEIN: know, in part because he wasn't able to make that case. And I don't think he'd be able - the President of the United States should be able to make that case to the Congress. We saw even Jimmy Carter say that he thinks that this would be extralegal without congressional authorization, without the use of international bodies, this part of it. I think there are legal arguments that I'm not equipped to engage in, but there's a political argument around this of what American power means and what you can do, as President of the United States, if you're not seen as making good on your commitments, the message that then...

YOUNG: Yeah.

KLEIN: other regimes that we're not friendly with.

YOUNG: But General Scales, were you going to pick up on the legal?

SCALES: Yeah. I was going to say remember now the chemical weapons convention is a norm, not a law. The international laws of war say there are two reasons, legitimate reasons, casus belli, say, if we're going to war. Number one, is that if the international community from the U.N. Security Council votes to go to war, and number two, if you are directly threatened by an imminent enemy strike that falls under four categories: to deter, to dissuade, to defeat or defend. That's the law. And things like punitive or punishment or retribution are written nowhere in the laws of war.

HOBSON: And Rick Klein, back to you, we've got the latest poll from NBC Wall Street Journal says - or just an NBC News poll; half of all Americans said they wouldn't support military action against the Syrian government. Nearly 80 percent want President Obama to seek approval from Congress before taking any action. And from what it sounds like today, and we spoke with Congressman Engel earlier, he said it could be just a matter of days before there's action.

KLEIN: Yeah, that's right. And what I think is so fascinating is that you'd have the president without the sanction of an international body, such as U.N., without the sanction of Congress and - according to this poll, at least tonight, and some other polls will bear it out in subsequent days - without the support of the American people moving on this. And the president sometimes has to make very unpopular decisions.

But let me say that this president doesn't do it very often. There hasn't been many chances - or in his presidency - are many windows in his presidency where he does something that is known to be politically unpopular, known to not have the majority support of Congress or the people. This puts him in a bit of a different spot than normal.

HOBSON: Rick Klein, a political director at ABC News. We've also been speaking with Chris Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and Bob Scales, a retired Army Major General and former Commandant of the Army War College. Thanks to all of you.

YOUNG: And of course you can continue to follow the story by staying right here at your NPR station. We will continue to follow it for you. Been an extraordinary day - first, hearing from the secretary of state, John Kerry, laying out the Obama administration case for responding to chemical attacks in Syria; and then just recently, hearing from President Obama underscoring that, although not hearing what some of the choices are that the White House is considering. We'll continue to follow this.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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