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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens at right as Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to advance President Barack Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria, a response to last month's alleged sarin gas attack in the Syrian civil war. Lawmakers are returning a week early from recess for the first public hearing about U.S. plans for military action to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad as President Obama seeks to convince skeptical Americans and their representatives to act following the deadly gas attack outside Damascus. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Obama: Congress, world credibility on line
First Published Sep 04 2013 08:17 am • Last Updated Sep 04 2013 03:52 pm

Washington • In an impassioned appeal for support both at home and abroad, President Barack Obama said Wednesday the credibility of the international community and Congress is on the line in the debate over how to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. As Obama made his case overseas during a visit to Sweden, his proposal for military intervention was under consideration by skeptical House members at home.

Asked about his past comments drawing a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons, Obama said it was a line that had first been clearly drawn by countries around the world and by Congress, in ratifying a treaty that bans the use of chemical weapons.

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"That wasn’t something I made up," he said. "I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it."

Obama said that if the world fails to act, "we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important."

And that, he said, would embolden despots and repressive regimes around the world to flout all sorts of international standards.

"The moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing," he declared at a news conference in Stockholm with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.

Back home, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could vote on authorizing the use of force as early as Wednesday, the first in a series of votes as the president’s request makes its way through Senate and House committees before coming before the two chambers for a final vote.

And in a setback to Obama’s push for backing on Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain said he doesn’t support the Senate resolution.

McCain has been an outspoken advocate of intervention and wants more than cruise missile strikes and other limited action, although he has said he doesn’t favor U.S. combat troops on the ground there.

Sending a message to Congress from afar, Obama said Wednesday there was far more than his own credibility at stake.


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"I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line," he said. "The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of world population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent." He added that Congress set a red line when it ratified the treaty.

With Obama in Europe, his top national security aides were to participate in a series of public and private hearings at the Capitol Wednesday to advance their case for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in retaliation for what the administration says was a deadly sarin gas attack by his forces outside Damascus last month.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top members drafted a resolution late Tuesday that permits Obama to order a "limited and tailored" military mission against Syria, as long as it doesn’t exceed 90 days and involves no American troops on the ground for combat operations.

"We have pursued a course of action that gives the president the authority he needs to deploy force in response to the Assad regime’s criminal use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, while assuring that the authorization is narrow and focused," said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who drafted the measure with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel’s senior Republican.

"We have an obligation to act, not witness and watch while a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in plain view," Menendez said.

Obama also needed to persuade a Republican-dominated House that has opposed almost the entirety of Obama’s agenda since seizing the majority more than three years ago. Several conservative Republicans and some anti-war Democrats already have come out in opposition to Obama’s plans, even as Republican and Democratic House leaders gave their support to the president Tuesday.

House Speaker Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and declared that the U.S. has "enemies around the world that need to understand that we’re not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it’s necessary."

Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, also backed action. But he acknowledged the split positions among both parties and said it was up to Obama to "make the case to Congress and to the American people that this is the right course of action."

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, will try to make that argument in a public hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. They and other senior administration officials also will provide classified briefings to the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.

A consistent refrain in Tuesday’s Senate hearing was the need for clearer limits on the duration and scope of any resolution that authorizes military force. Chief among them was language barring American soldiers from being sent to fight in Syria, something Obama has said repeatedly he has no intention of doing.

"There’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground," Kerry told lawmakers. "President Obama is not asking America to go to war."

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