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Obama: Congress, world credibility on the line over Syria

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4 2013 12:38 p.m. MDT

US President Barack Obama reacts during a press conference at Rosenbad, Swedish government building in Stockholm, Sweden, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013.

Frank Augstein, Associated Press

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, legislators on Capitol Hill debated whether a proposed resolution authorizing military force would shift the momentum after more than two years of Syrian civil war.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed a public meeting and huddled in private for more than three hours after Sen. John McCain, an outspoken advocate of intervention, said he did not support the latest version of the Senate resolution to authorize force. The Arizona Republican said he wants more than cruise missile strikes and other limited action, seeking a stronger response aimed at "reversing the momentum on the battlefield" and hastening the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

On the other side of the debate, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he was not persuaded to support military action, saying the military has been "decimated" by budget cuts and "we're just not in a position to take on any major confrontation."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said U.S. involvement could well "make the tragedy worse" in Syria, but he predicted that advocates of military intervention would win in the Senate.

"The only chance of stopping what I consider to be bad policy would be in the House," he said.

Obama, asked in Sweden about his own past comments drawing a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons, 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.

"That wasn't something I just kind of 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, it will send a message that despots and authoritarian regimes "can continue to act with impunity."

"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.

Asked whether he would take action against Syria if he fails to get approval from Congress, the president said his request to lawmakers was not "an empty exercise." But he said that as commander in chief, "I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security."

With Obama in Europe, the president's top national security aides briefed legislators in a series of public and private hearings, hoping to advance their case for limited strikes against Assad's regime in retaliation for what the administration says was a deadly sarin gas attack by his forces outside Damascus last month.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad's use of chemical weapons is "a line that anyone with a conscience should draw." He said U.S. intelligence can prove Assad has used the weapons at least 11 times, and said North Korea and Iran were watching America closely.

"The world is wondering whether the United States of America is going to consent with silence," Kerry said.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's public meeting on the resolution was delayed, but Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel's senior Republican, said there was a "reasonable chance" of a consensus developing and senators proceeding to a vote Wednesday. The panel began the day with a resolution that would permit 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.

The committee's vote would be the first in a series as the president's request makes its way through Senate and House committees before coming before the two chambers for a final vote.

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