President Barack Obama warned in an interview broadcast Friday that Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attack this week will “require America’s attention” because it could threaten “core national interests.”
Obama’s comments, in an exclusive interview with CNN's "New Day," came amid a flurry of news reports suggesting his administration has stepped up consideration of possible military strikes against the regime of Bashar Assad.
The president did not explicitly confirm charges by the opposition to Assad that the regime in Damascus carried out the worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years, killing more than 1,000 people, but declared: “This is clearly a big event of grave concern.”
“This is something that is going to require America's attention and hopefully the entire international community's attention,” he said.
“There is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale,” he told CNN, “then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”
Obama defended his decision not to use military force thus far, noting that America is still fighting a war in Afghanistan, arguing that he has to worry about America’s long-term national interests, and suggesting that some of those passionately arguing for intervention forgot the lessons of Iraq.
“Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region,” he said.
And “if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account,” he said.
Arguably Obama's biggest critic on the issue has been Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who issued a blistering statement on Thursday condemning the president's approach and urging a far stronger American response.
"It has been a year since the President said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute the crossing of a red line. But, because these threats have not been backed up by any real consequences, they have rung hollow," McCain said. "As a result, the killing goes on, Assad remains in power, and his use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians apparently continues. It is long past time for the United States and our friends and allies to respond to Assad's continuing mass atrocities in Syria with decisive actions, including limited military strikes" targeting Syria's air force and missile facilities.
"This most recent massacre of innocent men, women, and children should shock our collective conscience — that is, whatever conscience remains after more than 100,000 Syrians have been slaughtered while the United States has largely remained on the sidelines," McCain said.
“I am sympathetic to Sen. McCain's passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking situation, both in Syria and in Egypt, and these two countries are in different situations,” Obama told CNN.
“But what I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of what is in our long-term national interests,” he added. “We remain the one indispensable nation. ... But that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately.”