President Barack Obama defiantly defended his handling of Syria’s civil war on Tuesday, warning that Iraq showed the danger of acting on “perceived” evidence of weapons of mass destruction. And for those who doubt his determination to see Syrian leader Bashar Assad ousted from power, Obama bluntly pointed to the fate of Osama bin Laden and slain Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
"I don’t make decisions based on 'perceived,' and I can’t organize international coalitions around 'perceived,'" Obama said during a joint press conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. "We tried that in the past, by the way, and it didn’t work out well," he added, in a reference to Iraq.
Obama's comments came amid a chorus of questions and criticisms in response to the apparent use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime. The president last August labeled that kind of action a "red line" that could lead him to escalate America's role in the conflict, which the United Nations estimates has claimed the lives of at least 70,000 people. Republicans in Congress have pushed him to consider air strikes or the creation of a U.S.-enforced "no-fly zone" off limits to Syrian air power, and warned that the White House is sending a message of weakness to Assad.
"I would just point out that there have been several instances during the course of my presidency where I said I was going to do something, and it ended up getting done," Obama countered. "And there were times when there were folks on the sidelines wondering, 'Why hasn’t it happened yet?' and 'What’s going on?' and 'Why didn’t it go on tomorrow?'"
But in the end, Obama said, "whether it’s bin Laden or Gadhafi, if we say we’re taking a position, I would think at this point the international community has a pretty good sense that we typically follow through on our commitments." Elite U.S. commandos killed bin Laden in a May 2011 raid. And (after prodding from Congress) Obama made Gadhafi's removal a key part of the NATO-led campaign in Libya. Gadhafi was killed, apparently by Libyan rebels. Obama has provided rebels fighting to oust Assad with humanitarian aid. There have been news reports that American agents in Syria have been helping to train opposition forces and vet them to receive weapons from other countries—a sign of caution from Washington at a time when some of the best fighters against the regime have ties to al-Qaida. But administration officials say Obama also takes a pragmatic view of what America's core interests are and a skeptical view of calls to escalate America's role.
"We have both a moral obligation and a national security interest in a) ending the slaughter in Syria, but b) also ensuring that we’ve got a stable Syria that is representative of all the Syrian people, and is not creating chaos for its neighbors," Obama said Tuesday.
"Understandably, there’s a desire for easy answers. That’s not the situation there," he said. "And my job is to constantly measure our very real and legitimate humanitarian and national security interests in Syria, but measuring those against my bottom line, which is what’s in the best interests of America’s security and making sure that I’m making decisions not based on a hope and a prayer but on hard-headed analysis in terms of what will actually make us safer and stabilize the region."
Obama declared that "there'd be severe costs in doing nothing. That's why we're not doing nothing."
His remarks came as the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, told CBS News on Tuesday that the United States will "shortly" begin arming Syrian rebels, looking to boost moderate factions over al-Qaida-affiliated extremists whose rise would be a national security "nightmare."
"I do think we’ll be arming the opposition shortly," Corker of Tennessee said in an interview. "We’re doing a lot more there on the ground than really is known, but we do have to change the equation."