Obama defends cautious tack on Egypt and Syria

But the president did say he had a shorter timeline for a decision about how to respond to alleged chemical weapons attacks.

LOS ANGELES TIMESAugust 24, 2013 

In an interview with CNN that aired Friday morning, President Obama cited international law and his concern about over-extending the U.S. military for his approach.

“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.

U.S. officials have said they are still seeking confirmation of the allegations that Syrian government forces had used a chemical attack against rebels during recent fighting in a suburb of Damascus, the country’s capital. Some members of Congress have called for the United States to attack the Syrian regime, perhaps by bombing its airfields, to respond to the alleged assault.

Asked whether the attacks had crossed the “red line” he had described a year ago, Obama said that “there are rules of international law” guiding his response.

“You know, 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.

He acknowledged criticism from lawmakers who have decried what they see as an inadequate response to the Syrian regime’s attacks.

“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 said.

Obama called the latest potential chemical weapons attack “clearly a big event of grave concern” and said that U.S. officials are pushing for action from the U.N. — and for the Syrian government to allow investigators access to the site.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told McClatchy Newspapers late Friday that a fourth Navy destroyer equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles was moved closer to Syria on Thursday.

But the official said any reports of preparations for a possible missile attack were "way overstated," and he said the three warships already in place in the eastern Mediterranean Sea had more than enough firepower to launch an attack were one to be made.

In the CNN interview, Obama said the same cautious view applies to his policy toward Egypt, where the military recently overthrew the elected, Islamist president. Military forces have killed hundreds of supporters of the former regime in the weeks since the overthrow.

A “full evaluation” of the U.S. relationship was underway, which could include suspending aid to the country, he said.

“The aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does. But I think what most Americans would say is that we have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and our ideals,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we can’t return to business as usual, given what’s happened.”

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