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President Obama Press Conference

Aired September 6, 2013 - 10:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: -- in the days ahead. And I'm confident that if we deliberate carefully and we choose wisely, and embrace our responsibilities, we can meet the challenges of this moment as well as those in the days ahead. So, with that, let me take some questions. I've got my handy list, and I will start with Julie Pace from A.P.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Mr. President. You mentioned the number of countries that have condemned the use of chemical weapons, but your advisers also say you are leaving this summit with a strong number of countries backing your call for military action. President Putin just a short time ago indicated it may only be a handful of countries including France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Can you tell us publicly what countries are backing your call for military action? And did you change any minds here? President Putin also mentioned your meeting with him earlier today. Can you tell us how that came about, and did you discuss both Syria and Edward Snowden? Thank you.

OBAMA: I believe that there will be a statement issued later this evening although hopefully in time for you guys to file back home. That indicates some of the additional countries that are making public statements. Last night we had a good discussion and I want to give President Putin credit that he facilitated I think a full airing of views on the issue. And here's how I would describe it.

Without giving the details or betraying the confidence of those who were speaking within the confines of the dinner. It was unanimous that chemical weapons were used, a unanimous conclusion that chemical weapons were used in Syria. There was a unanimous view that the norm against using chemical weapons has to be maintained. That these weapons were banned for a reason and that the international community has to take those norms seriously.

I would say that the majority of the room is comfortable with our conclusion that Assad, the Assad government, was responsible for their use. Obviously, this is disputed by President Putin, but if you polled the leaders last night, I'm confident that you'd get a majority who said it is most likely, we are pretty confident, that the Assad regime used it. Where there is a division, it has to do with the United Nations.

You know, there are number a of countries that just as a matter of principle believe that if military action is to be taken, it needs to go through the U.N. Security Council. There are others, and I put myself in this camp, as somebody who is a strong supporter of the United Nations, who very much appreciates the courage of the investigators who have gone in and looks forward to seeing the U.N. report because I think we should try to get more information, not less, in this situation.

It is my view and a view that was shared by a number of people in the room that given security council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use, then an international response is required and that will not come through security council action. And that's where I think the division comes from. And I respect those who are concerned about setting precedents of action outside of a U.N. Security Council resolution.

I would greatly prefer working through multilateral channels and through the United Nations to get this done. But ultimately what I believe in even more deeply because I think that the security of the world and my particular task looking out for the national security of the United States requires that when there's a breach this brazen of a norm this important and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn't act, then that norm begins to unravel.

And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unravelling. And that makes for a more dangerous world. And that, then, requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future. You know, over 1,400 people were gassed. Over 400 of them were children. This is not something we've fabricated. This is not something that we are looking -- are using as an excuse for military action.

As I said last night, I was elected to end wars and not start them. I've spent the last 4-1/2 years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power as a means of meeting our international obligations and protecting the American people. But what I also know is, is that there are times where we have to make hard choices if we're going to stand up for the things that we care about.

And I believe that this is one of those times. And if we end up using the U.N. Security Council not as a means of enforcing international norms and international law but, rather, as a barrier to acting on behalf of international norms and international law, then I think people rightly are going to be pretty skeptical about the system and whether it can work to protect those children that we saw on those videos.

And sometimes the further we get from the horrors of that the easier it is to rationalize not making tough choices, and I understand that. This is not convenient. This is not something that I think a lot of folks around the world, you know, find an appetizing set of choices. But the question is do these norms mean something? And if we're not acting, what does that say?

You know, if we're just issuing another statement of condemnation for passing resolutions saying wasn't that terrible, you know, if people who, you know, decry international inaction in Rwanda and, you know, say how terrible it is that there are these human rights violations that take place around the world, then why aren't we doing something about it, and they always look to the United States. Why isn't the United States doing something about this, the most powerful nation on earth?

Why are you allowing these terrible things to happen? And then if the international community turns around when we're saying it's time to take some responsibility and says, well, hold on a second, we're not sure. That erodes our ability to maintain the kind of norms that we're looking at. Now, I know that was a lengthy answer and you had a second part of your question.

The conversation I had with President Putin was on the margins of the plenary session and, you know, it was a candid and constructive conversation, which characterizes my relationship with him. I know, as I've said before, everybody's always trying to look for body language and all that, but the truth of the matter is that my interactions with him tend to be very straightforward. We discussed Syria, and that was primarily the topic of conversation.

Mr. Snowden did not come up beyond me saying that -- re-emphasizing that where we have common interests, I think it's important for the two of us to work together. And on Syria, I said, listen, I don't expect us to agree on this issue of chemical weapons use although it is possible that after the U.N. inspectors' report it may be more difficult for Mr. Putin to maintain his current position about the evidence.

But what I did say is that we both agree that the underlying conflict can only be resolved through a political transition as envisioned by the Geneva 1 and Geneva 2 process. So, we need to move forward together, even if the U.S. and Russia and other countries disagree on this specific issue of how to respond to chemical weapons use, it remains important for us to work together to try to urge all parties in the conflict to try to resolve it because we've got 4 million people internally displaced.

We've got millions of people in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, who are desperate, and the situation's only getting worse, and that's not in anybody's interests. It's not in America's interest. It's not in Russia's interest. It's not in the interests of the people in the region, and obviously it's not in the interest of Syrians who have seen their lives completely disrupted and their country shattered.

So, that is going to continue to be a project of ours, and that does speak, you know, to an issue that has been raised back home around this whole issue. You've heard some people say, well, you know, we think if you're going to do something, you got to do something big, and maybe this isn't big enough or maybe it's too late or, you know, other responses like that. You know, what I've tried to explain is, look, we may not solve the whole problem, but this particular problem of using chemical weapons on children, this one we might have an impact on and that's worth acting on.

That's important to us. And what I've also said is, is that as far as the underlying conflict's concerned, unless the international community is willing to put massive numbers of troops on the ground -- and I know nobody's signing up for that -- we're not going to get a long-term military solution for the country. And that is something that can only come about I think if, as different as our perspectives may be, myself, Mr. Putin, and others, are willing to set aside those differences and put some pressure on the parties on the ground. OK? Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: On the resolution to authorize the use of force, one of the big challenges right now isn't just Republicans, but it's from some of your loyal Democrats. It seems that the more they hear from classified briefings that the less likely they are to support you. If the full Congress doesn't pass this, will you go ahead with the strike? And also, Senator Susan Collins, one of the few Republicans who breaks with her party to give you support at times, she says, what if we execute this strike and then Assad decides to use chemical weapons again, do we strike again? And many Democrats are asking that as well. How do you answer her question?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, in terms of the votes and the process in Congress, I knew this was going to be a heavy lift. I said that on Saturday when I said we're going to take it to Congress. You know, our polling operations are pretty good, you know, I tend to have a pretty good sense of what current popular opinion is. And for the American people who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion, and that suspicion will probably be even stronger in my party than in the Republican Party.

You know, since a lot of the people who supported me remember that I opposed the war in Iraq. And what's also true, is that experience with the war in Iraq colors how people view this situation. Not just back home in America, but also here in Europe and around the world. You know, that's the prism through, which a lot of people are analyzing the situation. So, I understand the skepticism. I think it is very important, therefore, for us to work through systematically making the case to every senator and every member of Congress.

And that's what we're doing. I dispute a little bit, Brianna, the notion that people come out of classified briefings and they're less in favor of it. I think that when they go through the classified briefings, they feel pretty confident that, in fact, chemical weapons were used and that the Assad regime used them. Where you will see resistance is people being worried about a slippery slope and how effective a limited action might be.

And our response, based on my discussions with our military, is that we can have a response that is limited, that is proportional, that -- when I say limited, it's both in time and in scope, but that is meaningful and that degrades Assad's capacity to deliver chemical weapons. Not just this time but also in the future and serves as a strong deterrent. Now, is it possible that Assad doubles down in the face of our action and uses chemical weapons more widely?

I suppose anything's possible, but it wouldn't be wise. I think at that point mobilizing the international community would be easier, not harder. I think it would be pretty hard for the U.N. Security Council at that point to continue to resist the requirement for action. And we would gladly join with an international coalition to make sure that it stops. So, you know, one of the biggest concerns of the American people, you know, certain members of Congress may have different concerns.

There may be certain members of Congress who say we got to do even more or claim to have previously criticized me for not hitting Assad and now we're saying they're going to vote no. You'll have to ask them exactly how they square that circle. But for the American people at least, the concern really has to do with understanding that what we're describing here would be limited and proportionate and designed to address this problem of chemical weapons use and upholding a norm that helps keep all of us safe. And that is going to be the case that I try to make, not just to congress but to the American people, over the coming days. OK?

KEILAR: Just a follow-up. Do you have full congressional approval? What did you say in the House -- would you go ahead and strike?

OBAMA: You know, Brianna, I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate because right now I'm working to get as much support as possible out of Congress. But I'll repeat something that I said in Sweden when I was asked a similar question. I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism. I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad's use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States.

In that situation obviously, I don't worry about Congress. We do what we have to do to keep the American people safe. I could not say that it was immediately, directly going to have an impact on our allies. Again, in those situations, I would act right away. This wasn't even a situation like Libya where, you know, you've got troops rolling towards Benghazi and you have a concern about time in terms of saving somebody right away. This was an event that happened.

My military assured me that we could act today, tomorrow, a month from now, that we could do so proportionally but meaningfully. And in that situation, I think it is important for us to have a serious debate in the United States about -- about these issues. Because these are going to be the kinds of national security threats that are most likely to recur over the next five, ten years. They're very few countries who are going to go at us directly.

I mean, we have to be vigilant, but our military is unmatched. Those countries that are large and powerful like Russia or China, you know, we have the kind of relationship with them where we're not getting in conflicts of that sort, at least, you know, over the last several decades there's been a recognition that neither country benefits from that kind of great power conflict.

So, the kinds of national security threats that we're going to confront, they're terrorist threats, they're failed states, they are the proliferation of deadly weapons, and in those circumstances, you know, a president's going to have to make a series of decisions about which one of these threats over the long term starts making us less and less safe and where we can work internationally, we should. They're going to be times, though, where, as is true here, the international community is stuck for a whole variety of political reasons. And if that's the case, people are going to look to the United States and say, what are you going to do about it. And that's not a responsibility that we always enjoy, you know, there was a leader of a smaller country who I've spoken to over the last several days who said, you know, I don't envy you, because I'm a small country and nobody expects me to do anything about chemical weapons around the world.

They know I have no capacity to do something and it's tough because people do look to the United States. And the question for the American people is, is that responsibility that we're willing to bear. And I believe that when you have a limited, proportional strike like this, not Iraq, not putting boots on the ground, not some long, drawn- out affair, not without any risks but with manageable risks, that we should be willing to bear that responsibility. Chuck Todd?

CHUCK TODD: Thank you, Mr. President. Good morning or good evening. I think it's still good morning back home.

OBAMA: By tonight it will be tonight when we get back home.

TODD: I think we're all relieved.


TODD: I want to follow-up on Brianna's questions because it seems these members of Congress are simply responding to their constituents.


TODD: And you're seeing a lot of these town halls and it seems as if the more you press your case, the more John Kerry presses the case on your behalf, the more the opposition grows. And maybe it's just or the more the opposition becomes vocal. Why do you think you've struggled with that? And you keep talk about a limited mission. We have a report that indicates you've actually asked for an expanded list of targets in Syria and one military official told NBC News, characterized it as mission creep. Can you respond to that report?

OBAMA: That report is inaccurate. I'm not going to comment on operational issues that, you know, are sourced by some military official. One thing I've got a pretty clear idea about is what I talk with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about and what we have consistently talked about is something limited and proportional that would degrade Mr. Assad's capabilities.

In terms of opposition, Chuck, I expected this. This is hard and I was under no illusions when I embarked on this path. But I think it's the right thing to do. I think it's good for our democracy. We will be more effective if we are unified going forward. And, you know, part of what we knew would be there would be some politics interjecting -- no I said some.

But what I have also said is that the American people have gone through a lot when it comes to the military over the last decade or so. And so I understand that. And when you start talking about chemical weapons and their proliferation, you know, those images of those bodies can sometimes be forgotten pretty quickly. The news cycle moves on.

Frankly, if we weren't talking about the need for an international response right now, this wouldn't be what everybody would be asking about. You know, there would be some resolutions that were being proffered in the United Nations and the usual hocus-pocus. But the world and the country would have moved on.

So, trying to impart a sense of urgency about this, why we can't have an environment in which over time people start thinking we can get away with chemical weapons use, it's a hard sell, but it's something I believe in. And as I explained to Brianna, in this context, me making sure that the American people understand it, I think is important before I take action. John Karl?

JOHN KARL: Thank you, Mr. President. One of your closest allies in the House said yesterday when you've got 97 percent of your constituents saying no, it's kind of hard to say yes. Why should members of Congress go against the will of their constituents and support your decision on this? And I still haven't heard a direct response to Brianna's question. If Congress fails to authorize this, will you go forward with an attack on Syria?

OBAMA: Right. And you're not getting a direct response. Brianna asked the question very well, you know --

KARL: It's a pretty basic question.

OBAMA: You know, I was going to give you a different answer? No. What I have said -- and I will repeat -- is that I put this before Congress for a reason. I think we will be more effective and stronger if, in fact, Congress authorizes this action. I'm not going to engage in parlor games now, Jonathan, about whether or not it's going to pass when I'm talking substantively to Congress about why this is important.

And talking to the American people about why this is important. Now, with respect to Congress and how they should respond to constituency concerns, you know, I do consider it part of my job to help make the case and to explain to the American people exactly why I think this is the right thing to do. And it's conceivable that at the end of the day I don't persuade a majority of the American people that it's the right thing to do.

And then each member of Congress is going to have to decide if I think it's the right thing to do for America's national security and the world's national security, then how do I vote. And, you know, that's what you're supposed to do as a member of Congress. Ultimately you listen to your constituents, but you've also got to make some decisions about what you believe is right for America.

And that's the same for me as president of the United States. There are a whole bunch of decisions that I make that are unpopular, as you well know. But I do so because I think they're the right thing to do. And I trust my constituents want me to offer my best judgment, that's why they elected me. That's-elected me even after there were some decisions I made that they disagreed with, and I would hope members of congress would end up feeling the same way.

Last point I would make, you know, these kinds of interventions, these kinds of actions, are always unpopular because they seem distant and removed. And I want to make sure I'm being clear. I'm not drawing an analogy to World War II. Other than to say, you know, when London was getting bombed, it was profoundly unpopular both in Congress and around the country to help the British. It doesn't mean it wasn't the right thing to do.

Just means people, you know, are struggling with jobs and bills to pay and they don't want their sons or daughters put in harm's way. These entanglements far away are dangerous and different. You know, to bring the analogy closer to home, you know, the intervention in Kosovo, very unpopular --