President Barack Obama on Friday addressed
growing calls for US action in Syria and Egypt by insisting the
country could not step in to either conflict without international
backing and without thinking about the long-term consequences.
But Obama also indicated in an interview with CNN that the time frame for involvement in both conflicts had been "abbreviated" by new allegations about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and by the massive killings of demonstrators in Egypt.
His ambivalence reflects growing divisions within his Democratic administration and Congress about what Washington should do. Senator John McCain, a Republican, has repeatedly insisted that the United States has lost credibility in the Middle East by its lack of action, saying it has emboldened both Damascus and the military regime in Cairo.
According to The New York Times, Obama's top security advisors met for three and a half hours at the White House on Thursday to discuss allegations of renewed chemical weapons use in Syria - which, if proven, would trigger Obama's standard for crossing a red line.
The military options would range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign, according to unnamed officials cited by The New York Times.
But the senior advisors came to no conclusion during thier Thursday meeting, amid deepening division between advocates of immediate action and those who say military action would be reckless, the paper reported.
Asked by a CNN correspondent Friday if the US is now facing a "more abbreviated time frame" on Syria and Egypt, Obama simply said "yes."
On Syria, he said the new evidence, unlike that of earlier reports, shows "that this is clearly a big event of grave concern." The attack was reported to have killed more than 1,300 people in Syria.
"There is no doubt that when you see chemical weapons used on a large scale it is very troublesome, and that starts getting to some core national interests that the US has ... to make sure weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating as well as to protect our allies, our bases in the region," he added.
The US is pushing the United Nations to "prompt better action" on Syria and has called on the Syrian government to allow inspection of the most recent report.
"We don't expect cooperation (from Damascus) given past history," Obama said.
Obama refuted the notion that the United States "can somehow solve" the complex sectarian situation in Syria. The US is still involved in the war in Afghanistan, and there are human costs to US military involvement, which he sees every time he visits wounded soldiers, Obama said.
While the US has pledged to deliver arms to the rebels in Syria, for example, none have as of yet been reported to have arrived.
On Egypt, Obama said the US is wary about backing either the military government or the demonstrators.
As with other conflicts in the Middle East, Washington is caught in Egypt between backing the historic role that oppressive regimes have played in keeping the lid on militant Islamism and advocating for the new spirit of democracy that has not only ousted some of those governments but also become vulnerable to infiltration by al Qaeda.
"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," Obama said on Egypt.
The administration is currently "doing a full evaluation of the US-Egyptian relationship" and there is "no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened," he said.
Over the past years, with memories of the Iraq war gone awry, Obama's reluctance to get involved going back to Libya has drawn fire from critics at home as well as abroad.
Obama has taken minor steps against the Egyptian military government, cancelling a planned joint military exercise and the delivery of fighter jets. But he has not cancelled the more than 1 billion dollars in military aid, aware of warnings from Israel and Saudi Arabia that Cairo's military government is the only wall against the terrorist threat.
In the interview, Obama warned against getting "mired in very difficult situations" and "being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."
"If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate, and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it," Obama said.
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