QUESTION: 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 -- and 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.
OBAMA: 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 (ph), 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’ve got to do even more or claim to have previously criticized me for not hitting Assad and now are saying they’re going to vote no. And 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 -- 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?
QUESTION: Just a follow-up (OFF-MIKE) full congressional approval (OFF-MIKE) Senate (OFF-MIKE) and the House does not (OFF- MIKE) would you go ahead with the strike?
OBAMA: You know, Brianna (ph), 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.
OBAMA: 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 -- these are going to be the kinds of national security threats that are most likely to recur over the next 5, 10 years.
There are 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.
There are 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.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Good morning, or good evening. I think it’s still good morning for that call.
OBAMA: By -- by tonight, it’ll be tonight.
When we get back home.
QUESTION: I think we’re all relieved.
QUESTION: I want to follow up on Brianna’s (ph) question because it seems these members of Congress are simply responding to their constituents.
QUESTION: 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 -- or more the opposition becomes vocal. Why do you think you’ve struggled with that?
And you keep talking about a limited mission. We have a report that indicates you’ve actually asked for an expanded lists of targets in Syria. And one military official told NBC News, it 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 Assad’s (ph) capabilities.
In terms of opposition, Chuck, I expected this. This is hard. And I was under no illusions when I -- 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 that there would be some politics interjecting...
OBAMA: No, I said some. But I -- 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.
OBAMA: And -- and when you start talking about chemical weapons and their proliferation, you know, those images of those bodies can sometimes be forgotten pretty quickly. I mean, the cycle moves -- 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 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 -- it’s a hard sell, but it’s something I believe in.
And -- and -- and as I explained to Brianna (ph), in this context, me making sure that the American people understand it, I think, is important before I take action.
John Karl (ph)?
QUESTION: 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 (ph) 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 (ph) asked the question very well, you know?
QUESTION: It’s a pretty basic question.
OBAMA: You know, I was gonna give you a different answer? No. (LAUGHTER)
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 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 gonna 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 what? That’s -- 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 mean. that’s why they re-elected me, even after there were some decisions I made that they disagreed with. And I would hope that members of Congress would end up feeling the same way.
The last point I would make. Those 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 -- I’m not drawing an analogy to World War II, other than to say 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. It 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. And these entanglements far away are dangerous and different.
OBAMA: I -- you know, to bring the analogy closer to home, you know, the intervention in Kosovo, very unpopular. But ultimately I think it was the right thing to do, and the international community should be glad that it came together to do it.
When people say that it is -- it is a terrible stain on all of us that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Rwanda, well imagine if Rwanda was going on right now. And we asked: Should we intervene in Rwanda? I think it’s fair to say that it probably wouldn’t poll real well.
So, you know, typically when any kind of military action is popular, it’s because either there’s been a very clear, direct threat to us -- 9/11. Or an administration uses various hooks to suggest that American interests were directly threatened, like in Panama or Grenada. And sometimes those hooks are more persuasive than others, but typically they’re not put before Congress. And again, we just went through something pretty tough with respect to Iraq.
So, all that I guess provides some context for why you might expect people to be resistant here.
QUESTION: But your deputy national security adviser said that it is not your intention to attack if Congress doesn’t approve it. Is he right?
OBAMA: I don’t think that’s exactly what he said, but I think I’ve answered -- I’ve answered the question.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.
Those of us who remember covering your campaign remember you saying that militarily when the United States acts, it’s not just important what it does, but how it goes about doing it. And that even when America sets its course, it’s important to engage the international community and listen to different ideas even as it’s pursuing that action.
I wonder if you leave here and return to Washington, seeing the skepticism there, hearing it here, with any different ideas that might delay military action. For example, some in Congress have suggested giving the Syrian regime 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, get rid of its chemical stockpiles, do something that would enhance the international sense of accountability for Syria, but delay military action.
Are you, Mr. President, looking at any of these ideas? Or are we on a fast track to military action as soon as Congress renders its judgment one way or the other?
OBAMA: I am listening to all these ideas. And some of them are constructive. And I’m listening to ideas in Congress and I’m listening to ideas here. Look, I want to repeat here. My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real. I want it to be serious. I want people to understand that gassing innocent people, you know, delivering chemical weapons against children, is not something we do.
It’s prohibited in active wars between countries. We certainly don’t do it against kids. And we’ve got to stand up for that principle. If there are tools that we can use to ensure that, obviously my preference would be, again, to act internationally in a serious way and to make sure that Mr. Assad gets the message.
I’m not itching for military action. Recall, Major, that I have been criticized for the last couple of years by some of the folks who are now saying they would oppose these strikes, for not striking. And I think that I have a well-deserved reputation for taking very seriously and soberly the idea of military engagement.
So, we will look at these ideas. So far at least, I have not seen ideas presented that, as a practical matter, I think would do the job. But, you know, this is a situation where part of the reason I wanted to foster debate was to make sure that everybody thought about both the ramifications of action and...
QUESTION: So currently the -- the only way to enforce this international norm is militarily and even giving the Assad regime extra time would not achieve your goals.
OBAMA: What I’m saying, Major, is that so far what we’ve seen is a escalation by the Assad regime of chemical weapons use. You’ll recall that several months ago I said -- we now say with some confidence that at a small level Assad has used chemical weapons. We not only sent warnings to Assad, but we demarched, meaning, you know, we sent a strong message through countries that have relationships with Assad, that he should not be doing this. And rather than hold the line, we ended up with what we saw on August 21st.
So, this is not as if we haven’t tested the proposition that the guy -- or at least generals under his charge -- can show restraint when it comes to this stuff. And they’ve got one of the largest stockpiles in the world. But, I want to emphasize, that we continue to consult with our international partners. I’m listening to Congress. I’m not just doing the talking. And if there are good ideas that are worth pursuing, then I’m going to be open to them. I will take, last question, Tangy, AFP.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.
Yesterday night you had two unscheduled bilateral meetings with your Brazilian and Mexican counterparts after they voiced very strong concerns about being allegedly targeted by the NSA. What was your message to them? And do the relations -- the constant stream of relations since (ph) this summer, make it harder for you to build confidence with your partners in international forums such as this one?
I did meet with President Rousseff as well as the President Pena Nieto, of Brazil and Mexico respectively, to discuss the allegations made in the press about the NSA.
I won’t share with you all the details of the conversation. But what I said to them is consistent with what I’ve said publicly -- the United States has an intelligence agency. And our intelligence agency’s job is to gather information that’s not available through public sources. If they were available through public sources, then they wouldn’t be an intelligence agency.
In that sense, what we do is similar to what countries around the world do with their intelligence services. But what is true is that, you know, we are bigger, we have greater capabilities, you know, the difference between our capabilities and other countries probably tracks the differences in military capabilities between countries. And what I’ve said is that, because technology’s changing so rapidly, because these capabilities are growing, it is important for us to step back and review what it is that we’re doing. Because just because we can get information doesn’t necessarily always mean that we should. There may be costs and benefits to doing certain things, and we’ve got to weigh those. And I think that traditionally what’s happened, over decades, is the general assumption was, well, you know, whatever you can get, you just kind of pull in and then you kind of sift through later and try to figure out what’s useful.
The nature of technology and the legitimate concerns around privacy and civil liberties means that it’s important for us, on the front end, to say, all right, are we actually going to get useful information here. And if not, or how useful is it, if it’s not that important, should we be more constrained in how we use certain technical capabilities.
OBAMA: Now, just more specifically, then, on Brazil and Mexico, I said that I would look in to the allegations. Part of the problem is we get these through the press and then I’ve got to go back and find out what’s going on, with respect to these particular allegations. I don’t subscribe to all of these newspapers -- although I think the NSA does, now at least.
And -- and then what I assured President Rousseff and President Pena Nieto is that they should take -- that I take these allegations very seriously. I understand their concerns. I understand the concerns of the Mexican and Brazilian people; and that we will work with their teams to resolve what is a source of tension.
Now, the last thing I’d say about this, though, is just because there’re tensions doesn’t mean that it overrides all the -- incredibly wide-ranging interests that we share with so many of these countries.
And, you know, there’s a reason why I went to Brazil and there’s a reason why I invited President Rousseff to come to the United States. Brazil is an incredibly important country. It is a amazing success story in terms of a transition from authoritarianism to democracy. It is one of the most dynamic economies in the world. And, obviously, for the two largest nations in the hemisphere to have a strong relationship, that can only be good for the people of our two countries as well as the region. Same is true with Mexico, one of our closest friends, allies, and neighbors.
And so, you know, we will work through this particular issue. It does not distract from the larger concerns that we have and the opportunities that we both want to take advantage of.
Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you, St. Petersburg.