(Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday strongly defended her department’s incremental response to the slayings of protesters in Syria, arguing that demands for the ouster of Syria’s president would accomplish little without the support of key allies in the region.

Clinton also sought to portray the Obama administration’s policy in both Syria and Libya as examples of “smart power,” an approach she said emphasizes collective action and international consensus over unilateral solutions that rely disproportionately on American troops and treasure.

“It’s not just brute force, it’s not just unilateralism, it’s being smart enough to say, ‘You know what? We want a bunch of people singing out of the same hymn book,” said Clinton, who appeared with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a national security forum at National Defense University, in Southwest Washington.

In some of her bluntest language to date on the administration’s cautious response to the Syrian uprising, Clinton acknowledged the limited U.S. ability to directly influence Syria, a country with few economic or political ties to the United States. And she struck back at critics who have accused the United States of failing Syria’s pro-democracy movement by not yet publicly demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. Administration officials said last week that such a call might come within days.

“It’s not going to be any news if the United States says ‘Assad needs to go.’ OK, fine, what’s next?” asked Clinton, who spoke before a room packed with service members, academics and journalists. “If Turkey says it, if [Saudi] King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”

Clinton pointed to fresh successes in building a “chorus of condemnation” against Assad, noting strong statements last week by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as well as by Turkey, Syria’s neighbor and major trading partner.

Clinton was asked by one audience member whether the more limited U.S. responses to recent Middle East unrest suggests that the United States is no longer prepared to preserve stability in troubled corners of the globe. Clinton replied that Americans would still lead, but she said the administration’s message to the world was that the United States would not carry the burden alone.

“It’s a message that the United States stands for our values, our interests and our security but that we have a very clear view that others need to be taking the same steps to enforce a universal set of values and interests,” Clinton said.

Both Clinton and Panetta warned of weakened U.S. security if Congress enacts deeper cuts to the budgets for defense and diplomacy.

“Very simply, it would result in hollowing out the force,” Panetta said “It would terribly weaken our ability to respond to the threats in the world. But more importantly, it would break faith with the troops and with their families.”

A stripped-down military and diplomatic corps also would undermine the country’s ability to deal with new threats, from cyberattacks to the challenge of rising economic powers such as China and India, he said.

But he added, “I don’t think we have to choose between our national security and fiscal responsibility.”