Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday 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 policies in Syria and Libya as examples of “smart power,” an approach that she said emphasizes collective action and international consensus over unilateral solutions that rely disproportionately on U.S. 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 E. Panetta at a national security forum at the 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 Washington’s limited ability to directly influence a country with which it has few economic or political ties. 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.’ Okay, 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 Persian Gulf states as well as by Turkey, Syria’s neighbor and major trading partner.

So far there has been no evidence of a change of heart by Assad. Tuesday brought fresh reports of violence in at least two Syrian cities as protesters continued to take to the streets, braving sniper fire and, in one case, shelling from tanks, according to news reports. Both U.N. relief officials and the Palestine Liberation Organization condemned this week’s attacks by troops on a Palestinian refu­gee camp in Latakia. A PLO spokesman accused the regime of committing “a crime against humanity.”

At the Washington event, Clinton was asked if the limited U.S. response signaled that the United States would no longer be prepared to preserve stability in troubled corners of the world. Clinton replied that Americans would still lead but would no longer shoulder the burden alone.

“We have a very clear view that others need to be taking the same steps to enforce a universal set of values and interests,” she said.

Both Clinton and Panetta warned against deeper budget reductions for defense and diplomacy, saying the cuts would undermine the nation’s ability to deal with present security threats as well as future challenges, such as cyber-security and the rise of new economic powers.

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

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speak at the National Defense University on Tuesday. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)