President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations on Friday laid out the administration’s case for a “swift, limited and proportionate strike” in Syria, stressing that the United States was forced to act on its own because the U.N. was powerless in the face of opposition from Russia and China.
The ambassador said Russia had prevented the U.N. from even releasing general condemnations of violence in regard to Syria.
“We believe 1,400 people were gassed outside Damascus,” Power continued. “The Security Council could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval.”
Power said the U.S. had worked for more than a year to engage Syrian President Bashar Assad in the early stages of the uprising, and that the administration redoubled its efforts through the U.N. as the crisis grew.
The ambassador said that, despite these efforts, Assad “weighed the benefits” of using chemical weapons, and knowing he would have Russia at his back, gambled that there would be no repercussions.
“At this stage, the diplomatic process has been stalled because one side has been gassed and the other side thinks it’s gotten away with it,” Power said.
Power’s U.N. critique mirrors statements Obama made just hours earlier at a press conference at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Obama said he would “greatly prefer working through multilateral channels and through the United Nations to get this done,” but described an international community that is “paralyzed and frozen and doesn’t act.”
“It is my view … 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,” Obama said.
The president said he respects “those who are concerned about setting precedence of action outside of a U.N. Security Council resolution,” but argued the U.S. was justified in acting unilaterally to uphold an international ban on chemical weapons use.
“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,” Obama said. “And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling, and that makes for a more dangerous world, and that then requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future.”
“I also know 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,” he added. “And I believe that this is one of those times.”
On Friday, Foreign Policy reported that Saudi Arabia was considering seeking General Assembly approval on a U.N. resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons.
The General Assembly can’t authorize military action, and any resolution potentially considered by the Security Council would face almost certain veto from Russia or China. Obama on Friday belittled symbolic votes of condemnation by the international community.
“If we’re not acting, what does that say?" Obama asked. “You know, if we’re just issuing another statement of condemnation or passing resolutions saying wasn’t that terrible?’”
“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," he added.
"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 this we can get away with chemical weapons use -- it's a hard sell, but it's something I believe in."
Still, getting foreign governments on the record in regard to the atrocities in Syria could provide Obama some political cover for a strike.
White House spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters earlier this week that the president has spoken with leaders from a “solid number” of countries who he says will be on board with a U.S.-led strike, but did not say who the countries were or how many they numbered.
On Friday, the White House released a joint statement with Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom condemning “in the strongest terms the horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21st that claimed the lives of so many men, women, and children.”
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Friday called a potential U.S. military strike against Syria without U.N. support “ill-considered,” and warned of the “tragic” consequences it would have. Ban argues that the Assad regime should be held responsible, but only through U.N. action of it independently verifies allegations of chemical weapons attacks.
Obama will take the case for a military strike on Syria to the nation in an Oval Office address on Tuesday.