Obama defends caution on Egypt and Syria

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 23, 2013 

President Obama defended his administration's approach to turmoil in Egpyt and Syria, even as he suggested the time for U.S. action is narrowing.

Obama called the latest potential chemical weapons attack in Syria "clearly a big event of grave concern" and said U.S. officials are pushing for "better action" from the UN -- and for the Syrian government to allow an investigation of the site.

"It is very troublesome," Obama told CNN in an interview that aired Friday. He cautioned that the "notion" that the US could solve a "sectarian, complex" conflict like Syria's is "overstated," but added "when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale that starts getting to some core national interests."

"As difficult as the problem is," he said, "This is something that is going to require America's attention and hopefully the entire international community's attention."

On Egypt, Obama said cutting aid to the military following a brutal crackdown on supporters of ousted president Mohammad Morsi, "may not reverse what the interim government does." But, he added, "I think what most Americans would say is that we have to be very careful about not being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and our ideals."

He said the US is reviewing the $1.5 billion in mostly military aid it sends to Egpyt, adding, "there's no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened. There was a space right after Mr. Morsi was removed in which we did a lot of heavy lifting and a lot of diplomatic work to try to encourage the military to move in a path of reconciliation. They did not take that opportunity."

Obama has faced mounting criticism for not stripping aid to Egypt and for not acting more forcefully in Syria after calling the use of chemical weapons a "red line," a year ago, but he defended his policies, saying the "American people" expect the president "to think through what we do from the perspective of our long term national interest."

The administration has raised the spectre of the war in Iraq and Obama added, "Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."

In Syria, he suggested the US needs more proof and more international partners before taking action, noting there are "rules of international law" and that "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 of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work."

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