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White House Defends Obama on Syria, After McCain Criticism

FILE - Senator John McCain.

FILE - Senator John McCain.

The White House has strongly defended President Barack Obama against criticism by a prominent Republican senator who accused Obama of failing to fulfill pledges to act to prevent mass atrocities, including killings in Syria.

Senator John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential election, has been a consistent critic of Obama's foreign policy, especially when it comes to the U.S. response to bloodshed in Syria.

McCain escalated his criticism during emotional remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday.

He recalled a presidential study directive on mass atrocities, issued in 2011, in which Obama identified preventing mass atrocities as a "core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States."

McCain also quoted the president's speech last year to the United Nations General Assembly. The speech occurred amid global revulsion at chemical weapons attacks in Syria, blamed on the Assad government.

"Where is the President Obama who has spoken so movingly about the moral responsibilities that great power confers? Where is President Obama who has said he refuses to accept that brutal tyrants can slaughter their people with impunity while the most powerful nation in the history of the world looks on and stands by? Where is the recognition that the quote 'cold logic of mass graves' is right there, right in front of us, Syria today," said McCain.

Obama has spoken on numerous occasions about his view that the U.S. cannot solve all conflicts, but does have a moral obligation to support people facing repression and violence.

In Syria, he threatened to use U.S. military force last year in response to chemical weapons use, but eventually pursued a negotiated solution that is now in the process of removing and destroying the weapons.

In remarks at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington in 2012, Obama said the United States cannot intervene militarily in response to every injustice but does use diplomatic, economic and other tools to help save lives.

"It’s a bitter truth - too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save," said President Obama.

Press secretary Jay Carney had this response when asked by VOA about McCain's criticisms, and if Obama feels he has fulfilled past pronouncements about moral responsibilities to respond to or help prevent atrocities.

"I'm not sure exactly what he [McCain] is advocating, if he's advocating a U.S. invasion of Syria? I don't know. Is he advocating a bombing campaign? The president has spoken clearly about his views on these issues, as he made clear yesterday he doesn't take options off the table as a general principle as president, but it has certainly been his view that the course of action we have taken when it comes to Syria has been the right one," said Carney.

During a joint news conference Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande, President Obama called the situation in Syria "horrendous," but said the U.S. does not see a "military solution per se to the problem."

Jay Carney responded this way when asked if it is time to acknowledge that Obama's Syria policy is a failure.

"The crisis in Syria is a crisis. The circumstances on the ground are horrific. That is why we have to bring the parties together to try to compel them towards a negotiated political settlement because there isn't a military solution here. The Assad regime is not going to win militarily. And the opposition, the Syrian people are not going to abide by a future in which Assad continues to govern them," he said.

Syria and the spillover effects of the civil war there were the subjects of talks Wednesday in Washington between Vice President Joe Biden and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

President Obama meets with the Jordanian leader on Friday in Rancho Mirage, California.

Syria also is certain to figure in talks President Obama has on March 3 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.