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Politics & Government

Obama Wins Support From Only Half Of G-20


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama is back in Washington, D.C. today preparing to make a domestic political push for a military strike on Syria. Mr. Obama spent the last several days overseas telling foreign leaders the Syrian government must be held accountable for a deadly chemical weapons attack. The president's trip produced mixed results. About half the leaders at the G-20 Summit in Russia signed a joint statement in support of U.S. action; the other half remained wary.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: In asking Congress to authorize a strike on Syria, President Obama said political support would make any military action more effective. But he knew going in, winning that congressional support would be a heavy lift.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is hard and I was under no illusions when I embarked on this path.

HORSLEY: Speaking at a news conference after the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Obama said the American people are justifiably suspicious of further involvement in the Middle East after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

OBAMA: That experience with the war in Iraq colors how people view this situation, not just back home in America but also here in Europe and around the world.

HORSLEY: Obama says it's his job to address those concerns and explain why he thinks a military strike is the right response to a chemical weapons attack. He plans to speak to the American people about Syria from the White House in Tuesday night. Obama says most of the leaders who attended this week's G-20 meeting believe the Syrian government was behind the chemical weapons attack, but not everyone's willing to punish the Syrian regime without United Nations authorization.

OBAMA: There are a number of countries that just as a matter of principle believe that if military action is to be taken, it needs to go through the U.N. Security Council.

HORSLEY: In general, Obama says that would be his preference too. But Russia has repeatedly blocked U.N. action on Syria and Obama says the international community can't wait forever.

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: Obama held a surprise meeting yesterday with Russian president Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit. The two men spoke for about 20 minutes. Putin said through an interpreter the meeting was constructive, though he didn't change his mind about Syria, and neither did Obama.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through Translator) We stick to our guns. Everybody remained with his position. We understand each other, we listen to each other, we understand arguments; we do not agree with those arguments, but still we can hear them.

HORSLEY: At the conclusion of the Summit, ten countries joined the United States in calling for a strong international response to the chemical weapons attack and supporting U.S. efforts to reinforce the near century-old ban on chemical weapons. To critics who say a limited military strike wouldn't go far enough towards ending Syria's civil war, Obama answered that's not the goal.

OBAMA: We may not solve the whole problem, but this particular problem of using chemical weapons on children, this one we might have an impact on, and that's worth acting on.

HORSLEY: Many lawmakers are not convinced. And polls suggest U.S. public opinion is running nearly two to one against military involvement in Syria. Obama noted many successful military missions, including Kosovo, were initially unpopular. He quoted a small country's leader who said it's always the United States that other countries look to in situations like this. Obama said the American people will have to decide whether that's a responsibility they're willing to bear.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, St. Petersburg, Russia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.