President Obama said a reported chemical-weapons attack by the Syrian government against its own citizens is a “big event of grave concern” but cautioned against a hasty U.S. military response without the help of its allies.
In a wide-ranging interview with Chris Cuomo broadcast Friday on CNN’s “New Day” program, the president said that claims by anti-regime activists in Syria that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical weapons in an attack that killed as many as 2,000 people was “very troublesome.” He said the situation poses a potentially dangerous security threat to the region and the U.S.
“That starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama said.
But he vowed not to commit U.S. troops in Syria without a comprehensive game plan and the support of the international community.
“The situation in Syria is very difficult and the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated,” Obama said.
“It is fair to say that, as difficult as the problem is, this is something that is going to require America’s attention and hopefully the entire international community’s attention.”
The president also cautioned against intervening in strife-torn Egypt without a clear “perspective of what is in our long-term national interests.”
“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 … that actually breed more resentment in the region,” he said.
Obama said that while the U.S. is the world’s “one indispensable nation,” that “does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately.”
“We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians,” he said.
Regarding recent revelations that the National Security Agency violated its own surveillance rules on thousands of occasions while spying on Americans, Obama told CNN that he is confident no one at the agency is “trying to abuse this program or listen in on people’s e-mail.”
But he acknowledged there are “legitimate concerns that people have” regarding the NSA and vowed to “continue to improve [surveillance] safeguards” that protect the privacy of Americans.
“There’s no doubt that, for all the work that’s been done to protect the American people’s privacy, the capabilities of the NSA are scary to people,” he said.
“One of the challenges that we have is, even as we put in safeguards to make sure that the U.S. government doesn’t abuse these capabilities, we’ve also got to make sure that foreign governments aren’t hacking into our banks, aren’t hacking into our critical infrastructure, are making sure that consumers are protected.”
The president also urged a politically divided Congress to pass a spending authority bill to fund government agencies in time for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, despite a threat by some Republicans to withhold funding unless his health care law is defunded.
“This is actually not that complicated,” he said. “Congress doesn’t have a whole lot of core responsibilities. One core responsibility is passing a budget, which they have not done yet. The other core responsibility that they’ve got is to pay the bills that they’ve already accrued.”
But the president promised to help broker a solution to avoid a government shutdown, saying “the buck stops with me.”
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get Congress — and Republicans in Congress in particular — to think less about politics and party and think more about what’s good for the country,” he said.