President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the world set a red line against chemical weapons use that he now seeks to apply to Syria, while a Senate committee approved a resolution authorizing the U.S. military attack that he is planning.
By a 10-7 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the resolution that authorizes a limited military response, giving Obama an initial victory in his push to win congressional approval.
The measure now goes to the full Senate for debate next week. The Democratic-led chamber is expected to pass it, but the outcome is less clear in the Republican-led House where top diplomatic and military officials made their case on Wednesday for action.
Liberal Democrats, tea party libertarians and moderates from both sides questioned Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey about whether limited military attacks can change anything and if they will lead to U.S. involvement in another war.
"What are the chances of escalation? Are different scenarios accounted for? If our credibility is on the line now as is argued what about if Assad retaliates?" asked GOP Rep. Ed Royce of California, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In Sweden on the first of a three-day overseas trip that includes the G-20 summit in Russia, Obama told reporters that the red line he spoke of last year regarding Syria's use of chemical weapons came from international treaties and past congressional action, rather than something he "made up."
Obama also insisted he had the authority to order attacks -- expected to be cruise missile strikes on Syrian military command targets -- even if Congress rejects his request for authorization.
America "recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws, governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time this world becomes less safe," Obama said. "It becomes more dangerous not only for those people who are subjected to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity."
He cited World War II as an example, saying "the people of Europe are certainly familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act." At the same time, "as commander in chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security," Obama said.
Conservative critics have said Obama painted himself into a corner with his statement last year that Syria's use of chemical weapons was a red line that would change his approach to its civil war.
Obama: It is the world's red line
"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said in August 2012. "That would change my calculus."
Now, critics on the right say, he must respond to an alleged chemical weapons attack outside Damascus by the Syrian regime that Kerry said killed more than 1,400 people or lose credibility.
The administration and top congressional leaders attempted to blunt that criticism on Tuesday during debate on Capitol Hill. Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the chamber's No. 2 Republican, said any president would have drawn that red line based on international norms.
Obama made that same argument on Wednesday, saying: "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."
"The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war," he said at a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on the first day of a four-day trip that includes the G-20 summit in Russia.
"Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty," Obama continued. "Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the 'Syria Accountability Act' that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for."
Sounding exasperated, Obama added: "That wasn't something I just kind of made up. I didn't pluck it out of thin air. There's a reason for it."
Obama prods international community to act
Asked about whether he was seeking to save face, Obama insisted that "my credibility is not on the line -- the international community's credibility is on the line."
He framed the question for the United Nations and the global community at large as: "Are we going to try to find a reason not to act? And if that's the case, then I think the (world) community should admit it."
Opposition by Russia, a Syrian ally, has scuttled U.S. and British efforts to get the U.N. Security Council to authorize a military response against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
U.N. inspectors returned from Syria last week from their mission to confirm if chemical weapons were used, but Kerry said Wednesday it would take three weeks for samples collected to analyzed and results announced.
"I respect the U.N. process," Obama said while standing next to Reinfeldt, who opposes military intervention without U.N. approval.
"We agree that the international community cannot be silent," Obama added, saying also that the U.N. investigators had done "heroic work."