President Barack Obama hinted Friday at a possible U.S. response to a suspected chemical weapons attack by the Syrian army on innocent civilians, including children, calling it "a big event of grave concern."
In an exclusive interview with CNN
, the president responded "Yes" when asked whether the government is operating on a "more abbreviated time frame" on decisions related to the region that some lawmakers say should include military action.
Calling America the "one indispensible nation" in helping to stabilize the Middle East, he said, "We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long term national interests, 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."
He also said that U.S. officials are "right now gathering information" about claims by anti-Syrian regime activists that dictator Bashar al-Assad's government used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,300 people.
But he added, "What we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern . . . It is very troublesome."
The president said U.S. officials are also pushing to "prompt better action" from the United Nations and are calling on the Syrian government to allow an investigation of the site of the alleged chemical attack. But he added, "We don't expect cooperation [from the Syrian government], given their past history."
Obama also hit back at recent criticism from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who said U.S. credibility in the Middle East has been compromised because the administration hasn't responded quickly enough to the violence rocking the region.
"I am sympathetic to Senator McCain's passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking situation, both in Syria and in Egypt," Obama said.
"But what I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of what is in our long term national interests."
He warned against getting "mired in very difficult situations . . . [and] being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."
Obama continued, "If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it."
The president also reflected on U.S. strategy in response to the crisis in Egypt and a growing congressional consensus that the U.S. should cut off $1.2 billion in aid in the wake of the violent military crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, which resulted in some 900 people being killed.
"My sense . . . with Egypt is that the aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does," he said. "But I think what most Americans would say is that we have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and our ideals."
Obama said America's relationship with Egypt is under review and there is "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," he said. "They did not take that opportunity."
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