STRELNA, Russia — President Barack Obama raced home Friday to confront one of the biggest tests of his presidency as he ramped up a campaign to persuade Congress to support air strikes against Syria that many world leaders he had consulted declined to back.
After two days of lobbying that included a vigorous dinner debate that went into the early morning hours, Obama failed to forge an international consensus behind military action as other leaders urged him not to attack without U.N. permission. But he won agreement from some allies blaming Syria’s government for a chemical weapons attack and endorsing unspecified actions.
The deep divisions on display here at the Group of 20 summit meeting raised the stakes even further for Obama as he seeks authorization from Congress for a “limited, proportionate” attack. He hoped to use the statement from allies condemning Syria to leverage more domestic support, but he acknowledged that he had a “hard sell” and might fail to win over an American public that polls show still oppose a strike.
Obama ordered aides to fan out in coming days with a series of speeches, briefings, telephone calls and TV appearances to sway both Democrats and Republicans reluctant to get involved in yet another Middle East war. He also announced that he would address the nation from the White House on Tuesday evening to lay out his case before Congress votes.
“Failing to respond to this breach of this international norm would send a signal to rogue nations, authoritarian regimes and terrorist organizations that they can use WMD and not pay a consequence,” he said at a news conference, using the acronym for weapons of mass destruction. “And that’s not a world we want to live in.”
The return to the Washington fray came after a tense overseas trip punctuated by an extraordinary showdown with the meeting’s host, President Vladimir Putin, who not only opposes a strike, but also dismisses the notion that Syria’s government gassed its own people.
During a long, late-night discussion about Syria, the two presidents competed for the support of the other leaders, each man arguing his position and soliciting peers as if they were voters. The only members of the Group of 20 nations that supported Obama’s plan, the Russian leader said, were Canada, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all countries that were on Obama’s side when he arrived here Thursday.