Obama's cautious, careful reaction to Syria chemicals

Mourners next to bodies of alleged chemical attack victims in Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, 21 August 2013 Image copyright AP
Image caption Activists say hundreds died in the alleged chemical attack near Damascus

President Barack Obama has spoken to CNN about what appears to be a chemical attack in Syria - and there's no doubt what the headlines are.

Mr Obama says the attack is "a big event of grave concern" that is "going to require America's attention" if proved true.

The BBC has learnt that some in the White House are furious and regard this attack as an outrage that breaches international law and demands a response.

The Wall Street Journal says the Pentagon is picking targets in order to punish the Assad government.

But it is worth reading the whole interview with the president to get a sense of his extreme caution.

First of all, it comes after a lengthy discussion about the cost of higher education - obviously that was his condition for doing the interview.

Then he says: "We're moving through the UN to try to prompt better action from them."

And then: "The notion that the US can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated."


He calls the attack "troublesome" and says it touches on core national interests of the US, but quickly adds: "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, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."

It is uncertain what action the US might take - curiously the state department has said that previously the red lines have been crossed and the US has taken action, but that they can't say what.

You might think a private punishment is not much of a deterrent and anything that happens now will have to be a lot more public.

But read that interview.

It does not sound like a man gung ho for military action. It sounds like the pleading of man being dragged, pushed and pulled by allies and world opinion to do something but who wants to be certain it doesn't end up in a new war.