WASHINGTON – President Obama on Tuesday night pulled the United States from the brink of a military strike against Syria in order to pursue “encouraging signs” of a possible diplomatic solution.
In a nationally televised speech that attempted to navigate between international calls for action and a war-weary public back at home, Obama said he’s asked Congress to delay a vote authorizing the use of military force while the administration pursues a proposal that would have Syria surrender its chemical arms.
“We will work together in consultation with Russia and China at the U.N. Security Council” to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons and to “ultimately destroy them under international control,” Obama said.
Obama said recent diplomatic steps offer “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons” inside Syria without the use of force, but he also insisted the U.S. military will keep the pressure on President Bashar Assad “and be ready to respond” if other measures fail.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama acknowledged the weariness the nation feels after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“America is not the world’s policeman,” Obama said. And yet, he added, “When with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.
“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria,” he declared.
The speech capped a frenzied 10-day stretch of events that began when he unexpectedly announced he was stepping back from a threatened military strike and first asking Congress to pass legislation authorizing the use of force against Assad.
With public opinion polls consistently showing widespread opposition to American military intervention, the White House has struggled mightily to generate support among lawmakers – liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike – who have expressed fears of involvement in yet another war in the Middle East and have questioned whether U.S. national security interests were at stake in Syria. Obama had trouble, as well, building international support for a military attack designed to degrade Assad’s military.
Suddenly, though, events took another unexpected turn this week. First Russia and then Syria reacted positively to a seemingly off-hand remark from Secretary of State John F. Kerry indicating that the crisis could be defused if Damascus agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control.
The president said he was sending Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, and he added, “I will continue my own discussion” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, he said the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the United Nations Security Council “requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”
In a speech that lasted 16 minutes, Obama recounted the events of the deadly chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that the United States blames on Assad.
“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until these horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied,” he said.
The president said firmly that Assad’s alleged attack was “not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”
If diplomacy now fails and the United States fails to act, he said, “the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons” and “other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using” it. Over time, he added, U.S. troops could face the threat of chemical warfare, and if fighting escapes Syria’s border, “these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.”
The president sought to deal methodically with what he said were questions asked by lawmakers and citizens who took the time to write him with their concerns about U.S. military action.
“I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” he promised. “I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.
“This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.”
In the run-up to the president’s speech, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pointedly told a congressional hearing it was not time to let the threat of military retaliation lapse. “For this diplomatic option to have a chance at succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action, the credible, real threat of U.S. military action, must continue,” he declared.
At the same hearing, Kerry said any diplomacy “cannot be a process of delay. This cannot be a process of avoidance.” He later added that any agreement must include binding consequences if Syria fails to comply, and lawmakers moved to rewrite pending legislation along the same lines.
Obama himself “wasn’t overly optimistic about” prospects for a solution at the U.N., said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, after his party’s rank and file met privately for lunch in the Capitol with the president. He quoted Obama as saying that even if a credible plan could be worked out, it could be difficult to push through the U.N. Security Council. And, indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin said such a U.N. effort could work only if “the American side and those who support the USA in this sense reject the use of force.”
The president readied his speech as a small crowd of anti-war protesters, some waving signs, gathered outside the gates of the White House.
U.S. officials say more than 1,400 died in the Aug. 21 episode, including at least 400 children, and other victims suffered uncontrollable twitching, foaming at the mouth and other symptoms typical of exposure to chemical weapons banned by international treaty. Other casualty estimates are lower, and Assad has said the attack was launched by rebels who have been fighting to drive him from power in a civil war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians.
Assad’s patron, Russia, has blocked U.S. attempts to rally the Security Council behind a military strike. But Monday, after a remark by Kerry, it spoke favorably about requiring Syria to surrender control of its chemical weapons, and the Syrian foreign minister did likewise. The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Tuesday that his government was ready to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile in line with Russia’s proposal in order “to thwart U.S. aggression.” He also said Syria was prepared to sign an international chemical convention it has long rejected – a step it can take on its own at any time without U.S. or U.N. supervision.