President Obama made his most forceful case yet for American military action against Syria in a televised speech to the nation from the East Room of the White House Tuesday evening. But he pledged to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.
"It is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike," Obama said, asserting later that "sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough."
Nonetheless, Obama, perhaps hemmed in by a lack of support from Congress and the American public, said he'd work with Russia, China, and others to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons peacefully. And he added that he'd asked the Senate to delay a vote on authorizing military force, perhaps stepping back from a potential standoff with lawmakers over the issue. (A top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told NBC News that Obama had not officially asked, but had instead deferred to the Senate leader.)
Obama argued that a failure to respond to the chemical weapons attacks would pose "a danger to our security."
"If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," Obama said. And that, in turn, could lead others nations to follow suit, he argued, potentially endangering U.S. troops and our allies in the region, and making it easier for terrorists to acquire such weapons.
Obama also made a humanitarian case for action. "When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory," he said. "But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied."
Obama was at pains to present himself as reluctant to wage war, and as responsive to the concerns of a nation tired of overseas entanglements. He read letters he'd received from ordinary Americans, including a military veteran, raising concerns about the prospect of intervention, and declared: "I've spent four and a half years working to end wars, not start them."
Obama stressed the limited nature of the action he's urging. "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," he said. "This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s abilities."
And Obama sought to appeal to a range of ideological positions on issues of war and peace. "To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just," he said. "To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor."
The East Room speech was part of a final push by the Obama administration to win backing for a U.S. military strike on Syria, even as polls show that public support—not strong to begin with—has weakened lately. Members of Congress, too—from both parties—appear increasingly reluctant to authorize the use of force.
Obama addressed the nation on the eve of the 12-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks—an event which triggered two long and difficult U.S. wars that have left Americans deeply skeptical of foreign intervention. Obama had used the East Room of the White House to announce the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Russia proposed on Monday that the Assad regime turn its chemical weapons stockpiles over to international control as a way to avoid a U.S. attack. Syria has expressed support for the plan.
Obama said Tuesday night that it's "too early too tell" whether the plan will succeed, but added that it had the potential to remove Assad's chemical weapons without the use of force. He attributed the positive movement in part to the credible threat of U.S. military action.
Still, several sticking points remain.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that the idea could work only if the U.S. took the threat of airstrikes off the table completely. "It will function and will work out only if the U.S. and those who support it on this issue pledge to renounce the use of force, because it is difficult to make any country—Syria or any other country in the world—to unilaterally disarm if there is military action against it under consideration,” Putin told Russia Today.
In addition, the Russians appear to be opposed to a U.N. resolution.
“We need a full resolution from the Security Council in order to have the confidence that this has the force that it ought to have," Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday in a Google Hangout session. "And obviously, right now the Russians are in a slightly different place on that.”
Kerry will meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Thursday.
Even if the diplomatic details could be ironed out, an actual transfer of chemical weapons from Syria would be complicated and dangerous, experts say.
For nearly two weeks, the Obama administration has been making the case for limited airstrikes against Syria, in response to what it has concluded was the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in a rebel stronghold outside Damascus on August 21, an attack that killed over 1400 people, including more than 400 children, according to intelligence reports. Administration officials, and the president himself, have argued that a military response would uphold the international norm against the use of chemical weapons, and bolster the security of the U.S. and its allies in the Mideast.
On August 31, Obama announced that he would seek congressional authorization for airstrikes, though he maintained that a green light from lawmakers wasn't legally required, a position he reiterated Tuesday night. He has declined to speculate about what he would do if Congress rejected a resolution for action.
The immediate response to the speech from lawmakers was mixed. Rand Paul tweeted:
Pres. Obama's speech didnt convince me. Tune in to Fox News now to hear more: pic.twitter.com/hhSidZMk5f— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) September 11, 2013
And Rep. Charlie Rangel, a New York Democrat, tweeted:
Indeed America is weary and wary of war. On #Syria: War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.— Charles Rangel (@cbrangel) September 11, 2013
But Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, tweeted:
I agree with the President that our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria. Human rights matter.— Rep. Ted Deutch (@RepTedDeutch) September 11, 2013
And Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the top House Democrat, tweeted:
Pres. Obama's leadership brought diplomatic solutions back to the table, shows his willingness to exhaust every remedy before use of force.— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) September 11, 2013
President Obama didn't tweet on his own account, but the White House posted a meme.
Our ideals, principles & national security are at stake in Syria—and that's why we must act: http://t.co/9uaOryb8Rp, pic.twitter.com/ZOGB5bVcj8— The White House (@WhiteHouse) September 11, 2013