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Newspaper editorials around the world were critical of Mr. Obama’s speech, in which he argued that Mr. Assad must be punished but asked for Congress to delay a vote. Le Figaro in France said that even if the diplomatic solution fails, it could at least allow Mr. Obama and his ally, French President Francois Hollande, to save face in their misadventure against Syria.

“It could suffice to extricate them from the mire into which they have placed themselves. Obama and Hollande have the opportunity to backtrack with their heads held high,” the paper said.

In an editorial headlined “Stop Dithering,” Qatar’s Peninsula online described Mr. Obama as “confused, uncertain, wobbly and timid” on Syria. The U.S.-based Investor’s Business Daily went a step further, saying the developments with Syria show that “Russia is filling the U.S. power vacuum on its way back to superpower status.” Its editorial lamented “the inexcusable transfer of geopolitical prestige from America to Putin’s Russia” in the Middle East.

Mr. Carney said Wednesday that U.S. prestige in the region is not at risk.

“The United States leads in these situations, and it’s not always popular, and it’s not always comfortable,” he said. “The responsibilities that we bear when there are crises around the world are unique. But it is also part of our democratic process, in the president’s views, that we have an open debate about it, that we have a debate in Congress and a vote potentially on authorization of military force.”

But critics of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East point to an inconsistent strategy: abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally; bringing about the ouster and subsequent death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi after he cooperated with the U.S. in giving up his weapons of mass destruction; and the wavering on Mr. Obama’s “red line” in Syria that called for a tough U.S. response to chemical weapons use.

“For those that don’t want to see a U.S. military strike, Putin’s and the Russians’ status has been seriously enhanced in the Middle East, and I think in the world at large,” Mr. Kuchins said. “I try to be objective about this, but I think the Russians have had a better feel for this than the Obama administration. I think that Putin to some extent is trying to convey, ‘Look, Russia defends and stands by its friends and allies.’”

In another display of Mr. Putin’s influence, the Russian leader even wrote an op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times about Syria, saying he wanted to “speak directly to the American people and their political leaders.”

He said a military strike by the U.S. “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

“It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa,” Mr. Putin said. “It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

The Russian leader said America’s military intervention in other countries’ internal disputes has become “commonplace” but ineffective.

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement,” he wrote.

Mr. Putin said he watched Mr. Obama’s address Tuesday night and that he disagreed with the president’s comment that U.S. policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.”

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Mr. Putin said. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”