Obama edges toward Russian plan for Syria to turn over chemical weapons

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The administration’s case

Making the rounds of the evening news shows, Mr. Obama said the Syrian regime must be punished somehow for such a deadly chemical weapons attack.

“I know how tired the American people are of war generally. And particularly war in the Middle East. And so I don’t take these decisions lightly,” Mr. Obama told NBC. “But if we are going to have any kind of serious — enforcement of this international ban on chemical weapons, then ultimately the United States has to be involved. And a credible threat may be what pushes the kind of political settlement that I think we’d all prefer.”

Among the lingering questions Mr. Obama must address Tuesday night are why he wants to put U.S. troops in harm’s way when America was not attacked, and why he would launch strikes that he acknowledges won’t change the course of the civil war in Syria.

“It’s very hard to craft a mission that makes sense,” said James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s not going to change the outcome of the war. It’s not really credible that this is going to deter future use of [weapons of mass destruction]. And it’s really not the best way to look after U.S. interests.”

Mr. Obama is betting that Americans will be outraged enough about the horrors of the gas attack that killed more than 400 children to accept a U.S. military strike. But he hasn’t been able to share with the public the same kind of detailed, classified intelligence about the Syrian atrocity that the administration has given to about 185 lawmakers in recent days.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said many Americans haven’t paid attention to Mr. Obama’s arguments, and he blamed the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for some of the public’s resistance.

“It is entirely understandable that the American people and their representatives would be and are weary and wary of military engagement,” Mr. Carney said. “They have every reason to be, after the sustained military action that this country has taken over the past dozen years.”

Congressional skepticism

But reporters have noted that the administration has lost support among Senate Democrats for a military strike since lawmakers began to receive the administration’s classified intelligence briefings, raising questions about the certainty of the intelligence. White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said many lawmakers have not seen the intelligence reports and defended the material as “high confidence” information.

“When members of Congress have a chance to see the intelligence, to read it, to get the briefings, to ask questions, they come away convinced of two things: Chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21 against civilians in Syria, and the Assad regime is the one that used them,” Mr. Blinken said. “I believe that when they see the evidence, it is compelling. It’s overwhelming.”

He added, “It comes down to a pretty basic question: Are we or are we not going to do anything about the fact that Assad poisoned his own people with gas, including hundreds of children? That’s the question before the members of Congress, and when they have the evidence, when they see the facts, I think they’ll come to the right conclusion.”

Members of Congress, though, are less concerned about the intelligence connecting Mr. Assad to chemical weapons. Instead, they raise objections to deploying U.S. military muscle where they doubt national security is at stake, and they question whether the administration can avoid being drawn into the broader civil war.

That opposition continued to build Monday.

“I will vote ‘no’ because of too much uncertainty about what comes next,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican. “I see too much risk that the strike will do more harm than good by setting off a chain of consequences that could involve American fighting men and women in another long-term Middle East conflict.”

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