Facing overwhelming opposition from the public and fears in Congress that he lacks a sound military plan, President Obama backed away Monday night from his proposed missile strike against Syria and said he would pursue a Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
On the brink of a televised address to the nation Tuesday night seeking to ease Americans’ worries that the country is headed for a repeat of the Iraq War, Mr. Obama seized the potential diplomatic solution and said a vote in Congress to authorize military action likely would be delayed beyond this week.
“We will pursue this diplomatic track,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News. “I fervently hope that this can be resolved in a non-military way.”
The development arose when Secretary of State John F. Kerry, speaking in London on Monday, said offhandedly that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if the regime immediately gave up its chemical weapons stockpile. Mr. Kerry said there was no chance Syria would do so, but Russia quickly offered to broker such a deal, Syria welcomed the overture and it won the backing of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Mr. Obama said he would welcome a diplomatic solution but remained skeptical because Syria rejected such proposals in the past.
“It’s not enough just to trust; we’re going to have to verify,” Mr. Obama said, mimicking a line from Ronald Reagan in one of six TV interviews at the White House late Monday.
The president said he discussed the proposal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has blocked U.N. sanctions against Syria, during the Group of 20 summit in Russia last week. Mr. Obama took credit for the potential breakthrough, saying it would not have arisen without his threat of military force to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 civilians.
“These are conversations that I’ve had directly with Mr. Putin,” Mr. Obama said. “When I was at the G-20, we had some time to discuss this. I have to say that it’s unlikely we would’ve arrived at that point without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons inside of Syria. We’re going to run this to the ground. John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see if we can arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”
With the Senate calling off a scheduled Wednesday vote on a resolution that would authorize the use of force, Mr. Obama said he thinks it best to avoid congressional action “in the immediate future” as the potential deal with the Syrian government is explored.
“This is one of those situations where the stakes are high but they’re long-term. They’re not immediate, they’re not imminent, but they’re serious,” Mr. Obama said during an interview with ABC. “I don’t anticipate you would see a succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future. So I think there will be time during the course of the debates in the United States for the international community — the Russians and the Syrians — to work with us to see if there is a way to resolve this.”
The moves brought Mr. Obama full circle in his policy toward Syria, where he resisted military action for more than two years as the civil war killed more than 100,000 civilians. The president said Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” in which the U.S. would be forced to take more aggressive action.
But when evidence surfaced this spring that the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama said he would wait for the United Nations to verify it, while some lawmakers in Congress called for him to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.
After the Aug. 21 attack, Mr. Obama said he wanted to launch a limited military strike to punish the regime. He said the international community could not allow a nation to get away with such an atrocity.
A poll shows only three in 10 Americans approve of the president’s handling of the Syria situation. The survey, by CNN/ORC, found that 63 percent disapprove of the president’s actions on Syria.
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.”
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.”
Those on both sides of the congressional debate saw a compromise solution in Russia’s proposal to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons to an international authority.
“The proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control has a great deal of merit, and unlike the planned strikes, actually would prevent chemical warfare attacks in the future,” said Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat who has said he opposes the proposed military strikes.
In Mr. Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday night from the White House, he will try to bolster a case for strikes that has been undercut by stumbles.
The most recent one was made Monday morning when Mr. Kerry said the strikes would be “unbelievably small” — seemingly contradicting Mr. Obama’s description that the strikes would degrade the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Kerry’s remark was “unbelievably unhelpful.”
Mr. Carney said later that Mr. Kerry was comparing the proposed military action with the “large-scale, open-ended military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
When Mr. Blinken said last week that Mr. Obama doesn’t desire or intend to launch a strike without congressional approval, the president said his aide was wrong. Mr. Blinken said Monday that he spoke “inartfully.” Nobody has said whether Mr. Obama would act if Congress doesn’t authorize military action.