President Obama, in a national address originally intended to rally the country behind a strike on Syria, instead used the moment to announce he was hitting pause on military action in order to let negotiations over a Russia-backed plan run their course.
“This initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force,” Obama said Tuesday night.
The president said he has, therefore, “asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.”
The address from the East Room of the White House marked a dramatic turnaround from Obama announcing, just over a week ago, that he’d decided to seek congressional support for a military strike. And it left open where the stand-off with Syria will go from here, with the White House neither fully embracing the diplomatic option nor taking military action off the table.
The president did use much of his address to defend his initial decision to pursue military force. He made an impassioned case Tuesday night for military action, should it become necessary -- but also acknowledged that late-breaking international developments had him shelving that approach, for now.
The game-changer came after Secretary of State John Kerry early Monday casually floated the idea of Syria turning over its chemical weapons to international control. The Russians then swiftly adopted the idea as a formal proposal, which Syrian government officials now say they will accept, forcing the Obama administration to give it a chance.
Kerry will travel to Geneva on Thursday to speak with his Russian counterpart.
Obama said Tuesday it’s “too early to tell” if this proposal will work. He said any agreement must verify that Bashar Assad is keeping his commitments. He said the U.S. will work with other members of the U.N. Security Council on a resolution to compel Assad to surrender his chemical weapons and ultimately destroy them.
In the meantime, he said he’s ordered the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad” and “be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.”
Obama, before announcing he was putting the strike push on hold, made a methodical argument for military action. He explained why the world shunned chemical weapons, pointed to evidence that the Assad regime used them, and argued that it is in the national security interest for the U.S. to respond to that attack.
The president claimed that Assad would be emboldened if the U.S. fails to act, and that over time U.S. troops “would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield.”
He said that while he had resisted calls for military action in the country’s civil war, the situation “profoundly changed” after the Assad regime “gassed to death” hundreds of people last month. He said a “targeted military strike” would not embroil the U.S. in another war, and vowed he would “not put American boots on the Syria.”
Seemingly rebutting criticism of a Kerry remark that any U.S. strike would be “small,” Obama clarified: “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”
“Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” Obama said.
He closed by saying that while the U.S. cannot be the world’s “policemen,” 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.”
Obama won praise from some corners for his explanation of the rationale for military force, though supporters of such a plan worried the speech came too late and would do little to move the needle of public opinion.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement that Obama should have proposed a “clearer plan to test the seriousness” of the new Russia proposal.
On the other side, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., delivered a speech saying he was unconvinced of the need for any military response.
Obama is now in a tricky spot, balancing between the threat of military action and a stated desire to pursue the diplomatic track. He and his top officials are publicly wary that the Assad regime would fully comply with a plan to turn over its chemical weapons.
At the same time, Obama continues to face an uphill climb in getting Congress to approve the use of force.
And with the possibility of a diplomatic solution on the table, some congressional leaders – House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi among them -- were even less inclined to entertain a vote on military action.
"It is not necessary for Congress to give the president this authority," Pelosi said. "We are grateful that he has asked for it but if he sees an opportunity we don't want the Russians to think that his leverage is diminished because of a vote (that) may or may not succeed within the Congress."
Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to use the sudden change in dynamic to his advantage, and the advantage of his ally Bashar Assad. He demanded Tuesday that the U.S. abandon discussions on military action – a statement McCain, who supports military action, called “unacceptable.”