September 11, 2013

Obama: 'Our ideals ... security are at stake'

Obama pledges to try diplomacy with Syria but respond with force if needed, and asks Congress to delay a strike authorization vote.

By DAVID NAKAMURA and ZACHARY GOLDFARB The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. President Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

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The Russian offer could serve as a potential escape hatch for a president who has at times appeared reluctant to pursue military force, even after saying he believed it was the right course to reinforce a "red line" against chemical weapons. Obama has struggled to build an international coalition for such action.

And with congressional and public support for a U.S. strike dwindling rapidly over the past week, Obama's request to delay the Senate vote bought him time to try to convince the public that the White House is pursuing a viable and coherent strategy despite a muddled message since the alleged chemical attack.

"Bottom line is we're all going to try to work together," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., after the lunch with Obama. "There is hope, but not yet trust in what the Russians are doing. But I think there's a general view, whether people are for it or against it, there's an overwhelming view that it would be preferable if international law and the family of nations could strip Syria of the chemical weapons. And there's a large view we should let that process play out for a little while."

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a key GOP proponent of a military strike in Syria, emphasized that the option of U.S. force remained viable, but he added that "it's probably good for us just to take a pause."

At the same time, administration officials made clear that they will not accept the Russian offer at face value or engage in protracted negotiations that indefinitely delay its response to Assad. Russia has consistently blocked U.N. action against Syria, its geopolitical ally, frustrating the Obama administration and leading the president to announce that he would pursue military strikes independent of that international body.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the United States would demand a Security Council resolution authorizing a strike if Syria refused to turn over its chemical stockpile, a provision the Russians promptly rejected.

Kerry told a House committee that the proposal "is the ideal way" to take chemical weapons away from Assad's forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin countered that the disarmament plan could succeed only if the United States and its allies renounced the use of force against Syria.

Kerry will travel to Europe this week to discuss the proposal with Lavrov, a senior administration official said later Tuesday. The meeting will be held Thursday in Geneva, where the United States and Russia hope to convene a separate peace conference on Syria, the official said.

"We need a full resolution from the Security Council," Kerry said Tuesday during an online forum held by Google. "There have to be consequences if games are played."

The stakes were high for Obama's address to the nation. He has delivered just nine White House speeches in prime time, according to CBS Radio correspondent Mark Knoller, who keeps tallies on presidential appearances. Obama chose the grand East Room over the more intimate Oval Office, which is the traditional location for commanders in chief to talk to the country about war.

Experts said it made sense for Obama to delay the congressional vote because his hand would be strengthened even if the Russia proposal fails.

"It gets him out of his disastrous political mess," said Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon official. Obama will be able to say he made every effort to avoid a military conflict, making it "a lot easier for him to make the case for force."

But other analysts were more circumspect, fearing that stalling on the part of Russia and Syria could give Assad time to hide his stockpile.

"The most dangerous downside," said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, "is you get absorbed in endless processes which take you back to the status quo ante and you neither removed the weapons and you lost the momentum when there was support for action."

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Today's poll: Obama's plan

Do you agree with President Obama's plan to conduct a military strike on Syria if an attempt at a diplomatic solution doesn't work?

Yes

No

View Results