WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama attempted to get out in front of the rapidly evolving situation in Syria on Tuesday night with an address to the nation. But he seemed to be making two arguments at once: both defending his call for strikes against the war-torn country for the use of chemical weapons and asking congressional lawmakers to postpone voting on a resolution authorizing those strikes.
The fact that the president found himself making multiple arguments for both strikes and diplomacy in the same speech underscored the dizzying rate of developments this week that have often had Obama and his administration reacting to events rather than initiating them. The president’s 15-minute address, delivered from the East Room of the White House, seemed to be searching for a central theme and clear purpose, suggesting a unified theme and purpose may be missing from the administration’s Syrian policy.
Arguing for a military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Obama asked the nation, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”
The president insisted that America’s national security interests required action. But he faces a skeptical and war-weary American public. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows 63 percent oppose U.S. airstrikes in Syria, with 45 percent strongly opposed. Reading the public sentiment, a majority of congressional lawmakers have stated their doubts about the strike, making it unlikely that Obama’s proposed strike resolution would pass either the Republican-led House or even the Democratic-led Senate.
Not wanting to risk defeat, the president, after outlining his arguments for strikes, then asked Congress to delay its vote.
He cited a Russian-led effort to persuade Assad to both surrender his stockpile of chemical weapons for destruction and join an international convention that opposes their use. The proposal gained momentum on Tuesday, one day after the U.S. State Department seemed to dismiss the feasibility of such a plan. Secretary of State John Kerry, during meetings with his British counterpart on Monday, suggested that surrendering the chemical weapons was the only way Assad could avoid future strikes. Kerry described the likelihood of such a move as “unbelievably small.” But the State Department soon released a statement retreating from Kerry’s speculation.
“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, in a Monday statement. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago.”
Twenty-four hours later, that rhetorical argument initially deemed impossible and unlikely became plausible and likely enough for Obama to call for a delay on the congressional vote authorizing strikes. And plausible enough for the president to send Kerry overseas to meet Russian officials later this week.
The changing tactics of supporting an initiative that the administration had discredited a day before seemed to follow the White House’s realization that the American people—from both the left and the right of the political spectrum—have little appetitie for military action.
In his speech, Obama tried to change that appetite by describing the “sickening” images from the massacre of “men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.”
Earlier in the day, Obama ventured to Capitol Hill to win over lawmakers. But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky undercut the lobbying efforts by coming out against the strikes hours before the president’s visit.
“In Syria, a limited strike would not resolve the civil war there,” McConnell argued during a speech on the Senate floor. “Nor will it remove Assad from power. There appears to be no broader strategy to train, advise, and assist a vetted opposition group on a meaningful scale. … What’s needed in Syria is what’s needed almost everywhere else in the world from America right now: a clear strategy and a president who is determined to carry it out.”
McConnell added, “No one should be faulted for being skeptical about this proposal, regardless of what party they’re in, or for being dumfounded at the ham-handed manner in which the White House announced it.” He also criticized the administration for signaling to the Syrians how and how long they plan on striking them: “You don’t send out a ‘save-the-date’ card to the enemy.”
Obama’s speech Tuesday night continued the theme used by Kerry’s State Department of arguing both sides of the issue. Obama said he has resisted military action “because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force.” But then he explained that, if America failed to act, “the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.”
The president argued he doesn’t “think we should remove another dictator with force.” Then later suggested, “neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise.”
Obama said, “America is not the world’s policeman.” Then he added, “I believe we should act.” At the same time, he asked leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize that action.
At the end of the president’s speech, many lawmakers remained skeptical.
“The national security interest necessary to justify this intervention has not yet been sufficiently shown,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, D- Idaho. “And the limited, narrow response being proposed is more likely to harm, rather than protect our security interests.”
Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, said many questions remain, such as: What assurances are there that Syria’s chemical weapons will be secured, other than trusting Assad, Putin, and the United Nations? Stockman also wondered if the strikes would assist anti-Assad militants who, according to Stockman, are attacking Christian churches, burning Christian villages, and killing Syrian Christians.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill who took public stances in favor of Obama’s strikes, despite opposition from many Republican rank-and-file lawmakers, are likely left wondering whether they will face any fallout.
Both House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who back the strikes, appeared frustrated early Tuesday about what they called Obama’s inability to win over the American people when it comes to Syria.
“He has not made the sale to the American people,” Boehner said. Cantor offered similar sentiments.
It appears that Boehner, Cantor, and other lawmakers will be glad to take up Obama’s request for a vote postponement. And they likely hope the vote never comes up.
Listen to an analysis of President Obama’s speech by Cal Thomas on The World and Everything in It:
Listen to Mindy Belz discuss what could happen next on The World and Everything in It: