President Barack Obama took his case for military action in Syria to a skeptical American public Tuesday evening, asserting the need to keep pressure on the regime of Bashar Assad even as he asked Congress to delay a vote on the matter while his administration pursues a diplomatic path.
"Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria," Obama said from the East Room of the White House.
Despite a frenzied week of developments, an uncertain path remains ahead for a president with his legacy on the line and a Congress with no appetite to tackle this thorny issue.
Among the questions:
Did the president make his case?
In the face of stiff public opposition, Obama moved methodically through his argument in favor of military action in Syria. He outlined the precedents and agreements against the use of chemical weapons before describing the evidence that Assad ordered a chemical weapons attack against dissidents in that country's protracted civil war.
"When dictators commit atrocities, they depend on the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory," the president said. "But these things happened; facts cannot be denied."
As a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Tuesday that just 24 percent of Americans believe attacking Syria is in the national interest, Obama argued that Assad's use of chemical weapons constituted a threat to the U.S.
"If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," he said. "As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them."
Obama also gave a nod to Americans' weariness over war after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — contributing factors to the weak appetite for U.S. involvement in Syria.
"I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action — no matter how limited — is not going to be popular," he said. Obama also reiterated his opposition to putting American troops on the ground in Syria, adding that any military operation would be targeted and limited in duration.
Still, public opposition to Obama’s approach to Syria has been building, and the lack of new information or rationale makes it far from certain that his speech could sway that momentum.
What comes next?
Ten days after Obama made a surprise announcement that he intended to seek congressional authority for military action, the president Tuesday night said he had asked leaders in Congress to postpone a vote on a resolution for such an attack.
Obama sought the postponement, he said, so he could pursue an emerging potential diplomatic solution proposed by the Russian government that would head off an attack against Syria.
"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," the president explained. "But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force."
Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russia's foreign minister on Thursday to discuss the potential breakthrough, and Obama said the U.S. would pursue a resolution at the U.N. Security Council that would give it the power to enforce a possible agreement.
That doesn't guarantee, though, that military action couldn't still happen. An agreement could always fall through, especially if the Russian government exercises its veto power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, or if the U.S. and its allies view a proposed agreement as too flimsy.
For that reason, Obama said he had ordered U.S. military assets "to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails," a move to keep the pressure on Assad amid negotiations toward an agreement.
At the same time, a bipartisan group of senators is working on a new Syria resolution, possibly for consideration later this week, that would hew closely to the Russian-brokered deal for international oversight of Syria's chemical weapons.
What does this mean for Obama?
If a diplomatic solution prevails, the fallout for Obama and most members of Congress should be minimal. And the chief reason a diplomatic solution might result is that the politics of a Syria vote are wretched for virtually everyone involved.
Obama had appeared by Tuesday to be on the cusp of losing a vote in Congress over Syria, which would have seriously hobbled him politically. Such a blow could not have come at a worse time considering the major battles pending this fall over continuing government operations and avoiding a default on the national debt.
Moreover, major second-term priorities of Obama's, such as comprehensive immigration reform and gun control — which are already on the brink of failure — would have been seen as all but dead.
The Syria fiasco has already taken a toll on the president. The NBC/WSJ poll found Obama's approval rating had sunk to 45 percent, and approval of the way he has handled the situation in Syria stood at an anemic 28 percent.
More concerning for the administration: If a diplomatic solution ultimately fails, the president could find himself confronting the same difficult decisions of unilateral action once again.
What does this mean for Congress?
Lawmakers in both parties are uninterested in tackling the issue of Syria, especially as the NBC/WSJ poll found that six in 10 Americans wished their representative in Washington would vote against authorizing military action in Syria.
A vote would have also split both Democrats and Republicans in ugly ways, though Obama made a direct appeal to each party's reluctant flank Tuesday evening.
Democrats would have been forced to choose between their progressive base, which largely opposes intervention in Syria, and handicapping a Democratic president in his second term — in essence, hastening the onset of lame-duck status for Obama.
"To my friends on the left," Obama argued, "I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a hospital floor."
Republicans' internal division is no less tricky. On one side are hawks like Sen. John McCain, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, who has called for more robust involvement in Syria with the aim of toppling Assad. On the other side is a growing faction of libertarians, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who strongly oppose almost all military engagement abroad. A vote would have pitted two factions against each other in just the latest episode of a GOP civil war that has plagued the party since the 2012 election.
"To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just," Obama said.
But Congress shares a possible fate with the president if diplomacy fails. It could once again find itself in a position to take a vote on military action against Syria.
So all sides of the political equation appear to have found an escape hatch — for now.
First published September 11 2013, 12:50 AM