President Barack Obama’s address to the nation last night amounted to a well-crafted call to inaction.
From an unexpected source, Obama had received the luxury of additional time and at least the prospect of an outcome that stops short of military action in Syria.
Whether by good fortune or design, it wasn’t the speech that had been envisioned just 24 hours earlier, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin seizing on an off-hand comment from Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. might stand down if Syria turned over its chemical weapons.
Obama was able to delay a showdown vote with Congress, where momentum was moving away from him. He also reduced the risk of further erosion in public support that could become a drag on his domestic agenda, including the implementation of his landmark health care law and lifting the federal government’s debt ceiling.
“I know everybody was looking for an off ramp,” said Representative Buck McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, “because they knew they didn’t have the votes.”
Still, McKeon said he’s skeptical about whether Russia will prove a fair partner in the mission ahead, particularly when Putin began imposing early demands on Russia’s cooperation.
“Putin dangled the hook and they bit,” he said. “Now that they’re on the hook he started pulling.”
Using vivid depictions of children felled by poison gas, Obama framed his case as a moral imperative and one designed to uphold the U.S. role in the world that “makes us exceptional” by stepping up when others stand by.
His tone stood in contrast to his four immediate predecessors who had announced military action from the White House, citing broader U.S. security interests.
“This is not a world we should accept,” Obama said, speaking from the East Room where in 2011 he had announced the killing of Osama bin Laden.
At the same time, Obama benefited by not having to ask for action on a mission that has so divided even his fellow Democrats.
“This president is one of the luckiest human beings on Earth,” Van Jones, a former Obama administration adviser, said on CNN.
Obama agreeing to seek a diplomatic solution froze the action in Congress, where his request for a use-of-force resolution faced likely defeat, at least in the U.S. House.
His move also allows time for him to again reach out to allies, France and Great Britain, and enlist the United Nations to his cause. And it means not having to persuade a public that polls show by two-to-one margins opposed the idea of a go-it-alone strike.
Some political analysts said that the president’s speech is likely to prompt only limited change in public opinion.
“I think for most people, they’ve been hearing these same arguments for two weeks,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “I guess I am skeptical it will fundamentally change existing opinion.”
The reprieve from congressional action may only be temporary, and more time is no guarantor of ultimate success. In addition to Putin’s shifts that may cloud the negotiation process, skepticism will surround Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s degree of cooperation.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said he would still not vote for a use-of-force resolution even if it had broader international approval.
“I think the Russians have played an excellent gambit, a game of geopolitical chess with us,” he said in a CNN interview. “Any diplomatic solution with people who used chemical weapons has to be taken with a certain amount of dubiousness.”
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said “in the short term, it certainly is” a political lifesaver for the president to have an alternative to his push for military action. King had called for stronger armed response against Syria than Obama initially proposed.
The reaction of Democrats to Obama’s speech was measured, with many saying they supported further diplomatic action while stopping short of endorsing any call for a military strike.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said he was working with members of both parties to try to draft a resolution that would include “tight deadlines” for Assad’s regime to rid itself of chemical weapons.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. must “fully exhaust” all efforts to explore the new potential diplomatic opportunity before Congress could authorize any military strike.
Obama acknowledged that the U.S. had stood by during the more than two years of Syria’s civil war as hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed because “we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force.”
After the decade-long conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan “the idea of any military action is not going to be popular,” he said. Chemical weapons, though, with their indiscriminate lethality changed the equation and demanded action.
Obama, who has never served a day as president when the country hasn’t been at war, said the atrocities occurring in Syria were something perhaps only the U.S. could stop.
“The burdens of leadership are heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them,” he said.
Still, unlike President George W. Bush, who often depicted the world in black-and-white terms, Obama has shown he can see the gray and live with more ambiguity.
“America is not the world’s policeman,” he said. “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.”
Seeking to leave his option open on Syria, he added, “But 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. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
The challenge for him remains to persuade his political foes and potential military ones that his approach shouldn’t be confused with weakness.
As Matthew Dowd, a political consultant and Bloomberg Television analyst put it, when Americans decide they don’t want to wage war -- going back to the Vietnam conflict more than 40 years ago -- no presidential speech has changed that.
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