Planned as Call to Act, Obama’s Speech Became a Plea for Time

Michael D. Shear


Les Américains déboussolés
WASHINGTON — Members on both sides of Capitol Hill offered a collective sigh of relief as they returned to work Wednesday morning after President Obama let them off the hook for a vote on military action in Syria, postponing a political confrontation that no one in Washington wants to have.
But even as the president earned praise for being willing to pursue a diplomatic response in Syria, it was what he did not say in his 16-minute address from the East Room of the White House on Tuesday night that may ultimately shape the broader reaction to his remarks in the days ahead.
The president did not say how long he would wait to see if President Bashar al-Assad relinquishes control of the chemical weapons that administration officials say he used to gas his own people.
Mr. Obama did not detail the steps that the United States would demand from Syria as proof that the diplomatic efforts were more than a delaying tactic to avoid a punishing strike from cruise missiles and American bombers.
And the president did not use his speech to describe his expectations for the role of the United Nations, which has been all but stymied by Russia and China during the two-year civil war in Syria.
“A diplomatic resolution is always preferred over military action, but what would that resolution entail, and who will broker it?” Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, said in a statement after the speech.
Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said that “the president’s presentation today leaves a lot of unresolved questions. I will continue seeking more answers before deciding whether to support a military intervention in Syria.”
The flurry of diplomatic activity on Monday and Tuesday radically altered the trajectory of the White House efforts to seek authorization for military force in Syria, and Mr. Obama may not yet know the answers. A speech originally designed to be a cudgel for action was suddenly a plea for time.
What is left is uncertainty.
International reaction to the speech was muted on Wednesday morning.
Syrian state television did not carry Mr. Obama’s speech and the official news agency did not immediately issue any commentary on it. A statement from the Syrian exile opposition group that the United States backs, the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, said: “The proposal is a political strategy that aims to stall for more time, which will allow the regime to cause more death and destruction in Syria, and pose a threat to the countries and peoples of the region.”
Mark Mardell, the BBC North America editor, called the address essentially irrelevant: “A speech that was clear but almost entirely lacking in passion and devoid of new arguments.”
The Israeli government maintained its silence about the emerging Russian-brokered deal in its effort to avoid being seen as intervening in the Syrian conflict or as trying to influence American policy.
In London, the spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said that discussions were under way at the United Nations among the United States, France and Britain over a draft resolution, and that the text would later be circulated among Russia and China, the other two permanent members of the Security Council.
“There is a process under way,” he said. “It will be for the Russian government and the Assad regime to demonstrate their credibility.”
In Germany, which on Wednesday was preparing to welcome the first 105 of another 5,000 refugees from Syria, there was clear skepticism about the latest diplomatic proposals. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has called them “a small glimmer of hope,” did not discuss Syria with her cabinet at its regular weekly meeting on Wednesday, according to government spokesman Steffen Seibert.
“It is important that Syria cannot play for time,” Mr. Seibert said. “The Syrian government must not just make statements, it must act.”
Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to Geneva for two days on Thursday to begin talks about how to implement Russia’s proposal to have Syria cede control of its chemical weapons. But initial hopes for quick action at the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon were quickly scuttled, suggesting that diplomacy could drag on.
And weapons experts inside and outside the government cautioned on Tuesday that efforts to verify Syrian compliance with an agreement would be difficult under the best of circumstances — hardly the situation in a country torn by a raging civil war.

Members of Congress in both parties said Mr. Obama’s brief speech to the nation had done little to change their minds about the value of an attack. But many said they are pleased that the administration is seriously pursuing the Russian proposal for diplomacy.
“I remain skeptical that a limited U.S. military strike will be effective in diminishing Assad’s ability to carry out a chemical weapons attack,” said Representative Mike Thompson, Democrat of California. “I am cautiously hopeful that a diplomatic solution can be found.”
Representative Randy Hultgren, Republican of Illinois, said he also remained unconvinced that a strike would be necessary. But he welcomed what he called “constructive diplomatic efforts” and promised that Mr. Obama’s actions in the days ahead would be monitored intently by lawmakers.
“We will watch closely as the president works with our allies to hammer out a proposal that will lead to a longer-term solution and Syria policy,” Mr. Hultgren said in a statement.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that Mr. Obama’s “rudderless diplomacy has embarrassed America on the world stage. For a president who campaigned on building American credibility abroad, the lack of leadership coming from the Oval Office is astounding.”
But most of the responses from members of Congress reflected how the debate over military action in Syria has scrambled the traditional partisan alignments, with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans opposing a United States strike.
Democracy for America, a liberal group, released a statement praising the president for pausing to try diplomacy: “No matter how much we trust President Obama, Democracy for America members are skeptical of his argument that any military intervention in Syria would require ‘modest effort and risk.' ”
That perspective was echoed by conservatives like Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who said that “if we had simply gone to war last week or the week before, as many advocated, we wouldn’t be looking at a possible solution today.”
Some lawmakers who had previously expressed support for a military strike at Syria said the president’s remarks helped to clarify the need for a strong response.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, said she remained convinced that if diplomacy failed, the United States should follow through with a strike to prevent Syria from using chemical weapons again.
“We should consider the option of a limited strike because I believe the use of chemical weapons must be a ‘red line’ for humanity and that we must act,” Ms. Schakowsky said. “As a Jew whose people were gassed as the world stood by, I think the U.S. can save innocent lives by deterring the use of chemical weapons.”
But others said they were still not sure.
“I am deeply skeptical about the motivation of the Russians and the viability of their plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control,” Mr. Toomey said.
But he added: “I still have doubts about the effectiveness of the president’s plan for a military strike on Syria; how he would handle unintended consequences of the action; and the prudence of authorizing an act of war that is not broadly supported by the American people.”

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