U.S. President Barack Obama said in a television address to his country on Tuesday night that not responding to a chemical attack in Syria would be a threat to the U.S., but sought to assure Americans that diplomatic efforts would precede any possible strike.
In a 15-minute address from a lectern in the White House, Obama said he asked Congress to postpone votes on a Syria military strike to pursue a diplomatic solution. Obama said he will work with France, Britain, China and Russia on a United Nations resolution requiring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to follow through on today's surprise promise to give up his country's chemical weapons for destruction.
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Obama said it was too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, but that he has "a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions."
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The threat of U.S. military action and talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin had led to some "encouraging signs."
"The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons," Obama said. "The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use."
If it did come to a strike, any attack would be limited, Obama said.
"I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," he said. "I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.
The president said "no one disputes" that the regime of Assad used chemical weapons on his own people on Aug. 21.
He said "other tyrants" would think nothing of using poison gas if the U.S. doesn't act on Syria, making troops susceptible to gas attacks in future conflicts and making it easier for terrorists to attack civilians with chemical weapons.
Obama said the U.S. is not the world's policeman, but still argued the country has a moral imperative to respond to atrocities. "Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, 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," he said.
Janice Stein of the Munk School of Global Affairs said she thought the U.S. president made a good case to U.S. citizens.
"He told [Americans] why it should matter to them, and then he really tried hard to allay their fears."
Saeed Khan of Wayne State University felt Obama failed to make a coherent or a compelling argument that this is a national security interest for the United States.
"By his own admission in the speech, he said that this was not a direct or even an imminent threat to the United States. So it really provided a contradiction for the public …whom he was trying to persuade for some kind of intervention there — that this really was then a national security priority for the American people."
Capitol Hill push
Obama was on Capitol Hill earlier Tuesday trying to shore up flagging support for the military option. The president was making the case that despite the diplomatic developments, Congress needed to support a military strike. It was the same message delivered by other top officials.
"For this diplomatic option to have a chance at succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action, the credible, real threat of U.S. military action, must continue," Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a congressional hearing.
When the television address was first scheduled, it seemed to be a critical test of Obama's presidency: whether he could persuade war-weary Americans and their representatives in Congress that a chemical weapons attack last month near Damascus was so reprehensible, they should back his call for a military strike against Assad's regime.
But the situation became less clear now that Syria has said it would accept the Russian plan. That has created uncertainty whether a diplomatic breakthrough was at hand or whether this was a ploy to prevent an American attack.
A statement issued by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada supports a political solution and the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, but that actions would speak louder than words.
"Canada will wait to see what the particulars are for securing and destroying the entirety of the Assad regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons immediately," Baird said. "Trusting the regime to comply with any commitment after years of deceit would be a challenge. We want to ensure this proposal is not merely a delay tactic."