Obama: Even with Russian plan on Syria, a military option is still needed

President Obama's address to the nation was nearly upstaged by a Russian plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. But threat of a military strike prompted Russia and Assad to act – and is needed if diplomacy fails, he says.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House on Tuesday. The president blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution that strip Syria of its chemical weapons.

With a Russian plan to peacefully address Syria’s chemical weapons suddenly grabbing the global stage, President Obama modified an address to the American people Tuesday evening from what was to have been a laser-like focus on military intervention to include a vision of how diplomacy might yet work.

But in a crisp 15-minute East Room speech, Mr. Obama still pressed to make the case to a war-weary public that stopping the use and spread of Syria’s chemical weapons is of such vital national interest that military action may yet be necessary.

“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria,” Obama said, adding that not addressing what he said was Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s proven use of chemical weapons last month would loosen the decades-old global ban on such use.

It could eventually leave US troops vulnerable to attacks by such weapons, he added, and lead other countries, such as Iran, to believe they can pursue weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, with impunity.

“A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken the prohibitions on other weapons of mass destruction,” he said, citing Iran and its nuclear program, which the US and other Western powers suspect is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.

Obama cited some of what he said were the many expressions of opposition to military action he has received, including from veterans, making clear that he understands the uphill battle he faces to convince a skeptical public.

Just hours before he addressed the nation, he appeared to be on the verge of losing a vote in Congress authorizing the use of force in Syria, and the sudden diplomatic gambit, in the form of a Russian proposal for international control and eventual destruction of Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpiles, clearly made the case for the use of force that much more difficult.

But the president said now is no time to take military action off the table. If 11th -hour diplomatic efforts on Syria are fruitful, it will be because the US prodded key players in the crisis – notably Russia and Mr. Assad – into action by threatening an imminent use of force, he said.

Obama said his administration will be at the forefront of diplomatic efforts over the coming days: Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva Thursday to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the US will work at the United Nations to forge a Security Council resolution to compel Syria to give up its chemical weapons, and Obama will pursue discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the diplomatic path forward.

Mr. Putin said earlier Tuesday that a plan to take control of and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons could only work if the US committed to taking no military action against Syria.

“Undoubtedly, all of this [proposal] makes sense and can function, can work, only if we hear that the American side and those who support the United States in this sense rule out the use of force,” Putin said in televised remarks. That would be true, he added, “because it is difficult to make any country – Syria or any other country, any other government in the world – unilaterally disarm if the use of force is being prepared against it.”

But Obama made clear in his televised speech that the US must remain ready to take military steps to deter any future use of chemical weapons in Syria, if diplomacy fails.

In the hours leading up to Obama’s speech, many congressional leaders and political analysts said the president would have to answer the public’s specific doubts about military intervention. As if on cue, the president listed and responded to what he said were the main questions he had heard from Americans in recent days:

  • To concerns about America finding itself once again on a “slippery slope” to drawn-out war, Obama pledged there would be “no boots on the ground,” not even an extended air campaign as in the cases of Libya or Kosovo.
  • To those who worry that doing too little will do nothing to alter Assad’s behavior, Obama said, “The US military doesn’t do pinpricks,” and he insisted that the US is the only country that can deliver the message that Assad needs to hear.
  • As to why the US shouldn’t leave this crisis to other players, Obama said he agrees that the US “should not be the world’s policeman.”

“I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions,” he said.

But he added that “for nearly seven decades the US has been the anchor of international security,“ and he said the world is better for the values and principles the US has used its power to promote.

“That’s what makes us different,” he said.

Yet as stirring as such words may be, they seemed unlikely to be enough to sway a deeply dubious public, as many analysts were already concluding after the speech.

Moreover, the promise of a diplomatic solution that upstaged Obama's own efforts, seemed likely to fade as it faces scrutiny over questions ranging from how Syria’s chemical weapons could be verifiably controlled to how any agreement would seem to legitimize Assad’s hold on power.

Some analysts quickly criticized the speech for leaving unanswered critical questions about the prospects for diplomacy. Obama left out “two huge pieces” by failing to define what criteria he will use to judge the Russian initiative and how much time he intends to give diplomacy, says Kenneth Pollack of Washington’s Brookings Institution.

The public, Congress, and the military need to know “how long he intends to give [diplomacy] to succeed or fail so that we can know whether we are going to use force in Syria and when,” Mr. Pollack adds. “Cliff-hangers might make for great movies, but the president owes the country more from a speech on the use of force.” 

Obama said in his speech that responding to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons is an issue of US national security interest. In any case, it’s an issue that promises to be around for some time to come.

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