President Obama made an unusually emotional pitch to Congress and the country Tuesday night, seeking to rally support for a strong American response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, an attack he cast as horrifying, gruesome, and terrible.
The response from Capitol Hill was swift but fairly predictable, with many Democrats saying they heard a message of strength from the president while Republicans were largely unconvinced that the administration has a firm handle on the ongoing crisis.
Yet lawmakers from both parties seized on a small section of Obama’s 15-minute address, the fewer than 300 words in a 2,200-word speech that described Russia’s efforts to produce an international agreement requiring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish his military’s chemical weapons.
The president announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet on Thursday with the Russian foreign minister, and Obama said he will continue his own talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch ally of Assad. He did not say how long he was willing to hold off his use of military force, saying the armed forces will “respond if diplomacy fails.”
But, less than a week after he asked Congress to authorize a military strike on Syria, the president announced that he has asked for that vote to be delayed to give diplomats a chance to pursue what he called the promising Russian initiative.
The delay gave an almost unprecedented twist to an address that had been planned to press Congress to vote quickly on his request. Instead, Obama used it to make the case for a response without knowing if that response will be military or diplomatic. Based on their instant responses Tuesday night, it was clear most members prefer the latter.
“I support his diplomatic efforts to promptly bring Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, one of the world’s largest, under international control,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. “I agree with the president that Syria and Russia would not have raised that possibility if not for the credible threat of military force.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement that while he has doubts about “this 11th-hour offer, it would be wrong to slam the door shut without due consideration.
“A negotiated solution to a crisis is always preferable and if this possibility is legitimate, I’ll give it serious thought,” Menendez said. “At the same time, the credible use of military force is necessary to keep on the table.”
Two Senate hawks, however, said Obama isn’t being strong enough in his response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., released a joint statement saying they “regret that he did not speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army.”
“We also regret that he did not lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal to transfer the Assad regime’s chemical weapons to international custody,” McCain and Graham said.
In his speech, the president talked of diplomatic agreements and international conventions against chemical weapons. But the lawyer in him took a back seat to the father as he repeatedly painted a vivid picture of the suffering caused by Syria’s Aug. 21 use of sarin gas against Assad’s opponents. Seven times in the 15-minute address, the president spoke emotionally of the children who were killed and maimed in that attack.
“The images from this massacre are sickening,” he said. “Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.” Grimly, he urged members of Congress “to view those videos of the attack and then ask, what kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” Directing remarks to his own political base, liberals, he asked them to think of “those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she is working on an amendment for conditional use of force. “I’m working with my colleagues in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on an amendment to give diplomacy a chance to work, but to also pressure the Syrians to take concrete steps towards the transfer of their chemical weapons to international control,” she said in a press release.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has proposed an alternative to the resolution authorizing use of force against Syria that passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, told National Journal Daily that many of his colleagues oppose the president’s emphasis on military action, saying “we just respectfully disagree that an imminent strike will do anything” but create instability.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she would be willing to look at a proposal to require Syria to turn over its chemical weapons that has clear binding protocols to secure all the country’s chemical weapons, and verify their destruction. But she expressed concerns that the president lacks a long-term strategy for the Middle East.
“I remain concerned and I know many Alaskans agree that this administration does not have a coherent strategy for the region,” she said in a statement. “The president needs to clearly articulate how this Syria plan lines up with any broader vision for the Middle East and how our national security interests are protected.”
In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the president’s address “a principled presentation to the American people as to how the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons impacts our national security and why the regime must be held responsible.”
Republican Reps. John Kline of Minnesota and Vern Buchanan of Florida remained unmoved in opposing Obama’s request for military strikes in Syria. “The president’s remarks to the nation once again fell short of providing a clear rationale for military intervention,” Kline said.
Buchanan also said he remained opposed to military action, but added, “I do, however, agree with the president that Russia’s proposal to address Syria through diplomatic negotiations should be thoroughly explored.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had no immediate responses to the president’s address Tuesday night, aides said.