Obama Warms to an Escape Route in the Syria Crisis

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Marina Koren and Brian Resnick, National Journal
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Marina Koren and Brian Resnick, National Journal
Sept. 10, 2013, 5:02 a.m.

On Monday night, Pres­id­ent Obama flooded the net­works to make his case for a strike on Syr­ia, em­phas­iz­ing its nar­row­ness in di­min­ish­ing Syr­ia’s sus­pec­ted use of chem­ic­al weapons. Yet, earli­er in the day, he con­ceiv­ably was giv­en an out to the con­flict, with Rus­sia of­fer­ing to broker a deal to put the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment’s stock­pile of chem­ic­al weapons un­der “in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol.”

The pro­pos­i­tion has promp­ted Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., to post­pone a Sen­ate vote on the au­thor­iz­a­tion of force from Wed­nes­day to Thursday, to al­low for a dip­lo­mat­ic way out of the situ­ation. Obama told Di­ane Saw­yer on ABC that the strikes may be less ef­fect­ive if Con­gress doesn’t back him, but that he hadn’t de­cided what he would do if the strikes are voted down.

In an in­ter­view with Fox News, Chris Wal­lace asked Obama three times if the pres­id­ent would delay a vote in Con­gress in the wake of the new in­form­a­tion. “I am go­ing to make sure that this does not change the cal­en­dar of de­bate in Con­gress,” Obama re­spon­ded. “Clearly it’s go­ing to take more time, partly be­cause the Amer­ic­an people aren’t con­vinced.”

NBC’s Sa­van­nah Gu­thrie asked Obama if he felt con­fid­ent about get­ting enough votes to push the res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing the use of force through Con­gress. “I wouldn’t say I’m con­fid­ent. I’m con­fid­ent that the mem­bers of Con­gress are tak­ing this is­sue very ser­i­ously, and they are do­ing their home­work. At a press con­fer­ence in Sweden last week, however, the pres­id­ent said he was sure Con­gress would ap­prove the meas­ure.

But per­haps there is some hope it won’t come to blows. To mul­tiple news out­lets, Obama re­peated that if the Rus­si­an deal can be veri­fied, it could de­ter a strike. At the same time, he said such a deal would not have come about without the loom­ing threat of U.S. mis­siles, echo­ing former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s re­marks earli­er in the day. Here’s what he told Wolf Blitzer on CNN, a sen­ti­ment he shared in all of his in­ter­views:

If we can ac­com­plish this lim­ited goal without tak­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion, that would be my pref­er­ence. On the oth­er hand, if we don’t maybe main­tain and move for­ward with a cred­ible threat of mil­it­ary pres­sure, I do not think we will get the kind of move­ment I would like to see.

On Fox, Obama said the next step in­volves get­ting “ac­tu­al lan­guage” from the Rus­si­ans for a pro­pos­al that would take chem­ic­al weapons out of the As­sad re­gime’s hands. He para­phrased Ron­ald Re­agan’s “trust, but veri­fy,” a line the 40th pres­id­ent spoke in his 1989 farewell ad­dress about Amer­ica’s re­la­tion­ship with the So­viet Uni­on. “We’ll put this on a fast track,” Obama said of de­term­in­ing how “ser­i­ous” Rus­sia is about pres­sur­ing Syr­ia.

Obama also main­tained that the United States does not have to fear a re­tali­ation from As­sad in the wake of a strike (as As­sad had told Charlie Rose in an bizar­rely con­cur­rent in­ter­view on PBS). Obama told Blitzer:

As­sad doesn’t have a lot of cap­ab­il­ity. He has cap­ab­il­ity re­l­at­ive to chil­dren, he has cap­ab­il­ity re­l­at­ive to an op­pos­i­tion that is still get­ting it­self or­gan­ized and are not pro­fes­sion­ally trained fight­ers. He doesn’t have a cred­ible means to threaten the United States…. The no­tion that Mr. As­sad could sig­ni­fic­antly threaten the United States is just not the case.

Obama will con­tin­ue his press blitz from the White House on Tues­day night, when he ad­dresses a na­tion that largely dis­ap­proves of U.S. mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia. In the end, pub­lic opin­ion may carry more weight in the pres­id­ent’s de­cision than murky pro­pos­als from over­seas. Obama told NBC, “I will eval­u­ate after that wheth­er or not we feel strongly enough about this that we are will­ing to move for­ward.”

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