Obama Warms to an Escape Route in the Syria Crisis

In interviews with multiple outlets, the president says U.S. military pressure has changed the game on Syria. But he’s not confident that Congress will approve a strike.

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to comments during a working session at a G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday.
National Journal
Marina Koren and Brian Resnick
Marina Koren Brian Resnick
Sept. 9, 2013, 2:46 p.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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