WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork) — President Barack Obama said in a nationally televised address Tuesday night that recent diplomatic steps offer “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons” inside Syria without the use of force, but he also insisted the U.S. military will keep the pressure on President Bashar Assad “and be ready to respond” if other measures fail.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria.
President Obama Addresses The Nation: Full Video
Acknowledging the weariness the nation feels after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said, “America is not the world’s policeman.”
And yet, he added, “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. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria,” he declared.
The speech capped a frenzied 10-day stretch of events that began when he unexpectedly announced he was stepping back from a threatened military strike and first asking Congress to pass legislation authorizing the use of force against Assad.
With public opinion polls consistently showing widespread opposition to American military intervention, the White House has struggled mightily to generate support among lawmakers — liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike — who have expressed fears of involvement in yet another war in the Middle East and have questioned whether U.S. national security interests were at stake in Syria. Obama had trouble, as well, building international support for a military attack designed to degrade Assad’s military.
Suddenly, though, events took another unexpected turn this week. First Russia and then Syria reacted positively to a seemingly off-hand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry indicating that the crisis could be defused if Damascus agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control.
The president said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, and he added, “I will continue my own discussion” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, he said the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the United Nations Security Council “requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”
In a speech that lasted 16 minutes, Obama recounted the events of the deadly chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that the United States blames on Assad.
“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until these horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied,” he said.
Administration officials said the speech was the sixth Obama has made to the nation from the White House in more than 4 1/2 years as president.
Syrian President Assad has never acknowledged that his country has chemical weapons. In an interview with “CBS This Morning” co-host Charlie Rose this week, the dictator said he was willing to discuss options.
“We will do anything to prevent another crazy war,” he said.
While Rose had not yet heard about the Russian-backed plan when he interviewed Assad, he said it still seemed as if Assad was expressing a willingness to negotiate.
“I asked the president of Syria, ‘What if you give up the chemical weapons? And the president said if you do, he will not engage a military strike.’ And he said, ‘On behalf of the region – and we’re only part of the region – to prevent a crazy war, I would consider that as a good idea,” Rose told CBS 2’s Maurice DuBois and Kristine Johnson Monday. “So, interestingly, not without the specific question, but with the principle, he seemed to open the door, to me, the possibility that something could be arranged to prevent the kind of strike that is anticipated.”
Assad’s remark on avoiding a strike came even though he would not say whether his country even has chemical weapons, Rose said.
Many lawmakers said their constituents are opposed to another military action after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Faced with a diplomatic solution, lawmakers questioned Syria’s credibility.
“It’s really important to remember that Syria has an extremely, extremely low level of credibility,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said. “If something can be done diplomatically I’m totally satisfied with that. I’m not a blood and thunder guy. I’m not for shock and awe.”
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