Obama Makes Syria Pitch

2014 State of the union address

On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama looked like a man who had escaped imminent defeat.

The Obama who made the case for military action in Syria on Tuesday night appeared more confident, more assured, perhaps even more relieved than the president who confronted the press corps twice during last week’s trip to Stockholm, Sweden, and St. Petersburg, Russia. Then Obama was defensive, arguing that the world, not he, had set a red line against Syria’s use of nuclear weapons and maintaining it was not his credibility that was at stake if the U.S. did not respond to the breach of that red line.

Last week, when he scheduled Tuesday’s national address, few aides believed it would be the pivotal moment they needed to change public opinion and prompt Congress to grant him authority to use military force against Syria. Americans were weary of war and suspicious of any reason to take up arms once again in a faraway land.

On Tuesday, Obama still made a case for striking at the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, invoking the image of hundreds gassed by chemical weapons on Aug. 21 in the outskirts of Damascus and the anguish of a father “clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.” Obama still laid the blame on Assad, making the case he has been making for two weeks that the regime was responsible for launching sarin gas that killed more than 1,400, including more than 400 children.

Assad has blamed the attack on opposition forces and struck a confrontational pose against the United States.

But the tenuous diplomatic path that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have opened to secure Syria’s chemical weapons bought time and eased the pressure on both Congress and Obama to act.

“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said Tuesday night. “But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies. I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.”

This was only Obama’s sixth address to the nation from the White House. They are reserved for momentous events — the death of Osama bin laden, the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. The elegant setting and the deliberate presidential walk down the red-carpeted hallway are designed to convey authority and soberness.

Instead of being quizzed as he was in news conferences last week on what he would do if Congress failed to grant him authority, or on whether his political standing was on the line, Obama on Tuesday had the lectern and the trappings of office all to himself. Earlier in the day, he had spent 2½ hours on Capitol Hill in respectful meetings with Senate Democrats and then Senate Republicans, answering questions and making his case.

Obama does not do self-doubt in public. But when it comes to Syria, he has walked a fine line between agility and vacillation. On Tuesday the president sought to address questions about the mission directly, giving voice to those members of the public who have written to him and challenged the need to intervene.

“One man wrote to me that we are still recovering from our involvement in Iraq. A veteran put it more bluntly: This nation is sick and tired of war,” Obama said. “My answer is simple. I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.”

It may not have swayed minds. But a speech that was supposed to be his final appeal may now be only the beginning.