Washington (CNN) — President Barack Obama tried Tuesday to sell a military intervention he never wanted to an American public that opposes it, telling the nation that he needed authorization to attack Syria for chemical weapons use as leverage in a newly emerged diplomatic opening from Russia.
Calling the United States “the anchor of global security,” Obama offered moral, political and strategic arguments for being ready to launch limited military strikes while trying to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used,” Obama said in making the case that the United States must act when dictators such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “brazenly” violate international treaties intended to protect humanity.
The 15-minute nationally televised speech initially was planned as Obama’s final push to win support from a skeptical public and Congress for his planned attack on Syria for what his administration calls a major chemical weapons attack on August 21 that killed more than 1,400 people in suburban Damascus.
New offer impacts Obama’s challenge
However, Monday’s unexpected diplomatic overture by Russia changed the strategic and political equation. Under the Russian plan, which still lacks any details, Syria would turn over its chemical weapons stockpiles to international control.
That would meet Obama’s main criterion of ending the chemical weapons threat by the al-Assad regime.
However, Russia canceled a U.N. Security Council meeting it had called for Tuesday and rejected an initial proposal by France for the framework of a resolution, raising questions about whether the diplomatic effort was serious or a stall tactic to put off a U.S. attack on Syria.
For Obama, the Russian proposal prompted by a seemingly off-the-cuff comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry further muddied an already complex challenge in Syria compounded by public concerns of another possible military quagmire.
The president called the Russian offer an encouraging sign, but warned that “it’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments.”
Therefore, he said, he asked Congress to postpone a vote for now on authorizing military force against Syria.
In addition, the diplomatic push will provide more time for United Nations inspectors to report their findings on the August attack and allow his administration to continue rallying support for an international response, the president said.
Military to remain current posture
At the same time, Obama said he ordered the U.S. military to maintain its “current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.”
Kerry made the same argument at a congressional hearing Tuesday, telling legislators that “nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”
However, congressional support for military action reflected public opposition. A CNN/ORC International poll released Monday said 59% of respondents opposed congressional authorization of military action, while 72% said American strikes would achieve no significant goals.
In an instant poll of people who watched the speech Tuesday night, 61% favored Obama’s approach compared to 37% who opposed it.
The CNN/ORC International survey showed almost two-thirds of respondents thought the Syria situation would be resolved through diplomatic efforts, while 47% said Obama made a convincing case for military action compared to 50% who said he didn’t.
By CNN’s best estimate, the sample of poll respondents — 37% Democrats, 20% Republicans and 43% independents — was about seven percentage points more Democratic than the general public.
Critics call the situation faced by Obama his own doing for a confused Syria policy that he has never fully explained.
“There’s a degree of incoherence that I have never seen the likes of,” veteran Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told CNN on Tuesday.
In the most emotional part of the speech, Obama cited the videos his administration made public that showed victims of the Syrian sarin gas attack.
“The images from this massacre are sickening: 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,” the president said in emphasizing the horror of chemical weapons.
“The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security,” Obama added.
Directly addressing questions he received from members of Congress and letters from the public, the president insisted that any U.S. military strike would be limited in scope and mission.
No American boots on the ground
“I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action — no matter how limited — is not going to be popular,” he said, later declaring: “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.”
At the same time, he rejected criticism that such a limited military response would prove meaningless, saying “the United States military doesn’t do pin pricks.”
“Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” Obama said. “I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can makes Assad — or any other dictator — think twice before using chemical weapons.”
He described the U.S. role in the world as “doing more than forging international agreements; it has meant enforcing them.”
“The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them,” Obama said before making a direct appeal to both sides of the political spectrum.
“To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with the failure to act when a cause is so plainly just,” he said. “To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with 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.”
He concluded by challenging “every member of Congress and those of you watching at home tonight 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?”