September 11, 2013
Obama addresses nation on Syria
President Barack Obama arrives to address the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013. (Reuters/Evan Vucci)

It’s hard to remember a presidential address that simultaneously called for a truly serious national commitment and then asked everyone to hang on for a while to see how various uncertainties were worked out.

Thus did President Obama try to persuade a reluctant nation that it is “in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.” Its purpose, he said, “would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”

But the president did not go on to ask Congress to give him the authority to act, nor did he urge citizens to push their representatives and Senators to stand with him. Instead, he guardedly embraced a Russian initiative to take Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons away from him. The president’s central request to Congress was “to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.”

True, the president argued that the disarmament proposal would never have been made in the absence of a “credible threat of U.S. military action.” He also implied that the proposal was not a one-sided Russian idea but rather that it arose from “constructive talks that I had with President Putin.”

And so we wait. We wait to find out if this diplomatic proposal is serious, or simply a bid by Russia and Syria to delay a military strike in the hope that the current crisis dissipates, leaving Assad in power, undisturbed. We wait to see if some members of Congress who saw a strike against Syria as unnecessary come to accept that only the threat of American action brought Russia and Syria to the negotiating table. We wait to see what Obama’s own bottom line in the talks will be.

The president’s address was useful in laying down some clear moral markers for American foreign policy. He spoke directly to the unusual alliance of the left and the right against his Syrian policy.

“And so, to my friends on the right,” he said, “I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just.  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.”

But really, we’re on hold. In the best of worlds, this opening salvo for talks on chemical weapons could open the way to the broader political negotiations Obama has been seeking to replace Assad and assemble a new government in Syria. If the discussions are fruitful — either on weapons, or on a broader settlement — Obama will be able to argue only his toughness forced Russia and Syria to the table.

But if this disarmament initiative turns out to be less than serious, Obama will have to come back again and make the case for action, hoping that his willingness to give diplomacy a try reconciles some critics, particularly on his left, to action. And he will have to ask Republicans to square their past eagerness to grant broad war authority to presidents of their own party with their reluctance to give a Democratic president room to launch one set of military strikes.

For now, there is relief in Congress — and, one suspects, in the White House — that a showdown that could have undermined Obama’s authority in foreign policy has been avoided. But what so many thought a few days ago would be a decisive moment in the Obama presidency turned out to be a way station.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”