But with little guarantee that diplomacy would prevail, Obama spent the bulk of his 17-minute speech trying to directly address the concerns that have moved public opinion and Congress against him over the past week.
The president argued that a military response is in the national interest, although he conceded that Syria poses no direct threat to the United States. Obama said that not responding to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 outside Damascus would allow him to use them again and would embolden other regimes hostile to the United States, including Iran.
At the same time, Obama made an emotional appeal to Americans’ basic sense of right and wrong, invoking the use of gas in World War I and the Holocaust in arguing that the United States has the “exceptional” responsibility to use its military power to punish nations that use weapons of mass destruction. Obama went so far as to urge Americans to watch graphic videos of the aftermath of the attack in Syria.
“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?” Obama said. “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.”
(Read the transcript of President Obama’s speech.)
The speech was an unusual plea from a president who had risked his and his nation’s credibility on whether he could get Congress to support him, even as he has put off the possibility of a military strike for the moment and has maintained that as commander in chief he doesn’t need congressional approval to launch one in any case.
As it became clear this week that lawmakers probably would oppose the use of force, perhaps overwhelmingly, the Russian proposal offered Obama a potential way out. At his request, Congress has postponed votes on whether to authorize a strike.
The address Tuesday followed an extraordinary, fast-moving and unpredictable two days in American politics and international diplomacy.
Obama began the week planning to make a clear-cut case for attacking the Assad regime. But on Monday morning, an offhand remark by Secretary of State John F. Kerry prompted the Russians to propose that Syria, an ally, surrender its chemical weapons to avoid strikes.