Chief correspondent

It’s been said there are no do-overs in life. But President Obama may be getting the closest thing to it with his abrupt turn toward diplomacy on Syria. Still, it is a path as fraught with problems and risks for the president as was his inability to win public and congressional support for targeted strikes.

When Obama spoke to the nation Tuesday night, he was in the middle of a dramatic and unexpected pivot. Given what had happened in the previous 36 hours, he had to make an awkward rhetorical transition from arguing for military intervention — the original purpose of his prime-time address — to arguing to give diplomacy a chance.

For now at least, the possible sequencing of what will unfold on Syria — diplomacy before military action — makes more sense than the zigs and zags of the past two weeks. The president can now pursue diplomatic efforts to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to turn over control of his chemical weapons to an international body, and eventually to see them destroyed. Failing that, he could go back to Congress with a stronger case to make that he has exhausted peaceful attempts and that military action is the only course left to deter the Syrians from using those weapons.

But Obama got to this place more by accident than design. Events have not left him in a better position politically at home as the next phase unfolds. Opposition to military action remains strong, and overnight reaction to the speech showed no particular uptick in his standing. How he handles what comes next is critically important.

So much remains uncertain. The new path elevates Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama’s nemesis and Assad’s patron, and leaves the reviled Assad as a central actor in a possible peaceful resolution. Obama provided few clues Tuesday night to his diplomatic strategy or to his patience. All he was willing to say was that it was “too early to tell whether this offer will succeed.”

Where Congress stands on Syria

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What was lacking in his address was any timetable for diplomacy or any indication of when he might go back to Congress to restart the clock on a resolution authorizing force. The reality, based on history, is that these negotiations will be contentious and could drag on and on. Even if successful, the process leading to the eventual destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons could take months, if not years. Meanwhile, Assad probably would remain in power and the civil war would rage on.

Obama and his advisers have argued that it was the threat of military action that brought the Russians and Syrians to this point. In his speech, he argued that the United States has a responsibility to act, militarily if necessary, in the face of the alleged chemical gas attack by the Assad regime that killed more than 1,400 Syrians, including hundreds of children. He may have to make the same argument in a matter of weeks or months if the diplomatic efforts run aground.

Questions remain. One is how long Obama will give Assad and Putin to demonstrate that they are serious. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has expressed skepticism about the seriousness of Putin and Assad, told reporters at a Wednesday morning breakfast held by the Wall Street Journal that it should be a very short deadline, perhaps 48 to 72 hours. “I worry a great deal that we kind of have a game of rope-a-dope for a while, and the slaughter goes on,” he said, according to The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has been as critical of Obama’s overall Syrian policy as McCain and as supportive of the president’s call for military action, said on CNN after Obama’s speech that whatever qualms he had about the seriousness of the offer by the Russians, diplomacy is worth the effort if only because it might eliminate the chemical weapons in Assad’s hands.

Many others in Congress who opposed military action were even more grateful for the pause and expressed their hopes for a diplomatic solution. But will their minds be changed if diplomacy fails?

Obama spent much of his time Tuesday night attempting to allay fears that military strikes could lead to sustained involvement by the United States in Syria’s civil war. He also was trying to assure skeptics that, as he put it, “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks” and that if strikes are ordered, they will have the desired effect.

He called on opponents on the left and the right to rethink their positions and see the merit of U.S. intervention to prevent carnage by dictators with weapons of mass destruction. But all of that is now on hold.

For Congress, that may be a relief — a return to regular business as the focus of the Syrian debate shifts from Capitol Hill to the United Nations and close-in discussions between the United States and its allies on the one hand and the Russians on the other.

For Obama, there is no respite. The war in Syria has bedeviled his national security team for two years, with only bad options and worse options. The Russians seized on Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s offhand proposal that Syria give up its chemical weapons, and the administration seized on that slender opening. Is it to call the Russians’ and the Syrians’ bluff to strengthen the case for military action, or is it out of a genuine belief that a diplomatic solution on the issue of chemical weapons may be possible?

The messy process continues, with the president facing the most difficult of choices.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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