Obama Warms to an Escape Route in the Syria Crisis
In interviews with multiple outlets, the president says U.S. military pressure has changed the game on Syria. But he's not confident that Congress will approve a strike.
On Monday night, President Obama flooded the networks to make his case for a strike on Syria, emphasizing its narrowness in diminishing Syria's suspected use of chemical weapons. Yet, earlier in the day, he conceivably was given an out to the conflict, with Russia offering to broker a deal to put the Syrian government's stockpile of chemical weapons under "international control."
The proposition has prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to postpone a Senate vote on the authorization of force from Wednesday to Thursday, to allow for a diplomatic way out of the situation. Obama told Diane Sawyer on ABC that the strikes may be less effective if Congress doesn't back him, but that he hadn't decided what he would do if the strikes are voted down.
In an interview with Fox News, Chris Wallace asked Obama three times if the president would delay a vote in Congress in the wake of the new information. "I am going to make sure that this does not change the calendar of debate in Congress," Obama responded. "Clearly it's going to take more time, partly because the American people aren't convinced."
NBC's Savannah Guthrie asked Obama if he felt confident about getting enough votes to push the resolution authorizing the use of force through Congress. "I wouldn't say I'm confident. I'm confident that the members of Congress are taking this issue very seriously, and they are doing their homework. At a press conference in Sweden last week, however, the president said he was sure Congress would approve the measure.
But perhaps there is some hope it won't come to blows. To multiple news outlets, Obama repeated that if the Russian deal can be verified, it could deter a strike. At the same time, he said such a deal would not have come about without the looming threat of U.S. missiles, echoing former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's remarks earlier in the day. Here's what he told Wolf Blitzer on CNN, a sentiment he shared in all of his interviews:
If we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference. On the other hand, if we don't maybe maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will get the kind of movement I would like to see.
On Fox, Obama said the next step involves getting "actual language" from the Russians for a proposal that would take chemical weapons out of the Assad regime's hands. He paraphrased Ronald Reagan's "trust, but verify," a line the 40th president spoke in his 1989 farewell address about America's relationship with the Soviet Union. "We'll put this on a fast track," Obama said of determining how "serious" Russia is about pressuring Syria.
Obama also maintained that the United States does not have to fear a retaliation from Assad in the wake of a strike (as Assad had told Charlie Rose in an bizarrely concurrent interview on PBS). Obama told Blitzer:
Assad doesn't have a lot of capability. He has capability relative to children, he has capability relative to an opposition that is still getting itself organized and are not professionally trained fighters. He doesn't have a credible means to threaten the United States.... The notion that Mr. Assad could significantly threaten the United States is just not the case.
Obama will continue his press blitz from the White House on Tuesday night, when he addresses a nation that largely disapproves of U.S. military intervention in Syria. In the end, public opinion may carry more weight in the president's decision than murky proposals from overseas. Obama told NBC, "I will evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we are willing to move forward."