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With opposition to military action growing among Americans and lawmakers, President Barack Obama is heading to Congress on Tuesday with fresh hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough that would allow Syria’s government to avert U.S. missile strikes if it surrenders its chemical weapons arsenal.
Obama had planned to use the meetings with Democratic and Republican senators to personally lobby for his plan of targeted strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad‘s forces in retaliation for last month’s massive chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus. Instead, he signaled in interviews ahead of his trip to Capitol Hill that new diplomacy involving Russia and others could eliminate the risks of a repeat chemical attack without requiring an American intervention. He presents his case to the American people Tuesday night.
“The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don’t just trust, but we also verify,” Obama told CBS. “The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed.”
The dramatic shift in the president’s tone came after weeks of threatening tough reprisals on the Assad regime and with his administration facing stiff resistance in Congress to any resolution that would authorize him to use military force against Syria. For the first time Monday, a majority of senators staking out positions or leaning in one direction were expressing opposition, according to an Associated Press survey. The count in the House was far more lopsided, with representatives rejecting Obama’s plan by more than a 6-1 margin even as the leaders of both parties in the House professed their support.
For the Obama administration, presenting just the possibility of a diplomatic solution offered an “out” with it struggling to come up with the 60 votes needed for Senate passage of a use-of-force resolution. Reflecting the difficulty, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., unexpectedly postponed a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama’s call for legislation explicitly backing a military strike. Reid cited ongoing “international discussions.”
Obama said he’d still address the American people in prime time Tuesday. Only now, he stressed that strikes on Assad’s government were but a “very narrow military option.”
The president wasn’t the only one happy to delay a showdown for at least a few days. Several lawmakers, conflicted by their desire to see Assad punished and their wariness about America getting pulled into another Middle East war, breathed sighs of relief. And Russia, Assad’s biggest international backer, championed the path forward in the hope of preventing the instability that might arise from a broader, Iraq-like conflict involving the United States.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that his country is now working with Syria to prepare a detailed plan for Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent dismantling. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France will float a resolution in the U.N. Security Council aimed at forcing Syria to make public its chemical weapons program, place it under international control and dismantle it.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the administration and members of Congress were looking for “some kind of straw” to put off military action, with Congress and the country so opposed.
“There are people that are looking for any way out of this,” he said. On the Russian plan, he said: “I doubt that the administration takes it too seriously, but they’ll explore it. They have to.”
In his interviews, Obama conceded he might lose the vote in Congress and declined to say what he would do if lawmakers rejected him. But, he told CBS, he didn’t expect a “succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future,” a stunning reversal after days of furious lobbying and dozens of meetings and telephone calls with individual lawmakers.
The resolution would authorize limited military strikes for up to 90 days and expressly forbids U.S. ground troops in Syria for combat operations. Several Democrats and Republicans announced their opposition Monday, joining the growing list of members vowing to vote “no.” Fewer came out in support and one previous advocate, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., became an opponent Monday.
“Before taking any military action, our nation must have a clear tactical objective, a realistic strategy, the necessary resources to execute that strategy, including the support of the American people, and an exit plan,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, one of two female Iraq war veterans in Congress. Obama’s plan, she said, “fails to meet any of these criteria.”
Lawmakers emerging from a classified briefing late Monday with Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration was skeptical of the Russian offer but had not ruled it out. Rice told lawmakers that she had spent two-plus years battling Russia at the United Nations, where Moscow vetoed all resolutions condemning the Assad government.
Obama, who said he discussed the potential plan for Syria to surrender its chemical stockpiles with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, was guarded in his assessment of its chance of success.
“There are a lot of stockpiles inside of Syria,” he said. “It’s one of the largest in the world. Let’s see if they’re serious.”
But having committed to seeking congressional approval, Obama may have few other immediate options. Unable to confidently push for a vote, and fearful of what the impact of strikes without approval would mean for his final three years in office, diplomacy offers at least a pause for him while he seeks broader support.
Sixty-one percent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria, according to an Associated Press poll. About a quarter of Americans want lawmakers to support such action, with the remainder undecided. The poll, taken Sept. 6-8, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., among Congress’ most outspoken advocates of American intervention in Syria, said he was skeptical of Russia’s intentions.
“But to not test it would also be a mistake,” he said.
Fellow Republican hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said concrete steps from Moscow were needed to prove its seriousness, including a binding Security Council resolution at the United Nations.
“The fear is it’s a delaying tactic and the Russians are playing us like a fiddle along with Assad,” Graham told reporters.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, David Espo, Alan Fram, Erica Werner and Henry C. Jackson in Washington contributed to this report.
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