WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama made an impassioned pitch to Americans on Tuesday night to support his push to punish Syria for purportedly gassing its own citizens, assuring a war-weary nation a military strike is necessary because "this is not a world we should accept."
"When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory," Obama said in a televised address from the White House at the end of a day of breakneck developments on the Syrian crisis.
"But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security."
Obama took to the airwaves amid hopes a diplomatic solution is at hand, one engineered by Russia, a frequent U.S. antagonist and Syrian ally. Bashar Assad's regime said it's accepted Russia's proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent dismantling.
Such a move, if sincerely implemented, could avert the need for American military intervention in the war-torn Middle Eastern country. The Russian proposal hit a snag later Tuesday, however, when Russian President Vladimir Putin objected to a French proposal involving the United Nations Security Council.
Nonetheless, Obama said he'd asked Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing a military strike in Syria as Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Geneva on Thursday to meet with his Russian counterpart to discuss a possible resolution.
But the U.S. is still insisting it might act if Syria drags its feet on handing over its chemical weapons — and Obama's White House address was meant to explain his reasoning to a deeply skeptical public. A flurry of polls in recent days suggests few Americans have any appetite for warfare in the dismal aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama said he didn't blame them.
"I have resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force," he said. "After all, I've spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them."
But if the U.S. doesn't act, Obama said, it will embolden regimes around the world to use chemical weapons on their citizens, and such weapons could easily end up in the hands of terrorists hostile to the United States.
Any Syrian strike, he added, would be far different than Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo.
"I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," he said.
"I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad's capabilities."
Obama has agreed to discuss Russia's proposal with the United Nations, the White House said Tuesday, even though he still intends to cajole a wary Congress to ultimately authorize U.S. military strikes against Assad's regime in the event diplomatic efforts fail.
France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said his country is initiating a Security Council resolution at the UN. At a Tuesday news conference in Paris, Fabius said the resolution would include a condemnation of Syria's use of chemical weapons and would vow "very serious consequences" if Assad's regime blocked efforts to set up UN weapons inspections and control the destruction of chemical weapons.
Russia, however, has rebuffed the French strategy, calling "unacceptable" a binding Security Council resolution that threatens force against Syria if it fails to comply. Putin said the plan can only work if "the American side and those who support the U.S.A., in this sense, reject the use of force."
Kerry backed France in a Google Plus chat on Tuesday afternoon.
"We need a full resolution from the Security Council in order to have the confidence that this has the force that it ought to have," said Kerry. "That's our belief and obviously, right now, the Russians are in a slightly different place on that. We'll have to see where we get to."
Both Kerry and Obama have said they discussed the idea last week with the Russians at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, was quick to frame the fluid developments as a looming victory for the Obama administration, under serious fire for days for its seemingly erratic response to last month's chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus that left hundreds dead. Assad has denied Western allegations he carried out the attacks.
"Let's be clear, what we're seeing with the Russian proposal and Syrian reaction has only come about because of the threat, the credible threat of U.S. military action," Carney said on MSNBC.
"Before this morning, the Syrian government had never even acknowledged they possessed chemical weapons. Now they have."
Obama spoke earlier Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron about Syria. On Monday night, Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke, agreeing that there must be a strong international response to the use of chemical weapons to deter similar atrocities from being unleashed upon innocent civilians in the future.
Obama also met Tuesday with senators who are wary of U.S. military intervention in Syria. A bipartisan group of senators started preparing a resolution calling for a UN team to remove Syria's chemical weapons by a set deadline and green-lighting U.S. military action if the Syrians fail to live up to their end of the bargain.
In Kerry's testimony to the House armed services committee, he agreed that the Syrians must not be allowed to drag their feet.
"This cannot be a process of delay," he said. "This cannot be a process of avoidance."
John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, said Tuesday he was wary that Russia would truly be able to persuade Assad to give up his chemical weapons.
"I'm skeptical of it because of the actors that are involved. It's as simple as that," Boehner told a Capitol Hill news conference. "Clearly, diplomacy is always a better outcome than military action. But I will say I'm somewhat skeptical of those that are involved in the diplomatic discussion today."
Canada's foreign affairs minister sounded a similar tone.
"Actions will speak louder than words. Canada will wait to see what the particulars are for securing and destroying the entirety of the Assad regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons immediately," John Baird said in a statement.
"Trusting the regime to comply with any commitment after years of deceit would be a challenge. We want to ensure this proposal is not merely a delay tactic."
— The Canadian Press