WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama said in a nationally televised address Tuesday night that recent diplomatic steps offer "the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons" inside Syria without the use of force, but he also insisted the U.S. military will keep the pressure on President Bashar Assad "and be ready to respond" if other measures fail.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, the Commander-in-Chief said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria.
Acknowledging the weariness the nation feels after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the President said, "America is not the world's policeman."
And yet, he added, "When with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional."
Administration officials said the speech was the sixth Obama has made to the nation from the White House in more than 4 1/2 years as president. It capped a frenzied 10-day stretch that began when he unexpectedly announced he was stepping back from a threatened military strike and asking Congress to pass legislation authorizing the use of force against Assad.
"I thought that was the right decision, the decision to come to Congress. I applaud him for that decision. He just needs to follow through with this. By that I mean if we end up with a vote, I would hope that he would also meet us right there with a commitment to adhering to the vote," said Representative Scott Rigell (R-VA). The Congressman from Virginia Beach lead a major unified effort of Republicans and Democrats who encouraged President Obama to consult the House of Representatives and Senate before deciding to strike against Syria.
With public opinion polls consistently showing widespread opposition to American military intervention, the White House has struggled mightily to generate support among lawmakers -- liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike -- who have expressed fears of involvement in yet another war in the Middle East and have questioned whether U.S. national security interests were at stake in Syria. Obama had trouble, as well, building international support for a military attack designed to degrade Assad's military.
Suddenly, though, events took another unexpected turn on Monday. First Russia and then Syria reacted positively to a seemingly off-hand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry indicating that the crisis could be defused if Damascus agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control.
"With a full, and sober, and realistic assessment of the Russians and their track record, which is not a good one with respect to negotiations, I still am cautiously optimistic about the potential that we now see," Rigell told 13News Now. "I see this as a ray of light, you know, perhaps, here with what this proposal the Russians have floated, knowing full well, again, that they don't have a good track record -- neither do the Syrians -- with respect to honest negotiating, but I do think it should be allowed to have a chance to be explored."
United States Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, released the following statement Tuesday night in response to President Obama’s address to the nation:
Tonight the President made a strong case to the American people for why Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill Syrian civilians must have consequences. At stake is an international norm against chemical weapons that’s not only protected civilians around the world for nearly 90 years, but also the brave men and women we’ve sent to battle in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. While I strongly agree that all diplomatic options must be exhausted before any military action is taken, the diplomatic channels open today would not have been possible without American leadership and pressure on the Assad regime. I applaud the President for making clear to the nation why this principle matters and I urge my Senate colleagues to maintain American resolve as we explore the possibility of placing the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal under international control.
Fellow Virginian and United States Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wrote:
Tonight, I believe the President outlined a responsible path to a credible diplomatic solution. I will work with my Senate colleagues to craft a bipartisan resolution that includes tight deadlines and which allows unannounced, even intrusive, inspections by international observers.
Let’s not forget what brought us to this point: the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against their own people. This was an atrocity that has been banned by international agreement for almost a century, and this conduct deserves strong international condemnation.
President Obama has ordered the U.S. military to maintain its current posture to keep the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime should diplomacy fail.
In his televised address Tuesday night, the President outlined his plans to respond to the use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb last month that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people. President Obama said he's working closely with world leaders.
He said he's continuing discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with his Russian counterpart on Thursday. Obama also says he's speaking with leaders of France and Britain and will work with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the United Nations Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons.
President Obama said he long resisted calls for military action in Syria because he didn't think force could solve the Syrian civil war, but he explained he changed his mind after Syria's government gassed its own citizens.
President Obama said no one disputes that chemical weapons were used and said thousands of Syrians have died from them. He said the images and videos of men, women, and children are sickening and demand a response.
"The classified briefings that I have participated in, and there have been several, and they've been quite intense, I remain convinced at this point that the Assad regime had control of the weapons, that they planned the attack, ordered the attack, and executed the attack," noted Rigell. "He's committed a war crime, in my view, and I believe that for the rest of his life, he needs to know that there are those who are seeking to hold him accountable for the pain, and the loss of life, and really the murder of so many innocent civilians in Syria including the best estimate is over 400 children."
Rigell explained of the 3 goals the President articulated, a diplomatic method of resolution as proposed by Russia would accomplish 2: to deter future use of chemical weapons by Syria and to degrade the regime's ability to deliver chemical weapons. As to the remaining goal of holding the regime accountable, Rigell and others on Capitol Hill already are calling for Assad to come before a military tribunal.