Obama defends shift to diplomacy on Syria as ‘responsibility’

US president pledges to hold Assad accountable for WMD use by keeping military option on table

President Obama makes his case during his weekly address Saturday for pursuing a diplomatic solution following Syria's use of chemical weapons, September 2013. (screen capture: YouTube)
President Obama makes his case during his weekly address Saturday for pursuing a diplomatic solution following Syria's use of chemical weapons, September 2013. (screen capture: YouTube)

US President Barack Obama continued to make the case for his policy in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, arguing in his weekly address Saturday that pursuing a diplomatic solution after threatening military strikes was both morally prudent and strategically effective.

Obama’s moves over the last several weeks — including seeking authorization from Congress to use force and agreeing to back off a strike if Syria destroys its chemicals weapons — have left some pundits scratching their heads.

However speaking on Saturday as the US and Russia hashed out a deal to see Syria give up its chemical arms, Obama defended his decision to shift from military force to diplomacy.

“If there is any chance of achieving that goal without resorting to force,” Obama said, “then I believe we have a responsibility to pursue that path.”

Still, the president sought to keep alive the possibility of American force, and argued that “this plan emerged only with a credible threat of US military action.”

“We will maintain our military posture in the region to keep the pressure on the Assad regime,” he continued. “And if diplomacy fails, the United States and the international community must remain prepared to act.”

US and Russian officials reached an agreement Saturday that calls for an inventory of Syria’s chemical weapons program and the seizure of all its components. The agreement includes imposing penalties if Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government fails to comply.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and their teams had been meeting day and night in Geneva to develop a framework for ridding the world of Syria’s chemical weapons, in response to a gas attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21.

The US and others blame Assad’s government for the attack, though Assad denies the charge. More than 1,400 people died, according to US estimates, the latest victims of Syria’s 2½-year-old civil war. Yet polls showed relatively little support among Americans for a military strike against Syria, even after the Obama administration’s efforts to argue that punishing Damascus for violating international norms of warfare was in the security interests of the US.

Obama emphasized that he was fully aware of the possibility that both Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin could be using the agreement as a stalling tactic, and said he would not allow them to manipulate the international community. “We are not just going to take Russia and Assad’s word for it,” Obama promised. “We need to see concrete actions to demonstrate that Assad is serious about giving up his chemical weapons.”

Obama also underlined the international community’s responsibility to respond to the events, and emphasized his administration’s own efforts to gather international support for his policy.

“We’ll keep working with the international community to see that Assad gives up his chemical weapons so that they can be destroyed,” he said. “We will continue rallying support from allies around the world who agree on the need for action to deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”

In Congress, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who are among Obama’s sharpest foreign policy critics and support greater US assistance for Syria’s rebels, said the agreement would embolden enemies such as Iran.

Other critics have also pounded Obama for his wavering and for decision not to pursue a punishing strike on Assad.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker called Obama’s reversal “the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly.”

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that this episode represents “the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, in contrast, credited the president’s “steadfast leadership” for “making significant progress in our efforts to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

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