President Obama is expressing cautious optimism about the diplomatic effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.
He notes that Syria has acknowledged possessing those weapons for the first time, and has signaled its willingness to join an international ban on their use.
In his weekly address, the president says any agreement with Syria must be verifiable.
“That means working to turn Syria’s chemical weapons over to international control and ultimately destroying them,” he says.
Administration officials have been negotiating with Syria’s ally Russia over the size of its chemical weapons stockpile and the details of dismantling it, following a chaotic week of seat-of-the-pants foreign policy.
Syria has spelled an end to Obama’s no-drama reputation. Performing on the international stage, he and his cabinet secretaries have offered up one plot twist after another, though it often seems as if the actors are working without a script.
Obama used his prime-time television address on Tuesday to make the case for a military strike on Syria, in retaliation for last month’s deadly gas attack. Even as he did so, Obama said he understands Americans’ strong opposition to another military action.
“I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them,” he said. “Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan. And I know Americans want all of us in Washington, especially me, to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home.”
In trying to justify a military strike, it was almost as though the president was arguing with himself, trying to explain why a chemical attack warranted getting involved in a war he’d studiously avoided for more than two years. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says Obama’s speeches are unusual in the way they reveal his sometimes-messy internal dialogue.
“He’s not afraid to confess that there is ambiguity in the world,” Beschloss says. “And sometimes there may be ambivalence in his own mind … and it is not an accident that a president with these qualities was elected after two terms of a president who was famously very self-certain of most of the things he said in public.”
Beschloss says Obama’s ambivalence was especially apparent two weeks ago, when the president announced his decision that the U.S. should strike Syria, then added in the very next breath that he planned to seek authorization from Congress first. Obama had surprised his own staff with the second part of that decision only the night before.
“We saw something two weeks ago that we normally don’t see with most presidents, and that is a pretty spontaneous decision,” he says. “One that was in full view, and one that did not necessarily show Barack Obama in the best light … but you do get an authentic sense of the man.”
But where Beschloss sees authenticity, and a thoughtful wrestling over the proper role of the president, others see dithering and indecision. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said this week it’s long past time for the president to “drop the pose of the reluctant warrior, and lead.”
“What’s needed in Syria is what’s needed almost everywhere else in the world from America right now: a clear strategy and a president determined to carry it out,” McConnell said. “What we’ve gotten instead is the same timid, reluctant leadership that I’ve seen from this president for nearly five years.”
Congress appears unwilling to authorize a military strike though, and Obama is reluctant to order one on his own. So this week, the White House seized on the alternative proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin: to have Syria surrender its chemical weapons to international observers.
Obama insists it was only the threat of military force that opened the door for that diplomatic track, and he says the U.S. must remain prepared to act if talks with Russia and Syria break down.
One White House aide acknowledged there have been a lot of twists and turns to this drama over the last few weeks. While the ending is not yet clear, the administration feels better about the story line than it did a week ago.