Obama Prepares For Speech On Syria

On Tuesday night, President Obama will address the nation — asking for support of his plan to punish the Syrian regime for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus last month. The president must deal with widespread skepticism about his plan.

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If you're president, this apparently is the way to get Syria to the bargaining table.

MONTAGNE: You threaten to go it alone on military strikes, then suddenly send the idea to Congress. Then just as suddenly it seems like you might lose the vote and then your secretary of state makes an off-hand remark, which the other takes as a peace proposal.

INSKEEP: This sudden diplomacy altered the debate as President Obama prepares to address the nation tonight.

MONTAGNE: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has postponed a vote on airstrikes.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The latest plot twist in the president's effort to punish Syria for using chemical weapons began with a seemingly off-message comment by Secretary of State John Kerry. At a news conference in London, Kerry was asked whether there was any way Syria could avoid a military strike.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done, obviously.

LIASSON: But within hours the Russians had seized on Kerry's remarks and offered a proposal that Syria hand over its chemical weapons. Syria's foreign minister, who was in Russia at the time, said he welcomed the offer, even though Syria has never publicly admitted to having chemical weapons. In a round of television interviews last night, President Obama embraced the idea.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is a potentially positive development. I have to say that it's unlikely that we would have arrived at that point where there were even public statements like that without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons use inside of Syria.

LIASSON: The president said his administration would take the Russian offer and run it to ground.

OBAMA: To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust but we also verify. And so 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. And there are a lot of stockpiles inside of Syria. It's one of the largest in the world. Let's see if they're serious.

LIASSON: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was enlisted to help the White House build badly needed support for a military strike, was skeptical.

HILLARY CLINTON: This cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely or be held to account.

LIASSON: But the new proposal could be a political lifeline, allowing the president to avoid - for the moment, at least - a potentially crushing loss in Congress. Mr. Obama's speech tonight is a last ditch effort to change public opposition, says former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston.

BLL GALSTON: If anything, the tide of public opinion is running very much against president. So these are daunting odds and the hour is so late that I'm not sure how much difference in the short run the president's speech is going to make. Nonetheless, he owes it to the country to present the strongest possible case for a very difficult course of action.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama is in such a deep hole, says Galston, because he's told the American people the permanent war footing was ending, only to have it snap back into focus with a vengeance.

GALSTON: And the I think the president now faces an uphill battle to persuade the Congress and the American people to act against Bashar al-Assad, in part because he has conveyed the impression that we can move back from the kind of active engagement in the world that's characterized the past 10 years and more without paying a price.

LIASSON: So the latest Russian proposal, even if it doesn't pan out, has given the president a little breather. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has postponed Wednesday's vote on military action, giving the White House more time to try to remind the American people that Mr. Obama is still the same reluctant warrior they elected, and to convince them he deserves their forbearance in the conduct of foreign policy.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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