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Obama Puts Military Strike In Syria On Hold


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

President Obama's push for a military strike on Syria is on hold, at least for now. The administration is exploring a possible diplomatic alternative that calls for Syria to surrender its stockpile of chemical weapons. That could provide a face-saving out for the president, who appeared unlikely to win Congressional approval this week for a strike.

In the meantime, Obama used a national television address last night to make the case that last month's deadly gas attack in Syria poses a threat to the national security of the United States.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Even as he looks for a diplomatic and international way to deal with Syria's chemical weapons, President Obama has ordered U.S. warships to remain on alert, ready to launch cruise missiles at Syrian targets if the talks break down.

The president told a national TV audience last night the U.S. should not sit idly by and allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to kill his own people using chemical weapons most of the world has outlawed.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But 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.

HORSLEY: Obama repeated his promise to a war-weary nation that any military action in Syria would be limited and would not involve U.S. ground troops. At the same time, he said a strike would be powerful enough to deter Assad and perhaps others from using chemical weapons in the future.


OBAMA: Let me make something clear: the United States military doesn't do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.

HORSLEY: But with public opinion running strongly against military action, the administration grabbed hold of a last-minute proposal from Russia designed to avert a strike. The plan calls for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to an international team for disposal, and Syria's foreign minister quickly agreed. Obama says that has the potential to disarm the threat of another poison gas attack without resorting to military force.


OBAMA: I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.

HORSLEY: Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee was among the minority of lawmakers openly backing military action. But Corker says he's willing to hit the pause button while exploring a diplomatic option.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: My trust level for the Russians regarding this is very, very low, OK. But I think when this type of offer is put forth, you're foolish not to try to see if it's real.

HORSLEY: Secretary of State John Kerry plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva tomorrow to discuss terms under which Syria could hand over its chemical weapons. Already, the Russians and the French have been squabbling over a possible U.N. resolution. Kerry told lawmakers it will be exceedingly difficult for Syria to meet the demands of the international community.


SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: We have made it clear to them that this cannot be a process of delay. This cannot be a process of avoidance. We're waiting for that proposal. But we're not waiting for long.

HORSLEY: Obama is now in the unusual position of having walked the public up to the brink of war, then called for a time out. The administration argues it was only the threat of U.S. military force that made a diplomatic breakthrough possible. Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center is not so sure.

AARON DAVID MILLER: It's too early to say, frankly, whether or not what Putin has done and what Assad has apparently acquiesced in is, in fact, directly a response to the threat of American military force, or whether it's simply an effort to slow down the momentum and create an endless series of maneuverings which could last for weeks before the administration concludes it's real or not.

HORSLEY: In the meantime, analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says the president gets at least a temporary political reprieve, as the Congressional vote on military force is on hold.

JACK PITNEY: If it's postponed indefinitely, and there's some kind of diplomatic solution to this situation, then the president has averted real political damage, at least in the short run.

HORSLEY: That's because Obama faced the very real danger of losing that Congressional vote he'd made the surprising decision to call for just 11 days ago.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.