Secretary of State John Kerry speaks Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in London. His statement opened the door to a possible diplomatic solution to the standoff with Syria. | Alastair Grant/AP
Updated: October 11, 2013 6:20AM
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will address the nation Tuesday on the need to punish Syria for using chemical weapons. At the same time, he is not pushing for an immediate military strike vote in Congress for two reasons: It is facing defeat and a diplomatic deal may avert the need for an attack.
Obama said that if Syrian President Bashar Assad agrees to put his chemical arsenal under international control, a military strike would “absolutely” be put on hold.
Assad is open to the plan, endorsed by Russia, its closest major ally, only because of the threat of a U.S. attack, Obama said in a series of six television interviews. The interviews are part of the public-relations blitz coming before his prime time speech.
Asked by ABC News’ Diane Sawyer if a diplomatic deal could put an attack on pause, Obama replied, “Absolutely. If, in fact, that happened. I don’t think that we would have gotten to this point unless we had maintained a credible possibility of a military strike. And I don’t think now’s the time for us to let up on that.”
The latest developments came in a day of intense political and diplomatic activity by the administration — hosting about 70 lawmakers at the White House, briefing hundreds of others on Capitol Hill — with all of this overwhelmed by an unexpected diplomatic breakthrough.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in London, made an off-hand statement that opened the door to a diplomatic solution when he was asked what Assad could do to stop a U.S. attack at a press conference.
“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,” Kerry said.
Russia and Syria seized on the offer, scrambling the Obama game plan — and potentially providing a peaceful solution to a growing crisis — saving Obama from an embarrassing, legacy-diminishing political defeat.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had been anticipating a test vote in the coming days on a Syria strike, put it off.
“I think it’s certainly a positive development when the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons,” Obama told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
No specific proposal was put on the table on Monday — and Obama was cautious about the Russian enthusiasm for an international solution. Russia and China have blocked moves at the United Nations to respond to Syria’s chemical attacks on civilians.
Obama stressed in the interviews that he needed to keep the pressure on Syria because “we would not be getting even ticklers like this it it weren’t for the fact that we were serious about potentially taking action,” he told Scott Pelley of CBS News.
“I think it is fair to say we would not be at this point without a credible threat of a military strike,” Obama told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
Lawmakers returned to the Capitol after a summer break on Monday with options to take part in a number of briefings with administration officials.
Obama makes his speech on Tuesday confronted with the difficult task of wooing a highly skeptical public and Congress, not at all sold on the need for a limited U.S. attack on Syria with no U.S. troops on the ground.
A PEW Research Center Poll taken Aug. 29-Sept. 1 found growing opposition to U.S. airstrikes, up to 63 percent against from 48 percent the week before. Tallies by national news outlets show Obama falling way short in winning congressional backing.
“I don’t think that I’m going to convince, you know, the overwhelming majority of the American people to take any kind of military action,” Obama told PBS’ Gwen Ifill.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), speaking out for the first time about Syria on Monday, told me in an interview that he was leaning against a military strike; people contacting his district office were against an attack at least “90 to 10. Or maybe 90 to 1.”
“If my constituents are against it, my constituents come first,” Davis said.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a wounded Iraq war vet who is leaning no, emerged from a Capitol Hill Syria briefing not persuaded by anything she heard to detour her from an eventual no vote.
Duckworth was skeptical about Obama’s proposal for a narrow, limited attack tailored specifically to take out Assad’s ability to launch a chemical attack. “War is messy. War is never that simple,” said Duckworth.
Obama told CBS he did not expect his speech “to suddenly swing the polls wildly in the direction of another military engagement.”
Obama’s team booked the speech because they wanted the president to make his case to a wide audience.
The question now is whether Obama will press for a vote. He may not.
Obama told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, “We’re going to be spending this week talking to members of Congress, answering their questions. And I’m going to speak to the American people tomorrow night directly.
“And I’ll evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we’re willing to go forward.”