Published Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 12:19 pm
President Obama: Diplomatic approach may remove threat of chemical weapons in Syria

Read reaction from Midlanders and others in Congress.
Watch a replay of President Barack Obama's address to the nation.
Read the White House transcript of the president's remarks.
• Follow World-Herald Washington Bureau chief Joseph Morton on Twitter.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said in a nationally televised address Tuesday night that recent diplomatic steps offer “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons” inside Syria without the use of force. But he also insisted that the U.S. military will keep the pressure on President Bashar Assad “and be ready to respond” if other measures fail.

With the majority of Americans opposed to the use of force in Syria, Obama asked them Tuesday to have confidence in his judgment as commander in chief if he launches a strike nonetheless. And he asked them to have faith that a president elected to end wars was still trying to find another way out, perhaps a diplomatic deal at the United Nations to secure Syria's chemical weapons.

Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria.

Acknowledging the weariness the nation feels after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said, “America is not the world's policeman.”

And yet, he said: “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. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.

“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria,” he declared.

Again and again, Obama's message was clear: Trust me.

Tuesday's address wasn't the speech Obama had originally planned to give.

But rapidly moving diplomacy forced him to recast the address from one aimed at building support for a congressional use-of-force resolution to one explaining why he is he spending so much time on a matter that so many Americans oppose.

The speech capped a frenzied 10-day stretch of events that began when Obama unexpectedly announced that he was stepping back from a threatened military strike and first asking Congress to pass legislation authorizing the use of force against Assad.

And events took another unexpected turn this week. First Russia and then Syria reacted positively to a seemingly off-hand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry indicating that the crisis could be defused if Damascus agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control.

The president said he was sending Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, and he added, “I will continue my own discussion” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, he said, the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the U.N. Security Council “requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”

Earlier Tuesday, Syria's foreign minister said that Assad's regime would declare its chemical weapons arsenal and sign the chemical weapons convention.

Walid al-Moallem said that Syria was ready to cooperate fully to implement a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control and that it would stop producing chemical weapons.

He added that Syria also would place chemical weapons locations in the hands of representatives of Russia, "other countries" and the United Nations.

He spoke Tuesday exclusively to the Al-Mayadeen TV station.

Reaction from Midlanders in Congress

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.: "The confusion and inconsistencies coming from the Administration on the strategy, scope and goal of a proposed military strike are unacceptable. One day we are told the goal is to stop Syria from using chemical weapons to kill innocent people, but then we're told any strike would be 'unbelievably small.' Now the president repeats that the United States doesn't 'do pinpricks.'

"The situation is continuing to evolve but the lack of a coherent strategy is no way to garner support for implementing such consequential foreign policy. The president's speech added very little to advance his case. With no good options left, the president is right to wait for diplomatic talks to continue."

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.: “After reviewing the classified materials, I do not believe we should become engaged in the Syrian conflict. The President tonight again failed to make the case for why initiating military force against the Assad regime is in our national interest.

"I am pleased the Administration is continuing to pursue a diplomatic solution to this crisis. I would like to see a clear deadline set for the Assad regime to turn over their stockpile of chemical weapons.

"Our country has always achieved peace through strength and I hope through resolute American leadership the international community is successful in removing the chemical weapons from this brutal regime.”

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.: “It was an important statement by the President explaining the fullness of his perspective. However, I've been clear: The United States cannot allow the world to hide behind our military might. A unilateral military strike has been the sole working option to this point and that has most Americans deeply and rightly concerned.”

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb.: “I appreciate the President's address to the American people tonight. There are no easy answers to the situation in Syria, and questions of war and peace must be carefully and thoughtfully considered. I remain unconvinced a military strike on the Syrian regime would be in our nation's best interests.

“I look forward to learning more details of the most recent proposal and how the Administration would ensure the safe and complete transfer of Syria's chemical weapons. We must keep our options open on this evolving situation, and I look forward to continued input from constituents.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa: “I am encouraged by the apparent opening for a multilateral response to the crisis in Syria. I support and commend the efforts of the President and his administration to work with the international community and the United Nations to obtain a diplomatic resolution to take control of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.

“The use of chemical weapons against civilians is abhorrent – both from a human rights perspective and from international norms dating back to World War I. When international norms are violated, those violations should be condemned and addressed by the international community as a whole.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa: "Yesterday afternoon I went to the White House for a secured briefing about Syria with Vice President Biden. Today, I listened to the President directly when he came to Capitol Hill to talk with senators, as well as his speech on TV tonight.

"I appreciate the complicated issues the President faces. Still, I don't think the case for military action has been made. From what I have heard, Iowans strongly oppose military action by the United States. They have concerns and questions about what the President has proposed.

"If the goal is to deter and degrade Assad's ability to use chemical weapons, how would a limited strike achieve this goal? What are the risks of military action? What is the U.S. national interest in striking Syria? I'm still leaning against the authorization for the use of force that's been presented. In addition, the Russian proposal to force Assad to turn over chemical weapons to international monitors presents a possible alternative. Military action should be the last resort, so this diplomatic offer, if credible and enforceable, needs to be considered.”

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa: “I've carefully reviewed the case presented by President Obama and his administration for a limited US military strike in Syria, reviewing classified materials, attending classified briefings, and consulting with military officials and the Iowa National Guard.

"After watching the president's address tonight, I'm still unconvinced that a limited US military strike is the appropriate response to the atrocities committed in Syria. I believe the international community needs to be more directly involved in holding Syria's dictator responsible for breaking international law and violating the Geneva Conventions.

"So I'm pleased the president said he'll explore options that further involve the international community in an effort to hold the Syrian government accountable for its crimes and rid the country of chemical weapons. I'll watch closely in the coming days to see how these efforts at diplomacy develop.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa: Before President Barack Obama's speech Tuesday night, King discussed the potential for a U.S. response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, saying that if Congress voted now he would oppose U.S. military action though the president has the power to launch a strike.

“If he were going to do so he should have done so instantly rather than turning it into a global debate,” King said.

While characterizing Bashar Assad as an evil dictator, King also raised concerns about which groups would replace him.

“To pave the road to Damascus for the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaida is a bad idea, and we have not seen the administration identify the forces that we would like to align with in Syria." --- Compiled by Joseph Morton, World-Herald staff writer

Reaction from other members of Congress and other political figures

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: ”As the Obama administration continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution, the president justly made clear tonight that the threat of military action remains on the table as we continue to work to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus: ”The administration's handling of the U.S. response to Syria has been so haphazard it's disappointed even the president's most ardent supporters. This rudderless diplomacy has embarrassed America on the world stage.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.: ”We should all push as hard as possible for a diplomatic solution, which would require Syria to give up its complete stockpile of chemical weapons and agree to cease future production and use, in a way that can be verified.”

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas: ”The president is right to explore international control of Syria's chemical weapons and to postpone any congressional action. This is a challenging approach but better than a go-it-alone strike that effectively leaves Assad controlling all of those chemical weapons. I do not support authorizing an American attack that could entangle us in a bloody, costly regional conflict.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.: “Any action in the already volatile country would only make the situation worse. Considering many of the rebels have connections with al Qaida-linked groups, the alternative is no better.” --- By the Associated Press

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

President Barack Obama's address to the nation.

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