WASHINGTON — In a primetime speech Tuesday, President Obama walked back his previous call for military strikes on Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, assuring the American people that while an intervention was still on the table, it wasn't unavoidable.
The speech, which echoed comments the president made in a series of TV interviews Monday, represents a step back from the brink of a thoroughly unpopular war that was unlikely to get support from Congress. Just a week ago, the Obama administration was aggressively making the case that a military intervention was the only way to show the world's dictators that use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated. On Tuesday night, he embraced a diplomatic strategy he said could avoid conflict and still punish the Syrian regime.
Still, he maintained that a potential strike on Syria had to remain a possibility in order to keep pressure on Assad to give up control of his chemical weapons.
Taking on critics on his policy on both sides, Obama said there was a fundamental obligation for the U.S. to act in Syria.
"To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with the failure to act when a cause is so plainly just," Obama said. "To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough."
After weeks of pushing Congress and the American people to follow him into battle, Obama said the diplomatic option presented by Russia could keep the U.S. out of war.
"Over the last few days we've seen some encouraging signs, in part because of credible the threat of U.S. military action, as well as talks I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons," Obama said.
"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that Assad keeps its commitments," Obama said. "But this initiative has the potential to remove chemical weapons without the use of military force."
Obama said it was time to take a step back from the brink.
"I have... asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path," Obama said. "I'm sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin."
Nevertheless, Obama said, Americans must be prepared for military action.
"My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements; it has meant enforcing them," Obama said. "The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world's a better place because we have borne them."