Obama and aides signal caution, delay on Syrian response

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama and his aides are signaling they won’t rapidly decide on a response to Syria’s chemical-weapons attack, even as they’re using dramatic language to build domestic and international support for some form of military action.

They’re also signaling great reluctance to get further involved in Syria’s brutal civil war, and a clear desire to get approval from leery legislators in Congress.

But any push to get congressional approval will also allow Obama to walk away from the fight while blaming Congress for his inaction after the Syrian government’s Aug. 21 nerve-gas attack on civilians in rebel-held areas in Damascus.

Obama also said “the world” has a duty to act, but didn’t say the United States has a duty to act, and didn’t say when he will decide on a response.

“This kind of attack is a challenge to the world,” Obama told reporters in an an afternoon statement, adding that “I have not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken to help enforce that norm” against the use of chemical weapons.

“I mean what I said — the world has an obligation to make sure we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons… [and] I have not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken.”

He coupled those vague statements with strong rhetoric apparently about Syrian’s Aug. 21 gas attack.

“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale… This kind of attack threaten our national security interests by violating well-established norms against the use of chemical weapons… and it increases the risk that chemical weapons will be used in the future,” he said at the meeting.

Obama’s deputies also downplayed any expectation of imminent action.

“President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests,” Secretary John Kerry said in a midday statement.

Kerry’s statement included strong rhetoric urging action, but its impact was muted by Obama’s decision to delegate its delivery to the former Massachusetts Senator. Also, Obama did not ask the Secretary of Defense to deliver a statement.

“Ultimately, [Obama] will make the best decision for the best interests of the United States on his timeline,” said a White House official during an early afternoon background interview.

Officials also signaled reluctance to get involved in Syria’s war.

“We don’t believe there is a military solution to the conflict in Syria… [we want] a political solution in which [Bashir] al-Assad leave power,” said the White House official.

“We know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility,” Kerry said.

“We are not contemplating an open-ended military intervention, or an intervention to impose regime change,” he added.

“We also know that [Obama] has said, very clearly, that whatever decision he makes in Syria it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya,” said Kerry.

“It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open-ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway,” said Kerry.

“The primary objective is to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation, because we know there is no ultimate military solution” to the Syrian war, said Kerry.

White House officials also sought to play up a role for Congress, even though House leaders are not demanding that any action be delayed until they decide whether to support any attack.

“We will continue talking to the Congress, talking to our allies, and most importantly, talking to the American people,” Kerry said.

“We will continue to reach out to Congress on a daily basis,” said the White House official.

GOP leaders have not urged a quick decision for or against a strike.

“If the president believes this information makes a military response imperative, it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action,” said a midday statement from the office of House Speaker John Boehner. “We – and the American people – look forward to more answers from the White House,” said the statement.

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