Obama hints he may abandon Syria strike

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama hinted Friday that he might not strike Syria if Congress rejects his authorization request.

“I’m not itching for military action… and if there are good ideas that are worth pursuing, then I’m going to be open to them,” he told one reporter who asked if he was seeking alternatives to a missile strike.

“Are we on a fast track to military action as soon as Congress renders its judgment one way or the other?” the reporter asked Obama, during his morning press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“Some in Congress have suggested giving the Syrian regime 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, get rid of its chemical stockpiles, do something that would enhance the international sense of accountability for Syria, but delay military action,” the reporter asked.

“I am listening to all these ideas, and some of them are constructive,” he said.

“My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real… I want people to understand that gassing innocent people, you know, delivering chemical weapons against children, is not something we do,” he said.

Through the press conference, Obama played down the prospect of a strike, whether by aircraft-launched guided bombs, or sea-launched missiles, such as the Tomahawk cruise missile.

“As I said last night, I was elected to end wars, not start them,” he said. “I’ve spent the last four and a half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power as a means of meeting our international obligations and protecting the American people.”

The Senate is likely to approve Obama’s request, but the House seems set to reject his request. Few Democrats or Republicans have voiced support for the measure, which is so unpopular that voters’ phone calls to offices in Congress are overwhelmingly reporting opposition.

Obama’s equivocations and rhetorical asides often provide guides to his intentions and decisions.

For example, one day after he and his aides indicated an imminent strike on Syria, Obama surprised many D.C. players last Saturday by announcing he would delay a strike until he got clearance from Congress.

White House officials said the president changed his mind during a 45-minute Friday-night talk with his chief of staff.

But that surprising announcement to delay the strike was foreshadowed in prepared statements that he and his Secretary of State, John Kerry had made the day before, Friday.The Friday statements included many combative and emotional sections about the Syrian nerve gas attack killed more than 1,400 civilians in a rebel-held neighborhood.

“This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us,” Kerry said Friday.

The response “will directly effect our role in the world and our interests in the world,” he said. “It is also about who we are — we are the United States of America, we are the country that has tried, not always successfully … to honor a set of universal values.”

“I mean what I said — the world has an obligation to make sure we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons,” Obama said in a brief White House statement the same day, ensuring that media coverage of the Friday statements emphasized the prospect of an immediate attack.

“U.S. officials signal Syria strike is near,” said the top headline in the Aug. 31 Washington Post.

But the Friday statements also included many hints and suggestions that Obama was not eager to strike.

“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, Obama said Friday.

“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 his Friday statement.

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

The next day, Obama announced he would ask Congress for an authorization to strike. The Washington Post’s Sept. 1 front-page headline on declared “Syria attack put on hold.”

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