Obama pedals away from Syrian debacle

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama is pedaling away from his self-imposed Syrian debacle, telling reporters on Thursday that he’s leaving the issue to Secretary of State John Kerry, and is shifting his focus to domestic issues.

“I am hopeful that the discussions that Secretary Kerry has with Foreign Minister Lavrov as well as some of the other players in this can yield a concrete result,” said Obama, who appeared set to bomb Syria last week on a matter that he declared to be of vital national interest.

He then touted his domestic priorities. “It is still important to recognize that we have a lot of things left to do … the American people are still interested in making sure that our kids are getting the kind of education they deserve, that we are putting people back to work,” he said.

He also focused reports on pending budget battles in Congress, saying that the public wants him to ensure “a federal budget, that bills are being paid on time, that the full faith and credit of the United States is preserved and that the federal government itself,” he said.

Obama spoke to reporters, but refused to answer any questions, during a brief appearance.

But Obama’s ability to separate himself from his Syrian mess is limited.

The president escalated the crisis by declaring the world should prevent the Syrian government from repeating its August chemical attack on a rebel-held neighborhood. He quickly backed away from a promised military strike once polls showed his policy to be very unpopular among the swing-voters and progressives he needs to win the midterm elections in 2014.

To escape that political problem, he accepted a proposal from Russia, Syria’s main ally, to talk about a diplomatic settlement.

But that escape is a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used an op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times to suggest the price he wants Obama to pay in exchange for his cooperation in a diplomatic effort.

Putin suggested that Obama forswear a military strike, end his semi-secret military aid to the rebels, and treat Russia as an equal partner.

“There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government,” he wrote in the New York Times.

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement,” he wrote.

If Obama doesn’t pay a price for Russia’s cooperation, Putin can push the Syria issue back into the media — and back onto Obama’s must-do list.

Obama also suggested that he is rolling back his goals in Syria, in line with Russia’s demands.

In his address to the nation Tuesday, Obama said he wanted the United Nations to demand that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “give up his chemical weapons, and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”

He also said that he was working with the “moderate” rebels “to shape a political settlement.” That’s a diplomatic euphemism for removing Assad from power.

On Thursday, however, Obama said only that he wanted to “make sure that chemical weapons are not used against innocent people.”

Obama’s comments come a day after his spokesman, Jay Carney, declined repeatedly to set a deadline on diplomatic talks, and announced that the president would shift his focus back to domestic policies.

“Absolutely, the President will be focusing on those issues in the coming weeks and months, because they’re so important to the American people, and they’re so vital to the long-term future of this country,” Carney said.

Follow Neil on Twitter