President Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the White House on Sept. 10. President Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons. (Evan Vucci / AP)
WASHINGTON — President Obama told the nation Tuesday he is exploring a Russian diplomatic plan to end a chemical weapons dispute in Syria, but reserves the right to take military action if necessary.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” Obama said during a White House address, but it is worth pursuing because of “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
During his nationally televised speech from the White House, Obama also said:
■ He wanted to talk to the country “about Syria, why it matters and where we go from here.”
■ He resisted any intervention in Syria’s civil war for months until Bashar Assad’s government used chemical weapons against anti-government rebels on Aug. 21, killing numerous children.
■ Argued that use of these banned weapons increase the possibility of other chemical attacks in other parts of the world, perhaps even the United States.
■ A lack of action would erode prohibitions on other weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
■ “I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular;” but he added that any action in Syria would be specifically targeted on its chemical weapons programs.
■ Syria does not have the ability to retaliate against the United States.
■ He is encouraged by Russia’s proposal to have Syria give up its chemical weapons, but added: “I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.”
■ Americans should review videos of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack now posted on the White House website, particularly the pictures of dead and dying children.
“Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “But 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.”
Obama’s speech capped a flurry of diplomatic activity, as American, British, and French officials spoke with Russian counterparts about their idea to have Syria turn over their chemical weapons to international control for dismantling.
So far, they are at odds on the details.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would only support a Syrian turnover if the Obama administration renounced the possible of use of force against Assad’s government.
Obama declined to do that. In meetings with U.S. senators on Tuesday, and during his prime time speech, Obama said it’s the potential for force that pressured Syria into negotiations about releasing its chemical weapons stockpile.
Officials said Secretary of State John Kerry would fly to Geneva, Switzerland, for a Thursday negotiation session with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Syria announced Tuesday it would accept Russia’s offer, and said it is willing to join a global ban on chemical weapons.
Members of Congress, divided over a resolution authorizing military action against Syria, began exploring alternatives in light of the new diplomatic moves. The force resolution faces uphill battles in both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-run House.
Earlier on Tuesday, Obama attended separate meetings with Senate Democrats and Republicans in which he previewed his speech.
A bipartisan group of senators — some of whom support intervention — are working on an alternative that would require Syria to allow a United Nations team to remove chemical weapons within a certain time period, perhaps 45 to 60 days. If Syria doesn’t comply, Obama would have the authority to launch military strikes.
Obama also spoke amid rising opposition in the public and in Congress to idea of a military strike against Syria.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday finds that nearly 60 percent of Americans want their member of Congress to oppose the use of military force in Syria.