WASHINGTON — “We’ve kind of hit a wall,” President Barack Obama commented last week on his way to Russia. He meant his relationship with Moscow, but the remark came to apply as well to other leaders abroad, lawmakers at home and Americans at large, all standing in the way of what he wanted to do about Syria, which was to attack it.
Just days later, military action is on hold, a diplomatic effort to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons has some steam and Obama no longer looks so terribly alone. The potential way out took shape with an episode akin to palace intrigue: Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin pulling up chairs in a corner of a stately room at the summer home of Peter the Great, after a very late night of fireworks and lasers etching the St. Petersburg sky. And it grew from there.
It’s all been enough to stir some gushing admiration in the halls of Congress for a clever president who knows how to conduct statesmanship when the pressure’s really on. The president of Russia, that is.
“Those people who have been demonizing Putin and pushing him away have been doing a great disservice to our country and to the cause of peace,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
That sentiment is far from unanimous in Congress. But the sense of relief that has washed over lawmakers is palpable. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been pushing Obama’s case for military strikes, commented that, really, “I’m not a blood and thunder guy. I’m not for shock and awe.”
Instead, almost everyone seems up for dither and defer at the moment.
A look at how the past days’ parallel tracks — pushing for approval of a military attack while pausing to give diplomacy a chance — unfolded:
Obama pressed his case with world leaders at the Group of 20 summit, which included an opulent dinner last Thursday night with ballet dancers and fire jugglers. His pitch slipped past midnight on a night capped by St. Petersburg fireworks at 2 a.m. After Friday’s round of meetings, the burden of a looming military strike in retaliation for Syrian chemical weapons use and the lack of explicit support from summit partners weighed visibly on the president when he addressed the traveling press corps. It’s conceivable that “I don’t persuade a majority of the American people that it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “And then each member of Congress is going to have to decide.”
And then he would have to decide whether to attack Syria, even absent congressional support.
With plenty of U.S.-Russian tensions simmering — over Syria, Moscow’s sheltering of former NSA leaker Edward Snowden and more — Obama decided there would be no formal one-on-one with Putin. But the Russian leader, the Syrian government’s leading patron on the world stage, approached him Friday and they pulled chairs together off to the side.
Flanked only by interpreters, with other leaders looking on, they launched into a 20-minute discussion about Syria. There was no breakthrough on one vexing aspect of their disagreement — the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, Putin broached an idea that the two leaders had first discussed a year ago at the G-20 summit in Mexico — an international agreement to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Obama agreed that could be an area for cooperation and suggested Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov follow up. You wouldn’t know it from Obama’s public mood that day, but seeds had been planted.
Since Aug. 23, administration officials have had discussions about Syria with more than 370 House members and nearly all senators, according to the White House count. The pace picked up on the weekend and into Monday, as members of Congress returned from a summer break that had kept many of them engaged on Syria only from afar. They’d already, though, gotten an earful from constituents against military action.
Back in Washington lawmakers were shown a collection of videos, also released publicly, showing victims of the Aug. 21 chemical attacks that the U.S. blames on Assad’s forces. There were repeated presentations of those videos, to bring home the brutality of gassing, although they did not prove who was responsible.
“I cannot look at those pictures — those little children laying on the ground, their eyes glassy, their bodies twitching — and not think of my own two kids,” said Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, as part of the lobbying offensive.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden pressed members of Congress at a dinner Sunday night as well as in a battery of phone calls over days. Lawmakers walked swiftly from one briefing to the next Monday and gathered en masse in the large Capitol Visitors Center auditorium for a session with top national security officials.
Nothing seemed to be working. More and more lawmakers stepped forward to declare their opposition to military strikes. The dynamics — for and against military action — were strikingly bipartisan.
But those seeds from the palace were taking root.
DIPLOMACY BREAKS OUT
On Monday morning, Kerry, in London, held a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, greeted outside by 50 protesters chanting, “Keep your hands off Syria.”
“I think it would be good to hear people saying to a dictator, ‘Keep your hands off chemical weapons that kill your own people,”’ Kerry retorted inside the room.
Since early in the crisis, and until Obama stepped up, Kerry had been the main figure pitching the Syrian strategy. To lawmakers, in speeches and at news conferences, he spoke passionately and sometimes misspoke. At one point, he even seemed to hold out a last-resort option of ground troops in Syria, in the face of numbingly repetitive assurances by U.S. officials of no-boots-on-the-ground. This time, he swerved verbally in the other direction, stating U.S. action against Syria would be “unbelievably small,” raising questions about why bother.
When Kerry was asked if Assad could do anything to avoid an attack, he uttered 20 words that set off a rapid chain of events.
“Sure,” he said. “He can turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”
He raised both arms for emphasis and continued: “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
On the flight home, Kerry, now in a faded orange zip-up sweatshirt, spoke on the phone with Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. Lavrov told Kerry he had heard his comments in London and Russia was getting ready to make an announcement.
By the time Kerry landed in the U.S., Russia had made its proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons out of Assad’s control, Syria had welcomed the idea, other nations and the United Nations had embraced it in principle, and some members of Congress were beginning to see a possible way out of the jam. Kerry’s staff initially suggested that the secretary’s words were merely a rhetorical flourish. But by the end of the day, though expressing deep skepticism, Obama declared the Russian pitch “potentially a significant breakthrough” that could head off U.S. air strikes.
Some members of Congress were beside themselves, trying to make sense of it all. First the Obama administration had appeared to be marching toward a strike. Then the president hit pause and asked Congress to approve his course. Then came the Russian idea, so yet another pause. Altogether, the arguments of the administration had grown awfully complicated and seemed to be changing by the hour.
“I’m going to start looking for medication,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. , remarked Tuesday morning. “This place is a zoo.”
Obama’s address to the nation Tuesday night wasn’t the trumpet call to action that it might have been, absent the diplomatic initiative on Syrian chemical weapons. His statement reflected the complexities of the moment — a chance to avoid war, as he saw it, but a continuing need for congressional approval to keep a credible military threat alive.
Until recently, the Senate had been expected to conduct an initial vote Wednesday, beginning an arduous legislative process to be echoed in coming days in the House, where opposition to a military strike has been an even tougher sell.
Instead it was dither and defer, at least for a while longer, with everyone treading carefully. Any resolution on Syria was on hold on Capitol Hill.
“The whole terrain has changed,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said after a meeting of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We want to make sure we do nothing that’s going to derail what’s going on.”
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Donna Cassata, Deb Riechmann and Nancy Benac contributed to this report.