WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama told the nation from the White House tonight that diplomacy suddenly holds "the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons" in Syria without use of force, but he declared the U.S. military will "be ready to respond" against President Bashar Assad if other measures fail.
For now, Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria.
In a 16-minute speech, the president repeatedly offered reassurances that even the failure of diplomacy - in promised talks at the United Nations or elsewhere - would not plunge America into another war.
"I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," he promised. "I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo."
"This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad's capabilities," he said.
The speech capped a frenzied 10-day stretch of events that began when he unexpectedly announced he was stepping back from a threatened military strike and instead asking Congress first to pass legislation authorizing the use of such force against Assad.
With public opinion polls consistently showing widespread opposition to American military intervention, the White House has struggled mightily to generate support among lawmakers - liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike - who have expressed fears of involvement in yet another war in the Middle East and have questioned whether U.S. national security interests were at stake in Syria. Obama had trouble, as well, building international support for a military attack designed to degrade Assad's military.
Suddenly, though, events took another unexpected turn this week. First Russia and then Syria reacted positively to a remark from Secretary of State John Kerry indicating that the crisis could be defused if Damascus agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control.
The president said he was sending Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, and he added, "I will continue my own discussion" with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has said he had been discussing ways out of the Syrian predicament for some time.
At the same time, he said the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the United Nations Security Council "requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control."
Acknowledging the weariness the nation feels after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said, "America is not the world's policeman."
And yet, he added, "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. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional."