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Obama: American Ideals, National Security At Stake In Syrian Crisis

In a prime-time speech that followed two weeks of high-stakes drama, President Obama asked the American people to support a military strike against Syria, even as he pursued a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

"Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used." Obama said. "America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, 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 spent most of the 15-minute speech making the case for the use of force against Syria, saying that during the more than two-year civil war in Syria, his administration has tried "diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations" but Assad still used chemical weapons.

The president reiterated the points that his top surrogates have been making in front of Congress for the past week: If the U.S. looks the other way, "other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them." Also, Obama said, in the long run, if the U.S. does not respond to Assad, American troops could face chemical warfare on the battlefield.

It wasn't until the latter part of the speech that Obama acknowledged a potential diplomatic solution that materialized on Monday from a seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said the U.S. was willing to back off its war footing if Syria gave up its entire chemical arsenal quickly and in a verifiable manner.

"Over the last few days, we've seen some encouraging signs, in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin," Obama said.

"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments, but this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies," Obama said, adding that he has asked Congress to postpone a vote "while we pursue this diplomatic path."

We live blogged the speech as it happened. If you want a play-by-play, keep reading.

Update at 10:18 p.m. ET. First Pass:

Here's how other news outlets are framing the story. The New York Times focuses on the diplomatic angle:

"In a speech that only 48 hours ago was going to be a call to arms, Mr. Obama offered a qualified endorsement of a Russian proposal that his own advisers conceded was rife with risk, given Russia's steadfast refusal to agree to any previous measures to pressure its longtime client in Syria. And his speech was a frank acknowledgment of how radically the political and diplomatic landscape had shifted in just a few days."

The Washington Post focuses on Obama's pitch to the country:

"[W]ith little guarantee that diplomacy would prevail, Obama argued that the nation must be prepared to strike Assad. Facing a skeptical public and Congress, the war-weary president said the United States still carries the burden of using its military power to punish regimes that would flout long-held conventions banning the use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons."

USA Today also focuses on the diplomatic angle and CNN focuses on the big picture.

Update at 10:03 p.m. ET. "He Tried Everything":

On NPR's special coverage of the address, Mara Liasson said this was the president's chance to win back a skeptical American public.

And for the most part, Obama delivered the kind of speech he would have delivered had the Russian diplomatic option not surfaced.

Mara, however, says the diplomatic option helps Obama make the case to the world that "he tried everything."

Update at 9:17 p.m. ET. Ideals At Stake:

President Obama closes by calling upon American values.

"Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria," Obama said.

And if the country can stop a dictator from gassing his own citizens, including children, with "modest effort and risk," he said, "we should act."

Update at 9:14 p.m. ET. Congress Vote On Hold:

Obama says he has asked Congress to put the Syria vote on hold, while his administration pursues the Russian proposal.

"I have ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond," Obama said.

Update at 9:10 p.m. ET. A Limited Strike:

Obama says that an attack on Syria would not be comparable to the invasion of Iraq or even the NATO strikes on Kosovo.

This would be a "limited strike," Obama said, that doesn't risk dragging the country into another war.

Update at 9:07 p.m. ET. In U.S. National Security Interest:

"It is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons," Obama said, because if the U.S. and the world look away, other tyrants will seek those weapons and use them. American troops, said Obama, would be in harm's way.

"A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction," Obama said.

Update at 9:03 p.m. ET. Situation Changed:

Obama opens by saying he has "resisted calls for military action" but the situation changed dramatically on Aug. 21 when, he said, the regime of Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.

Obama then gave a history lesson on when chemical weapons have been used and why most of the world has signed an agreement to ban them. He repeated the intelligence that tells the U.S. that Assad was to blame for the attack.

Update at 9:00 p.m. ET. East Room:

President Obama is expected to speak any minute now. Obama will be speaking from the East Room of the White House.

Update at 8:55 p.m. ET. The Politics:

The New York Times reports that President Obama delivered a very simple message to Senate Republicans when he met with them this evening: "do not undermine my authority to threaten military action against Syria."

"I think he is very concerned that Congress not undercut that ability to threaten force," the paper quotes Sen. Susan Collins. "Which obviously if he got a negative vote he feels he would lose some leverage."

Update at 8:50 p.m. ET. The White House:

Doug Mills, a photographer for The New York Times, just tweeted a spectacular shot of the White House backed by a pink sky, about an hour before Obama was set to deliver his speech.

Update at 8:44 p.m. ET. Live Video:

The White House will be streaming Obama's speech live. (We've embedded that player at the top of the post.) Also note that our colleague Kate Myers will be live tweeting the speech, along with dispatches from NPR's live coverage of the president.

Update at 8:39 p.m. ET. Why Syria Matters:

CNN and Reuters quote an unnamed "administration official" saying Obama will explain to Americans why Syria matters and he will express skepticism about Russia's diplomatic proposal.

Reuters reports:

"Obama will explain to Americans why it is in U.S. national security interests for Syria to face consequences for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that U.S. officials say killed 1,429 people.

"Obama and his national security advisers say to do nothing in response to the poison gas onslaught would risk emboldening U.S. enemies to try to gain access to chemical weapons and use them against American targets."

Update at 8:21 p.m. ET. Convincing The American Public:

Another big part of this speech is that this represents the culmination of a public relations blitz designed to sell military action to a war-weary American public.

Remember, Obama gave interviews to all the major television networks on Tuesday, and administration officials have been making their case all week to lawmakers in Congress.

Poll after poll, however, has shown that this is a deeply unpopular proposition. To that end, Jennifer Bendery, who covers the White House for the Huffington Post, tweeted a picture of protesters demonstrating outside the White House this evening.

They are holding a lighted sign that reads: "No War On Syria."

Update at 8:16 p.m. ET. Walking The Line:

In its story previewing the speech, the AP focuses on the line Obama must walk between the threat of a military strike and the "hope of diplomacy."

It was a balancing act that was already on display the past two days:

"Despite expressing skepticism about the outcome of the diplomacy, officials said, Obama and close Senate allies reaffirmed their decision for a pause in attempts to win congressional backing for a strike against President Bashar Assad's government.

"And while a presidential statement to that effect was possible in Obama's nationwide speech, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pointedly told a congressional hearing it was not time to let the threat lapse. 'For this diplomatic option to have a chance at succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action, the credible, real threat of U.S. military action, must continue,' he declared."

Update at 8:01 p.m. ET. What Will He Say?

Over at It's All Politics, our friend Frank James wonders what Obama will say during his prime-time address.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, Frank writes, telegraphed the message during a briefing Monday:

"They boil down to these 10 words or phrases: congressional authorization, intel, violated international norms, U.S. laws, national interest, U.S. credibility, a political solution, the new Russian initiative, limited military action and the risks of inaction."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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