Obama Push for Diplomacy Welcome Amid Public Wary of War

Eddie Turner, a 67-year-old retiree who fought in Vietnam, voiced a measure of relief after watching President Barack Obama’s prime-time address to the nation last night, encouraged that diplomacy might triumph over war.

“I appreciate him taking it to Congress and letting them have more time,” said Turner, who watched Obama’s speech on Syria alone at the Allegro Senior Living center in Tallahassee, Florida. He also agreed that the diplomacy shouldn’t be open-ended. “They need to send inspectors in there to search every inch of the country.”

Turner was among the 61 percent of Americans who, after watching Obama’s address, said they support the president’s decision to postpone a push for military strikes on Syria and to pursue a Russian proposal to have the regime surrender its chemical-arms stockpiles to international authorities, according to a CNN poll. Those who listened remained split over whether the president made the case for military action should diplomacy fail, the survey showed.

At Malcolm’s bar in northwest Baltimore, Vernon Stephens, a 41-year-old firefighter, also supported the president’s willingness to pause. Before the speech, he said lone American strikes could squander the nation’s moral position if the attacks led to civilian casualties and Obama should try to secure backing from the United Nations.

Afterward, Stephens was reassured. “He has to do what he has to do,” he said. “I’m behind him 100 percent.”

Surprise Move

The address capped a day in which the U.S. Senate delayed action on a use-of-force resolution as Russia, the U.S. and France jockeyed over how Syria would be required to surrender its chemical weapons -- and whether the U.S. would maintain its threat of military intervention until the issue is resolved.

The lightning pace of the diplomatic changes caught Americans by surprise and many were unsure whether the offer was a real path to peace or merely a speed bump on the road to war.

“I was reading about it and said, ‘Is this a joke?’” said Phil Snyder, 37 a chemist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Obama has confronted increasing public skepticism about military action in Syria since his Aug. 31 Rose Garden appeal for Congress to back U.S. intervention in retaliation for a chemical-weapons attack that left more than 1,400 dead near Damascus. The lack of support among Americans for his approach was making it increasingly difficult to win members of Congress -- many facing tough re-elections -- over to his side.

Tangible Evidence

Should the last-minute diplomacy fail, Obama still has to convince war-weary Americans that the Syrian government should be punished -- or that it even used chemical weapons. The CNN poll showed that 47 percent said he made the case for military action and 50 percent said he didn’t.

Watching the speech at Shay’s Pub & Wine Bar in Cambridge, Kate Hart, 23, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston who voted for Obama’s re-election, and her friend, Gabe Moylan, 33, said they wanted to see documents, test results and other tangible evidence before backing military action. Simply saying Syrian soldiers received gas masks prior to the sarin attack, for example, wasn’t enough, they said.

“This is the same as Bush,” Hart said, referring to President George W. Bush’s argument for war in Iraq a decade ago. “He is saying ‘You should believe what I’m saying.’ After 10 years of war you can’t use that position.”

‘Not Convincing’

Moylan, an operations manager for a local theater, said he was offended that Obama would point to mobile-phone video footage as proof of a chemical attack. “That is not any standard of evidence,” he said. “It is not convincing.”

There was skepticism over whether a strike would be containable. “A targeted attack?” said Rachael Buckley, 29, who recently earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They are never as targeted as you think they are going to be.”

Another viewer, standing nearby, focused on the emotional impact of the address and was swayed by the president’s words. Frank Cronin, 42, didn’t support the use of force before the speech and said he was moved by the comparison Obama made between Syria’s actions and the Nazi gassing of Jews during World War II.

“The president did a good job of laying out the human impact,” said Cronin, of Cambridge, who works for a pharmaceutical company and voted for Obama in the last two elections. “Once you start to play unfairly, you have to get a beating.”

Weak Economy

Other viewers started with specific concerns and found answers in the president’s presentation. Ira Murray ticked off his questions while sitting in a Baltimore bar with the Orioles-Yankees baseball game playing on TV in the background.

“Do we just let them keep killing each other or not?” said Murray, 43, an insurance adjuster. “And if we do step in, what are the consequences? Now we’re bringing everybody back from Afghanistan, are we going to send them over there?” he said. “The economy’s not that good to start a war.”

When Obama finished speaking, Murray said he could see launching missiles. “Let’s go do the air strikes, then see where it goes,” he said.

Jim Pattillo, 39, an attorney living in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, an affluent suburb near Birmingham, said he was glad to hear the president’s preference for a diplomatic resolution. Yet he heard in Obama’s speech some skepticism about the Russian plan, which pleased him.

Before watching the speech, Pattillo said, he didn’t believe Obama had a good handle on the situation. Now, he’s a bit more reassured.

“Let me put it this way: He moved the needle more toward the middle, from not confident at all to moderately confident, for me.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Annie Linskey in Boston at alinskey@bloomberg.net; William Selway in Washington at wselway@bloomberg.net; Toluse Olorunnipa in Tallahassee, Florida at tolorunnipa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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