WASHINGTON (AP) — Pushing back hard, President Barack Obama forcefully defended the temporary agreement to freeze Iran's disputed nuclear program on Monday, declaring that the United States "cannot close the door on diplomacy."
The president's remarks followed skepticism of the historic accord expressed by some U.S. allies abroad as well as by members of Congress at home, including fellow Democrats. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest opponents of the six-month deal, called it a "historic mistake" and announced he would be dispatching a top envoy to Washington to try to toughen the final agreement negotiators will soon begin hammering out.
Obama, without naming names, swiped at those who have questioned the wisdom of engaging with Iran.
"Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it's not the right thing to do for our security," he said during an event in San Francisco.
The weekend agreement between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — is to temporarily halt parts of Tehran's disputed nuclear program and allow for more intrusive international monitoring. In exchange, Iran gains some modest relief from stiff economic sanctions and a pledge from Obama that no new penalties will be levied during the six months.
Despite the fanfare surrounding the agreement, administration officials say key technical details on the inspections and sanctions relief must still be worked out before it formally takes effect. Those talks will tackle the toughest issues that have long divided Iran and the West, including whether Tehran will be allowed to enrich uranium at a low level.
Iran insists it has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and many nuclear analysts say a final deal will almost certainly leave Iran with some right to enrich. However, that's sure to spark more discord with Israel and many lawmakers who insist Tehran be stripped of all enrichment capabilities. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he expects the deal to be fully implemented by the end of January.
European Union officials say their sanctions could be eased as soon as December. Those restrictions affect numerous areas including trade in petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals, financial transfers to purchase food and medicine, and the ability of third countries to use EU-based firms to insure shipments of Iranian oil again.
The groundwork for the accord was laid during four clandestine meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials throughout the summer and fall. An earlier meeting took place in March, before Iranians elected President Hassan Rouhani, a cleric who has taken more moderate public stances than his predecessor. Details of the secret talks were confirmed to The Associated Press by three senior administration officials.
The U.S. and its allies contend Iran is seeking to produce a nuclear bomb — of particular concern to Israel, which fears an attack — while Tehran insists it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program for energy and medical purposes.
Even with the criticism, for Obama the sudden shift to foreign policy presents an opportunity to steady his flailing second term and take some attention off the domestic troubles that have plagued the White House in recent weeks, especially the rollout of his signature health care law. Perhaps with his presidential standing — and the strength of the rest of his term — in mind, he made sure on Monday to draw a connection between the nuclear pact and his long-declared willingness to negotiate directly with Iran.
"When I first ran for president, I said it was time for a new era of American leadership in the world, one that turned the page on a decade of war and began a new era of engagement with the world," he said. "As president and as commander in chief, I've done what I've said."
Later, at a high-dollar fundraiser in Los Angeles, Obama said he will not take any options off the table to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.
However, he added, "I've spent too much time at Walter Reed looking at kids 22, 23, 24, 25 years old who've paid the kind of price that very few of us in this room can imagine on behalf of our freedom not to say that I will do every single thing that I can to try to resolve these issues without resorting to military conflict."
The temporary accord is historic in its own right, marking the most substantial agreement between Iran and the West in more than three decades. The consequences of a permanent deal could be far more significant, lowering the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East and perhaps opening the door to wider relations between the U.S. and Iran, which broke off diplomatic ties following the 1979 Islamic revolution.
However, Obama and his advisers know the nuclear negotiations are rife with risk. If he has miscalculated Iran's intentions, it will vindicate critics who say his willingness to negotiate with Tehran is naive and could inadvertently hasten the Islamic republic's march toward a nuclear weapon. Obama also runs the risk of exacerbating tensions with key Middle Eastern allies, as well as members of Congress who want to deepen, not ease, economic penalties on Iran.
Despite Obama's assurances that no new sanctions will be levied on Iran while the interim agreement is in effect, some lawmakers want to push ahead with additional penalties. A new sanctions bill has already passed the House, and if it passes the Senate, Obama could have to wield his veto power in order to keep his promise to Tehran.
Even some members of Obama's own party say they're wary of the deal struck in Geneva.
"I am disappointed by the terms of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations because it does not seem proportional," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a close ally of the White House. "Iran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions."
The Senate's Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, was noncommittal on the subject of sanctions on Monday. On NPR's Diane Rehm Show, he said that when lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving break, "we will take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions ... and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions I am sure we will do that."
Some lawmakers are also concerned about concessions the world powers made to Iran on its planned heavy water reactor in Arak, southwest of Tehran. Two congressional aides said that under the terms of the agreement, international monitors will not being able to watch live feeds of any activity at Arak and will instead retrieve a recording from the preceding day during each daily inspection.
The aides were not authorized to provide details of the agreement and demanded anonymity.
On the positive side, Michael Desch, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, compared Obama's diplomatic overtures to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's secret outreach to China in the 1970s, which paved the way for the historic opening of U.S. relations with the Asian nation.
"Then, as now, critics complained that the U.S. was in danger of being hoodwinked by a radical and violent regime that was playing us for a sucker," Desch said. "An opening to Iran could potentially not only contain its nuclear program but set the stage for broader changes there as well."
WASHINGTON, Ill. (AP) - Gov. Pat Quinn says he's received a phone call from President Barack Obama after fatal storms hit Obama's home state.
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said Monday that Quinn received the call on his cellphone while touring damage in the central Illinois community of Washington. The community was among the hardest hit. The White House confirmed the call, saying Obama relayed concern and expressed gratitude for the responders.
Quinn gave Obama an update on the damage, relief efforts and emergency response. Quinn was with Washington Mayor Gary Manier, who also spoke to Obama.
Authorities say six people died in Sunday's storms when tornadoes flattened homes and caused severe damage. So far seven counties have been declared state disaster areas.
WASHINGTON (AP) - State insurance commissioners are voicing serious concerns about President Barack Obama's plan to stave off cancellations for people whose individual policies don't comply with the new health care law.
In a statement Thursday, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners warned that the president's decision could undermine the new insurance markets being created under his overhaul law.
Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, president of the group, said Obama's proposal could lead to higher premiums and market disruptions next year and beyond. It may also be unworkable as a practical matter.
A Republican, Donelon was speaking on behalf of the organization.
Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama on Thursday announced changes to his health care law to give insurance companies the option to keep offering consumers plans that would otherwise be canceled.
The administrative changes are good for just one year, though senior administration officials said they could be extended if problems with the law persist. Obama announced the changes at the White House.
"This fix won't solve every problem for every person, but it's going to help a lot of people," the president said.
He acknowledged that "we fumbled the rollout of this health care law" and pledged to "just keep on chipping away at this until the job is done."
He also promised to work to regain the trust of the American people.
"I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general," he said.
Obama has been under enormous pressure from congressional Democrats to give ground on the cancellation issue under the health care overhaul, a program likely to be at the center of next year's midterm elections for control of the House and Senate.
It's unclear what the impact of Thursday's changes will be for the millions of people who have already had their plans canceled. While officials said insurance companies will now be able to offer those people the option to renew their old plans, companies are not required to take that step.
The main industry trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, said Obama's offer comes too late and could lead to higher premiums, since companies already have set 2014 rates based on the assumption that many people with individual coverage will shift over to the new markets created under Obama's law.
Karen Ignagni, president of the industry group, didn't speculate on whether companies would extend coverage for those threatened with cancellation, but warned in a statement that "changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers."
Insurance companies will be required to inform consumers who want to keep canceled plans about the protections that are not included under those plans. Customers will also be notified that new options are available offering more coverage and in some cases, tax credits to cover higher premiums.
Under Obama's plan, insurance companies would not be allowed to sell coverage deemed subpar under the law to new customers, marking a difference with legislation that House Republicans intend to put to a vote on Friday.
Only last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a Senate panel she doubted that retroactively permitting insurers to sell canceled policies "can work very well since companies are now in the market with an array of new plans. Many have actually added consumer protections in the last three-and-a-half years."
Republicans were unimpressed with the changes.
House Speaker John Boehner, speaking in advance of the president's announcement, insisted it was time to "scrap this law once and for all."
"You can't fix this government-run health care plan called Obamacare ," he said. "It's just not fixable."
Obama, for his part, made clear he would continue to fight ongoing attempts to sink the whole program, saying, "I will not accept proposals that are just another brazen attempt to undermine or repeal the overall law and drag us back into a broken system."
"We're going to solve the problems that are there, we're going to get it right, and the Affordable Care Act is going to work for the American people," he pledged.
While the White House deals with the cancellation issue, the administration is also promising improvements in a federal website so balky that enrollments totaled fewer than 27,000 in October in 36 states combined. The administration had said in advance the enrollment numbers would fall far short of initial expectations. After weeks of highly publicized technical woes, they did.
Adding in enrollment of more than 79,000 in the 14 states with their own websites, the nationwide number of 106,000 October sign-ups was barely one-fifth of what officials had projected - and a small fraction of the millions who have received private coverage cancellations as a result of the federal law.
The administration said an additional 1 million people have been found eligible to buy coverage in the markets, with about one-third qualifying for tax credits to reduce their premiums. Another 396,000 have been found eligible for Medicaid, which covers low-income people.
Administration officials and senior congressional Democrats expressed confidence in the program's future. "We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months," said Sebelius, who is in charge of the program.
"Even with the issues we've had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling," she added.
Despite the expressions, the White House worked to reassure anxious Democrats who are worried about the controversial program, which they voted into existence three years ago over Republican opposition as strong now as it was then.
Obama said he regretted the political grief he'd caused members of his own party who'd backed him on the health care law.
"There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the Affordable Care Act smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're running or not, because they stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin," he said.
Senate Democrats arranged a closed-door meeting for midday Thursday in the Capitol with White House officials, who held a similar session Wednesday with the House rank and file. Ahead of that meeting, Obama planned to speak from the White House about new efforts to help Americans receiving insurance cancellation notices.
So far, five Senate Democrats are on record in support of legislation by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to make sure everyone can keep their present coverage if they want to. The bill would require insurance companies to continue offering existing policies, even if they fall short of minimum coverage requirements in the law.
The measure has little apparent chance at passage, given that it imposes a new mandate on the insurance industry that Republicans will be reluctant to accept.
At the same time, a vote would at least permit Democrats to say they have voted to repair some of the problems associated with the Affordable Care Act, as many appear eager to do.
In a statement, Landrieu said Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas were now supporting the legislation, as is Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. All but Feinstein are on the ballot next year.
Across the Capitol, majority Republicans in the House set a vote for Friday on legislation to permit insurance companies to continue selling existing policies that have been ordered scrapped because they fall short of coverage standards in the law.
While House passage of the measure is assured, each Democrat will be forced to cast a vote on the future of a program that Republicans have vowed to place at the center of next year's campaign.
Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, who voted for the initial Obama health care bill, said Thursday that members of his caucus want an opportunity to go on the record in support of allowing people to keep the insurance they had.
Doyle told MSNBC in an interview that at a White House meeting Wednesday, House Democrats told Obama about "the frustration level that many of us have" with the health care roll-out.
Doyle said Democrats warned Obama that "if you don't give us something by Friday" to fix the insurance cancellation problem, then many Democrats are likely to vote for the pending House bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, which would accomplish that goal.
The promise of keeping coverage was Obama's oft-stated pledge when the legislation was under consideration, a calling card since shredded by the millions of cancellations mailed out by insurers.
Obama apologized last week for the broken promise, but aides said at the time the White House was only considering administration changes, rather than new legislation.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Now is when Americans start figuring out that President Barack Obama's health care law goes beyond political talk, and really does affect them and people they know.
With a cranky federal website complicating access to new coverage and some consumers being notified their existing plans are going away, the potential for winners and losers is creating anxiety and confusion.
"I've had questions like, 'Are they going to put me in jail if I don't buy insurance? Because nobody will sell it to me,'" said Bonnie Burns, a longtime community-level insurance counselor from California. "We have family members who are violently opposed to 'Obamacare' and they are on Medicaid — they don't understand that they're already covered by taxpayer benefits.
"And then there is a young man with lupus who would have never been insurable," Burns continued. "He is on his parents' plan, and he'll be able to buy his own coverage. They are very relieved."
A poll just out from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation documents shifts in the country in the month since insurance sign-ups began.
Fifty-five percent now say they have enough information to understand the law's impact on their family, up 8 percentage points in just one month. Part of the reason is that advertising about how to get coverage is beginning to register.
"The law is getting more and more real for people," said Drew Altman, the foundation's president. "A lot of this will turn on whether there's a perception that there have been more winners than losers. ... It's not whether an expert thinks something is a better insurance policy, it's whether people perceive it that way."
The administration is continuing its efforts to influence those perceptions. On Wednesday, Obama will meet with volunteers in Dallas who are helping people enroll in health insurance plans. Cabinet officials are also expected to make stops around the country in the coming weeks to encourage people to sign up for insurance even as the website problems persist.
A look at three groups impacted by the law's rollout:
LOSING CURRENT PLAN
The Obama administration insists nobody will lose coverage as a result of cancellation notices going out to millions of people. At least 3.5 million Americans have been issued cancellations, but the exact number is unclear. Associated Press checks find that data is unavailable in a half the states.
Mainly they are people who buy directly from an insurer, instead of having workplace coverage. Officials say these consumers aren't getting "canceled" but "transitioned" or "migrated" to better plans because their current coverage doesn't meet minimum standards. They won't have to go uninsured, and some could save a lot if they qualify for the law's tax credits.
Speaking in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall this past week, Obama said the problem is limited to fewer than 5 percent of Americans "who've got cut-rate plans that don't offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident."
But in a nation of more than 300 million, 5 percent is a big number — about 15 million people. Among them are Ian and Sara Hodge of Lancaster, Pa., in their early 60s and paying $1,041 a month for a policy.
After insurer Highmark Inc., sent the Hodges a cancellation notice, the cheapest rate they say they've been able to find is $1,400 for a comparable plan. Ian is worried they may not qualify for tax credits and doesn't trust that the federal website is secure enough to enter personal financial information in order to find out.
"We feel like we're being punished for doing the right thing," he said.
Their policy may not have met the government's standards, "but it certainly met our minimum standards," Hodge added.
"The main thing that upsets us is the president ... said over and over and over again: If you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan, guaranteed."
There's a chance the number of people getting unwanted terminations may grow. In 2015, the law's requirement that larger companies provide health insurance will take effect. It's expected that a small share of firms will drop coverage, deciding that it's cheaper to pay fines imposed under the law.
Before the law's online health care markets launched Oct. 1, the administration estimated nearly 500,000 people would enroll for subsidized private insurance within the first month. Despite high consumer interest, a computer system beset by gremlins has kept most from doing so.
The administration refuses to release enrollment numbers until mid-November, when a crash program of computer fixes may be showing results. The numbers are expected to be disappointingly low; officials acknowledge as much.
A different prong of Obama's coverage expansion seems to be doing fairly well. It's an expanded version of Medicaid, embraced so far by 25 states and the District of Columbia. An informal survey of 14 of those states by The Associated Press shows that at least 240,000 people had enrolled in or applied for the expanded safety-net program as of the third week of October.
Private coverage is what interests Cecilia Fontenot of Houston, a part-time accountant in her early 60s. She has diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Though she manages well, she has been unable to find affordable insurance. Under Obama's law, insurers will not be able to turn away people with medical problems or charge them more.
Fontenot gave up on HealthCare.gov and instead applied through a call center on Oct. 19.
"They said it may take a while because so many people had called in," Fontenot explained. "I'm a very patient person, and I'm looking forward to getting that insurance."
She wants a plan that covers a better diabetes drug than the one she can afford now by paying out of pocket. Her doctor has also recommended a high-tech imaging test for a breast lump.
WONDERING WHETHER COVERAGE WILL CHANGE
Americans are still divided over the Affordable Care Act, with negative views outweighing positives. But they also lean against repealing it. The final judgment may be in the hands of people who now have employer-provided health insurance. They're about half the population, and they've noted Obama's assurances that their coverage won't be disrupted.
Up to now, the changes for employer plans have been incremental. They tend to expand benefits, not take things away.
For example, young adults can stay on a parent's coverage until they turn 26. Employers cover women's birth control as a preventive service, free of charge. Screening tests such as colonoscopies are also free.
But cost control provisions, mainly a tax on expensive insurance plans that starts in 2018, are converging with the long-standing push by employers to tame health costs. Some companies have raised deductibles and copayments for employees, saying they need to scale back to avoid tangling with the coming tax. Others are giving employees a fixed amount of money to shop in private health insurance markets that resemble those created by the law.
Expect cutbacks to be blamed on the law. Sorting out whether that's warranted may be difficult.
"What the Affordable Care Act did was give companies a very convenient excuse to say 'Oh, gosh, we really have to get serious about insurance costs,'" said Paul Keckley, an independent health benefits consultant. "I think there's a bit of a bob and weave. The ACA was a convenient excuse for doing what (corporate) human resources departments have been calculating to do for years."
WASHINGTON (AP) — Just two weeks after President Barack Obama saw his Democratic Party put up an unyielding front against Republicans, his coalition is showing signs of stress.
From health care to spying to pending budget deals, many congressional Democrats are challenging the administration and pushing for measures that the White House has not embraced.
Some Democrats are seeking to extend the enrollment period for new health care exchanges. Others want to place restraints on National Security Administration surveillance capabilities. Still others are standing tough against any budget deal that uses long-term reductions in major benefit programs to offset immediate cuts in defense.
Though focused on disparate issues, the Democrats' anxieties are connected by timing and stand out all the more when contrasted with the remarkable unity the party displayed during the recent showdown over the partial government shutdown and the confrontation over raising the nation's borrowing limit.
"That moment was always going to be fleeting," said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House and who regularly consults with Obama aides. "The White House, every White House, understands that these folks, driven either by principle or the demands of the politics of their state, have to put daylight between themselves and the president on occasion."
Obama and the Democrats emerged from the debt and shutdown clash with what they wanted: a reopened government, a higher debt ceiling and a Republican Party reeling in the depths of public opinion polls.
But within days, attention turned to the problem-riddled launch of the 3-year-old health care law's enrollment stage and revelations that the U.S. had been secretly monitoring the communications of as many as 35 allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And with new budget talks underway, Democratic Party liberals reiterated demands that Obama not agree to changes that reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits even in the improbable event Republicans agree to increase budget revenues.
The fraying on the Democratic Party edges is hardly unraveling Obama's support and it pales when compared to the upheaval within the Republican Party as it distances itself from the tactics of tea party conservatives. But the pushback from Democrats comes as Obama is trying to draw renewed attention to his agenda, including passage of an immigration overhaul, his jobs initiatives and the benefits of his health care law.
The computer troubles that befell the start of health insurance sign-ups have caused the greatest anxiety. Republicans pounced on the difficulties as evidence of deeper flaws in the law. But Democrats, even as they defended the policy, also demanded answers in the face of questions from their constituents.
"The fact is that the administration really failed these Americans," Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner at a hearing this week. "So going forward there can be just no more excuses."
In the Senate, 10 Democrats signed on to a letter seeking an unspecified extension of the enrollment period, which ends March 31. "As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote.
Another Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has called for a one-year delay in the requirement that virtually all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine.
Democrats who have talked to White House officials in recent days describe them as rattled by the health care blunders. But they say they are confident that the troubled website used for enrollment will be corrected and fully operational by the end of November.
The spying revelations also have created some tensions between the administration and Democrats. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and until now a staunch supporter of the NSA's surveillance, called for a "total review of all intelligence programs" following the Merkel reports.
She said that when it came to the NSA collecting intelligence on the leaders of allies such as France, Spain, Mexico and Germany, "Let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed."
With Congress renewing budget talks Wednesday, liberals have been outspoken in their insistence that Democrats vigorously resist efforts to reduce long-term deficits with savings in Social Security or Medicare. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, has been the most outspoken, saying he fears a budget deal will contain a proposal in Obama's budget to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other benefit programs.
Obama, however, has proposed that remedy only if Republicans agree to raise tax revenue, a bargain that most in the GOP firmly oppose. Moreover, leaders from both parties as well as White House officials have signaled that budget talks are looking for a small budget deal, not the type of "grand bargain" that would embrace such a revenue-for-benefit-cuts deal.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has signed a measure into law reopening the federal government and averting a potential default.
The White House says Obama signed the bill early Thursday, hours after the House gave final approval.
The White House budget office has already instructed federal workers to plan to return to work Thursday morning.
The measure restores funding for the government through Jan. 15 and extends the nation's borrowing authority through Feb. 7.
The partial government shutdown started Oct. 1. The U.S. was to reach its debt limit Thursday if no deal was reached.
As the deal neared final passage in the House Wednesday, Obama said it was now time for leaders in Washington to win back the trust of Americans that was lost during the debt-and-spending crisis.
"Hopeful," that's how Congresswoman Ann Wagner describes Thursday's meeting between GOP leaders and President Barack Obama.
The two sides got together to discuss the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling deadline. The St. Louis County Republican was one of 18 GOP lawmakers who attended the 90-minute meeting at the White House.
Wagner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that toning down the rhetoric that has accompanied the dispute was one area where both sides agreed. "We can't be fear-mongering and talking in ways that make our markets react," she said.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A rodeo clown has performed for the first time since a controversial State Fair rodeo act that mocked President Barack Obama.
The Jefferson City News-Tribune reports that rodeo clown Tuffy Gessling hammed it up for the crowd during a pro bull riding event Friday in Jefferson County.
Beforehand, Gessling said everything has been very overwhelming and that he's surprised people took offense to the politically themed skit. It featured another clown wearing an Obama mask, while Gessling made comments — including "We're gonna stomp Obama" — to the crowd.
Gessling says the skit had been performed before, and that several past presidents' faces were placed in similar scenarios. Gessling had other shows scheduled between his State Fair and Jefferson City appearances, but they were canceled.
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill is joining congressional colleagues in responding to President Obama's decision to pause in taking military action against Syria for its' use of chemical weapons. Negotiators are attempting to iron out a Syrian-Russian plan for Syria to relinquish its' chemical weapons arsenal. Senator McCaskill says she will continue to evaluate and monitor the situation daily, adding “The President made an important case for why Syria’s use of chemical weapons has serious implications for America’s national security and that a credible threat of military force can strengthen the chances of a diplomatic solution."
Text of President Barack Obama's speech on Syria, as provided by the Federal News Service:
My fellow Americans, tonight I want to talk to you about Syria, why it matters and where we go from here. Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over a hundred thousand people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition and to shape a political settlement.
But I have resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The situation profoundly changed, though, on Aug. 21st, when Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.
This was not always the case. In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust. Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them. And in 1997, the United States Senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, now joined by 189 governments that represent 98 percent of humanity.
On Aug. 21st, these basic rules were violated, along with our sense of common humanity.
No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in Syria. The world saw thousands of videos, cellphone pictures and social media accounts from the attack. And humanitarian organizations told stories of hospitals packed with people who had symptoms of poison gas.
Moreover, we know the Assad regime was responsible. In the days leading up to Aug. 21st, we know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area they where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.
Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded. We know senior figures in Assad's military machine reviewed the results of the attack. And the regime increased their shelling of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed. We've also studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site that tested positive for sarin.
When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied.
The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people, to those children, is not only a violation of international law, it's also a danger to our security.
Let me explain why. If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.
As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.
If fighting spills beyond Syria's borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad's ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.
This is not a world we should accept. This is what's at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime's ability to use them and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use. That's my judgment as commander in chief.
But I'm also the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possessed the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.
This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people's representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.
Now, 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. After all, I've spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them. Our troops are out of Iraq, our troops are coming home from Afghanistan, and I know Americans want all of us in Washington, especially me, to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home, putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class. It's no wonder, then, that you're asking hard questions. So let me answer some of the most important questions that I've heard from members of Congress and that I've read in letters that you've sent to me.
First, many of you have asked: Won't this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are still recovering from our involvement in Iraq. A veteran put it more bluntly: This nation is sick and tired of war.
My answer is simple. I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. 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.
Others have asked whether it's worth acting if we don't take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there's no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in Syria.
Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn't do pinpricks.
Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don't think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.
Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don't dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other - any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.
Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that's so complicated and where, as one person wrote to me, those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights? It's true that some of Assad's opponents are extremists. But al-Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people and the Syrian opposition we work with just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.
Finally, many of you have asked, why not leave this to other countries or seek solutions short of force?
And several people wrote to me, we should not be the world's policeman. I agree. And I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations. But chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.
However, 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. The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons and even said they'd join the chemical weapons convention, which prohibits their use.
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.
I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I'm sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin. I've spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom. And we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.
We'll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on Aug. 21st. And we will continue to rally support from allies, from Europe to the Americas, from Asia to the Middle East who agree on the need for action.
Meanwhile, 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. And tonight I give thanks again to our military and their families for their incredible strength and sacrifices.
My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world's a better place because we have borne them.
And so to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just.
To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.
Indeed, I'd ask every member of Congress, and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack, and then ask: What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way? Franklin Roosevelt once said our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.
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. 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. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.
With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.
Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.