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Why Obama won't lose face by giving diplomacy a chance

The diner on West Broadway was only beginning to fill up, with most people opting to sit outside in the bright and breezy sunshine. "It's definitely the best time to be in New York City," declared the middle-aged woman sitting next to us.

She was talking at New York volume to her companion, a man in his early 60s. He was lean and had plumped for the healthy breakfast of granola with mixed berries and yoghurt. She was lashing into a generous helping of eggs with chorizo, beans and hash browns. Their exchanges were animated a la Woody Allen. The topic was the possible strikes on Syria and how the president was handling the crisis.

The man, who had military service, was vehemently opposed. The woman made the credible argument that the United States had to be sure-footed in the face of tyranny. She passionately compared the Syrian humanitarian situation to the failure to act in the gassing of six million Jews in Hitler's Germany.

"There are implications, too, for not acting," she droned. The man methodically set out the downside of military strikes: regional instability, a fractured opposition, the fallibility of missiles, the danger of mission creep, becoming enmeshed in a quagmire.

All over the city, the same conundrum was being parsed in homes and bars, in between football games. A poll was showing a "surge" in just one week in the share of Americans opposed to strikes, up from 48pc to 63pc. The undecided had switched unanimously to the 'No' side while the supporters of strikes stayed firm at 28pc.

Increasingly, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice looked out of step. People seized hungrily on the reprieve proffered by the Russians for the decommissioning of chemical weapons as an alternative to military strikes.

The French were sceptical and suspected a stalling tactic. Kerry was wrong-footed by the move. It was a diplomatic coup for the Russians. Meanwhile, presidential aides continued the intensive lobby on Capitol Hill in support for strikes. Rice was described as "Cheneyesque" at a press conference when she dismissed talk of a new diplomacy as "baloney". This was moving fast with confusing signals emanating to the media of yet another change of mind on behalf of the president.

By Tuesday, the country was glued to the 9 o'clock presidential address to the nation. Commentators were as in the dark as everyone else as to what he might say. He was calm and reflective, resigned to war but open to alternative routes.

He was a reluctant general. He was elected on a mandate to end wars, not begin them. He was willing to give the diplomatic initiative on chemical weapons elimination a chance. But the threat of military action would stay.

Afterwards, the talkshows showered criticism on the president; he was vacillating and dithering and risking the authority of his office and the credibility of the US.

And it is true; his response last week appeared ad hoc and incoherent, like a man at the mercy of events rather than controlling them. But perhaps like David Cameron, the president must bow to the strength of public opinion rather than moral idealism.

The decommissioning framework is a two-way bet.

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If Assad doesn't live up to the requirements of the programme, which must be verifiable and complete, the threat of force remains. The president will not lose face by giving diplomacy and the Russian proposal a chance.

By not being trigger-happy like previous presidents, he is being true to his electoral mandate. It must be galling to see Putin steal a march in the whole affair, including a self-serving opinion piece published in the 'New York Times' by the Russian president on Thursday last.

To address the American people, over the president's head, was a gloating exercise. Yet it demonstrates a shift in the axis of international responsibility for the Syrian crisis, which is welcome.

Earlier in the week, I visited the World Trade Centre memorial site. Even with advance booking it is a security rigmarole, but well worth it. The memorial garden is beautiful. Two massive square reflecting pools mark the perimeter of each fallen tower.

The names of each person who died on that day are engraved on the granite surrounds of each pool.

The only sound is of fast-flowing water; people fall silent in reflection.

Relatives leave a single rose next to the loved one's name. There is a crushing sadness everywhere.

A policeman caught my tearful eyes and nodded knowingly. There are granite seats amid newly planted trees to rest weary legs and hearts, which fairly well sums up the public mood in America when it comes to war.

All of this drama was of course set against the 12th anniversary of 9/11. The day was marked as always with lowered flags and vigils. The ceremonies at ground zero and the Pentagon were occasions not just for tribute but for taking stock.

In Washington, the President warned against complacency. "Let us have the strength to face the threats that endure, different though they may be from 12 years ago, so that as long as there are those who would strike our citizens, we will stand vigilant and defend our nation," he said.

His remarks were prescient in the light of yesterday's shooting atrocity leaving 12 dead in the Capitol.