Obama's Syria decision: a walk, a debate, and a new approach

WASHINGTON Sat Aug 31, 2013 10:19pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Vice President Joe Biden (R) to the Rose Garden of the White House to make remarks on the situation in Syria, August 31, 2013, in Washington. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Vice President Joe Biden (R) to the Rose Garden of the White House to make remarks on the situation in Syria, August 31, 2013, in Washington.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Theiler

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At the end of the day on Friday, after laying out a strong public case for U.S. military action in Syria, President Barack Obama took a 45-minute walk around the South Lawn of the White House with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough.

They discussed Obama's options for using force.

Despite saying for days that he had not yet made a decision, the president had been leaning toward military intervention since initial reports from his advisers that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons to kill innocent civilians near Damascus, senior officials said on Saturday.

But after a week of laying the groundwork for a targeted attack, Obama had begun to waver about immediate action. Britain, Washington's closest ally, had opted out of an international coalition after its parliament said "no," a decision that weighed on the president.

Republican leaders in Congress, who control the fate of large parts of Obama's domestic policy agenda, had complained loudly about a lack of consultation from the White House ahead of a potential new war.

And polls showed war-weary Americans remained opposed to U.S. involvement in Syria, despite the devastating photos of dead children and their gassed parents.

So the president decided to wait. Rather than ordering a military strike, he would announce his decision that force was necessary while seeking congressional approval to authorize it.

"After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," he said on Saturday in the White House Rose Garden, Vice President Joe Biden standing at his side.

"I'm also mindful that I'm the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy ... and that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress."

The decision surprised his own advisers, who had not proposed voluntarily seeking lawmaker approval and had concluded Obama had the legal authority to take action on his own. But Obama felt it would be more consistent with his desire, stated earlier this year, to take America off of a "perpetual wartime footing" by getting the backing of Congress and the citizens it represents.

After his walk with McDonough, the president called National Security Adviser Susan Rice, her deputy Tony Blinken, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, and others into the Oval Office to announce his approach.

They had a vigorous debate that lasted two hours, senior administration officials said. The biggest risk to Obama's new plan: Congress, like the British parliament, would vote no. That would cast serious doubts on Obama's ability to lead in the Middle East where he is already under fire for what critics call a muddled response to the Egyptian military coup.

The benefits outweighed that risk for Obama, who believed lawmakers would be compelled to vote for a measure that would protect U.S. allies Israel and Jordan.

Adding further weight to the idea of a delay, his military advisers said that waiting on a strike would not make it less effective. Assad, the administration believed, was unlikely to conduct another chemical weapons attack while a U.S. threat loomed. A 'yes' vote would give Obama more legitimacy to attack Syrian forces.

And Congress now would share in the responsibility of a decision that could prove unpopular for Obama either way.


Still, it was a risk. Analysts say Assad could use the time to move weapons to more populated areas of Syria. And a difficult debate in Congress could worsen already bad relations between the White House and Capitol Hill.

"The decision to get Congress on board when he hasn't had a huge amount of success working with Congress strikes me as a gamble," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A failed vote, he said, "could shadow the rest of the administration."

Colin Kahl, a Georgetown University professor and former Defense official, said the passage in the Democrat-controlled Senate was assured, while the Republican-controlled House of Representatives was likely as well.

"There are some skeptics both on the left and the right in the Congress, but I think the administration has a pretty strong case that we need to do this," he said.

"If they start to think through some of the credibility implications of not authorizing this, especially as it relates to Iran, then it will pass in the House."

After making his statement at the White House, Obama and Biden went out for a round of golf.

Lawmakers from both political parties who support action said the president had failed to react as quickly as necessary.

"I support the president's decision. But as far as I'm concerned, we should strike in Syria today," said Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator from Florida who is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Leadership is about reacting to a crisis, and quickly making the hard and tough decisions," said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee. He said Obama should have demanded that lawmakers, who are on recess until September 9, return to Washington immediately.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Paul Eckert, and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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Comments (5)
Tingding wrote:
Do not know when US will start leaning from its past mistakes. Any sort of intervention in Syria, will completely weaken the Assad regime. And the result is going to be disastrous. Multitude of rebel groups, beset by intra and inter-group fighting, having elusive often fundamentalist ideologies will run over the entire country. Why does the US not consider a long term plan of transition before it intervenes anywhere. What will limited strikes achieve, other than punishing the Assad regime. The civil war will still continue, in fact in the vacuum created, more rebel groups will start clashing. What is required is a concerted international action on all fronts to get all stakeholders on a negotiating table. If there is a genuine intent, different countries have the push and pull to bring all warring parties to the table. Alas, international relations is rarely about good intent.

Aug 31, 2013 12:13am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Laster wrote:
“And polls showed war-weary Americans remained opposed to U.S. involvement in Syria, despite the devastating photos of dead children and their gassed parents.”

We’re just tired of the continuous lying. Thank you

Aug 31, 2013 12:28am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Universalist wrote:
I agree with Sen. Chambliss here that the President should have called an emergency session of congress. This does bring his social skills into account. However, his unwavering prudence will serve to benefit American foreign relations. I commend his decision to put pride and everything else aside to make the right choice–he put Americans first here although he will be lambasted for weakness. It would have been weak and foolish to strike Syria without absolute proof of CW. It now will be up to Bashar al-Assad to fulfill a peace and cooperation agreement with Israel publicly and not try to exploit the wisdom and prudence of our President.

Sep 01, 2013 9:18am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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