In the end, Barack Obama found himself alone.
The British abandoned him. The Arab League could not commit. The United Nations faced Russian obstruction, and the U.S. Congress remained a comedy of dysfunction, unable to marshal a cogent vacation response to proposed missile strikes on a nation many Americans could not find on a map. Even the American people expressed ambiguity and concern. In an NBC poll released Friday, 50% opposed military action on Syria in response to the evidence of chemical weapons use by the regime. Only 42% offered support.
Nonetheless, Obama had done the diplomatic groundwork to prepare for an attack. He had warned the American people. The ships were in position in the Mediterranean Sea, loaded with weapons that Obama said he believed would degrade the Syrian regime’s ability to carry out future chemical weapons attacks, and deter the will of Bashar Assad to allow them. All the President needed to do was say the word.
Instead, he went for a walk. For 45 minutes on Friday evening, he strolled through the south lawn of the White House, just out of view of the ubiquitous tourists gawking with iPhones held aloft from the National Mall. His companion was Denis McDonough, the chief of staff and longtime foreign policy adviser. In the muggy late August dusk, Obama made his concerns known. He did not want to commit to this war alone.
At 7 p.m., he gathered his top aides in the Oval Office and gave them the news. America would not carry out the attack just yet. He would go to Congress first to seek permission, breaking with decades of precedent giving the President wide latitude to unilaterally launch military adventures. It was a surprise to everyone. Not a single one of Obama’s aides had suggested he make this move, they said, nor had any of the Congressional leadership demanded the chance to authorize. Most lawmakers were far more content to kibitz and complain from the sidelines.
But Obama was aware that 150 members of Congress, the rank and file, were seeking a chance to vote. He had been affected by the British vote in Parliament, aides would later say, and he knew well the lingering effects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq had increased global skepticism of America’s military judgement. Then there was the fact that he had pledged in 2007, in response to a question from the Boston Globe, to seek such authorization before starting wars in the absence of an immediate threat. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told Obama days earlier that there was no military harm done by waiting to strike Assad’s forces.
Obama has long ago ruled out humanitarian intervention in a crisis that has likely killed more than 100,000. His goal was to diminish Assad’s ability to deploy chemical weapons, and establish an international standard of punishment for large scale use of such weapons on civilians. As he explained to his aides, the military option he was considering was not focused on saving Syrian lives, or tilting the balance of the war. It therefore followed that there was no need to act right away.
By Saturday morning, Obama had his team convinced. None dissented. And he was left with the task of explaining his position to the world, with all of its contradictory nuance. “I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” he said, before adding that he would suspend taking action on that decision. “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” he said after saying he would seek authorization.
Senior Administration officials said after the speech that they were confident Congress would approve of an attack. But there is no certainty they are right. Just hours after the announcement, two key Republican votes in the Senate, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, indicated they would vote no unless Obama expanded his mandate to push for toppling the regime with military strikes. In the House, where Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly failed to muster votes he claims to control, even less is certain.
To make matters more complicated, Obama’s aides made clear that the President’s search for affirmation from Congress would not be binding. He might still attack Syria even if Congress issues a rejection. It is a tangle of complexity far from the simple vision Obama brought with him into office. And it is a kind of leadership that is certain to open him up to more criticism in the future.
Back in 2009, he spoke of a world that would unite around the common interest of rubbing out the most dangerous weapons. “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something,” he said in Prague, three months after taking office, in a speech about the nuclear threat. “The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.”
The problem is the world is not standing together. And Obama is unwilling to stand alone. So he has resigned himself to muddle a third way forward.