Unwilling To Act Alone, Obama Pulls Back From Brink Of War

After an evening stroll with his chief of staff on Friday, Obama decided that he didn't want to go to war alone, surprising even his closest aides by choosing to seek congressional approval for a military strike

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Mike Theiler / REUTERS

President Barack Obama makes remarks on the situation in Syria, at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington August 31, 2013.

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.

(MORE: Obama Asks Congress to Approve Military Strike)

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.

(MORE: In Syria, Relief and Anger as Obama Delays Syria Strike)

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.

(MORE: Three Reasons Congress May Not Approve War in Syria)

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.

MORE: Twitter Reacts to Obama’s Syria Decision

45 comments
EarlHadaway
EarlHadaway

THE ANSWER IS IMPEACH OBAMA IMPEACH CONGRESS IMPEACH THE SENATE ..........That's the first step . 2nd step  For get about Syria its a civil war .  The strong will survive and the weak will die . Its not our business to get involved . The caliphate is upon you and most do not know who the 12 vers are. Religion and its books of the past like history will repeat its self .  When man kind can learn from its past then we will move forward and Wars will end and economic collapses will end .

therealdude
therealdude

Of course he doesn't want to go it alone. There's a very good chance this could turn into another Iraq or Afghan. He doesn't want to own a mess like that all by himself. This is a situation where there are no "good" answers but there are answers that are much worse than others and doing anything to help the rebels is all of those.

SpikeLee
SpikeLee

Michael Scherer assumes that a macho foreign policy is better than a prudent foreign policy.  Why?

iongeopol
iongeopol

For all the people rooting for a fight in this whoknowswhere country, I think I need to chime in with my two bits.

First of all this is a clanish squabble if
the other cousins (yes they are cousins) want to settle things, then
they should do it themselves. The Saudis have the F15s, M1 tanks. Oh
remember 1992, Kuwaiti city when the NBC reporter went in to interview
people on the street, expecting at least some sort of thank you note,
and all he got was an earful of "we don't like the American decadent
life style, go home". And that was after we helped them to rid of
Sadam? And yes, the King of Kuwait and Sadam were cousins - they not
only have the same last name but real cousins from the same big family.

And
another thing : there is yet to be concrete evidence which side set off the
poison gas. Up until now Assad's army is winning on the ground, and why
would he be so dumb to use poison gas, so to invite the international
community to come and beat him up?

And for all
the hand wringing of the "rebels, opposition, of the regime" and harping
at the West for not helping enough, I have a question for your
leadership: yes using poison gas is a crime against humanity and will
be punished by the international community, sooner or later; but so is
eating a still beating human heart, even if it came from an enemy
soldier. So what has your leadership done to punish that military
leader who did just that? Don't have discipline in your "army"? Or it
is whoever's got the gun, got the say? And you expect us to sacrifice
our soldiers' life to help people like that?

Last but
not least, will you promise, solemnly, after we help you, that you won't
do like what the Kuwaitis did, or like in Bengazi, kill our Ambassador,
and burn down our consulate building? Or you will promise anything
now, then, after you win, turn around and attack us?

I rest my case.

RobertKosta
RobertKosta

Obama is weak, its amateur hour at the White House.  Sad for America.

Ovalle2016
Ovalle2016

"Obama has long ago ruled out humanitarian intervention in a crisis that has likely killed more than 100,000."

- MS &ZM

Don't get me wrong, but I just have trouble believing the Syrian body count over two years is equal to the Iraqi civilian body count over 10 years.

It seems these numbers are created out of whole cloth to make an argument one way or another.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

The power to choose to engage in a military action lies solely with Congress (article 1, section 8).  I'm no fan of President Obama, but I applaud his decision to respect the Constitution.  The power to initiate war and the power to wage war are divided between Congress and the President to prevent military adventurism.   

BrittanyMoreno
BrittanyMoreno

Like a group of black 'youths' about to attack some random white person. If one backs out, they all cave. They feed of each others hate, and need a gang to act on their hatred. 

small_axe
small_axe

The damage done to the free world by the Bush regime rolls on. The treason committed by lying our way into an illegal war has poisoned public confidence here and in the UK.

Now, in the face of horrific gas attacks, we stand hesitant due to our populations' lack of faith.
If the USA ever had an obligation to use it's force for good, this is it.
This will only be the start of a historic retreat if the people and the congress turn moral tail and run.
It shouldn't be difficult to see the distinction. Bush=Traitor and murderer; Obama=Democratic leader.
Bush lied us into a war we had no business fighting at great loss of national blood, treasure, prestige and standing in the world.
Obama is doing quite the opposite. Giving the people the facts, giving the people their rightful say.
It is up to us to not be moral cowards, to draw the distinction between the traitor we had for a president before, and the leader we have for president now.
To put the two side by side and fail to see the difference is to be willfully indifferent, or irretrievably ignorant.

drudown
drudown

Just this: when an Arab state is teetering on Civil War...it makes ZERO sense to "arm and train" one "faction" and place OUR troops in HARM'S way. Sorry, Secretary Kerry. The mere presence of Sarin does NOT supersede nor preempt our Nation's proper course for intervention. Here, any strikes (i.e., other than drones) will be simply exacerbate the anti-American sentiment that touches and concerns our protracted occupation in Iraq that (drumroll, please) one can safely assume (that is, regardless of the "conservative" Media's spin) that NO PERSON from Syria, Egypt, et al. wants to see "Iraq redux" within their sovereign's jurisdiction. Only the War Profiteers do.

Write or call your elected official and REMIND them our tax dollars are for US CITIZENS like me and you- they are no longer "under the radar" in their attempts to divert the Treasury to appease campaign contributors. Time for Congress to discharge your LAWFUL duty to TAX and SPEND for the People's general WELFARE per a "strict construction" of Article I, Section 8.

Contrary to Grover's "marching orders", you have no actual "discretion" to fund the State that puts you in office to begin with. Any elected official that acquiesces to "shut down" the federal government is committing professional malpractice as an elected official. Find me case law that proves otherwise and you are off the hook.

This is no "Great War", David Brooks.

This fiscal waste in Middle East- over nothing but limiting Arab people from self-determination- has to end.

The People might be pleasantly surprised at how cordial and forgiving even the different factions fighting for thousands of years are with a significant Stimulus- the only chance of a "friend", i.e., Western Civilization needs to consider effectuating a proclamation that gives Arabs more freedoms to be themselves...if that entails a realization of identity through violent means...at least their people know Western Civilization wants to materially assist them step forward...not invariably run for cover, as our illimitable forces hover, and wait and wait...only to smash resistance...like King Augustus the Strong would crush a pewter plate.

The "conservative" Media is always wrong. 

It isn't "too late" for Diplomacy here. Nor does the NSA's unlawful activities "undo" or even ameliorate the People's intrinsic and inalienable Privacy rights. It is time to face the simple facts. If we don't create an entirely new system of Solvency for both the US, EU and Russia...we will succumb to a collective plight.

Massive famine, unbidden migrations, warming winds and unstable sovereignty and disorder in many places. I see no good in this and any purported "downside" of, say, printing three (3) single $50 trillion coins for the US, EU and Russia, respectively, is vastly and unequivocally outweighed by the "upside"- say, enjoining "fracking" and military "hacking" and put together a comprehensive proposal on how to regulate Commerce intelligently and harvest the Earth's resources sustainably. There is no realistic way mankind survives Climate Change without such a massive reorganization of debt by Western Civilization. 

Once ratified, this Trade Agreement can serve as a Template to work in good faith with all Asian nations. 

Desalination on each continent, coupled with massive irrigation systems- all this will result in job creation and massive infrastructure initiatives for the lower and middle classes of the World Community. It can be via a Trade Agreement with Russia and EU that likewise materially reorganizes our collective debts. 

The Social Contract allows for such modification amidst exigent circumstances, with collective immunity. The People have no more time for corrupt officials on the take. Tomorrow's 'Gas Land' is too late. 

"After the event, even the fool is wise." - Viscount Symonds

DennisZMenace
DennisZMenace

This president's display of arrogance jst got trumped by public opinion. This man is no military genius - telegraphing where he's going to strike - giving the lead-in with rhetoric and threats, only to pass the buck to congress when he sees the landscape changing. Red line was drawn - he is niw for certain the least respected national leader we have ever had. Rule number one: never threaten unless you mean business. He should have kept his mouth shut, did his homework and then made his comments - he's now reduced to a bully ith no common sense - ad egg all over his face.

I thought we should nt do this - I disagree with all the useless saber rattling - it cost us a lot of money - even worse, it cost s a lot f political capital.

Dusgtsted.......

poliphobic
poliphobic

As a British citizen I am gratified that some democracy has been seen to still exist in my country and that for once we are not going to automatically follow America's wishes.

However, I must say I am absolutely amazed that our decision should have any effect or influence on America's decision making, and I'm still not convinced that it really did .  

whatmeworry
whatmeworry

zero is at it again.instead of all the scandals of his administration, he's doing his best to  run from the real issues by distraction.

don't mind what he ever says. he's untruthful. watch what he does. i'd bet money that  he will be the one to begin ww3. happened  with a demokkkrat president in office twice before. 

eetom
eetom

It was not without reason that every emperor of ancient China called himself 寡人--the lonely one.  As a head of a massive self-appointed international police force, Obama must get used to being lonely.

The "friends" of US are all very clever.  Why take part when you can 隔岸观火--watch the conflagration from the opposite shore?

There can be little doubt that Israel will bare the blunt of any consequence.  It's simple:  "If we can't hit the giant why not hit a  friend of the giant who lives across the fence?"

NeilStrachan
NeilStrachan

Syria is doing well in the field.  It then kills children with chemical weapons.  This smells and sounds like the Gulf of Tonkin.  I joined the Navy in 1973 to be a pilot.  Then I became a cop.  Strong defense, not stupid offense.  Obama and members of Congress won't be doing the fighting.  We had our civil war.  Let them have theirs.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

"U.S. Congress remained a comedy of dysfunction"..."kibitz and complain from the sidelines" Democracy in action!

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Americans need to fight for the removal of signs of State Terrorism, observance of the US Constitution and to build relations with other countries under international law. Itthe only way to stop the wave of troubles, which are ready to fall on the head of ordinary Americans.

State Terrorism

The Geneva conference on a question of terrorism of 1987 accepted the declaration  which defines the following phenomena as the state terrorism

1) police state practices against its own people to dominate through fear by surveillance (PRISM), disruption of group meetings, control of the news media, beatings, torture, false and mass arrests, false charges and rumors, show trials, killings, summary executions and capital punishment;

2) the introduction or transportation of nuclear weapons by a state into or through the territory or territorial waters of other states or into international waters;

3) military exercise maneuvers or war games conducted by one state in the vicinity of another state for the purpose of threatening the political independence or territorial integrity of that other state

4) the armed attack by the military forces of a state on targets that put at risk the civilian population residing in another state

5) the creation and support of armed mercenary forces by a state for the purpose of subverting the sovereignty of another state

6) assassinations, assassination attempts, and plots directed by a state towards the officials of other states, or national liberation movements, whether carried out by military strike, special forces units or covert operations by "intelligence forces" or their third party agents

7) covert operations by the "intelligence" or other forces of a state which are intended to destabilize or subvert another state, national liberation movements, or the international peace movement

8) disinformation campaigns by a state, whether intended to destabilize another state or to build public support for economic, political or military force or intimidation directed against another state;

9) arms sales which support the continuation of regional wars and retard the search for political solutions to international disputes;

10) the abrogation of civil rights, civil liberties, constitutional protections and the rule of law under the pretext of alleged counter-terrorism; and

11) the development, testing and deployment of nuclear and space-weapons systems that in all circumstances increase the probability of genocide and ecocide, while condemning the poor to continued misery and all humanity to a state of perennial fear.

sgreco1970
sgreco1970

Can you substantiate the claim that we were on the "brink of war?"

Military strikes have happened hundreds of times without being declarations of war.

CecilioDecolongon
CecilioDecolongon

Saddam was killed because WMD was not allowed. Assad must be killed because WMD is not allowed. Future leaders with WMD will be killed because the righteous will not allow WMD. History will appreciate you no matter what.

CecilioDecolongon
CecilioDecolongon

Assad must be killed to shout to the world that weapons of must destruction is not allowed.

donatello
donatello

If US attack, then she bites the bait placed by some geopolitical player, who is already willing to put Assad on the plate as a sacrifice to achieve the objectives.

dougglast
dougglast

Then, there is this interesting double-entendre in the ditching by Putin of US evidence on the CW attack.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday it would be "utter nonsense" for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons when it was winning its war with rebels, and urged U.S. President Barack Obama not to attack Syrian forces.

 Interestingly enough, this can also mean that, if evidence exposes the Syrian regime responsibility, then what Putin is saying rather means that the Syrian regime acted in utter non-sense.

Imho, Putin is - not for the first time - publicly voicing Russian concerns at his unpredictable ally. His media performance on this issue oozes with discomfort.

Ovalle2016
Ovalle2016

Obama should have done what Reagan did when Saddam gassed his own people: blame Iran until it became more convenient.

dougglast
dougglast

Well, That's excellent. My impression is that some time in the not so far future, the climax of this crisis will be the UN report, more than the US strike.

Countries like France or the US - or the UK - can probably commit themselves to enforcing international law (eg. just as Spain defined its Justice as having an international jurisdiction), with a degree of coercion that still has to be defined, but it still needs parliamentary approval, and the related public debate. The policy cannot be invented on the fly while a war has started, the means would dis-serve the ends.

A mercurial regime such as Assad's certainly can wait for an orderly response, and a parliament-backed one would be much more vexing to an autocrat : this is part of the punishment, to use not just military weapons, but political means whose absence basically is at the core of the Syrian civil war. With Congress support, the US will hit Assad with what he lacks most : people approval. This will diminish the need for military strength.

Besides, as repeated once and again, mercurial dictators are very easily punished, as their ego is so inflated. You don't need one thousand rockets to make an Assad or a Kim tick. A couple of them on a presidential compound would do the trick.

ReuvenWachtfogel
ReuvenWachtfogel

Obama should tell Assad that the next time he gasses a thousand children, there will be a price to pay. With any luck Assad may laugh himself to death.

jmac
jmac

@SpikeLee " So he has resigned himself to muddle a third way forward."

Where is the muddle?  We know where Obama stands.  Now we'll know where Congress stands.   The muddle isn't with Obama.   It's apparently with certain congressmen and certain reporters.  



jmac
jmac

@RobertKosta   Bring back Junior!  He'd have troops on the ground if Assad had a hotel with his daddy's picture on the floor as you enter.      Of course we all understand getting congress to show their votes is "amateur hour".  Their role is to  blather and squawk.  

jmac
jmac

@JohnDavidDeatherageDavid Nathan:      "President Barack Obama just turned decades of debate over presidential war powers on its head."

"Until Saturday, when Obama went to Congress to ask for permission to strike Syria, the power to launch military action had been strongly in the hands of the commander in chief. Even the 1973War Powers Resolution allows bombs to start falling before the president has to ask Congress for long-term approval.". . . the resolution is specifically designed to make presidents go to Congress for approval of long-term wars — any military action longer than 60 days, or 90 days under special circumstances. It doesn’t say the president has to report to Congress before a military strike. It just says the president has to report to Congress within 48 hours after the strikes begin."'

Paul Begala. “He is the antithesis of George W. Bush: no lies about ‘imminent threats,’ no bullying, no impugning the patriotism of his critics. I am proud of my president.”

BrittanyMoreno
BrittanyMoreno

@small_axe - Yea. Bush did it. Nothing to do with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the last several conflicts.

jmac
jmac

@drudown Diplomacy with whom?   Assad?   Russia?  (not going to happen)   China?    Should we stop hitting al Qaeda in Yemen?  Should we let all those prisoners they just released in Africa and the Middle East plot another strike?   They're not home playing footsy with each other.   We dipped out toe in when we invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.  

What troops?   No boots on the ground.  

Yes, please call your conservative congressman and tell him to vote no on retaliating for a leader in trouble using sarin gas on 1,400 people.     Then we won't have to hear and watch conservatives put on their manly man game when they run for president - we'll have their vote to judge them by.  

jmac
jmac

@DennisZMenace The bully was the president who invaded  a weak country who had nothing to do with taking down our towers - Syria, Iran and North Korea were always more of a problem than the petty tyrant who was weaker than he was when Bush Sr took back Kuwait.

And the funny thing about your comment, Dennis, is that Bush jr is on record bragging that wars help the economy.   Obama still stands by his red line.  He hasn't changed his mind.   The egg on the face is going to be those idiots who've been saying he hasn't done enough in Syria for the last year  - and now they have to put up a vote.   Let's vote.  


Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

@DennisZMenace   He should've gotten a sudden urge to read My Pet Goat, lied to the American people and then invaded the wrong country.

jmac
jmac

@poliphobic How can you say your vote didn't matter?    This is an international problem.  This is not an American problem.  

By the way, your country was the only major country that backed Bush Jr and you did it with fake intelligence that you knew were fake (Downing Street Memos).   Don't try to play innocent on us saying we pulled YOU into invading Iraq - you played a HUGE part in helping Bush Jr sell the war with fixed intelligence.     Of course you're Parliament is embarrassed but that doesn't change the facts.  

mrxexon
mrxexon

@ReuvenWachtfogel  

 Where was your high moral ground when Israel killed 100's of Palestinian children during operation Cast Lead?

What did we do to Israel? Anything? (Beside contributing weapons to the zionist regime)

Now explain to me how Syria is important enough to us to intervene? Of course, wise people understand this whole thing is more about Israel than Syria...

x


JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@jmac @JohnDavidDeatherage No President has ever accepted the War Powers Resolution as being Constitutional.  Congress can't cede an Article 1 responsibility to a different branch of government.  There is no distinction in the Constitution about short term or long term wars.  The power to wage war is vested in the President. The decision to enter into military conflict is invested solely in Congress.

jmac
jmac

@BrittanyMoreno @small_axe Yes, Bush and the Brits spooked their countries and now the Brits are having second thoughts AFTER playing the twist-the-info-to-meet-your-expectations game with Bush.   Bush needed those Brits -that's about all he had and they played the cover-up until the Downing Street memos surfaced and they looked as bad as Bush and yellow-cake and laughing about not finding WMD's.  

We have no clear choices here.   Let's let Congress do it's job.    An up or down vote.   We know where Obama stands.  

drudown
drudown

@jmac @drudown

Any person (such as yourself) that hastily negates diplomacy after the $4 TRILLION debacle in Iraq (yes, it is an utter debacle) demonstrates precisely the kind of rigidity that landed us in the Iraqi tar pit. 

As for your shopworn Al Qaeda boogeyman justifications for fiscally imprudent Arab occupations (e.g., "should we let all those prisoners they just released in Africa and the Middle East plot another strike?"), you assume all kinds of facts not in evidence. First, you naively presuppose that the Bush Doctrine works. Where is the support for such a proposition? What, pray tell, of preemptively "striking" Iraq actually advanced the People's interests? It will just exacerbate the anti-American sentiment. Yes or no.

Next, you conspicuously fail to address what legal justification the US has to use force simply because some despot allegedly used chemical weapons. Please. Tell me how the fiscally strapped US (i.e., suffocating under the weight of the GOP's "no new revenue, ever" lobbyist regime) can AFFORD to get enmeshed in Arab civil wars?

You naively (or robotically) parrot the selfsame "moral" arguments that landed us in the Iraqi tar pit. Sorry, our government is one of Limited Powers. Get your facts straight and spare me speculative scenarios.


ReuvenWachtfogel
ReuvenWachtfogel

@mrxexon @ReuvenWachtfogel

Hi Mr. Exon. From your "Zionist Regime" rhetoric and equivalence between Assad's butchering of his own people and Israel's defensive action in Cast Lead, it is clear that you are biased beyond repair.

However for the benefit of other readers, I will say that I would think that many of us who wish to for a safer world for our children have an interest in the world sending a strong message that use of WMDs will not be tolerated. I understand the US frustration that this role falls too often on them. I understand the concern that "strong messages" can blow up into something bigger. But for the sake of all our children, this cannot be allowed to pass unpunished.

mrxexon
mrxexon

@ReuvenWachtfogel @mrxexon  

 You should like a zionist apologist,  Mr.  Wachtfogel. 

Israel  is far more of a threat to world peace than Syria. They have far more agents within our government. They have nukes and an advanced delivery capability. And they have a long, long history of espionage against these United States.

And you're worried about Syria?

x