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President Obama's U-turn on Syria is a gamble

Decision to seek Congress' approval for a strike on Syria over its suspected use of chemical weapons is a surprising surrender of presumed executive authority.

August 31, 2013|By Shashank Bengali, Paul Richter and David S. Cloud
  • President Obama arrives to make a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House.
President Obama arrives to make a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden… (Charles Dharapak Associated…)

WASHINGTON — As often happens at the end of a busy day, President Obama took a quiet walk Friday night on the rolling South Lawn of the White House with his chief of staff and longtime confidant, Denis McDonough. The two men talked war.

Pentagon officials had fine-tuned their target lists in Syria. Five U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean were awaiting orders to launch fiery salvos of Tomahawk missiles. Obama's aides had canceled Labor Day weekend plans, expecting an imminent attack.

But after less than an hour's stroll, Obama returned to the Oval Office and stunned his mostly new second-term national security team. He tapped the brakes on a military operation he had set in motion a week ago.

The president's abrupt announcement Saturday that he would seek congressional approval before trying to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces for their suspected use of chemical weapons marked a startling U-turn. During the previous week, he and his advisors had never vigorously debated going to Congress.

If the decision was intended to seize the moral high ground from his critics, it also represented a clear gamble by a famously deliberate president. He was making a surprising surrender — at least for now — of presumed executive authority.

Obama could act alone, his aides insist, even if Congress refuses to authorize use of armed force in Syria. But he has temporarily handed the most critical decision of his second term so far to a fractious Congress with which he's had, to put it charitably, a rocky relationship.

Senior administration officials called the move consistent with Obama's legacy of seeking bipartisan consultation, and pulling America out of more than a decade of post-9/11 wars. On Friday, he betrayed his dilemma about ordering U.S. forces into another Middle East conflict. "I assure you nobody ends up being more war weary than me," he had said.

On Saturday, he said, "I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end."

Colin Kahl, who served in Obama's first term as deputy assistant Defense secretary for the Middle East, said the president must be confident about gaining congressional approval of a strike against Assad's government.

"He has to have made a calculation that this is a fight he can win," Kahl said. "If he wins on this issue, not only will the strike have more domestic legitimacy, it will strengthen the president on other issues."

But critics called it an example of a less flattering Obama characteristic: delaying and splitting the middle on major decisions, muddling the power of his argument and, in this case, perhaps blunting the effectiveness of military action.

Just a day earlier, Secretary of State John F. Kerry had made an impassioned case for action, calling Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons a "crime against humanity" and a test of U.S. credibility.

"History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency," Kerry said.

Obama has rarely sounded as certain as that. A day after the first videos of writhing bodies and glassy-eyed babies emerged from the Damascus suburbs, the president warned in a CNN interview against "immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."

In his comments Saturday, Obama said he's decided that military action is warranted and he's prepared to give the order once Congress agrees. The Senate is expected to hold hearings on the matter this week. The House is expected to meet after members return from summer recess Sept. 9.

Some critics say the longer Obama waits, the less effect the missiles may have in deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again, or perhaps more important, in convincing America's allies in Israel and its adversaries in Iran that Obama will live up to his vow to take swift military action, if necessary, to deny Tehran a nuclear weapon.

"All of this dithering is very counterproductive," said Barry Pavel, a former Defense Department official who is vice president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. "And if it looks like he's just checking the box, it gets much worse."

Obama said Saturday that his decision was rooted in assurances from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that the military options on the table weren't "time-sensitive" and he could launch the attack in a week or a month.

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