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Obama's Syria strategy: Deft improvisation or impulsive risk-taking?

'Roller coaster' ride has been the handiwork of a foreign policy team that, just months into its term, has presided over shifts, apparent mistakes and surprises.

September 11, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons
  • President Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade hours before Tuesday’s national address on Syria.
President Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade hours before Tuesday’s… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

WASHINGTON — In the last two weeks, President Obama has brought the United States to the brink of another military operation, then backed off unexpectedly. He went abroad and tried to rally international partners to join his cause, but returned empty-handed. He launched one of the biggest public relations and lobbying campaigns of his presidency, then aborted the mission. He called the nation to its televisions to make the case for using force, but made the case for more diplomacy.

The White House's stop-and-start response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria three weeks ago could at best be described as deftly improvisational and at worst as impulsive and risky.

By either analysis, it has been the handiwork of a foreign policy team that, just months into its term, has presided over shifts in strategy, changing messages and a striking countermand from the president.

"This has been a roller coaster. And there have been enough sudden turns where you weren't sure if the car was still attached to the rails," said Philip J. Crowley, former State Department spokesman and now a fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.

TRANSCRIPT: Obama makes his case to the nation

The ride reflects the difficult standoff with Syria over chemical weapons, a crisis with a cast of unpredictable and hostile foreign leaders and few good options. The shifting picture has left the Obama team to call "audibles," Crowley said. "I do think that there's a more coherent strategy than the public articulation of that strategy."

The president and his advisors faced harsh criticism this week as they lurched from one decision to another. Many outsiders viewed the president's last-minute move to seek congressional authorization for military strikes in Syria as naive and dicey, given his toxic relationships with many in Congress. His subsequent outreach to Capitol Hill was blasted by lawmakers as insufficient. He faced a near-certain defeat in the House.

His quick embrace of a surprise diplomatic overture from the Russians only demonstrated his desperation, some lawmakers and political observers charged. "I think it's about a president that's really uncomfortable being commander in chief," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), explaining the administration's "muddle-ness."

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the president and his team, saying that, herky-jerky or not, they had reached a desired outcome. "And so this approach that has engendered these analyses and criticism and stuff has led to what today? The complete about-face by the Syrian regime, an acknowledgment for the first time in its existence that they hold chemical weapons," Carney said.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were heading to Geneva for talks Thursday about Syria's chemical weapons.

The pattern on display may be the result of presidential indecision, his advisors' counsel or the complexity of the situation in Syria. The White House has been reluctant to discuss internal deliberations and, to the degree that they have, officials have placed the responsibility — and the credit — for the approach on the president.

FULL COVERAGE: The debate on Syria

On at least one key decision, Obama appeared to rely on his own views and overrule his advisors. Even as his National Security Council readied for missile strikes two weeks ago, the president was quietly unsettled about the decision, senior administration officials said. The White House also misjudged the willingness of other nations to commit to supporting missile strikes. And Obama was uncomfortable with launching the action without a more public debate or United Nations mandate.

The president expressed his concern in a walk on the White House grounds with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, a longtime aide, and decided to ask for congressional approval. He announced the news to national security advisor Susan Rice and other top aides in the Oval Office afterward, one official said. A debate followed, but the president's mind was made up.

To some, the one-on-one walk with a confidant is characteristic of Obama's decision-making.

"There's a White House team within the team," said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official and now director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There used to be complaints that decisions in the Obama White House happened at 11 p.m. and involved four people. That pattern is increasing rather than diminishing."

One person not in the discussion over congressional approval was Kerry. Although he had been the public face of the case for strikes, making an impassioned speech earlier in the week, the president called his former Senate colleague only after the Oval Office discussion, said officials, who asked not to be identified talking about internal discussions.

PHOTOS: Syria before the war

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