President Barack Obama is shaping his decision whether to attack Syria with the help of a small, loyal cadre of advisers who almost to a person share a reluctance to engage Bashar al-Assad’s regime militarily.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, previously Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and current national security adviser Susan Rice are influential voices, say four former administration officials familiar with the discussions, as Obama weighs an attack amid conflicting pressures, including last night’s rejection of participation by the U.K. parliament.
Outside the White House, Obama will lean on his top military commander, Army General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dempsey, 61, has been publicly urging restraint, saying an attack could destabilize the region, empower Islamic extremists inside Syria and draw retaliation from Assad against U.S. allies and his own people.
Restraint was the prevailing view -- and Obama’s -- until this month. Then the Aug. 21 chemical attack, more than internal discussions or external political pressures from U.S. allies and Congress, forced Obama, 52, and his advisers to move toward a limited military strike, said Barry Pavel, a former senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council under Obama and George W. Bush.
“There’s almost no way out of this once it became clear that this was a large scale use of chemical weapons, especially because of his statement last year that this was a red line,” said Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“He puts the red line out and then a small scale use of chemical weapons happens and he doesn’t do anything,” Pavel said. “So Assad thinks, ‘Hey, they didn’t do anything.’ So there’s a large scale use. I don’t think Obama could figure a way out of it without acting.”
Obama says he hasn’t decided to take military action.
Obama’s team also includes NSC deputies Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken, the former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. Biden himself is sure to get the president’s ear before any strike is launched. He gives his military and foreign policy advice to Obama largely in private.
There is at least one hawkish voice on Syria in the inner circle, the former officials say: Obama’s UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, 42, a longtime advocate of using force to solve humanitarian crises. Secretary of State John Kerry has also been more open to using force to restrain Assad, they said.
Obama’s advisers are mostly the same group he relied upon when deciding on the Libya intervention in March 2011. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocated for the strikes, along with Rice, Power, McDonough and Rhodes, and Obama agreed. The view inside the White House on Libya was that the stakes were lower, and the risks manageable.
Two administration officials, who asked for anonymity to talk about the internal process, said national security decision-making is more centralized in the Obama White House than it has been at any time since Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were the national security advisers to Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, respectively.
Obama’s team has seen Syria as different from Libya -- militarily stronger, with powerful allies in Iran and Russia, and willing to use chemical weapons to retaliate, making the risks of action much higher.
The escalation on Syria has been gradual. Obama in August 2011 said Assad must go. Last August, in the middle of his re-election campaign, he said the use of chemical weapons by Syria would constitute a “red line.”
In June, he authorized lethal military aid to rebel groups under a classified order instructing the Central Intelligence Agency to arrange delivery of weapons, according to a U.S. official familiar with the decision who asked not to be identified discussing the move.
The White House announced the U.S. was boosting military aid without saying that the support included lethal assistance.
Still, the president resisted U.S. military intervention.
The White House declined to discuss characterizations of individual advisers’ evolving stances since 2011 or after the Aug. 21 attack.
In advising the president, Obama’s aides have been informed by their own experiences.
McDonough, 43, has been advising Obama since 2007, in the Senate, during the 2008 campaign, and since 2009 on the National Security Council, where ran he meetings on Syria as deputy national security adviser.
Rice, 48, and Rhodes, 35, also have been with Obama since the 2008 presidential campaign. Rice chose Obama over Hillary Clinton that year although Rice had worked for President Bill Clinton, including during the Rwandan genocide. Her regret over the Clinton administration’s inaction then and a desire to avoid a repeat were seen as shaping her instincts.
Rice’s shot at becoming secretary of state became a casualty of last September’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. She adopted more of a public role as honest broker as she moved over to become the NSC head, said one of the former administration officials.
Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for communications who has shaped his major foreign policy addresses, previously favored ending U.S. support for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the intervention in Libya.
As deliberations on Syria unfolded, aides’ roles were changing.
In addition to McDonough’s move from the NSC to chief of staff, John Brennan, who as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser was deeply involved in early deliberations, was tapped by the president in January to head the Central Intelligence Agency after the resignation of David Petraeus.
Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, was nominated last December to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. He participated in a briefing of leading members of Congress last night along with Rice, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld.
Power, a former member of the White House national security council, was confirmed as UN ambassador this month. Power, a Pulitzer-prize winning former journalist, hasn’t publicly said what course she advocates on a military strike. On the social networking site Twitter following the Aug. 21 attacks, Power said that “perps must face justice” and said that the “verdict is clear: Assad has used CWs against civilians in violation of int’l norm.”
Ultimately, the decision on how to respond to Syria will rest on Obama, who in an interview this week with PBS indicated he doesn’t much like any of his options.
“Although what’s happened there is tragic, and although I have called for Assad to leave and make sure that we got a transitional government that could be inclusive in Syria, what I’ve also concluded is that direct military engagement, involvement in the civil war in Syria, would not help the situation on the ground,” he said.
The president said he knows intervention won’t “solve all the problems inside of Syria, and, you know, it doesn’t obviously end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria.”