After a week of planning for a strike against Syria with his political, diplomatic and military aides, U.S. President Barack Obama surprised even his closest advisers with a last-minute change-of-heart.
The decision to seek authorization from Congress was the president’s alone, a step none of the four top congressional leaders had sought and none of his national security advisers had recommended, according to two administration officials familiar with the discussions. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe how the president reached the decision.
Obama’s shift followed two developments earlier in the week: an assurance by Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that a strike wasn’t time-sensitive, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to seek a vote in Parliament, which he lost.
Obama settled on his plans during a 45-minute walk around the South Lawn with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, on Aug. 30, the officials said. He called top White House aides to the Oval Office at 7 p.m. For two hours, they discussed the move, with some close advisers warning there were risks, said the officials, who declined to detail those risks or who voiced them. The president wasn’t swayed, they said.
The participants in the Oval Office meeting, which was limited to White House officials, were Obama, McDonough, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and her deputies Tony Blinken and Ben Rhodes and national security staff counsel Brian Egan and chief of staff Brian McKeon, and White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, according to a photograph released by the White House.
Only after Obama had made up his mind and huddled with his own aides did he call Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the officials said.
Yesterday, Obama summoned his national security team, hours before telling congressional leaders and the public of his decision. In the Situation Room, the president, vice president, McDonough, Rice, Dempsey, Nabors, Blinken, Rhodes, Egan, Hagel and Kerry and were joined by CIA Director John Brennan; Attorney General Eric Holder; Obama counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco; Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld; and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to another official photograph released by the White House.
The two officials said the president presented the move to seek authorization as having multiple benefits: bolstering the credibility of any U.S. action, giving Americans more information, making Congress more accountable, insulating him from political criticism and furthering a long-held goal of moving the U.S. off a permanent state of war after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A delay also allows Obama to use his visit to the G-20 summit next week in St. Petersburg, Russia, to build a broader political coalition of countries willing to support U.S. military action even if they aren’t contributing militarily. France has indicated it stands with the U.S.
Obama’s maneuver, though, relies on Congress to authorize the use of force and assumes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime won’t use a delay to launch another chemical weapons or other mass-casualty attack. Congress is unlikely to vote before the week of Sept. 9.
If either assumption turns out to be wrong, the president hasn’t ruled out ordering a strike on his own. Obama and aides made it clear he’s not ceding executive power and that they consider him to have the legal authority to proceed even if Congress says no.