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Obama Vs. The Hawks

Critics have branded him weak and feckless on foreign policy, but an inside look reveals how the president faced down the war machine

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
April 1, 2014 9:00 AM ET

In March, when Vladimir Putin announced to the world that he was helping himself to Crimea, the strategically important peninsula on the Black Sea that has been part of Ukraine for the past six decades, Washington, D.C., resounded with the all-too-familiar calls for confrontation. Sen. John McCain lamented America's inability to craft a military option for the Ukrainian crisis as "tragic" and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times attacking President Obama for making "America look weak." Other hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Ted Cruz claimed that Obama's "weakness" emboldened Putin. At a time when the American public is rightfully wary of foreign military entanglements, this "shoot first, ask questions later" approach to foreign policy has become familiar among the war-happy neocons who populate Washington's corridors of power. In that same op-ed, McCain went on to argue that Obama – who has already ended one war, in Iraq; is in the process of winding down another, in Afghanistan; and is proposing to slash the defense budget by billions – has failed as commander in chief. But it was the war Obama kept us out of that most bothered McCain. "Perhaps worst of all," he wrote, "Bashar al-Assad crossed President Obama's 'red line' by using chemical weapons in Syria, and nothing happened to him."

Don't Forget About the Syrian Refugee Crisis

That Obama did not unilaterally launch cruise missiles into Syria late last summer, after chemical weapons were deployed against civilians, was one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency. Since then, it has been routinely characterized as a sign of Obama's timidity and the scattershot decision-making process within his foreign-policy apparatus.

But the full story of how Obama seized upon diplomacy instead of war has been largely overlooked. Here, in exclusive interviews, Rolling Stone reveals how he rebuffed members of his own National Security Council to make a call that still has Washington grumbling; subtly negotiated with Putin to get what he wanted – the removal of Syrian chemical weapons – without dropping a single bomb; and avoided directly involving America in an open-ended military confrontation.

Since civil war broke out in Syria three years ago, Obama had kept the conflict at arm's length, declining to accept wholesale the advice of some of the most experienced members of his foreign-policy team. In 2012, CIA Director David Petraeus urged him to equip and train the rebels, a strategy strongly endorsed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wary of authorizing what could be construed as an overt act of war, Obama eventually approved only a limited, covert CIA rebel-training program. "There is a piece of this president who comes from the point of view that the Iraq War was a big mistake and 'I am not going to be the president who leads us into another one of those,'" says a former administration official. "He had deep reservations about where action in Syria could lead."

But on August 21st, 2013, the world woke up to news that, according to U.S. intelligence, 1,400 Syrians in two rebel-held Damascus suburbs had been killed by sarin nerve gas, and for the next 10 days it looked like the president, who had spoken repeatedly about getting America off "permanent war footing," would have his own war.

The Real Reasons for Vladimir Putin's Syria Op-Ed

A year before, Obama had called chemical weapons the "red line" for American involvement in the charnel house of the Syrian civil war. In foreign-policy circles, his act of going on record and staking such a rigid position had been seen as a huge mistake. "He boxed himself in," says one former Obama official. "I guarantee no adviser would ever advise the president to use a red line on anything."

With the gassing, Obama had effectively just been invited to bomb Syria and drag America into another intractable sectarian conflict in the Middle East. On August 24th, Obama called his national-security advisers to discuss the range of responses. American intelligence believed that the rockets had been fired from regime-held positions. The president's mood was somber. No matter how reluctant the American public was to get involved in another war, the consensus in the room was that the United States had to intervene. "It was pretty evident to everybody in that meeting that something significant had happened, and the president actually said, 'This is the scenario we had been worried about, the nightmare scenario of mass-casualty attack,'" says Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, adding, "The discussion turned immediately to what do we do about it."

Interventionists like National Security Adviser Susan Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power had been eager for action on humanitarian grounds, and the administration felt pressure to back up the red-line stance or lose credibility. "In part, the reason why they were focusing on doing something on Syria is that they felt people were pushing them," says another former White House adviser. "McCain, Lindsey Graham – it is unbelievable how influential Senator Graham was in the president's thinking. They desperately wanted Lindsey on their side. It's a fact that those two – and you have to include Joe Lieberman and Senator Kelly Ayotte – have had enormous influence on the way the White House thinks. But why? They have influence far beyond the reality of their power."

As the Cabinet and staff filed out, the question seemed not whether to act but when. "We decided that John Kerry would go out and try to shake the international community out of complacency," says Rhodes. The other worry was that after Bush's discredited attempt to prove to the world that Saddam Hussein had harbored chemical and biological weapons, no foreign leader would believe another American president making a similar claim. "Clearly, there was an Iraq dynamic," says Rhodes. "But we were going to call on the world to confront the use of chemical weapons."

Over the course of the next week, the White House gave the appearance that an attack was imminent. The president reviewed military options, considering limited cruise-missile strikes intended to punish but not remove the Syrian regime. Kerry called the gassing "a moral obscenity." Vice President Joe Biden announced there was "no doubt" Assad was behind the attacks, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated that "we are ready to go." Obama ordered the Pentagon to move a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean within firing range of Syria.

"He was deeply ambivalent and really not wanting to get involved," says one former White House official. "He is a conflicted man, and he gave great voice to that. But he has elevated to high positions people who take the opposite view. He was deciding about something where someone can lose their life, in a part of the world that pulls in actors with dogs in the fight. Syria has every hot button you could press."

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