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
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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."

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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.

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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."

Meanwhile, White House staffers fanned out to Capitol Hill to line up support for impending action. Only one member of the president's team seemed hesitant, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who had long highlighted the costs and risks of intervention. "He was the lone person at the briefings who was not overly enthusiastic," said one Obama official who was present at many of the meetings.

Previous presidents have justified military action without congressional approval by getting international backing, and Obama and Kerry began working the phone, reaching out to his counterparts in Europe and the Middle East to shore up support. But while many leaders condemned the attacks, hopes of building an early coalition were dashed when British lawmakers abruptly voted against Prime Minister David Cameron's commitment to military action, distancing the U.S. from its closest ally. While French President François Hollande remained eager, German leader Angela Merkel voiced a broader European view in favor of deferring action pending results from U.N. investigators. Some members of the Arab League urged a military response, but not openly. "They didn't want to support us publicly, they just wanted us to do their bidding," says one administration official.

Though the president spent that week signaling imminent action, his remarks on the subject were careful. At a meeting with visiting heads of Baltic nations Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on August 28th, a week after the sarin attacks, Obama told reporters he was "war-weary" but determined to make the Syrian government answer for its use of chemical weapons. He said he hadn't made a final decision. But he appeared to be leaning toward an attack, with sources telling reporters the U.S. would fire cruise missiles at Syrian command targets within days. "Originally, they were talking about using a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel," says retired Brig. Gen. John Johns, a former professor at National Defense University, who had ties to Obama defense officials. "But if you start that unilaterally, you are going down the primrose path again, like Iraq."

The evening of Friday, August 30th, as war preparations dominated the news channels, the president took a walk on the South Lawn with Denis McDonough, his 44-year-old chief of staff, and discussed asking for congressional authorization. Theoretically, the Constitution requires the president to ask for legislative approval before committing to any kind of military action. But in reality, presidents don't ask and Congress has mostly acquiesced when it comes to matters of authorizing what are intended to be limited actions. "Congress is supposed to authorize force, but they are often deadbeats and say nothing and then either attack or defend the president," says Don Wallace, a Georgetown law professor and chairman of the International Law Institute, who was among a group of constitutional scholars who signed a letter urging the president to get congressional approval for Syria.

McDonough, the first aide Obama sees in the morning and the last one he sees at the end of the day, is a brush-cut, intensely disciplined man who has been called "an enforcer of the presidential will." Fellow staffers regard him as "an enigma," says one former White House official. Appointed chief of staff in January 2013, he built his career in foreign policy and had served on the White House National Security Council in the first term. He was in the Situation Room when the Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden. "Denis plays a strong role," says the former White House official. "I can't say Denis would be supportive of a strike. But Denis is more about gaming out how to protect the president's image and legacy."

The two men returned, and at around seven they summoned a team of close advisers, including Rice, Rhodes and NSC Chief of Staff Brian McKeon, all of them assuming the president would be giving the go-ahead to attack Assad. "I have an idea that I want to run by you," the president began, according to Rhodes. "In the future, we are going to have to make a lot of decisions about when to use military force in this part of the world." Obama then spoke of a questionnaire The Boston Globe had sent to presidential hopefuls in 2007, asking in what circumstances the candidates supported attacking Iran without seeking congressional authorization. "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation," candidate Obama had replied.

"I still agree with that guy," he told his staff. "I feel that acting without authorization and less international legitimacy will be more controversial and less effective."

Georgetown professor Wallace, like other constitutional law experts, believes the president did the right thing for the wrong reasons, seeking political cover and trying to buy time rather than follow the letter of the law. "He did it because the British voted against force," says Wallace. "But I think he scared the Russians into believing we would use force. It's ironic that he got blasted for doing the constitutionally correct thing."

Rhodes, who was in the room for that meeting, says Obama spoke confidently and marshaled both legal and political reasons for his decision. "I would not say he spoke just as a lawyer," says Rhodes. "Only someone who had been president for several years could have been making the argument he was making. He cited previous decisions of his own. He cited the sense of the country and how public opinion needed to be better reflected in his decision-making and how he wanted to leave things for whoever comes next. I think he would have been far less likely to come to that decision in the first year of his presidency."

The next morning, a Saturday, Obama convened a contentious meeting with his top-level national-security advisers, including Kerry and Hagel. Everyone in the room, who had been on board with a strike with varying degrees of enthusiasm, now faced shelving the plan they had presented so vigorously. Rice worried he would appear to be compromising his control as commander in chief. Some thought it unlikely Congress would approve a strike, while Biden was optimistic. But White House legislative briefers had been hearing all week from "a groundswell of people on the Hill saying, 'It's not that we don't care about the gas, but that we haven't weighed all the adverse consequences,'" says a former staffer. "Most people in congressional affairs knew it was crazy that he was asking for authorization – because he wouldn't get it."

That afternoon, the president went on television to explain his decision. "This menace must be confronted," he said, denouncing Assad and making it sound like he was getting ready to unleash cruise missiles. But then he steered away from what had, until that hour, seemed to be the inevitable course of events: "While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective."

He did not say when the vote would be held, because he couldn't. That would be up to Congress. To D.C.'s foreign-policy establishment, Obama had just delivered one of the greatest disappointments in recent years. Foreign Policy's David Rothkopf says it was "arguably the moment of greatest foreign-policy dysfunction in the United States since the decision to go into Iraq."

While the pundits ruminated and those who wanted regime change in Syria mourned a missed opportunity, Obama had another card to play. Behind the scenes, a long-tended diplomatic seed was about to bear fruit. On September 5th, Obama traveled to St. Petersburg for the G-20 Summit to marshal support for action in Syria and to sit down with Putin. Most of the mainstream media portrayed the meeting as a "showdown" between Obama and Putin, one that Obama lost. But White House staff say that when the two leaders huddled for half an hour in a much-watched tête-à-tête in a corner of the meeting room, they agreed in principle to start relieving Assad of his chemical weapons, peacefully.

That discussion did not come out of nowhere. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Obama officials had been "in deep engagement" with the Russians about them "playing a greater role" in ending the conflict in Syria, according to White House sources. The Russians make no secret of having armed Assad with conventional weapons. They are less open about the fact that they supplied Syria with the means to make chemical weapons in the 1980s.

On September 9th, Kerry stunned reporters in London when he appeared to accidentally give Assad a way out. "Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting," Kerry said, adding, "but it can't be done." The media seized on the comment as an off-message ad-lib. But behind-the-scenes discussions had been taking place for some time. What had changed was that the Russians were taking it seriously with the U.S. now on the brink of bombing Syria.

That afternoon, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed the idea further by phone, as Kerry was on a plane back to Washington. "There was more openness than we had expected," says a senior administration official, and by the time Kerry landed, consideration of the option had advanced to a more serious stage.

Days later, the U.S. team was headed to Geneva, with a plan that American experts had worked on feverishly for a few days. "We got there and the Russians were pretty much unprepared," the official recalls. "We took out the plan and went off that, and there was agreement."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasizes that the episode crystallized the administration's preference that diplomacy always be the first option. "Our view is that the Russians weren't trying to do us a favor by working with us on the chemical weapons," she says. "They have an interest in preventing chemical weapons in the region. They have an interest in Iran not developing nuclear weapons. It's not a favor to us." Psaki says that despite upheaval in Crimea, the U.S. and Russia will continue to work together on those broad shared interests in Syria.

By the end of September, the U.N. adopted an international chemical-weapons-disposal agreement, ending the need for a military strike or congressional authorization for one. In the end, Putin got the credit, but different actors, including the U.S. and the EU, had proposed some version of the same idea for a while, says Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's like the baby that has one mother and many claim paternity," she says. "Putin got to the paternity claim first, but lots of people had been putting that idea through channels."

Kerry dismisses any criticism that the administration has been soft in its handling of Assad or Putin. "People are entitled to their own opinions, not their own facts, and the bottom line is pretty simple," Kerry tells Rolling Stone. "We made it crystal clear Assad was going to be held accountable for using chemical weapons. Because President Obama threatened force, diplomacy had a chance to work, and we worked it. And what no one with any grasp of the facts can deny is that a diplomatic agreement to get those weapons out of Syria is the only way to guarantee those weapons can't be used again. So make no mistake, diplomacy backed by a threat of force is achieving something the use of force by definition couldn't do. Military strikes couldn't get the weapons out of Syria, period. Effective diplomacy is doing that today, and we need continued diplomacy to finish the job."

Seven months since that hot August afternoon, the Syrians, after fits and starts, have handed off over 500 metric tons of deadly chemicals, nearly 46 percent of their stock, and the deadline for the rest to be destroyed comes at the end of April. Which looks like a better outcome than a prolonged bombing campaign, but conventional Beltway wisdom is that Obama fumbled in August, angered the Saudis and Israelis, and "damaged American credibility," as The Wall Street Journal put it.

On the Senate floor in February, McCain stood before photographs of dead Syrian children, predicting a future president would have to "apologize" for Obama's inaction. "What haunts me even more than the horror unfolding before our eyes in Syria is the thought that we will continue to do nothing about it," McCain said.

Worst of all, by Washington insider standards, Obama theoretically diminished his own power by asking for congressional authorization. In D.C., it's an axiom that you never willingly give away any kind of power, especially executive power, and especially when it comes to military strikes.

But many of those who shared the president's reticence were the very men and women who would have been in charge of putting themselves and their people on the line: the military. In a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee two days before the chemical attack, Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey expressed grave concern over establishing a no-fly zone, warning that any military action could spiral out of control and lead to American boots on the ground. "There's a broad naiveté in the political class in foreign-policy issues," retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold complained to The Washington Post regarding a potential strike on Syria. Beltway thinking, he said, reflects a "scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve."

Syria's chemical weapons were being steadily offloaded when the Ukrainian crisis blew up in February, and all eyes turned to Putin's audacity. Now, hawks grumbled that if only Obama had backed his red line with some bombs, Putin might have hesitated at the Crimean border. But the president believes he achieved the objective of the "red line," Rhodes says, and doesn't regret using the term. "He actually said the opposite. To this day he would say, 'Look, chemical weapons are a distinct issue, and they are getting rid of them, and I have no regrets.'

"One of the worst arguments I've seen in recent days is that if we bombed Syria, through a bank shot you keep Putin from going to Crimea," Rhodes says. "That's not a reason to go to war. You don't go to war in Syria to send a message to Russia not to invade Crimea. Bush invaded Iraq and didn't keep Russia from going into Georgia."

The fact is, many who want America to attack Syria don't want to stop at removing chemical weapons – they want the U.S. to effect total regime change. "That's why you see this narrative about the U.S. disengaging from the world," says Rhodes. "That comes from a point of view that the only way to show you are engaged in the world is by using military force."

The carnage in Syria goes on, but the ongoing removal of Assad's stockpiles of chemical weapons is a quiet accomplishment without a single dead American soldier. Those who call it luck or accident, or who were disappointed at how the president defended his red line, might have predicted it by considering his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. "The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace," he said in Oslo in 2009. "And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. . . . War itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such."

This story is from the April 10th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1206: April 10, 2014