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."
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