Obama’s Syria strategy: Deft improvisation or impulsive risk-taking?
WASHINGTON — In the last two weeks, President Obama has brought the United States to the brink of another military operation, then backed off unexpectedly. He went abroad and tried to rally international partners to join his cause, but returned empty-handed. He launched one of the biggest public relations and lobbying campaigns of his presidency, then aborted the mission. He called the nation to its televisions to make the case for using force, but made the case for more diplomacy.
The White House’s stop-and-start response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria three weeks ago could at best be described as deftly improvisational and at worst as impulsive and risky.
By either analysis, it has been the handiwork of a foreign policy team that, just months into its term, has presided over shifts in strategy, changing messages and a striking countermand from the president.
“This has been a roller coaster. And there have been enough sudden turns where you weren’t sure if the car was still attached to the rails,” said Philip J. Crowley, former State Department spokesman and now a fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.
The ride reflects the difficult standoff with Syria over chemical weapons, a crisis with a cast of unpredictable and hostile foreign leaders and few good options. The shifting picture has left the Obama team to call “audibles,” Crowley said. “I do think that there’s a more coherent strategy than the public articulation of that strategy.”
The president and his advisors faced harsh criticism this week as they lurched from one decision to another. Many outsiders viewed the president’s last-minute move to seek congressional authorization for military strikes in Syria as naive and dicey, given his toxic relationships with many in Congress. His subsequent outreach to Capitol Hill was blasted by lawmakers as insufficient. He faced a near-certain defeat in the House.
His quick embrace of a surprise diplomatic overture from the Russians only demonstrated his desperation, some lawmakers and political observers charged. “I think it’s about a president that’s really uncomfortable being commander in chief,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), explaining the administration’s “muddle-ness.”
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the president and his team, saying that, herky-jerky or not, they had reached a desired outcome. “And so this approach that has engendered these analyses and criticism and stuff has led to what today? The complete about-face by the Syrian regime, an acknowledgment for the first time in its existence that they hold chemical weapons,” Carney said.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were heading to Geneva for talks Thursday about Syria’s chemical weapons.
The pattern on display may be the result of presidential indecision, his advisors’ counsel or the complexity of the situation in Syria. The White House has been reluctant to discuss internal deliberations and, to the degree that they have, officials have placed the responsibility — and the credit — for the approach on the president.
On at least one key decision, Obama appeared to rely on his own views and overrule his advisors. Even as his National Security Council readied for missile strikes two weeks ago, the president was quietly unsettled about the decision, senior administration officials said. The White House also misjudged the willingness of other nations to commit to supporting missile strikes. And Obama was uncomfortable with launching the action without a more public debate or United Nations mandate.
The president expressed his concern in a walk on the White House grounds with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, a longtime aide, and decided to ask for congressional approval. He announced the news to national security advisor Susan Rice and other top aides in the Oval Office afterward, one official said. A debate followed, but the president’s mind was made up.
To some, the one-on-one walk with a confidant is characteristic of Obama’s decision-making.
“There’s a White House team within the team,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official and now director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There used to be complaints that decisions in the Obama White House happened at 11 p.m. and involved four people. That pattern is increasing rather than diminishing.”
One person not in the discussion over congressional approval was Kerry. Although he had been the public face of the case for strikes, making an impassioned speech earlier in the week, the president called his former Senate colleague only after the Oval Office discussion, said officials, who asked not to be identified talking about internal discussions.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry had played an active role in the national security apparatus during Obama’s first term. Still, he has not appeared to be in sync with the White House and its planning. Early last week, Kerry inadvertently committed Obama to a White House address on Syria before the White House had decided on it. Then Kerry made his unscripted remark Monday that Syria could avoid a strike by turning over its chemical weapons. That reset the chessboard before Obama’s remarks Tuesday, muddying the message that the president had intended to deliver to the American people.
“There are coordination and message issues that I don’t expect in the fifth year,” Alterman said. “Whether it’s the combination of personnel or fatigue, I don’t know.”
The lack of coordination, however, may have turned out to be fortuitous for the White House. Kerry’s offhand remark was quickly followed by the Russian offer that, for now, has de-escalated the crisis.
Although Lavrov said the offer was an answer to Kerry’s comment, the White House now says it was the result of weeks of diplomatic discussion.
The president has said he discussed the idea with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week during a brief sit-down in St. Petersburg.
When he left Russia, he believed the option was dead because the Russians had quit talking about it seriously and Putin wasn’t talking about acting before any military action, a senior administration official said.
“We didn’t expect the Russians to come to the table but they did,” the official said. “That’s a positive development.”
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.
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