For President Barack Obama's new foreign policy advisers, the first test of their willingness to undertake military action wound up being a stark lesson in the president's ability to overrule them all.
Obama's abrupt decision to seek congressional approval before striking Syria also overshadowed what had been a surprising level of consensus among the second-term team members about how to respond to a deadly chemical weapons attack against civilians in Syria.
People close to the deliberations say Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, national security adviser Susan Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power largely agreed about the need to use force to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad. While there were some differing views about the speed and the scope of an attack, there were no splintered factions the way there had been during first-term debates over taking action in Libya or launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The advisers, two of whom are former senators, were also willing to proceed without congressional authorization. But on Friday night, after a week spent speeding toward military action, the president made a stunning turnabout and decided he wanted approval from lawmakers before carrying out an attack.
“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,” Obama said as he announced the decision Saturday. “We should have this debate.”
The way the president arrived at his decision highlights what has been a source of criticism among Washington's foreign policy thinkers: a president who has centralized decision-making within the White House and at times marginalized the State Department and Pentagon.
As Obama grappled with putting military action to a vote in Congress, he didn't consult his foreign policy team. Instead, he sought out Denis McDonough, a longtime adviser who now serves as his chief of staff. And most of the administration's foreign policy leadership was absent from the Oval Office meeting Friday night when the president informed several advisers about his decision to seek congressional approval.
Rice, a member of the White House staff, was in the room. But Kerry and Hagel were only informed about the decision later that night during phone calls from the president.
“All power flows from and into the White House,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to Democratic and Republican administrations and current vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “He's relied, not surprisingly, on a very close circle of trusted advisers. He really is a controlling foreign policy president.”
When the national security team gathered Saturday morning to discuss the decision, administration officials say there was pushback from some advisers, though they refused to say who was leading that effort. And at least publicly, the team now appears to be following the orders of the commander in chief.
Kerry, the most recognizable face on Obama's team to most of the public, was dispatched to all five Sunday talk shows to defend the president's decision. Kerry and Hagel will also testify Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — a committee they each served on during their years in the Senate— as the administration tries to rally votes on Capitol Hill.
The officials and others close to the deliberations requested anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
As the White House appeared to be nearing imminent military action against Syria, Kerry was among those pressing for the most aggressive response. Even before being tapped to lead the State Department, the former Massachusetts senator had been pushing for stronger action against Syria. He has advocated sending more and better assistance to the opposition and has backed robust, though limited, military action to punish the regime and force Assad to change his calculation for continuing the conflict that has left more than 100,000 people dead.
“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings,” said Kerry, reflecting what aides said was his strong belief that action was a moral imperative.
Kerry made similar arguments during his turn on the Sunday talk shows, but emphasized that he supported the president's decision to seek congressional approval.
Hagel, the former Republican senator now running the Pentagon, spent most of the Syria debate weighing in from Asia, where he was on a nine-day trip. While he declared during the trip that the military was “ready to go” if Obama gave the orders to strike Syria, he also appeared to be focused on the risks of acting without international backing. And like others in the Pentagon, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, he seemed to be considering the unknowable next steps after a limited military strike, particularly if it roiled adversaries elsewhere in the Middle East.
Rice and Power kept the lowest profiles of the new foreign policy team during the Syria debate, both choosing to make their only public comments on Twitter. But their 140-character statements backed up their reputations as supporters of intervention for humanitarian purposes.
Rice, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations before moving to the White House earlier this year, wrote that those responsible for the chemical weapons attack “will be held accountable.” And Power, who now holds the U.N. post, wrote of the “haunting images of entire families dead in their beds” following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.
“Verdict is clear,” she wrote. “Assad has used CW's against civilians in violation of international norm.”