WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was ready to order a military strike against Syria, with or without Congress’ blessing. But on Friday night, he suddenly changed his mind.
The ensuing flurry of activity culminated Saturday afternoon in the White House Rose Garden when Obama stood under a sweltering sun, his vice president at his side, and told the American public the U.S. should launch a military strike to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for a chemical weapons attack the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people last week.
But first, he said, he’ll ask permission from Congress.
By the time Obama’s National Security Council met a week ago Saturday, a few days after the attack, it was clear the intelligence the U.S. had gathered corroborated the notion that a chemical attack had resulted in dramatic mass casualties, officials said. All the officials in this report demanded anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the president’s decision-making by name.
As the meeting opened, Obama told his advisers the attack outside Damascus was precisely the type of scenario he had been concerned about last year, when he said Assad’s large-scale use of chemical weapons would cross a red line for the U.S. and necessitate a response. Obama hadn’t made a final decision, officials said, but he told aides his strong inclination was the U.S. must act.
By the end of the meeting, aides were no longer discussing whether to respond, but how and when.
Over the course of the next week, Obama’s aides began making their case publicly, asking allies to support a military action and talking with lawmakers, who were away from Washington in the final throes of their August congressional recess.
Secretary of State John Kerry cut short his own vacation and was dispatched to say the U.S. had clear evidence of an attack in two impassioned State Department speeches.
“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,” Kerry said Monday in the first address. “By any standard, it is inexcusable.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, traveling in Asia, said the U.S. had moved military assets into place. “We are ready to go,” Hagel said. The Navy beefed up its presence in the Persian Gulf region, increasing the number of aircraft carriers from one to two.
Away from Washington, the U.S. was running into obstacles in its search for a global coalition to bolster its case that a response was needed to protect at international norm against chemical weapons use.
Its own inspectors on the ground in Syria, the U.N. Security Council failed to reach agreement on Wednesday on authorizing the use of force, with Russia objecting to international intervention. Meanwhile, Obama declared publicly and unequivocally that the U.S. had concluded Assad’s government carried out the attack.
Thursday brought another stinging setback when a vote in Britain’s Parliament to endorse military action failed, all but guaranteeing Britain wouldn’t play a direct role. But France’s leader said he and Obama were in agreement and that France could go ahead with a strike.
In Washington, members of Congress from both parties were insisting Obama consult more closely with Congress before giving an order to begin hostilities. Dozens of lawmakers, most of them Republican, signed a letter saying Obama should not take military action without congressional approval, although administration officials insisted no congressional leaders or committee chairs made that request personally to the White House.
Obama’s national security team was in agreement that while consulting with Congress was critical, there was no need for formal approval, officials said. Seeking a vote in Congress to authorize a strike wasn’t even an option on the table.
All that changed Friday night, when Obama left the West Wing with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Under cloudy skies and temperatures nearing 90 degrees, the two walked on the White House grounds for the better part of an hour, and Obama confided in his adviser that he had changed his mind. He laid out an idea to ask Congress to approve a strike.
By 7 p.m., top aides including deputy national security advisers Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken had been summoned to the Oval Office, where Obama shared the new plan. It was the right thing to do, the president said, and would make the U.S. stronger.
Aides went to work immediately, with some drafting an authorization that Congress could take up and others hashing out the timeline.
But the next morning, there was pushback from some on the president’s team. The National Security Council convened Saturday to firm up the plan, with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, national security adviser Susan Rice and others in attendance.
When Obama said he wanted to ask Congress for a vote, some of his advisers dissented. Officials wouldn’t say which participants argued against Obama’s proposal.
After a two-hour debate, Obama’s team agreed to support Obama’s decision, officials said. So Obama went upstairs and called the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to inform them of his about-face. He also notified French President Francois Hollande.
By mid-afternoon, Obama emerged in a steamy White House Rose Garden, surprising lawmakers, reporters and the public with news of his plan.
“I’m ready to act in the face of this outrage,” Obama said. “Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.”
Then Obama and Biden left the White House by motorcade to play a round of golf.