Ever private, Obama kept even close aides in dark about plan to go to Congress

President Barack Obama arrives at a news conference in the Rose Garden in Washington, DC.
President Barack Obama arrives at a news conference in the Rose Garden in Washington, DC.
Olivier Douliery / MCT

McClatchy Washington Bureau

For weeks he weighed what to do about Syria. The decision to strike came more quickly. Then, in a long walk around the White House grounds, he told a close aide of a second decision, to postpone the strikes and ask Congress for approval.

Throughout, President Barack Obama underwent the ordered ritual of his decision making. Deliberative, private, perhaps even isolated at times. He reached out to a few outside his inner circle about the decision to launch airstrikes against Syria’s government. And he didn’t even reach out to his inner circle until the last minute about the decision to go to Congress, a thought that not a single one of his closest advisers had even suggested.

No one close to him pushed him to seek congressional approval. Instead he had been mulling it for awhile “entirely in his own head,” one official said.

“We all know there are no easy options,” Obama told America when he finally announced his plans Saturday. “But I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions.”

Obama actually decided three days after the Aug. 21 chemical weapon attack in Syria that the U.S. needed to respond, but he didn’t know how or when, aides said on condition of anonymity to freely talk about the inner deliberations. He consulted with aides, military leaders and leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Canada and Australia.

There’s little evidence Obama reached out beyond his advisers or his peers abroad even as he kept to his schedule, from delivering a lofty speech to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington to strategizing with local mayors about how to keep his stalled gun control efforts alive.

Bishop Michael Kelsey, executive treasurer of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship in Washington, said he arrived at the White House Monday to talk about the march, thinking to himself that given Syria, it would be “perfectly understandable” if Obama cancelled.

“But he just waltzed right in and was very personable, very present in the room, not somewhere else mentally,” Kelsey said. “I expected a good 20 minutes, I’m sure we were in there at least an hour.”

Kansas City Mayor Sly James -- one of more than a dozen mayors who met with Obama Tuesday to talk about gun violence -- said it was "obvious" that Obama "had things on his mind," during their hour-long meeting, but said the president was engaged with the mayors.

One of the mayors may have raised Syria, James said, but only to express thanks: "We know there are a lot of issues overseas that are attracting a lot of attention, require a lot of your time, and that you have big and important decisions to make...we really appreciate the fact that here you sit with us."

He did not speak to any about whether to strike Syria, and did not ask if they thought he should consult the Congress.

On Friday he raised the idea for the first time with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough during a long walk on the grounds of the South Lawn of the White House. He then summoned aides to the Oval Office for a two-hour meeting to debate the plan. After they were convinced, he phoned Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry. All are former members of Congress themselves.

Some lawmakers complained that Obama didn’t consult with them, though he did speak personally with several, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

If Obama was secretive until the end about seeking approval from Congress, he was methodical about debating whether and how to strike Syria.

Ever mindful of the mistakes of President George W. Bush in the lead up to the war in Iraq a decade ago, Obama was criticized for taking too long to make up his mind on Syria. And now his unexpected plan puts off military action for at least 10 days, a full three weeks after Syrian President Bashar Assad purportedly used deadly nerve gas on more than 1,000 of his own people, including hundreds of children.

“The president still tends to think like a law professor mulling over a legal case with no time pressures involved,” said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Sometimes that leads to lost opportunities.”

But others say Obama spends the time he needs to consider every option in a volatile part of the world -- a task made more difficult by thousands of American deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Despite the soaring oratory of many of his speeches, analysts say, he’s a realist when it comes to foreign policy.

“People too quickly say he’s reflective,” said George A. Lopez, a former United Nations adviser and professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “It’s less reflection and more the complexity of the events.”

Obama was first elected in 2008, pledging to be a different leader than Bush who led the country into a lengthy and bloody war in Iraq with faulty intelligence. That promise to be the anti-Bush has morphed as Obama has adopted many his predecessor’s programs, such as vast government surveillance programs.

Yet Brian Katulis, a senior fellow specializing on national security policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which works with the White House on a variety of issues, said Obama is still “gun shy” because of Iraq. “A little more than 10 years from what was one of biggest mistakes the U.S. ever made...I think that’s part of it.”

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.comm lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01, @lesleyclark

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