When President Barack Obama decided he wanted congressional approval to strike Syria, he received swift—and negative—responses from his staff. National Security Adviser Susan Rice warned he risked undermining his powers as commander in chief. Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer pegged the chances of Congress balking at 40%. His defense secretary also raised concerns.
Mr. Obama took the gamble anyway and set aside the impending strikes to try to build domestic and international support for such action.
He found little of either. Congress’s top leaders weren’t informed of the switch until just an hour or so before Mr. Obama’s Rose Garden announcement and weren’t asked whether lawmakers would support it. When the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, announced the decision on a conference call with congressional committee leaders, some were so taken aback they seemed at first to misunderstand it.
Outside the U.S., Arab leaders privately urged the U.S. to bomb, but few backed Mr. Obama publicly. The United Kingdom pulled the plug on a joint operation two days after indicating to the White House it had the votes to proceed. Compounding the confusion, the same day a potential breakthrough emerged via a diplomatic opening provided by Russia, the administration sent a memo to lawmakers highlighting why Russia shouldn’t be trusted on Syria.
This account of an extraordinary 24 days in international diplomacy, capped by a deal this past weekend to dismantle Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, is based on more than two dozen interviews with senior White House, State Department, Pentagon and congressional officials and many of their counterparts in Europe and the Middle East. The events shed light on what could prove a pivotal moment for America’s role in the world.
Through mixed messages, miscalculations and an 11th-hour break, the U.S. stumbled into an international crisis and then stumbled out of it. A president who made a goal of reducing the U.S.’s role as global cop lurched from the brink of launching strikes to seeking congressional approval to embracing a deal with his biggest international adversary on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Obama saw the unintended outcome as better than the alternative: limited strikes that risked pulling the U.S. into a new conflict. It forestalled what could have been a crippling congressional defeat and put the onus on Russia to take responsibility for seeing the deal through. U.S. officials say the deal could diminish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical stockpile more effectively than a strike, though it leaves Mr. Assad and his conventional arsenal in place.
“I’m not interested in style points,” Mr. Obama told his senior staff in a closed-door meeting Friday, according to a participant. “I’m interested in results.”
Not everyone is pleased. Mr. Obama infuriated allies who lined up against Mr. Assad and his regional backers Iran and Hezbollah. French officials, who were more aggressive than the U.S. in urging a strike, feel they have been left out on a limb. And Russia has been reestablished as a significant player on the world stage, potentially at the expense of the U.S.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) joined a chorus of Republican lawmakers critiquing the deal, calling it a “Russian plan for Russian interests” that leaves Mr. Assad in power. “Putin is playing chess, and we’re playing tick-tack-toe,” he told CNN.
Mr. Obama was first briefed on the chemical-weapons attack on the morning of Aug. 21. As intelligence agencies began tallying the dead and reviewing intercepted communications that they say made clear Mr. Assad’s forces were to blame, White House officials knew the incident was a game changer. Later, the U.S. would say the attack killed more than 1,400.
Key U.S. allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, started applying pressure. Saudi Arabia’s influential ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, and other diplomats raced back to Washington from their August vacations to advocate strikes, according to officials and diplomats.
Mr. Obama initially appeared to be receptive to arguments for acting forcefully. Meeting on Aug. 24 with his national security advisers, he made clear he leaned toward striking.
“When I raised the issue of chemical weapons last summer, this is what I was talking about,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his “red line” declaration in August 2012. The Navy positioned five destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, each armed with about 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) was in a car en route to a GOP fundraiser in Jackson Hole, Wyo., when he received his first high-level White House contact. His staff had earlier put up a blog post chiding the White House for not consulting Congress. A few hours later, White House Chief of Staff McDonough called to explain the options. No mention was made of asking Congress to vote.
The next day, Mr. Obama spoke to British Prime Minister David Cameron. Both leaders made clear they were ready to strike and agreed on an approach designed to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons again, not bring down the regime. “They were ready to go,” said an official briefed on the call.
Mr. Cameron rushed politicians back from vacations. While parliamentary approval wasn’t legally required, he was conscious of the damage invading Iraq had done to one of his predecessors, Tony Blair. The U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and British forces already had hammered out details of a “combined contingency operation,” a senior U.S. official said.
Late in the day before the parliamentary vote, Mr. Cameron was forced to change tack. Under pressure from politicians, he split the process in two: an initial vote on the principal of intervention, then a second on whether the U.K. should become directly involved.
At that point, Mr. Obama’s advisers concluded the U.K. would end up bowing out.
On the night of Wednesday, Aug. 28, Mr. Obama called House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to talk through the options. Ms. Pelosi later told colleagues she didn’t ask Mr. Obama to put the question to a vote in Congress.
On Thursday, Aug. 29, the U.K. Parliament shot down Mr. Cameron, a major embarrassment to the British leader that raised pressure on the U.S. to seek other support. Opposition came from not only Labour but from Mr. Cameron’s own Conservative Party. Mr. Cameron threw in the towel, saying the British Parliament had spoken and the government would “act accordingly.”
The vote shocked Mr. Putin, who later told Russian state TV he thought legislatures in the West voted in lock-step, “just like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” Moscow’s alarm and frustration was growing as the move toward military action advanced, bypassing the U.N. Security Council where Moscow had veto power.
The U.K. parliamentary vote happened as National Security Adviser Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were beginning a conference call with congressional leaders. During the call, Mr. Hagel, who was traveling in Asia, raised the question of U.S. credibility. He said South Korea was concerned U.S. inaction would make North Korea think it could get away with using chemical and biological weapons.
On Friday, Aug. 30, signs of congressional unease were mounting. Some 186 Democrats and Republicans signed letters asking the president to seek congressional authorization.
That day, Mr. Kerry made an impassioned speech defending the president’s decision to consult with Congress as the right way to approach “a decision of when and how and if to use military force.”
Five Navy destroyers were in the eastern Mediterranean, four poised to launch scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria, according to military officials. Officers said they expected launch orders from the president at between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday. To make sure they were ready to answer reporters’ questions, Pentagon officials conducted a mock news conference.
Around 5 p.m., Mr. Obama went on a 45-minute walk with Chief of Staff McDonough. Mr. Obama summoned his top advisers to meet in the Oval Office at around 7 p.m.
“I have a big idea I want to run by you guys,” Mr. Obama started. He asked for opinions on seeking congressional authorization. Everyone was surprised, except Mr. McDonough, a consistent voice of caution on getting entangled in Syria.
Ms. Rice expressed reservations. From a national-security perspective, she said, it was important the president maintain his authority to take action, according to a senior administration official. Mr. Pfeiffer, the senior adviser, gave his assessment of the political odds and the consequences of failure.
Mr. Obama called Mr. Hagel, who, like Ms. Rice, raised concerns. He thought “the administration’s actions and words need to avoid the perception of swinging from vine to vine,” according to a senior administration official.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, sent a draft of an announcement to the president at 1 a.m. Saturday, and it was reworked until shortly before being popped into the teleprompter. Mr. Obama also worked the phones to notify congressional leaders—but not to seek their advice.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) was preparing a turkey sandwich in his Louisville, Ky., home when he took the call. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was called in Nevada. Mrs. Pelosi was in San Francisco.
Mr. Boehner was in a hotel in Steamboat Springs, Colo., when the president called. According to an aide, they discussed the logistics of a House vote. Mr. Boehner told Mr. Obama it would be hard to call lawmakers back to Washington quickly, and that he would need time to sell it.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) was on a treadmill in a Los Angeles gym and watched the news on Fox television. When a friend asked what was going on, Mr. Waxman replied, “He’s going to Congress, and I’m sweating.”
Mr. Obama also alerted French President François Hollande, who had been waiting for Washington to launch strikes. Mr. Obama now told his French counterpart he needed to build support in Washington, from Congress, according to a senior French official.
It swiftly became clear the White House faced a fight. On Sunday, Sept. 1, members of both parties were questioning the White House proposal.
That day, the administration convened its first of several classified briefings for lawmakers. Dozens of House members and senators showed up in the middle of a congressional recess and on Labor Day weekend.
That night, the president called one of his closest friends in Congress, Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) at home in Springfield, Ill., and talked to him for more than a half-hour. Like many liberal Democrats, Mr. Durbin was torn. The situation had echoes of the war in Iraq, which he had opposed. He hung up still unsure what he would do. (He ended up approving the strikes in a Senate committee vote.)
In an effort to sway House Democrats, the administration held a conference call briefing the House Democratic Caucus. One Democrat on the call was openly critical: Rep. Rick Nolan, a freshman from Minnesota who said an isolated strike could escalate.
“Have we forgotten about the lessons of Southeast Asia and a president who said we need to have our boys fight there,” Mr. Nolan said, according to an official familiar with the exchange.
Mr. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, shot back: “No, I haven’t forgotten that. I know it pretty well. And I fought against that war. That’s not what anyone’s talking about.”
After the briefing, Mr. Nolan said he was more convinced that military strikes were a bad idea.
After a Sept. 3 meeting Mr. Boehner, Ms. Pelosi and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) gave strong statements of support for the administration’s resolution. But both Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Boehner said they weren’t going to “whip” the vote—Congress-speak for making the vote a test of party loyalty.
Mr. Obama hoped to use the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg to shape international consensus for a military assault. He left the conference with half the members unconvinced.
While Saudi Arabia and Turkey voiced support for the U.S. position, other Arab allies were silent, reinforcing Mr. Obama’s worries about going it alone. Diplomats from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates told lawmakers they would like to help win votes in the House. But they made clear that they weren’t prepared to endorse the idea publicly because they feared for their security if the U.S. strikes sparked a backlash or reprisals.
By the time Mr. Obama got back to Washington, his aides thought the resolution could make it through the Senate, but felt the House was lost.
The way out of the impasse came by accident during a news conference in London on Sept. 9. Secretary of State Kerry, in response to a question, ad libbed that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical weapons.
Minutes later, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called him. “I’d like to talk to you about your initiative,” Mr. Lavrov said from Moscow, where he was hosting a delegation of Syrian diplomats.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the American diplomat jokingly replied.
Even though both sides had previously discussed such an idea, State Department and White House officials were skeptical. How would inspectors do their work in the middle of a civil war? Also, working with the Russians seemed implausible. The same day Mr. Kerry made his fateful remark, the State Department sent Congress a memo detailing: “Russian Obstruction of Actions on Syria.”
Things changed quickly once the White House realized Mr. Kerry’s inadvertent remark may have provided a way around the political impasse.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a supporter of the Syrian strikes, was lunching in the Senate Dining Room with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., who persuaded her the Russians were sincere. Other lawmakers also saw hope for a new diplomatic initiative—and for avoiding a vote they were dreading.
While prepping for a series of TV interviews, Mr. Obama told his senior aides of the proposal and said, “Let’s embrace this and test it.”
U.S. and French diplomats said there was an early push by the allies to seek a binding U.N. Security Council resolution that could authorize the use of force if Syria didn’t meet its obligations. French diplomats drafted a resolution with muscular language.
Russia rejected the language outright and U.S. diplomats worked behind the scenes to pull France into line with a compromise that Moscow could accept.
Hours after Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov’s London phone call, the American and Russian bureaucracies mobilized, say U.S. and Russia officials involved in the process.
Mr. Obama’s speech to the nation on Sept. 10, initially intended to sell lawmakers on supporting strikes, instead called for postponing action in Congress to explore the Russian proposal.
It infuriated Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), one of the few vocal GOP supporters of the Syria strikes, for not making the case about the risk to U.S. credibility. He snapped at Mr. McDonough in an email: “You guys are really hard to help, OK?”
On Sept. 11, Mr. Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he believed Russia wasn’t bluffing and that a deal was possible, according to American and Middle Eastern officials briefed on the exchange. Israel shared U.S. concerns that strikes could strengthen rebels linked with al Qaeda and allow them to seize Mr. Assad’s weapons.
Rebel leaders based in Turkey and Jordan were angry about the unfolding diplomacy, but were told by U.S. and European diplomats not to publicly reject the plan. But several spoke out. “To hell with America,” said Brig. Gen. Adnan Selou, a Syrian defector who used to head a chemical-warfare program in Syria and now is based in Turkey. “We don’t recognize this plan.”
Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov arrived in Geneva Thursday afternoon without even a broad outline of a plan. Both sides agreed on the extent of Mr. Assad’s stockpiles and began discussing next steps.
Mr. Lavrov and his deputy surprised the Americans by sticking to their position that Syrian rebel forces, rather than Mr. Assad, were behind the chemical-weapons attack, and spinning conspiracies about how Saudi Arabia and other Arab states played a role in overseeing it.
In a blow to the French, Messrs. Lavrov and Kerry hashed out a framework agreement omitting any mention of who was to blame for the chemical attacks. The agreement also made military intervention an increasingly remote possibility.
Mr. Putin celebrated with an op-ed in the New York Times, lecturing Americans on the failings of their government’s policies.
A senior administration official said Mr. Obama felt—even more so after Mr. Putin’s op-ed—that “if Putin wants to put his credibility on the line in supporting this proposal,” then the White House would make sure he owns it.
Having given up on prospects of a U.N. Security Council resolution that threatened force for noncompliance, the U.S. told the Russians it reserved the right to take military action if Mr. Assad doesn’t meet the agreement’s terms.
On Sunday, Mr. Assad’s warplanes again bombed the Damascus suburbs after a short-lived lull in air attacks after Aug. 21.
—Jay Solomon, Cassell Bryan-Low, Gregory L. White, Nour Malas, Sam Dagher, Charles Levinson and Stacy Meichtry contributed to this article.
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A version of this article appeared September 15, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Inside White House, a Head-Spinning Reversal on Chemical Weapons.