The iconic picture from the meeting shows a “stunned” (his word) Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Secretary of State John Kerry appearing to calculate the foreign policy damage and a Vice President Joe Biden in pure political disbelief.
It was Aug. 30, 2013 and the U.S. military was poised for war. Obama had publicly warned Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad that his regime would face consequences if it crossed a “red line” by employing chemical weapons against its own people. Assad did it anyway, and Hagel had spent the day approving final plans for a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Damascus. U.S. naval destroyers were in the Mediterranean, awaiting orders to fire.
Instead, Obama told a stunned Hagel to stand down. Assad’s Aug. 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb had killed hundreds of civilians, but the president said the United States wasn’t going to take any military action against the Syrian government. The president had decided to ignore his own red line – a decision, Hagel believes, that dealt a severe blow to the credibility of both Obama and the United States.
“Whether it was the right decision or not, history will determine that,” Hagel told Foreign Policy in a two-hour interview, his first extensive comments since he was forced out of this position in February. “There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred.”
In the days and months afterward, Hagel’s counterparts around the world told him their confidence in Washington had been shaken over Obama’s sudden about-face. And the former defense secretary said he still hears complaints to this day from foreign leaders.
“A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal,” he said. (Foreign Policy Magazine, Dec. 18, 2015)In a New Yorker article, a sympathetic David Remnick described the Syrian decision Kerry’s “most humbling experience” and the “red line aftermath to be a diplomatic fiasco.”
From the beginning of the civilian uprisings in Syria, in 2011, and the regime’s escalating and bloody reaction, many of Obama’s advisers have argued for a more aggressive policy: arming and funding the “moderate rebels”; air strikes on Damascus; taking out Assad’s helicopters and planes, which drop barrel bombs packed with shrapnel, explosives, and, sometimes, chlorine; the establishment of safe zones and a no-fly zone. In 2012, the C.I.A. director, David Petraeus; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Samantha Power, who was then a national-security adviser; and Secretary of State Clinton pressed Obama to support vetted rebels against the regime. Kerry—who was influenced by the relatively successful, if belated, interventions in the Balkans, in the nineties, and also by the calamitous decision not to intervene in Rwanda in 1994—joined this chorus when he replaced Clinton. But no one could convince Obama that deeper involvement would avoid a repetition of the Iraq fiasco.
Kerry was a critical actor in the most humbling episode of the Syrian drama. Obama had warned Assad that he would be crossing a “red line” if he used chemical weapons, saying that such an act would “change my calculus.” In August, 2013, a year after the “red line” warning, Assad’s forces, according to Western intelligence services and an independent U.N. commission, fired rockets armed with sarin on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing hundreds. The U.S. prepared to attack with cruise missiles. In a speech insisting that Assad give up all his chemical arms, Kerry referred to the “lessons” of the Holocaust and of Rwanda. General Dempsey said, “Our finger was on the trigger.” Obama warned of an American attack, although Kerry, following the President’s minimizing lead, allowed that the strike would be “unbelievably small.” Then, without consulting Kerry, Obama stepped back, saying that he would have to get congressional approval before an attack on Syria. He had concluded that it was worse to go to war than to be seen as weak.
Nearly everyone I talked to in the Administration considered the “red line” aftermath to be a diplomatic fiasco. The Syrian government did, however, give up its main chemical stockpiles when its ally Russia stepped in and pressured it to do so. Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, worked with Kerry to close the deal. Meanwhile, Assad remains in power. The Administration, which started out saying that he must step aside, is now willing to see Assad play a transitional role in a political settlement before leaving the stage at an undetermined point. As one abashed U.S. official told me, “The meaning of ‘Assad has to go’ has evolved.” (New Yorker, “Negotiating the Whirlwind,” Dec. 21, 2015)Although the Obama team is now trying to adjust the Syrian strategy to account for terror being the top issue in the election, Susan Rice, Benjamin Rhodes and Denis McDonough will not escape considerable blame for the endless meetings, the lack of decisions and the substitution of public relations for policy that much of the critics, many supporters of the President, have attached to the National Security team. But as both articles make clear, the Syrian policy was fundamentally a reflection of President Obama’s experience and philosophy, which led him to consistently decide on the side of avoiding risk in spite of substantial contrary advice as to the consequences, which were borne out over several years by repeated harmful events, including the survival of Assad, the refugee crisis, the rise of ISIS and the Russian intervention.