On the last Saturday of August 2013, Labor Day weekend, the United States was once again about to go to war in the Middle East.
Less than two weeks earlier, in the middle of the night on August 21, the Syrian military had attacked rebel-controlled areas of the Damascus suburbs with chemical weapons, killing nearly 1,500 civilians, including more than 400 children. Horrific video footage showing people with twisted bodies sprawled on hospital floors, some twitching and foaming at the mouth after being exposed to sarin gas, had ricocheted around the world. This brazen assault had clearly crossed the “red line” that President Barack Obama had enunciated a year earlier—that if Assad used chemical weapons, it would warrant U.S. military action.
Heading into the long weekend, the Pentagon had made plans for round-the-clock staffing, since we thought the military operation would start over the holiday. As the assistant secretary of cefense for international security affairs, I had been involved in the deliberations and planning for the strikes. Yet early Saturday morning, I received a call from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s office with surprising news: The president had called Hagel late the night before and told him he “wanted to explore another option.” Instead of ordering strikes immediately, the president wanted to pump the brakes and first go to Congress to ask for its authorization.
So when the president stepped into the sunny Rose Garden that Saturday morning, he announced that he had made two decisions: first, that the U.S. should act against Syria, and second, that he would seek explicit authorization from Congress to do so. With that, the administration set out on a different campaign than the military one we had been preparing for: to convince the American people that intervening in Syria was in the country’s interest.
What transpired over the next month was one of the most controversial and revealing episodes in eight years of Obama’s foreign policy. Despite the administration’s strong advocacy and support from a small minority of hawkish politicians, Congress and the American people proved strongly opposed to the use of force. In the end, however, the threat of military action and a surprise offer by Russia ended up achieving something no one had imagined possible: the peaceful removal of 1,300 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons (there have been reports of stray weapons and widespread use of industrial chemicals like chlorine, but no evidence of systematic deception on the part of the Syrian government).
By October 2013, without a bomb being dropped, the Bashar Assad regime had admitted having a massive chemical weapons program it had never before acknowledged, agreed to give it up and submitted to a multinational coalition that removed and destroyed the deadly trove. From my perspective at the Pentagon, this seemed like an incontrovertible, if inelegant, example of what academics call “coercive diplomacy,” using the threat of force to achieve an outcome military power itself could not even accomplish.
Yet the near unanimous verdict among observers is that this episode was a failure. Even the president’s sympathizers call the handling of the red line statement and its crossing a “debacle,” an “amateurish improvisation” or the administration’s “worst blunder.” They contend that Obama whiffed at a chance to show resolve, that for the sake of maintaining credibility, the U.S. would have been better off had the administration not pursued the diplomatic opening and used force instead. In this sense, a mythology has evolved around the red line episode—that if only the U.S. had used force, then it could have not only have addressed the chemical weapons threat, but solved the Syria conflict altogether.
According to U.S. estimates, at more than 1,300 metric tons spread out over as many as 45 sites in a country about twice the size of Virginia, Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons in 2013 was the world’s third-largest. It was 10 times greater than the CIA’s (erroneous) 2002 estimate of Iraq’s chemical weapons stash, and 50 times larger than the arsenal Libya declared it had in late 2011. Because of the size and scope of the threat, Syria’s chemical weapons were the administration’s top concern during the first several years of the crisis. I spent the better part of two years worrying over what to do about them.
So when I first heard about Obama’s decision to take the question of using military force in Syria to Capitol Hill, I was shocked. I had been in most of the White House meetings about Syria up to that point, and while the issue of legal authorities and Congress had come up, it was clear the president had all the domestic legal authority and international justification he needed to act. The idea of asking for a congressional vote had never been discussed at length; some had suggested we should ask for a vote, but there was skepticism it would pass, and therefore a feeling the question should not be asked. For an administration that prized careful and inclusive deliberation, it was unusual that a decision this big would arise so suddenly without first being thoroughly pored over in the interagency process.
But once the surprise wore off, I found myself thinking that, while abrupt, unexpected and unorthodox, this was the right move. Not for any legal reason or question of constitutional powers, but because after a decade of war in the Middle East, Congress and the American people needed to be fully invested in what we were about to do and prepared to accept the consequences.
The civil war in Syria had dominated the news for more than two years, but few politicians had thought deeply about it, relieved that it was not their problem. None were happy to share the responsibility of being accountable for what America would or would not do about the violence. And, in fact, now that they did share the responsibility, it became clear that they were as uncertain as the administration had been about the risks of using force—and fears of the possible consequences.
For two weeks, the administration made its case on Capitol Hill, but it soon became clear that most Republicans and Democrats in Congress were against authorizing action—leaving Obama the option of going forward anyway (which he said he would do) or backing down altogether. Then, an unexpected opportunity emerged: During a September 9 news conference in London, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked whether there was anything Assad could do to avoid an attack. Sure, Kerry said in exasperation, the Syrian leader could admit that he had chemical weapons (something he still refused to do) and give them all up peacefully, but “he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.” Like Obama’s original red line a year earlier, this offhand remark wasn’t intended to be a policy pronouncement. But soon after Kerry walked off the stage he received a call from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who was then meeting with a delegation of Syrian diplomats in Moscow and wanted to talk with the secretary of state about his “initiative.”
Washington and Moscow had deep disagreements over Syria. Russia continued to be one of Assad’s few international backers and, importantly, the Syrian military’s chief supplier. But even Moscow worried about Syria’s chemical weapons. And though earlier talks of U.S.-Russian collaboration to deal with Assad’s stockpile had never led anywhere, the credible threat of U.S. military force suddenly changed the calculation. Now, Moscow was ready to pressure Assad to comply with Kerry’s offhand demand. Maybe this reflected Russian concerns about the proliferation of chemical weapons; or perhaps this was driven by the Kremlin’s desire to keep an ally in power; or possibly Russian leaders were simply trying to stay relevant geopolitically. Whatever the reason, the next day, following a meeting with the Russians in Moscow, the Syrians publicly admitted for the first time that they had chemical arms and committed to signing the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty banning such weapons. The Syrians were pledging to come clean—and not just to reveal what they had, but to get rid of their chemical weapons altogether.
Initially, the Obama administration approached the Russian offer, and Syria’s compliance, skeptically. Putin and Assad had every reason to want to delay U.S. military action. Moreover, the idea of dismantling Syria’s stockpile was daunting—there seemed to be thousands of steps before we could be sure something like this had any hope of working. But Obama wanted to test the proposition. After all, if not using force enabled the U.S. to achieve something that was unquestionably in its security interests and had once seemed impossible, how could he not consider taking such a deal?
With U.S. Navy ships still ready to launch strikes, American and Russian diplomats spent several days hammering out the specific steps Syria would take to allow international inspectors to find, remove and destroy its chemical arms. The Syrians signed on, and the U.N. Security Council endorsed the deal, while also authorizing international action if Assad failed to comply. In just a matter of weeks, the administration had gone from plotting over how to deal with one of the world’s largest arsenals of chemical weapons to implementing a plan to eliminate all of them.