US President Barack Obama decided to delay launching airstrikes against the Syrian government in 2013 during a walk in the White House garden with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, according to an in-depth profile of McDonough from Politico Magazine’s Glenn Thrush.
After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces killed more than 1,300 Syrians in a 2013 chemical-weapons attack using chemical weapons in 2013, which crossed Obama’s self-imposed “red line,” Obama considered launching an air campaign in an attempt to depose Assad.
That campaign was delayed when Obama decided to put it to a vote in Congress. It was thrown out altogether when Russia — Assad’s ally — offered to dispose of Assad’s chemical-weapons arsenal if the US refrained from launching airstrikes.
That fateful delay, as it turns out, was the result of a one-on-one meeting Obama had with McDonough as the two strolled around the White House grounds during their daily afternoon “wrap.”
In fact, the moment that will likely define McDonough’s tenure took place during just such a walk, in August 2013, when Obama was debating airstrikes on Syria in response to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Most observers expected him to launch the strikes — until he came back from the walk, that is.
Then, Obama surprised nearly everyone by deciding to force a vote in Congress on whether to do so, effectively putting the military action on hold.
According to Thrush, neither Secretary of State John Kerry nor then-Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel were consulted before Obama made his decision to delay military action in Syria. US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was also kept out of the loop.
As Thrush noted in the piece, Obama and McDonough were “philosophically in tune” in a way that Obama and Hagel were not.
“Both men were allergic to military intervention,” Thrush wrote. “And McDonough was an enthusiastic executor of Obama’s plan for running foreign policy: concentrating as much decision-making power in the West Wing national security staff as possible, at the expense of the harder-to-control Defence and State departments.”
He added: “This aggravated the big-time principals Obama had recruited to run those departments.”
Indeed, in an interview with Foreign Policy last month, Hagel — who resigned as defence secretary in November 2014 — voiced his frustrations with the administration’s sluggish response to the crisis in Syria.
“For one thing, there were way too many meetings. The meetings were not productive,” Hagel said in December.
“I don’t think many times we ever actually got to where we needed to be,” Hagel continued, noting that the meetings sometimes went as long as four hours. “We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room.”
Thrush corroborated both Rice’s penchant for seemingly endless National Security Council meetings and Hagel’s annoyance with them, relaying a telling anecdote:
At one point Hagel, who was quickly losing patience with the whole Obama crew, simply stood up and left in the middle of an especially tedious meeting late in his tenure, announcing, “I’ll give you two hours, Susan, but I’m not going to sit through four hours of this bullshit.”
Haunted by the war in Iraq and the disastrous campaign in Libya and wary of mission creep, Obama has always been deeply ambiguous on the subject of Assad’s removal.
Since drawing his “red line” in 2013, Obama has accepted a “limited” role for the ruler in political negotiations over the country’s future. Those negotiations are due to begin in January, as long as all parties sign on to a plan brokered by Assad’s biggest ally — Russia.
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