Obama’s moves on Syria mark defining moment

His shifts could set back agenda for second term

President Obama called the diplomatic breakthrough with Syria “an important step” on Saturday.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press
President Obama called the diplomatic breakthrough with Syria “an important step” on Saturday.

WASHINGTON — President Obama, to his supporters, is a deliberative leader whose willingness to recalibrate his response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons potentially helped avert military strikes and further US involvement in a civil war half a world away.

But to his critics, Obama is like a character in a Shakespearean comedy, where the hapless protagonist succeeds despite himself. It was, after all, only after Secretary of State John F. Kerry made an offhand comment last Monday morning in London — and Russian leaders seized on it — that renewed diplomatic discussions began.

Now those discussions have led to a possible breakthrough announced Saturday, offering a temporary reprieve not only to President Bashar Assad of Syria but to his American counterpart, who had staked his credibility on finding a solution.


“The sympathetic view about all of this is that this is how Obama approaches problems,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “He’s very deliberative, he’s slow, he avoids extremes. He’s willing to test like a scientist all the options before coming to a decision. His strongest supporters would say this is what we want. It’s better to make this mistake and look weak, instead of using the military when we don’t need to.”

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“The unsympathetic view,” he added, “is that this was as sloppy as it looked.”

Now the question is whether this marks a turning point in Obama’s presidency that does lasting harm to both his domestic agenda and his international goals, or whether a diplomatic victory could reinvigorate what was already an agenda in trouble. Either way, it is a moment that could define Obama’s second term and set the stage for what could be a bruising three years to come.

The announcement on Saturday seemed certain to ease any threat of US-led military strikes just two weeks after they appeared imminent. And it will send waves of relief through Congress — particularly among Obama’s fellow Democrats — who probably won’t have to vote to authorize military force in Syria.

But the Syrian quandary is far from over, and it is likely to remain the top foreign policy crisis for months to come, possibly continuing to bog the White House down. The United States has become dependent on Russia, which in the past has proven to be an untrustworthy negotiator, and several observers immediately questioned whether Syria would follow through on the terms of the deal.


The Syrian government has a week to provide a comprehensive inventory of its chemical weapons stockpile. International inspectors must review those sites by November, and all chemical weapons and equipment must be eliminated by the first half of 2014.

The agreement does not address the two-year civil war that has been raging in Syria, sending refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. The US has supported arming the Syrian rebels and Obama has called on Assad to step down, while trying to organize a peace conference.

Obama on Saturday called the diplomatic breakthrough “an important step,” but said he would continue to work with US allies “to ensure that this process is verifiable, and that there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today.”

“And, if diplomacy fails,” he added, “the United States remains prepared to act.”

The Syrian crisis has put him at odds with factions within both parties. Many Democrats, including some of his strongest allies, have opposed him out of fear that they would be drawn into supporting a wider war. Republicans, sensing Obama at one of his weakest moments, have been seizing on the indecision.


“It was just an awful performance,” said Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who supported giving Obama authorization to strike. “There’s no good way to spin this.”

Even some of Obama’s strongest allies in Massachusetts’ congressional delegation said they are worried the Syria debate has hindered the president’s ability to stay focused on important domestic initiatives.

“It complicates things,” said Representative Richard E. Neal, a Springfield Democrat.

Obama had allowed Kerry to build the public case for military action, only to pull back the next day and announce that he would seek congressional authorization.

For Obama, it may have seemed like a can’t-win proposition. He capitulated to demands that he seek congressional authorization, only to see lawmakers line up quickly against him.

By last Tuesday, as Obama prepared to deliver a prime-time address, the White House was looking at a difficult scenario: continue pushing for a congressional vote authorizing military strikes that would almost certainly fail, or go back to the negotiating table with Russia just days after the UN ambassador, Samantha Power, said all diplomatic options had been “exhausted.”

Kerry’s off-the-cuff remarks the previous day — saying that Assad could avoid the prospect of a strike by turning over his chemical weapons — had complicated the scenario further, breathing new life into a non-military option.

Ultimately, they chose the second option, diplomacy, even though it made the president look indecisive.

It is not unusual for second-term presidents to struggle to pass major initiatives when they are viewed in Congress as lame ducks. Often, presidents look to international issues to make their mark as their ability to win in Congress fades.

But Obama’s situation is particularly difficult. Not only did he face bipartisan opposition in his effort to win authorization to strike Syria, the crisis there will continue to overshadow efforts to refocus on domestic issues that face an uphill fight in the Republican-controlled House.

Obama and Congress face imminent deadlines to avert a government shutdown and credit crisis. Obama has also hoped to forge a compromise on immigration, while continuing to defend his signature health care law from efforts to scuttle it.

The inherent difficulties were on display Thursday, when White House press secretary Jay Carney opened a briefing by discussing a new health care report. He also announced that Obama would be holding a meeting Wednesday with top business leaders.

But as soon as the briefing was opened for questions, Syria became the dominant focus, illustrating that as much as the White House may want to turn to domestic topics, the international crisis is still dominating the headlines.

Still, there are more than three years to go in Obama’s term. And some Republicans, for all their criticism, have a shared interest in getting legislation passed at a time when the vast majority of Americans have a dim view of Congress.

In one of the more unlikely partnerships, Republican Senator John McCain, who was Obama’s 2008 presidential rival, has become a second-term ally of Obama on several important issues.

In an interview, McCain was both critical and understanding of Obama’s situation.

“Whenever there’s a setback for a president then it diminishes their ability,” McCain said. “But I’m not positive that the results are all in on this, although certainly the handling so far has been bizarre. One day he said he was going to strike, the next day he said he was going to get the permission of Congress to do so. That’s never happened before in history.”

Still, McCain stressed that “I want to work with him on areas where we can work together. . . . Everything has been halted because of the urgency of this [Syrian] situation.”

Matt Viser can be reached at Noah Bierman can be reached at