So far as we know, most everyone in the government was expecting the bombing would start on Saturday afternoon, Washington, D.C., time. Government officials, above all those with expertise in military operations, were told to cancel their Labor Day vacations and show up for overtime work. No golf for them! Then President Obama–in the face of most all the advice from his “national security team” (I even heard a national radio network broadcaster call it “the war cabinet”)–changed his mind. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Surprisingly.
The story about the sudden change of mind has been carefully fed to the scribblers. It’s been written and rewritten many times. But it doesn’t make sense, unless you believe in sudden epiphanies, or bolts from the blue, or ongoing revelation; and there’s no evidence that the president believes such things.
So I ask again: How? Why? We don’t have an answer, which suggests to me that we’re missing some key element in the story.
Presidential decisions are sometimes driven by real events in the real world, and sometimes by private conversations among a very small group of intimates. During the Carter years, for example, it was said that you never knew what he was going to do until the last conversation prior to handing down his verdict. If you were an intimate, you wanted to be the last person on his dance card before the band started to play. Other presidents have had different methods, but personal interplay is always important.
Note that this sort of “process” greatly favors people with offices in the White House. They only have to walk down the hall, whereas the cabinet secretaries have to drive across town, or even across the river. That takes time. Access=influence, so the guys and gals down the hall, including the gal who shares the living quarters, have more of it than those across town or on the other side of the Potomac.
Ergo, it may well be that somebody got to the president late Friday and said something that got him to reverse course. Those who believe that Valerie Jarrett is the eminence grise of the Obama years will wonder if she prevailed over the War Cabinet, as when she–once? several times? accounts vary…–lobbied against the Kill bin Laden operation. Those who think Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is the key actor will point to the long walk he took with his boss on Saturday morning as the key event. Those who think Michelle does foreign policy (and those who don’t think first ladies are key players on ALL policy matters should report for reeducation) will look there for the answer.
If an intimate conversation is the explanation, it likely had to do with personal convictions, and thus with the president’s worldview. What is America’s proper role in the world? What does Obama want his legacy to be? That sort of thing.
Not that such a conversation could be conducted in isolation from the rest of the world because the president’s counterparts will have been conducting similar conversations on secure phones, and those themes will surely have been raised. Messrs Cameron, Hollande, and Netanyahu must have weighed in, along with Erdogan, Saudi King Abdullah, and others.
What others? What about the Iranians? We know that Obama sees Iran as the key to “solving” the Syrian mess, and we know that Obama has authorized secret contacts (even before he was elected), and Swiss diplomats are forever brokering meetings and carrying messages back and forth. What if the Iranians offered him a deal? Or perhaps the Omanis, who have been key middlemen in the deals leading to the release of American hostages?
What sort of deal? Many are possible. What if the Iranians, the real rulers of Syria today, offered to betray Assad, replace him with a military junta under their control, and organize a peace conference if the Americans lifted unilateral sanctions?
Obama would certainly be tempted to delay bombing Syria if he were led to believe that a peaceful rabbit could be lifted from a diplomatic top hat by those new moderates in Tehran, or those proven wheelers and dealers in romantic Muscat, wouldn’t he?
I don’t have an answer to How? or Why? It’s disconcerting that no one else is even asking. It bespeaks a lack of curiosity about a major event, suggesting intellectual laziness by the pundits, “investigative journalists,” and the political class.
Nothing new there, you will say. And you will be entirely correct. As usual.