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The problem with Obama’s account of the Syrian red-line incident

President Obama with his foreign policy team in the Oval Office on July 13, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Few moments have been as debated and dissected as President Obama's 2013 decision not to launch airstrikes against Syria after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill his own people.

In his zeal to defend his decisionmaking in Syria, though, Obama in an interview with New York magazine has added a new wrinkle to his account of the incident.

"My decision was to see if we could broker a deal without a strike to get those chemical weapons out, and to go to Congress to ask for authorization," Obama said in the interview, published Monday. The president's recounting of the 2013 incident suggests that the final agreement with the Assad regime to dispose of its vast chemical weapons stockpile had come about because of steady leadership and careful planning from the executive branch.

The conflicts in Libya and Syria tested Obama’s core values

The reality, though, was far messier and shows why the 2013  incident remains one of the hotly debated moments of Obama's presidency. In 2012, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in the country's civil war would cross a "red line" triggering an American military response.

Obama's critics (and even some allies) have blasted him for threatening to punish Assad with airstrikes and not following through on his "red-line" pledge. "If you say you're going to strike you have to strike," Hillary Clinton said privately, according to Jeffry Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine. "There's no choice."

Obama has defended the decision as one of his proudest moments in the White House, noting that Assad's chemical weapons arsenal was destroyed -- an outcome that would not have been possible with airstrikes. "The notion seems to be that, 'Well, you should have blown something up, even if that didn’t mean that you got chemical weapons out,' " Obama told New York magazine. "There continues to be, I think, a lack of examination of the fact that my decision was not to let Assad do whatever he wanted."

The U.S. military was just hours away from launching the strikes when Obama decided to put the plans on hold and seek congressional approval before initiating the attack. There was, however, little enthusiasm for the strike in Congress, putting the president in a tough spot. He was not eager to launch the strikes without the backing of lawmakers.

The final deal to dispose of Syria's weapons came together only after Secretary of State John Kerry was asked if there was anything Assad could do to avoid an attack. "Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community," an exasperated Kerry told reporters in September 2013. "Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that. ... But he isn't about to do it."

The idea of working with the Russians to pressure Assad had been discussed informally in the White House earlier, and had even come up in a conversation between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But few senior officials gave the long-shot idea much serious thought.

Kerry's ad-libbed statement in London prompted a frantic call from Russia's foreign minister, suggesting that such a deal might be workable.

Derek Chollet, a former senior Obama administration official, described the call in his book "The Long Game" as "a stunning twist that led to an outcome that none of us had expected, planned for or even dreamed was possible."

Chollet defends the deal as the best possible outcome for the United States and the world, even as he concedes that it would have been easier for Obama to claim success if his strategy had looked less improvised and chaotic.

"I keep reminding people that foreign policy is more like hockey than figure skating," he said in an email. "It’s not all about style points!"