Two days after he stood in the ornate Treaty Room at the State Department to deliver a forceful address on the justification for an imminent U.S. military strike against Syria, Secretary of State John F. Kerry returned to the same venue Sunday to defend a different approach.
In his maiden appearance as secretary on the Sunday talk shows, Kerry served as the administration’s spokesman for explaining President Obama’s surprising, last-minute decision to delay any attack until Congress could vote on it.
It was not a conclusion Kerry anticipated, according to senior administration officials. But after seven months in office, during which Kerry has often been portrayed as pushing for a more assertive Middle East policy than Obama would like, the delay may ultimately prove an opportunity to solidify his relationship with the president.
“For Kerry, it’s like, look, the guy’s a team player,” said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secretary’s thinking. “And if you’re talking about consulting a body that he was a part of for almost 30 years, that’s not a hard decision.”
Others in Kerry’s camp said that he had advocated more engagement with the public and Congress during last week’s internal discussions about a possible strike. They said he argued that there was no way of knowing where lawmakers really stood until they were presented with evidence the administration had amassed that the Syrian government had carried out a massive chemical weapons attack.
Kerry’s Friday speech had followed a National Security Council meeting that morning that included a discussion of the outline of his remarks and Obama thanking him “ for his efforts to make the public case,” deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes said.
While the intelligence Kerry presented appeared to do little to shake members of Congress from their determination that the administration needed to do more consultation that it had so far, Obama alone decided to split the difference. On Friday night, he told his stunned advisers that while a U.S. attack was justified and he had the authority to launch it, he would give Congress the opportunity to vote.
Kerry had not advocated for a specific date for a strike, according to officials, and did not argue against Obama’s decision.
On Saturday morning, the NSC met again to discuss how to carry out the new plans. Congressional leaders who were notified of Obama’s decision advised against calling lawmakers back from recess before they are scheduled to reconvene Sept. 9, noting the Wednesday start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
After Obama’s public address Saturday afternoon, it fell to Kerry to make five straight Sunday-morning appearances. He repeatedly called Obama’s decision to delay “courageous” and said it was the president’s right to make it.
He refused to address the possibility that Congress, where he served in the Senate for nearly three decades, could not be persuaded.
“I don’t contemplate that,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think the stakes are just really too high.”
Despite insisting early last week that the evidence proving Syria’s chemical weapons use was “undeniable,” and insisting on Friday that a U.S. response was imperative on moral and national security grounds, Kerry said Sunday that delay would provide a greater opportunity to “build the case” to both Congress and the American public.
Moreover, he said, “it also gives us time to reach out to allies, friends around the world, [and] build support on an international basis.” Ultimately, he said, “the president can proceed and our nation can proceed from a much stronger position.”
As a senator, Kerry supported decisions by two Democratic administrations — in 1999 in the former Yugoslavia under the administration of Bill Clinton, and in 2011 in Libya under Obama — that the president had full domestic authority to order limited military strikes short of all-out war if necessary to protect U.S. national security.
But in Yugoslavia, the United States acted as part of NATO; in Libya, both NATO and the United Nations Security Council approved.
The absence of international allies weighed as much on the White House as domestic disapproval, particularly after Britain’s parliament voted Thursday against participation. French President Francois Hollande said Friday he was “ready” to participate, but also scheduled a debate in the National Assembly for Wednesday, leaving the United States as the non-democratic outlier.
“You could draw two things from the British vote,” the senior administration official said. ”One is, boy, you better not go to parliament because publics are weary of war. Or, you could take the inside out and say it’s precisely because publics are weary of war and the situation in Syria has been so complicated that you need to put the country on a stronger footing and go to Congress.”
As foreign policy experts contemplated the effect of Obama’s decision on U.S. standing and credibility in the world, legal scholars joined a familiar debate over whether it was necessary, or merely advisable, for the executive branch to ask Congress before utilizing the U.S. military.
In Libya, Obama defended his prerogative to deploy American aircraft and missiles without congressional authorization. The administration’s legal analysis found that the absence of U.S. troop involvement, the “limited” nature of the engagement and the urgency of the threat all gave the president the power to act without invoking the War Powers Resolution.
Each of those justifications was invoked last week regarding Syria.
“Very bluntly, the president has the constitutional authority,” a former Obama official said. “He doesn’t have to go to Congress. . . . it is very unusual” to seek approval for what administration officials have said would be a two- or three-day strike on Syrian military targets.
“But it creates a political precedent” that may come back to haunt Obama or his successors, the former official said.
Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass charged in a Twitter posting after Obama’s Saturday announcement that the president had gone from “leading from behind to not leading.” Obama’s decision to go to Congress, Haass said, “raises doubts about U.S. reliability, determination.”
Kerry forcefully disagreed, telling CNN Sunday that Obama was “leading in the right way. If he didn’t do this, I can hear all of the critics saying ‘Why didn’t the President go to Congress . . . he could have asked, he had time to ask.’”