WASHINGTON — Just hours before announcing an escalated campaign against Islamic extremists last week, President Obama privately reflected on another time when a president weighed military action in the Middle East — the frenzied weeks leading up to the American invasion of Iraq a decade ago.
“I was not here in the run-up to Iraq in 2003,” he told a group of visitors who met with him in the White House before his televised speech to the nation, according to several people who were in the meeting. “It would have been fascinating to see the momentum and how it builds.”
In his own way, Mr. Obama said, he had seen something similar, a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who had swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists. He had told his staff, he said, not to evaluate their own policy based on external momentum. He would not rush to war. He would be deliberate.
“But I’m aware I pay a political price for that,” he said.
His introspection that afternoon reflected Mr. Obama’s journey from the candidate who wanted to wind down America’s overseas wars to the commander in chief who just resumed and expanded one. For Mr. Obama, that spring of 2003, when President George W. Bush sent troops to topple Saddam Hussein, has framed his own presidency. He has spent nearly six years trying to avoid repeating it.
In forming a plan to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria using airpower and local forces, but not regular American ground troops, he searched for ways to avoid the mistakes of the past. He felt “haunted,” he told his visitors, by the failure of a Special Forces raid to rescue the American hostages James Foley and Steven J. Sotloff — “we just missed them,” he said — but their subsequent murders were not the real reason he opted for war, although he noted that gruesome videos released by ISIS had helped galvanize public support for action.
He was acutely aware that the operation he was about to embark on would not solve the larger issues in that region by the time he left office. “This will be a problem for the next president,” Mr. Obama said ruefully, “and probably the one after that.” But he alternated between resolve as he vowed to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian forces shot at American planes, and prickliness as he mocked critics of his more reticent approach to the exercise of American power.
“Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than ‘don’t do stupid things,’ ” guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.”
Mr. Obama went on to reveal his thoughts on challenges he faces in combating the threat from ISIS. He expressed his frustration with the French for paying ransoms to terrorists, asserted that Americans are kidnapped at lower rates because the United States does not, resisted the idea of Kurdistan’s breaking away from Iraq and even speculated on what he would have advised ISIS to do to keep America out of the war in the region.
This account of Mr. Obama’s thinking as he arrived at a pivotal point in his presidency is based on interviews with 10 people who spoke with him in the days leading up to his speech Wednesday night. In quoting his private remarks, the people were recalling what he said from their best memories.
The president invited a group of foreign policy experts and former government officials to dinner on Monday, and a separate group of columnists and magazine writers for a discussion on Wednesday afternoon. Although three New York Times columnists and an editorial writer were among those invited to the second session, this account is drawn from people unaffiliated with The Times, some of whom insisted on anonymity because they were not supposed to share details of the conversations.
The president they described was calm and confident, well versed on the complexities of the ISIS challenge and in no evident rush to end the discussions. A briefing book sat in front of him during the second of the sessions, but he never opened it. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State John Kerry joined him for the dinner, and Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, and Susan Rice, the national security adviser, sat in on the meeting with the journalists, but none of them said very much.
Mr. Obama was relaxed enough, as he discussed the array of foreign policy crises facing him, that at one point he ridiculed President Vladimir V. Putin’s rationale for intervening in Ukraine to protect Russian speakers by saying the United States should intervene in Mexico to protect enclaves of Americans. When a writer jokingly asked if he was announcing plans to invade Mexico, he laughed and said no, Canada, because it has more oil.
The guests came away with different impressions; some said they thought he still seemed ambivalent about the course he was taking in Iraq and Syria, while others said he appeared at peace.
“It’s fair to say when the president imagined where he’d be in this sixth year, I doubt he expected to be here,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Bush administration official who was among the guests at the dinner Monday. “But he’s been forced to react to events here.”
Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said she thought Mr. Obama had evolved. “He was all in,” she said. “I don’t know what the definition of reluctant is, but I certainly think he’s totally focused, this man at this time.”
If his thinking has evolved, Mr. Obama admitted no errors along the way. While some critics, and even his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have faulted him for not arming moderate Syrian rebels years ago, Mr. Obama does not accept the premise that doing so would have forestalled the rise of ISIS.
“I have thought that through and tried to apply 20-20 hindsight,” he told some of his guests, as one recalled. “I’m perfectly willing to admit they were right, but even if they were right, I still can’t see how that would have changed the situation.”
He defended his decision to wait to approve airstrikes until last month in Iraq and last week in Syria, saying he wanted first to force Iraq to replace its government with a more inclusive coalition that could draw disaffected Sunnis away from supporting ISIS and take on the task of combating it.
But while Mr. Obama sees bolstering the new Iraqi government as his path to ultimate success on that side of the border, he struck his guests as less certain about the endgame on the Syrian side, where he has called for Mr. Assad to step down and must now rely on the same moderate Syrian rebels he refused to arm in the past.
Mr. Obama acknowledged it would be a long campaign, one complicated by a dearth of intelligence about possible targets on the Syrian side of the border and one that may not be immediately satisfying. “This isn’t going to be fireworks over Baghdad,” he said.
Asked by one of the columnists what he would do if his strategy did not work and he had to escalate further, Mr. Obama rejected the premise. “I’m not going to anticipate failure at this point,” he said.
He made clear the intricacy of the situation, though, as he contemplated the possibility that Mr. Assad might order his forces to fire at American planes entering Syrian airspace. If he dared to do that, Mr. Obama said he would order American forces to wipe out Syria’s air defense system, which he noted would be easier than striking ISIS because its locations are better known. He went on to say that such an action by Mr. Assad would lead to his overthrow, according to one account.
Mr. Obama dwelled on the killings of the two American journalists, Mr. Foley and Mr. Sotloff, telling guests that he had authorized the Pentagon to develop a rescue attempt this summer on the same day the matter was brought to him. It was conducted within days and executed flawlessly, he said. He noted that the United States does not pay ransom to terrorists, but remarked with irritation that President François Hollande of France says his country does not, when in fact it does.
Mr. Obama had what guests on Wednesday afternoon described as a bereft look as he discussed the murders of Mr. Foley and Mr. Sotloff, particularly because two other Americans are still being held. Days later, ISIS would report beheading a British hostage with another video posted online Saturday.
But the president said he had already been headed toward a military response before the men’s deaths. He added that ISIS had made a major strategic error by killing them because the anger it generated resulted in the American public’s quickly backing military action.
If he had been “an adviser to ISIS,” Mr. Obama added, he would not have killed the hostages but released them and pinned notes on their chests saying, “Stay out of here; this is none of your business.” Such a move, he speculated, might have undercut support for military intervention.
It was clear to the guests how aware Mr. Obama was of the critics who have charged him with demonstrating a lack of leadership. He brought up the criticism more than once with an edge of resentment in his voice.
“He’s definitely feeling it,” said one guest. At one point, Mr. Obama noted acidly that President Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon only to have hundreds of them killed in a terrorist attack because of terrible planning, and then withdrew the remaining ones, leaving behind a civil war that lasted years. But Reagan, he noted, is hailed as a titan striding the earth.
“He’s not a softy,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and attended the dinner Monday, said of Mr. Obama. “I think part of the problem with some of his critics is they think he’s a softy. He’s not a softy. But he’s a person who tries to think through these events so you can draw some long-term conclusions.”
Mr. Haass said attention to nuance was a double-edged attribute. “This is someone who, more than most in the political world, is comfortable in the gray rather than the black and white,” he said. “So many other people in the political world do operate in the black and white and are more quote-unquote decisive, and that’s a mixed blessing. He clearly falls on the side of those who are slow or reluctant to decide because deciding often forces you into a more one-sided position than you’re comfortable with.”
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(via NY Times)