Obama’s Decision-Making: Syria No ‘Flip of the Coin’

Photograph by Erbin News/Demotix/Corbis

Two UN team members visit the area believed to have been hit by chemical missiles in Syria, on Aug. 29, 2013.

It was said last night, and again this morning, that President Barack Obama has “not made a decision” about attacking Syria in retaliation for its deployment of chemical weapons. He said so last night, and Vice President Joe Biden said so this morning.


“I have not made a decision,” Obama said in an interview yesterday with PBS NewsHour. “I have gotten options from our military, had extensive discussions with my national security team.”

The president has been known to take his time with decisions — such as his announcement during his reelection campaign that he had decided he personally supports same-sex marriage. That one was years in the making.

In the modern environment of 24/7, tweet by tweet advice, it’s amazing anything gets decided.

As one 99U observer reports: “21st-century presidents like Barack Obama face an especially daunting task. How can anyone get things done with 300 million bosses, a 24-hour news cycle of critics, and a to-do list that is often life or death? Oh, and all in a city whose name is synonymous with bureaucracy? Thanks to the fantastic journalism of Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair, Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, and others, we were able to assemble a detailed portrait of how a modern-day president like Barack Obama works.”

“1. Get a head start on your day the night before.”

“In a funny way,” writes Michael Lewis, “the president’s day actually starts the night before. When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things.”

 Well, he said last night there was no decision about Syria, and there wasn’t one this morning, so he’ll get another jump tonight on that one.

“2. Limit decision fatigue.”

“White House operations grow increasingly complex with every administration. Harry Truman had 12 “assistants to the president.” Now there are more than 100 people who have a similar title. As a result, President Obama tries to limit his information intake, including when he gets dressed in the morning.”

No shortage of advisers there.

“3. Shut out your critics.”

“Richard Nixon famously kept a “list of enemies,” but a president in today’s polarized 24-hour news cycle doesn’t have that luxury. Profiles of the president repeatedly mention his preference for ESPN over cable news.

“One cardinal rule of the road is, we don’t watch CNN, the news or MSNBC. We don’t watch any talking heads or any politics. We watch SportsCenter and argue about that,” Obama told The New York Times.”

If he were watching the cable news, he’d see a lot of reports about the inescapable conclusion that chemical weapons have been deployed, which the president himself has called the crossing of a “red line.”

Some say the decision about Syria is a “no-win for Obama.” So says the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, veteran reporter of national security matters:

“President Obama faces “no win” situations at home and abroad no matter the outcome of the military actions he authorizes in Syria in response to the use of chemical agents. First, he must set the stage, and that means offering the best proof available that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons.”

Obama appears convinced of this already, as he said in his PBS interview:

“We have looked at all the evidence, and we do not believe the opposition possessed nuclear weapons on – or chemical weapons of that sort. We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”

Which would seem a lot more convincing than the evidence supporting the raid Obama authorized to capture or kill Osama bin Laden at his Pakistani redoubt.

As the Atlantic’s John Gans has noted:

“After reviewing the intelligence breakthroughs, the Obama administration had to grapple with the data’s resulting uncertainty. When asked for confidence that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound, the estimates ranged from 10 percent to 95 percent certainty. Several red teams worked to “poke holes” in the analysis and finding…

“So as the conversation around him about levels of certainty wore on, the president… interrupted. `This is fifty-fifty,’ he said. That silenced everyone. `Look guys, this is a flip of the coin. I can’t base this decision on the notion that we have any greater certainty than that.”’

The closer they got to that raid, the better the odds appeared.

In Syria, it appears, the coin already has been tossed.

The decision left is figuring out what it means.

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