“Maybe we never would have done Rwanda,” Obama said. The comment was jarring. Obama had written about how we should have intervened in Rwanda, and people like me had been deeply influenced by that inaction. But he also frequently pointed out that the people urging intervention in Syria had been silent when millions of people were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “There’s no way there would have been any appetite for that in Congress.”
“You could have done things short of war,” I said.
“Like jamming the radio signals they were using to incite people.”
He waved his hand at me dismissively. “That’s wishful thinking. You can’t stop people from killing each other like that.” He let the thought hang in the air. “I’m just saying, maybe there’s never a time when the American people are going to support this kind of thing. In Libya, everything went right—we saved thousands of lives, we didn’t have a single casualty, and we took out a dictator who killed hundreds of Americans. And at home, it was a negative.”
I saw what he had been doing—testing Congress, testing public opinion, to see what the real maneuvering room was for his office when it came to intervention in Syria. It was the same thing he’d done in Situation Room meetings on Syria and in his mind, testing whether anything we did could make things better there or whether it would turn out to be like Afghanistan and Iraq, if not worse. It wasn’t just politics he was wrestling with. It was something more fundamental about America, our willingness to take on another war, a war whose primary justification would be humanitarian, a war likely to end badly. “People always say never again,” he said. “But they never want to do anything.”
On the flight home, Obama mentioned that he’d had a private conversation with Putin on the margins of the summit. For years, Obama had proposed that the United States and Russia work together to address the threat from Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile; for years, Russia had resisted. This time, Obama again suggested working together to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Putin agreed and suggested that John Kerry follow up with his Russian counterpart.
After we landed in Washington, Obama talked about the different ways in which the debate could play out. “The thing is,” he said, “if we lose this vote, it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism—everyone will see they have no votes.” I realized then that he was comfortable with either outcome. If we won authorization, he’d be in a strong position to act in Syria. If we didn’t, then we would potentially end the cycle of American wars of regime change in the Middle East.
Kerry worked quickly to turn Putin’s overture into an agreement that could be implemented in a country—Syria—that had never even acknowledged having chemical weapons. Four days after we got back to Washington, the Syrian government announced they would give them up. Five days later, on September 10, Obama addressed the nation and announced that we would pursue this diplomatic opportunity. The congressional vote never took place. Thousands of tons of chemical weapons would be removed from Syria and destroyed, far more than could have been destroyed through military action. The war would continue. Barack Obama would continue to keep the United States out of it.
This article has been adapted from Ben Rhodes’s forthcoming book, The World as It Is.