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Michael Shtender-Auerbach Headshot

A President's Right to Choose

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Fifty years ago, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy's speechwriter and adviser Ted Sorensen wrote that no matter who the president is, "the same basic forces and factors will repeatedly shape [the president's] decisions." That observation was a preamble to Mr. Sorensen's 1963 bestseller Decision-Making in the White House and the tome continues to be a useful tool for understanding a president's choices. Indeed, President Obama's decision-making on Syria has so far been successful only at uniting unlikely bedfellows in opposition to him (Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, enemies and allies), but examined through a more generalized rubric of presidential decision-making, it is not hard to see how he ended up in the corner he's in now -- and how he can hopefully get himself and the country back out.

Of course, it is never possible to know exactly how a president arrives at his or her decisions, even for the president's closest advisers. As President Kennedy himself said, "the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer -- often, indeed, to the decider himself." It would also be inappropriate to hypothesize as to what the late Mr. Sorensen would think of any particular presidential decision since his passing. Even so, the parameters of decision-making he enumerated half a century ago are still some of the most useful tools at our disposal to understand the view from the president's desk.

Every presidential decision is met with the same general limitations: resources, information, time, previous commitments and permissibility. President Obama's military, fiduciary and political resources have already been stretched by Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the sequester. Solid information on Syria has been difficult to come by, not only in terms of the complicated, multi-factional situation on the ground but also in anticipating how the entangled alliances of regional stake-holders might be triggered by American intervention. Meanwhile, the Syrian house of cards has been shuffled and reshuffled since the conflict began, so when accounting for the limitation of time, it may have seemed sensible to the president to kick the can down the road and see what the next shuffle brings -- even in the face of a mounting civilian death toll. Ironically, the previous commitment which has precipitated the current crisis -- the chemical weapons "red line" -- appears to have been intended as another way for the president to kick that can.

Even with all of these limiting factors, the ultimate limitation on the president's decision is permissibility, and in the case of Syria, the question of what actions are permissible is inextricably tied to politics. "There is nothing dishonorable about the influence of politics on White House decisions," Mr. Sorensen wrote. "In a nation governed by the consent of the governed, it is both honorable and indispensable." The presidency of Barack Obama is fundamentally influenced by the deep mistrust that has grown towards Washington over the last decade and a half, exacerbated by the Iraq war, false intelligence, financial crisis, and growing divisions between Republicans and Democrats. Obama's decision to involve Congress reflects his eagerness to broaden the base of legitimacy for what may well become yet another Middle Eastern imbroglio for the U.S. and its military.

In trying to navigate these limitations, the president inevitably has many conflicting voices vying for his attention. "Idealists on his staff will rule out expediency. Realists will disregard morality," Mr. Sorensen wrote. "I have attended more than one meeting where a military solution was opposed by military minds and supported by those generally known as peace-lovers." President Obama's cabinet may not be the team of rivals it was during his first term but in a case as opaque as Syria, it is only natural for a president to gravitate towards different perspectives as the situation shifts over time.

Given these broad contours for presidential decision-making, each individual step of President Obama's process on Syria is understandable on its own terms; the problem is that presidential decisions do not exist in isolation from one another and therefore a well-planned sequencing of decisions, announcements and actions is essential to the successful exercise of presidential power. By announcing that he would send the Syria issue to Congress after he and his security team had already committed the United States to intervention, the president undermined himself, his team, and the intervention they plan to undertake. His inconsistent signals have called America's security commitments into question, confounded our allies, and left enemies and allies alike with the impression that key decisions are being made by others, or worse, not being made at all.

Now the president has staked his credibility -- and his country's by extension -- on a vote that he could very possibly lose. Again, it is worth turning to Mr. Sorensen for perspective. "A President cannot afford to be modest," he said. "The nation selects its president for his philosophy and his judgment and his conscientious conviction of what is right -- and he need not hesitate to apply them."

When President Obama addresses the nation on Syria, he must make it clear that he is the one who is in command, driving events, and making the tough decisions. And he must reinforce this impression with his decisions and actions in the pivotal weeks to come.