09/09/2013 10:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

McDonough's War: Why the President Will Reject His Own Call for Military Intervention in Syria

I am a champion of Barack Obama.


As is well known, I came to his assistance with the national Catholic community in 2008 when intense lobbying among the Catholic constituency threatened to end his historic campaign. Barack Obama was falsely portrayed as anti-life and as the proponent of infanticide and as disregarding and insensitive to matters of faith.

I knew different. Having watched Obama closely while serving as co-chairman for matters of the Constitution and law during Mitt Romney's ultimately unsuccessful primary campaign, I felt I had a good measure of this man who often sincerely related how he prayed each evening for Americans of every faith and of no faith whatsoever to come and renew the first principles of the Republic on common ground.

Mr. Obama's understanding of those first principles was admirable. As I explain below, that understanding, I believe, will lead him to reject, in light of what we now know, military intervention into Syria. Notwithstanding the profound desire by all men and women of good will, to hold Mr. Assad accountable for the cruelty and inhumanity of unleashing upon innocent noncombatants weaponry that has been condemned by treaty as barbaric and off-limits to the world community, the president will search for other means to make this point.

Let me be plain: on Tuesday, when the president addresses all of us to explain his ultimate decision, his decision will be AGAINST military intervention. Notwithstanding the talk show blitz in favor of a so-called targeted military intervention that the president allowed his subordinates to make on the Sunday talk shows and beyond, the president relying upon his own sound judgment will reject that course. He will reject that course even though he will honestly need to admit to have been initially attracted to it by the despicable harm. I am not enough of a presidential historian to know whether this is the first clear example of a president reversing himself so categorically, but it will be a sure tonic to the cause of modern democracy for Barack Obama to reveal his change of mind, even as he -- and we -- still must search for a morally legitimate way to secure the peace in Syria and the surrounding Middle East.

I do not believe that the president will leave the chemical devastation without rectification. The United States has already provided or facilitated substantial dollars in food and other assistance to the thousands who have been displaced, and I believe the president will augment that assistance even further. Calling upon the full Security Council of the United Nations, and the nations represented there, Obama will assemble a coalition of the very willing and ready to step up and do the same. Since the suppleness of his thinking will reveal great respect for the message President Obama received from his European counterparts at the G 20 meeting, one can reasonably anticipate the world speaking with one voice, at least in these humanitarian matters, to condemn what it must -- the wanton use of chemicals to kill innocent civilians.

It is less clear whether President Obama will be prepared to set aside some of the specious objections of his predecessors to the jurisdiction of the international criminal Court, but if he is, this would be an ideal time for our lawyer president to speak of the international rule of law and how his decision to lay down the force of arms must not be misinterpreted as appeasement. Instead, it must be promptly followed by indictment for war crime in the form of the ICC, or one specially created.

Am I certain the president will change his mind? In a way, yes, I'm certain he already has, both because of who I knew him to be in the campaigns of 2008 and 2012, and because I think he will take the time to have Secretaries Kerry and Hagel listen more carefully to former secretary Hillary Clinton, who until just recently and it would seem with some considerable reluctance, gave deference to President Obama's initial inclination for a targeted military intervention. It will be remembered that unlike then Sen. Obama, then Sen. Clinton initially backed the war in Iraq. That decision was costly to Mrs. Clinton. Many of us in her camp now think it made the difference in 2008 in terms of her own political fortune. Like others of us, Mrs. Clinton was misled by the claimed possession of "slam-dunk" evidence against Mr. Hussein. When that evidence proved far less certain, largely because of her own digging and persistent inquiry, it did not take Hillary Clinton very long to join Barack Obama in condemnation of the misbegotten military adventure that has been so costly in every dimension.

Mrs. Clinton has abundant qualities that many of us hope she will offer anew in pursuit of the presidency in 2016, but Mrs. Clinton loves her country and the prospect of public service. For that reason, I believe she has chosen to forgo her personal interests over the national ones and is presently helping the President see that a change of mind based on better information and the consensus of world opinion is the better course. Here, Mrs. Clinton's experience and her present outsider status will be invaluable because it will be immune to the kind of superficial worry presidential assistants sometimes manifest out of loyalty to a president. As a long-ago presidential lawyer at a young age that now I scarcely remember, I do recall the unfortunate phenomenon that youthful advice sometimes unknowingly entraps presidents and blocks their ability to see less traveled, but more promising alternatives because it involves a presidential change of mind. Here the hobgoblins of consistency are infected by youthful vanity because it means the subordinate adviser will be dining on a bit of Crow. Better that diet, then the indigestible alternative.

In the matter of Syria, Pres. Obama -- like all of us -- could not help but be moved by the unspeakable deaths brought to little children and their parents. Young presidential advisers are given the special privilege to see the human side of presidential decision-making, but sometimes their lack of hardheaded wisdom allows that sentiment cover over difficulty. I believe that was the case here. The president's initial choice was aided and abetted by members of this less seasoned fraternity -- most notably, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and even the rhetorically gifted, former presidential wordsmith Jon Favreau. These good people; indeed, the nation is well served by them each day as their skills allow the president to manifest his best qualities. But they are not senior advisers no matter what their title terminology may say; instead, because of their unswerving, and somewhat naïvely youthful, categorical loyalty to the president they, like other less experienced White House aides, are more capable of echoing the president then guiding him.

The shortcoming is not a surprise, nor need it be fatal. The criticism of Barack Obama when he stood for the presidency was that his supporting bench reflected the relative brevity of his national service. Barack Obama did have a meteoric rise, and for that reason, he lacked the type of kitchen cabinet that was so ever present, and reliable for advice -- the kind of independent advice that can tell a president when he's lacking attire -- in the Reagan administration. I am a fan of the young people serving President Obama, and I'm admiring of their own personal sacrifices, for our country. But with all due respect to Denis McDonough, he is no Jim Baker or Warren Christopher; with all due respect to Susan Rice, she is not yet of the stature of Colin Powell. As the good friend, and savvy political survivor that he is, it is not surprising that the President gave McDonough and company the sizable opportunity to try and make the case to the American public that military intervention is appropriate. As a matter of friendship, that was generous. As a matter of presidential judgment and leadership, I believe the president will draw the only possible conclusion: Mr. McDonough and Ms. Rice have not persuaded.

President Obama will reach the conclusion that his first inclination toward military intervention was in error, in the course that we should follow.