Photos Tell a Tale of Anguished Deliberations

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In the images of tense meetings in Washington, the faces and body language of the president's men offer a guide to their conflicting opinions on Syria.

WASHINGTON -- Sometimes, the internal dynamics of White House debates on military action are cloaked in mystery, emerging years afterward in the memoirs of participants. Other times, the details surface quickly, if someone leaks a version of events. And in some cases, the pictures tell the tale.

Such is the case with the Obama administration's anguished deliberations over how to respond to the Syrian civil war, the deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus last month and the president's own wrestling with whether to seek Congressional approval for a military strike.

Photographers have captured many dramatic moments of the last week, when President Obama abruptly halted his march to military action, announced he would seek the blessing of Congress for a strike, and then dispatched the members of his war council to Capitol Hill to make his case to skeptical lawmakers.

In the images of tense meetings in the Oval Office and the Situation Room, or under the lights in House and Senate hearing rooms, the faces and body language of the president's men (they are mostly men) are often a guide to their conflicting opinions on the best way forward.

It's easy to over-interpret photos, of course. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, said later that she might have been suppressing a cough when a White House photographer caught her putting her hand over her mouth in a famous photo of Mr. Obama's national security team watching as the commando raid on Osama bin Laden's hide-out in Pakistan unfolded.

But in this case, the images are corroborated by the accounts of several of the participants. The White House, by posting the work of its official photographer, Pete Souza, on Flickr hours after events rather than years later in a memoir or coffee-table book, is providing what amounts to a real-time visual account of a historic debate.

During two days of hearings on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry was the undisputed big dog, eclipsing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who flanked Mr. Kerry at the witness table like a pair of bookends.

Whether jabbing the air to emphasize a piece of intelligence or brusquely cutting off a Republican congressman who questioned his judgment given his past antiwar views, Mr. Kerry was every inch the former prosecutor making the case against President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Hagel, who has been more reluctant than Mr. Kerry to act militarily in Syria, answered questions when asked, but seemed occasionally unsure of his facts, such as when he said in answer to a question from a House member that Russia supplied Syria's chemical weapons. The Pentagon later walked that back, saying that Mr. Hagel had been referring to Russia's role as a longtime supplier of conventional weapons.

Mr. Hagel's shaky performance was reminiscent of his Senate confirmation hearings, when his uncertain answers prompted questions about his potential effectiveness as a spokesman for Mr. Obama's military policy.

As for General Dempsey, who has made clear his skepticism about military action in lengthy letters to Congress, he appeared to want to disappear behind his medals and ribbons. Looking down, offering monosyllabic answers, and dispensing with an opening statement, the general left little doubt that he was simply carrying out orders.

General Dempsey, it turns out, was not the only senior official harboring reservations. Mr. Obama, his aides say, was ambivalent about carrying out a military strike with a shaky legal case and without the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council. Those doubts intensified later in the week when the British Parliament voted against military action.

On Friday, Aug. 30, a day after that vote, Mr. Kerry stepped to the lectern at the State Department to deliver his most thunderous case yet for acting against Mr. Assad. Hours later, the president, flanked by leaders from the Baltic republics, offered a more muted case for action.

That evening, Mr. Obama asked his chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, to take a stroll with him on the South Lawn of the White House. He broke the news to Mr. McDonough that he was thinking of asking Congress to sign off on a strike against Syria.

At 7 p.m., the president summoned his closest political and national security aides to the Oval Office, where, as one put it, he told them, "I have a pretty big idea I want to test with you guys." Their reaction was one of shock and deep concern, as a photo by Mr. Souza suggests, and two of the senior aides present later confirmed.

To Mr. Obama's left, was Rob Nabors, his deputy chief of staff and former legislative liaison, whose job is to shepherd Mr. Obama's agenda through Congress. To his right was Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who has long advocated a robust response to Syria. Standing behind the sofa, watching over the debate, was Mr. McDonough.

The next morning, Mr. Obama assembled his National Security Council in the Situation Room. The same group had met there several times to plot the drive toward military action. But on this Saturday, the president was laying out a pause in the campaign.

To his right was Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who would stand behind him in the Rose Garden a few hours later, and Mr. Kerry, who would have to battle the perception that the White House had left him out on a limb. To his left were the his national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, and Mr. Hagel, whose celadon-green sport jacket and fuchsia shirt were a jarring counterpoint to the white shirts and sober ties of Mr. Biden and Mr. Kerry.

For Mr. Obama, who has sometimes been criticized for his inability to mask his emotions, it was a remarkable role reversal. By week's end, he appeared resolute in his course, while his aides seemed to be the ones struggling to hide their feelings.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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