WASHINGTON - For President Barack Obama's new foreign policy advisers, the first test of their willingness to undertake military action wound up being a stark lesson in the president's ability to overrule them all.
Obama's abrupt decision to seek congressional approval before striking Syria also overshadowed what had been a surprising level of consensus among the second-term team members about how to respond to a deadly chemical weapons attack against civilians in Syria.
People close to the deliberations say Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, national security adviser Susan Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power largely agreed about the need to use force to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad. While there were some differing views about the speed and the scope of an attack, there were no splintered factions the way there had been during first-term debates over taking action in Libya or launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The advisers, two of whom are former senators, were also willing to proceed without congressional authorization. But on Friday night, after a week spent speeding toward military action, the president made a stunning turnabout and decided he wanted approval from lawmakers before carrying out an attack.
"While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective," Obama said as he announced the decision Saturday. "We should have this debate."
The way the president arrived at his decision highlights what has been a source of criticism among Washington's foreign policy thinkers: a president who has centralized decision-making within the White House and at times marginalized the State Department and Pentagon.
As Obama grappled with putting military action to a vote in Congress, he didn't consult his foreign policy team. Instead, he sought out Denis McDonough, a longtime adviser who now serves as his chief of staff. And most of the administration's foreign policy leadership was absent from the Oval Office meeting Friday night when the president informed several advisers about his decision to seek congressional approval.