WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's aides were stunned at what their boss had to say when he summoned them to the Oval Office on Friday at 7 p.m., on the eve of what they believed could be a weekend when American missiles streaked again across the Middle East.
In a two-hour meeting of passionate, sharp debate in the Oval Office, he told them that after a frantic week in which he seemed to be rushing toward a military attack on Syria, he wanted to pull back and seek congressional approval first.
He had several reasons, he told them, including a sense of isolation after the vote by the British Parliament against military action. But the most compelling one may have been that acting alone would undercut him if in the next three years he needed congressional authority for his next military confrontation in the Middle East, perhaps with Iran.
If he made the decision to strike Syria without Congress now, he said, would he get Congress when he really needed it?
Senior aides on Saturday discussed the president's deliberations with the New York Times on the condition of anonymity.
The Oval Office meeting ended one of the strangest weeks of the Obama White House, in which a president who had drawn a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons by Syria found himself compelled to act by his own statements. But Obama, who has been reluctant for the past two years to get entangled in Syria, had qualms from the start.
Even as he steeled himself for an attack this past week, two advisers said, he nurtured doubts about the political and legal justification for action, given that the U.N. Security Council had refused to bless a military strike that he had not put before Congress. A drumbeat of lawmakers demanding a vote added to the sense that he could be out on a limb.
"I know well we are weary of war," Obama said in the Rose Garden on Saturday. "We've ended one war in Iraq. We're ending another in Afghanistan. And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military."
The speech, which crystallized both Obama's outrage at the wanton use of chemical weapons and his ambivalence about military action, was a coda to a week that began Aug. 24, when he convened a meeting of his National Security Council.
In that meeting, held in the White House Situation Room, Obama said that he was devastated by the images of women and children gasping and convulsing from the effects of a poison gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus three days before. The Aug. 21 attack, which American intelligence agencies say killed more than 1,400 people, was on a far different scale than earlier, smaller chemical weapons attacks.
From that moment, the White House set about formulating the strongest case for military action it could. Yet Obama's ambivalence was palpable, and public. While Secretary of State John Kerry made his fiery case against Syrian President Bashar Assad, the president was circumspect, sprinkling his words with caveats about the modest scale of the operation and acknowledgments of the nation's combat fatigue.
Beyond the questions of political legitimacy, aides said, Obama told them Friday night that he was troubled that authorizing another military action over the heads of Congress would contradict the spirit of his speech last spring, in which he attempted to chart a shift in the United States from the perennial war footing of the post-Sept. 11 era.
Against the resistance of his senior staff, he decided to call for a vote by Congress.