In 2011, President Obama said, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside." Today the Syrian president is America's silent negotiating partner in the push to certify Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. The journey between those two points has been marked by a "just-in-time" foreign policy, guided by the idea that America could not definitively shape the outcome of Syria's civil war once Assad's opposition took up arms.
The past two years have seen a slew of internal policy deliberations lead to the same conclusion: The president did not want to get the U.S. military involved in a war whose end neither he nor his advisors could predict. While the stated "red line" and Syria's use of chemical weapons forced Obama's hand -- leading some of his own national security advisors to pitch for U.S. military involvement -- it did not change the president's mind about the desirability of sustained and extended American military involvement in another conflict in the Middle East.
A series of discussions over the past several months with those close to Syria policy reveal what they refer to as a great deal of administration handwringing -- and a whole lot of compromises -- as the White House pursued a "minimalist" approach to Syria that allowed America to pursue the least-lousy option among many. While some advisors who favored greater military intervention walked away from the debate frustrated with repeated discussions and delayed decisions, the president in the end remained close to his initial view, as the administration struggled with three competing realities.