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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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September 2nd, 2013
05:38 PM ET

Evolution of Obama's thinking on Syria

President Barack Obama surprised even many on his own national security team when he decided he would seek congressional authorization to carry out strikes against the Syrian regime, even though he does not believe he needs it.

"After careful deliberation, I have decided that the U.S. should take military action against Syrian targets," Obama said Saturday. "Our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

The statement seemed at odds with the fierce urgency conveyed just a day before by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said, "History will judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings."

That same day, even as Kerry minced no words, Obama continued to choose his judiciously.

"Obviously, if and when we make a decision to respond, there are a whole host of considerations that I have to take into account, too, in terms of how effective it is," said Obama.

Kerry was projecting resolve at the same time the president was expressing his own frustration.

"Frankly, part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it," said Obama.

Those urging action, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, say the president's desire for congressional endorsement should have been taken into account before his administration conveyed action was imminent.

"Now our allies are dispirited and our enemies are encouraged. The Free Syrian Army has suffered a real blow to their morale because they were believing that Bashar Assad would be severely punished for the massacre that he has perpetrated. Obviously that's not happening," McCain said.

Part of the president's mindset, according to aides, is that Obama during the course of his presidency has developed something of an ambivalence on the use of U.S. force, drones notwithstanding.

"I assure you, nobody ends up being more war-weary than me," Obama said Friday.

Yet Obama is also convinced, aides say, that it would be more consequential to ignore the intelligence that Assad's regime violated the ban on the use of chemical weapons on its own people.

"We have currently rules in place dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," Obama said. "But if there's a sense that over time nobody is willing to actually enforce them, then people won't take them seriously."

Year after year of diplomatic efforts had failed. Optimism about Assad expressed in March 2011 was followed by new sanctions later that year.

We had hoped Assad was a reformer "because there was a lot at stake," then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told CNN's Jake Tapper, then with ABC, in 2011. "We heard what Assad said about what he wanted to do for reform. But when it came to it, in the Arab Spring, and as people actually demanded some freedom and their rights, he responded, as we have seen, very violently."

Then, an off-the-cuff remark about a red-line in 2012.

"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation," Obama said in August of last year.

An equation that he talked about in an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes four years ago when he was just coming to realize the difficulty of the job.

"A lot of times, when things land at my desk – it's a choice between bad and worse. And as somebody pointed out to me – the only things that land on my desk are tough decisions. Because, if they were easy decisions, somebody down the food chain's already made them," Obama said.

Back then of course he could blame it all on someone else.

"The fact that you are often confronted with bad choices that flow from less than optimal decisions made a year ago, two years ago, five years ago, when you weren't here. You'd love to unwind some of that decision making and say, 'I wish I could have nipped this at the bud,'" said Obama.

One of the fiercest critics of the president's decision may be Frederic Hof, former Ambassador to Syria under the Obama administration.

“The events of the past ten days suggest that there was no administration forethought to the possibility of a major chemical incident in Syria; there was no plan in place to respond to a major chemical attack by a regime that had already demonstrated its deep and abiding contempt for the president and his red lines. The results of this mystifying lack of preparedness have been abysmal,” Hof said Sunday.

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