(Editor's Note: As the end of 2013 approaches, the Washington Examiner is shining a spotlight on its top stories of the year. Today, it's chief congressional correspondent Susan Ferrechio on all eyes turning to President Obama after Syria's use of chemical weapons. This story first ran on Sept. 13 and can be found in its original form here.)
By the time President Obama entered the East Room of the White House to make the case in a televised address that America must respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons, Congress and a war-weary public had been whipsawed by confusion over where the crisis was heading.
Early in the day, lawmakers were cheering a diplomatic solution that appeared close at hand. The deal would have stripped Syria of its stash of chemical weapons with the help of its ally Russia, making unnecessary United States air strikes against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
But hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin toyed with the United States over the diplomatic proposal. The plan could only work, he announced, if the U.S. abandoned its threat of military force, a non-starter with Obama because to do so would eliminate America's only point of leverage against Syria.
The fraying deal left President Obama back at square one, relying on a balky Congress to eventually consider a highly unpopular resolution authorizing military force, a measure that has very little chance of passing and whose defeat would threaten the nation's credibility around the world.
Even his prime-time speech raised more questions than it answered. While calling for a military strike against Syria that he said would be limited, yet far more significant than a "pinprick," Obama announced that he has asked Congress to postpone a vote on an authorizing resolution so that diplomatic resolution can be pursued.
"Meanwhile, I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture, to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails," Obama said.
His speech was ridiculed on Twitter, and even the anti-war protesters on the White House front lawn were laughing.
"He didn't have the votes," one protester said after Obama called for postponing action in Congress, according to Huffington Post.
Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, summed up the sentiment of many House and Senate lawmakers:
“Obama tried to be Churchill and instead looked like Benny Hill."
The twists and turns in the Syria melodrama came as no surprise to Obama's foreign policy critics, who say the current crisis is years in the making and stems from his administration's ham-handed diplomacy with friends and foes alike.
"In any leader, one needs a vision and a set of principles and a clear purpose, and the president lacks all three," said Danielle Pletka, once a point person for the GOP on the Senate Foreign Relations panel and now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "He has no organizing principle about foreign policy, other than retreat and disengagement."
Critics point to foreign policy missteps dating back to the early days of Obama's presidency, beginning with his June 4, 2009, "New Beginnings" speech in Cairo that some believe disparaged the U.S. in the name of fostering a better relationship with the Muslim world.
The president's dealings with Syria have taken the criticism to new heights. Obama, who campaigned on an anti-war platform and received the Nobel Peace Prize just a few months after taking office, pointedly took no action in the two-and-a-half-year Syrian war that has killed 100,000 people and driven another two million from their homes.
Then, acting on his self-imposed "red line," he called for missile strikes after more than 1,400 Syrians were killed in a chemical-weapons attack almost certainly carried out by the Assad regime.
"I am at a loss to understand the president's foreign policy or its objectives, or its trajectory or its strategy, I just don't understand," Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., told the Washington Examiner.
Campbell gathered with fellow lawmakers this week to try to make sense of Obama's plan to launch a missile strike.
"How does this fit into his view of the United States' involvement in foreign affairs?" one lawmaker wondered. "None of us know. It seems to be against what he has espoused in campaigns. So, was what he espoused in campaigns not what he believes, or is it just that he doesn't know what he believes, or what? It's frankly quite baffling."
Beyond baffling, critics say, the Obama administration's handling of Syria has been nothing short of bumbling, with a series of off-the-cuff and unplanned statements by Obama and administration officials that dragged the U.S. into the confrontation with Syria and then, just as unexpectedly, provided a potential path out of the quagmire.
The road to U.S. intervention with Syria dates to August 2012, when the president issued his now-famous ultimatum on chemical weapons.
"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
News reports cited unnamed White House officials who said the "red line" remark was ad-libbed by the president and may have pushed him into a more aggressive stance against Syria than he intended or wanted.
But the comment established a threshold that forced Obama to act when the administration received reports of the Aug. 21 chemical attack against rebel neighborhoods outside Damascus.
The president threatened military strikes against Syria that he said did not require congressional approval, and he directed Secretary of State John Kerry to make the case for military action, which he did in an impassioned speech on Aug. 30.
But the next day, after consulting no one except Chief of Staff Denis McDonough during a stroll on the White House lawn, Obama stunned the world by abandoning the strike plan and announcing he would would first seek congressional authorization for military action.
"In each case," Pletka said, "he took members of his administration by total surprise."
The deal now on the table, in which Syria would avoid a strike by handing over its chemical weapons, also came about inadvertently, when Kerry made an impromptu suggestion at a London press conference that Syria could avoid an attack by the United States if Assad immediately surrendered all chemical weapons.
"But he isn't about to do that, and it can't be done," Kerry said at the event.
The Russians, however, seized on the offer, despite Kerry aides calling his remarks a "rhetorical" statement about a government that "cannot be trusted."
After a call from the Russian foreign minister to Kerry, his unconsidered remarks suddenly became a legitimate offer.
Lawmakers from both parties praised a chance for a diplomatic solution, and Democrats quickly credited Obama. After struggling to find a way out of a political mess of his own making, the president was suddenly taking a victory lap.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pointed out that Obama talked with Putin about a brokered deal with Syria at the G-20 summit, crediting the president with making a proposal "that now has muscle, because of the prospects of a threat."
But confusion and a disturbing disconnect within the Obama administration continued to muddy the waters, with Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice telling lawmakers at a Sept. 9 classified briefing that the Russian offer was not credible because Putin cannot be trusted.
At the same moment, Obama was telling CNN that the offer might be a "breakthrough" that could avert military action.
"I thought, 'Wow, how would you like to be figuring how the White House determines what they are going to do next?" asked House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon, R-Calif., in an interview on the Laura Ingraham show. "It is so laughable, if it weren't such a serious thing."
Even if the Syria crisis is resolved without launching one Tomahawk missile, Obama could suffer longterm political damage, pollsters say.
Recent surveys show Americans have lost faith in Obama's handling of Syria, with his approval numbers dropping into the low 30's.
Typically, Obama scores higher on foreign policy -- above 50 percent -- than on domestic matters, and this new low is dragging down his overall approval rating, said Ron Faucheux, president of Clarus Research Group polling firm.
"So the question is," Faucheux said, "will Obama's handling of Syria and the incompetence perceived by voters spill over to their perception of his handling of other issues?"
Senior Congressional Correspondent David M. Drucker contributed to this report.