Jeffrey Goldberg has released an epic-length Atlantic Monthly cover story on the “Obama doctrine.” While one is reminded at times of an anonymous Vatican official’s quip about George Weigel’s biography of Pope John Paul II—”It left one with the question: Who is that man in white standing next to George Weigel?”—you have to give it to Goldberg for waiting till the end of Obama’s presidency to explain his Doctrine. Other Washington foreign-policy watchers have been defining it since before it existed.
Two Barack Obamas emerge from Goldberg’s unprecedented access: Obama the President, and Obama the Pundit. Obama the Pundit has the far wiser foreign-policy mind.
Obama the Pundit, to my great surprise, echoes many of the things I have said and written about foreign policy. (I only visited the Obama White House once, where the Iran deal was marketed to a group of scholars.) Take the following selections as a sampling:
Obama also shared with [White House Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough a long-standing resentment: He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries. Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.
On the tendencies and biases of the Washington foreign-policy establishment:
“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses…”
[Obama] resented military leaders who believed they could fix any problem if the commander in chief would simply give them what they wanted, and he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex. A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”
Let it be said that every word of this is more true than the president would have it. He also ridicules the US-Saudi relationship to good end. The dispiriting part of the interview comes during the parts where Obama the President politicks.
On Libya, Obama called the country at present a “s**t show,” explaining that:
[T]he degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected. And our ability to have any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources broke down very quickly.
This is really unforgivable. A poor, naive president misled by perfidious advisers assuring him that situation was ripe for regime change. Does that sound familiar? To paraphrase FDR, it may be a s**t show, but it’s our s**t show.
If Obama, who prides himself on being a Scowcroftian realist, really believed that tribal divisions in Libya were minimal, or that simply decapitating the Qaddafi regime would provide a “structure there that we could interact with and start training,” he should stop differentiating himself from President Bush the Younger in every respect except for one: cost.
Obama has made a number of unforced errors in foreign policy, to include much of the drone campaign, the Libya war, the Yemen war, and others. But what he has not done, and what does differentiate him from Bush the Younger, is his avoidance of costs. Where Bush’s naivete produced thousands of dead Americans and tens of thousands of Americans grievously wounded in pursuit of a phantom, Obama has played by the rules of the foreign-policy establishment without incurring high costs.
Washington changed Obama, and not for the better, but given the deranged proposals that swirled inside the Beltway during his tenure, he looks comparatively restrained. Grading on the curve of American presidents, perhaps we should be thankful. The next president, whoever s/he might be, will almost certainly be worse on foreign policy.