It was ironic that the day The Atlantic monthly published what was supposed to be the definitive work on US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was removing the bulk of his military forces from Syria.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s long profile titled, “The Obama Doctrine,” sought to define the theoretical underpinning of Obama’s foreign policy. Goldberg devoted the bulk of his twenty thousand-word corpus to analyzing Obama’s policies in Syria, where, he offered, Obama finally broke free from foreign policy community’s constraints, and set out on his own course.
Reading Obama’s view of Putin the same day the Russian leader surprised the US in announcing his decision to immediately withdraw Russian forces from Syria was instructive.
Putin, Obama sneered, is “constantly interested in being seen as our peer and working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up [Syrian President Bashar] Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player.”
Moreover, Obama said, Putin’s decision to deploy his forces to Syria would have no impact on Russia’s global influence.”
“The notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs, or in the world general. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.”
Although they sound smart, Obama’s statements were utter hogwash.
By sending his forces to Syria, Putin not only secured Russians military bases in Syria for the foreseeable future. Putin vastly improved Russia’s international position—and did so at America’s expense.
Putin exposed the emptiness of Obama’s global leadership in the campaign against ISIS. Among other things, Putin called Obama’s bluff by threatening US combat jets with his air defense batteries.
Rather than confront Putin for his refusal to deconflict his forces from US fighter craft, Obama ordered US forces to end manned aircraft sorties in the area around Russia’s air defenses and reduced the vaunted US anti-ISIS campaign to drone strikes. In other words, he allowed Russia to create a no-fly zone against the US Air Force.
Obama’s readiness to stand back and allow Putin to replace America as the superpower power broker in the Middle East isn’t all that surprising. In his conversations with Goldberg, Obama derided the need to uphold America’s commitments.
Obama’s first open move to upend America’s global credibility—what Goldberg refers to as his “liberation day,” came on August 30, 2013. That day, Obama decided not to attack Syrian regime targets in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons gas against Syrian civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21. Some 1,400 people were reportedly murdered in the strike.
“The moment Obama decided not to enforce his redline and bomb Syria,” Goldberg wrote, “he broke with what he calls, derisively, ‘the Washington playbook.'” Obama told Goldberg, “I’m very proud of that moment,” when he shuffled off the “overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus.”
Just as the foreign policy establishment—including Obama’s advisers and cabinet secretaries—was mortified by his decision to trample on US credibility that day, so its members remain flummoxed by his refusal to deal seriously with the growing threat that ISIS poses to key US interests.
Goldberg gave voice to that frustration by citing a conversation he had with Secretary of State John Kerry.
Obama stubbornly maintains that unlike his view of climate change, which he believes is a “potential existential threat,” ISIS does not represent “an existential threat to the United States;” Kerry, in contrast, is certain that ISIS is a first order strategic threat.
ISIS, Kerry intoned, “is a threat to everybody in the world.”
It is “overtly committed to destroying people in the West and in the Middle East.
“Imagine what would happen if we don’t stand and fight them… [Y]ou could have allies and friends of ours fall. You could have a massive migration into Europe that destroys Europe, leads to the pure destruction of Europe, ends the European project, and everyone runs for cover and you’ve got the 1930s all over again, with nationalism and fascism and other things breaking out. Of course we have an interest in this, a huge interest in this.”
Goldberg didn’t mention when Kerry made those remarks, but they are more a description of reality than a warning of things to come. Every month 100,000 Syrians make their way to Europe. Popular opposition to this deluge of Islamic migrants—nearly none of whom has experience with Western liberal culture—is fomenting the rise of nationalist forces in country after country, as the success of Germany’s far right AfD party in Sunday’s regional elections made clear.
But Obama remains unmoved. As he sees it, the threat that racist Americans will respond to the threat of ISIS with racism directed against Muslims is greater than the threat that ISIS poses to the US, its allies and the global order.
And this brings us to the heart of the principles that guide Obama’s foreign policy.
Goldberg, like others who have come in contact with Obama over the years, admires his emotional detachment, his “coolness,” or what Goldberg views as his “Spockian” rationality—after Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.
Obama, in other words, is cool, calm and collected.
He works with this head. He’s smart and calculating.
So why then is his foreign policy so destructive? Why has he allowed—indeed enabled—Russia to return to the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s? Why has he allowed the ISIS cancer to grow? Why has the man who entered office promising to eradicate nuclear weapons paved the way for Iran to acquire them? Why has Obama allowed ISIS and Assad to use chemical weapons at will? Why did he overthrow Muammar Gaddafi and then do nothing to prevent ISIS from taking over large swaths of Libya? Why has he alienated and repeatedly undercut every US ally in the Middle East and many US allies in Europe?
None of this seems very smart.
To understand what Obama wants, it is important to note the four consistent strands of Obama’s foreign policy that appeared throughout Goldberg’s article.
First, from the opening days of his presidency, Obama has continuously stressed what he views as America’s moral flaws and its unfitness and unworthiness to serve as the world’s most powerful nation. Although Goldberg noted that Obama grudgingly came to acknowledge that America is the indispensable nation, he also showed Obama’s resentment of that state of affairs and Obama’s keen interest in restraining American power.
For instance, Obama told Goldberg, “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris.”
Obama, Goldberg explained, “consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness.”
“We have history,” Obama told him. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”
The second consistent aspect of Obama’s policies is that he consistently rejects securing the traditional goals of US foreign policy—opposing US enemies, siding with US allies, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, to US enemies.
Not only does Obama oppose traditional policy goals such as preventing Russia from competing with the US in the Middle East. Obama insists that the US is incompetent to implement them successfully and that US allies are wrong to expect the US to side with them against their common enemies.
Third, Obama has consistently refused to see the dangers of the policies that he has adopted and blames others when the dangers materialize and his policies fail.
For instance, whereas the US intelligence community opposed overthrowing Gaddafi, Obama told Goldberg that the intelligence community failed to tell him how unstable Libyan society was.
While Obama famously referred to ISIS as “the jayvee team,” and has refused to take serious steps to destroy the genocidal group, Obama blames the US military for misinforming him about the potency of the ISIS threat.
Finally, Obama has consistently undercut US allies in his attempts to appease US enemies. The obvious example of this is his ill-treatment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel throughout his tenure in office. But in his conversations with Goldberg, Obama viciously attacked the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France and Britain. All of them exhibited varying degrees of unworthiness of his support as he embarked on policy trajectories they viewed as threatening and counterproductive.
As an intelligent man, as the consequences of these four policy lines began smacking him in the face, Obama could have been expected to change course. George W. Bush for instance changed his foreign policy stance from one of sparing internationalism before September 11 to democratic interventionism in its aftermath. And when his democratic interventionism failed in Iraq, he abandoned it in favor of a more traditional realist approach.
Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were also quick to change their policies when they were faced with evidence they had failed. Ronald Reagan changed his policy for bringing down the Soviet Union from one of confrontation to one based on cooperation when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.
In other words, unlike his recent predecessors Obama has never shifted gears. He has never found fault with his judgment. He has never revisited a decision.
It is easy to chalk this up to arrogance. Obama is certainly one of the most arrogant leaders the US has ever had—if not the most arrogant president in US history. But given his intelligence, it is hard to escape the impression that Obama’s epic arrogance, which makes it impossible for him to admit failure, is just as much of a style preference as a character trait. That is, arrogance, like coolness and “Spockian” rationalism, is an attitude that he has adopted on purpose.
What that purpose may be is indicated by the consistent strands of his foreign policy. Obama’s belief in America’s moral turpitude, his eagerness to trample US credibility, reject traditional US policy goals; his refusal to see the dangers inherent in his radical policies or acknowledge their failures let alone accept responsibility for their failures, and his trampling of US allies while appeasing its enemies all point to Obama’s true doctrine.
A version of this piece previously appeared on The Jerusalem Post.