Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, brilliantly explained

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Jeffrey Goldberg: “Within the White House, Obama would argue that ‘dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.’”

If you pay much attention to the news, you may have seen references to or heard Jeffrey Goldberg talking about his epic article, titled “The Obama Doctrine,” published in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine.

It is a brilliant, exhausting piece of journalism reviewing the foreign and military policy and accomplishments of the Obama administration based on what must be many hours of interview with President Obama on various flights aboard Air Force One and many more in various earthbound locales around the world to which Goldberg followed Obama.

I should have embedded a link to The Atlantic piece in the paragraph above, but I had to make sure I had warned you in advance that by “epic” and “exhausting,” among other things, I mean really, really long. I don’t guess many people will get through the Goldberg article in one setting. But you can and should read it for yourself. So OK, here’s the link.

“The Obama Doctrine” is a stunning accomplishment that goes over all the major foreign-policy events of the past seven years and, mostly, gives Obama himself (although others are quoted in it) a chance to explain what he hoped to accomplish and — just as often — what quagmire he hoped to avoid.

If it hasn’t come across clearly before, I’m a pretty big Obama admirer. I’m also, while not a pacifist, pretty skeptical about the benefits to America of most of our recent wars, incursions, bombing missions, etc. Perhaps it will come as no surprise, but over the course of many conversations with Goldberg, Obama comes across as a guy who is reluctant to get us into the next quagmire. But, assuming Goldberg has a good tape recorder, Obama has a knack for explaining what he was weighing and what he hoped to accomplish at each step along the way.

The big picture

Of course, you couldn’t be in our country since 2009 and not be aware that a lot of Americans and almost all practicing Republican politicians (I can think of a few exceptions, like Ron and Rand Paul) believe that Obama has been way too gun shy in such matters and missed out on a whole lot of opportunities to teach bad guys a lesson and spread democracy and free the oppressed. Here’s an example of how Obama sees the big picture:

Obama: “A president does not make decisions in a vacuum. He does not have a blank slate. Any president who was thoughtful, I believe, would recognize that after over a decade of war, with obligations that are still to this day requiring great amounts of resources and attention in Afghanistan, with the experience of Iraq, with the strains that it’s placed on our military — any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.”

There was, of course, the famous/infamous “red line” in Syria, where Obama warned that any use of chemical weapons by dictator/President Bashar al-Assad would be a red line for America and require a response. And Assad did use chemical weapons, and Obama still didn’t order a significant escalation of the U.S. involvement in the Syrian quagmire, which was taken as a massive violation of the vital “credibility” norms, which hold that if a president issues such a warning and the warnee doesn’t heed it, U.S. punishment must follow or the president loses the vital commodity known as “credibility.”

Goldberg and Obama discussed this at length. Of course, Obama would like people to notice that, although he didn’t order the U.S. military to bomb the crap out of Assad, he did succeed in getting Assad to verifiably give up his stock of chemical weapons, which isn’t nothing.

But in the interviews, Obama, shockingly, rejected the whole credibility religion, as reflected in the following two sentences (Goldberg is summarizing in his own words what Obama told him except the quote at the end.)

“Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of ‘credibility’ — particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam. Within the White House, Obama would argue that ‘dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.’”

Yikes. I didn’t know he was allowed to say that, but maybe even a president has First Amendment rights, especially in explaining his own actions. To be clear, Obama wasn’t recommending a practice of making idle threats, just trying not to build a self-enforcing religion around the “credibility” doctrine.

A different doctrine

Obama subscribes to a different doctrine, which is usually summarized in polite company as “don’t do stupid stuff,” although I’ve always assumed that “stuff” was a polite synonym for a different s-word, an assumption confirmed by Goldberg, who uses the impolite word. One of my favorite passages — one that made me laugh out loud when I read it — brings Hillary Clinton into the picture for mocking Obama’s favorite four-word principle. Here’s that passage, in which I have substituted the word “spit” for a common but rude synonym for excrement:

Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me [Goldberg] that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-spit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers.

“The president did not understand how ‘Don’t do stupid spit’ could be considered a controversial slogan. [Deputy National Security Advisor] Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-spit caucus? Who is pro–stupid spit?’ 

The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid spit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.) ….”

Well, I warned you that the Goldberg piece is long. I don’t want to compound the problem by summarizing it at too great a length, so I’ll just close with one more excerpt, this one in Goldberg’s voice but in which he summarizes “a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it” that Obama has come to during his years in the Oval Office:

The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power. Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. Obama believes that history has sides, and that America’s adversaries — and some of its putative allies — have situated themselves on the wrong one, a place where tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism still flourish. What they don’t understand is that history is bending in his direction.

Here’s the link again.

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Comments (40)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/14/2016 - 10:27 am.

    Well, OK

    Ya sure, you betcha!

    And, this guy’s in London, lecturing the Brits to stay in the EU.

    Ten more months, and trying not to injure my fingers while counting down.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/14/2016 - 10:49 am.


    An entire “spin” article about the wisdom of Obama and foreign policy and not one mention of North Korea and Iran.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/14/2016 - 12:13 pm.

      Equally Amazing

      If one were to click through to the linked article, one would see some discussion of Iran.

      Of course, that would necessitate actually reading the article. I know–what kind of bullspit is that, right?

      • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/14/2016 - 01:21 pm.


        Sorry – I just read the “spin” of the “spin.” I should have gone to the original “spin.”

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 03/14/2016 - 11:16 am.

    Any discussion about the USA removing our missile systems in Poland and the Russians taking over lands they want without a finger being lifted by anybody? The Iranian deal being an absolute joke, the rise of ISIS in Syria under Obama administration, our relationships with every country in the Mid East being strained, our foreign policy being put our heads in the sand and hope it goes away? Obama is looking for “rational” partners in the Mid East where ISIS beheads anybody who disagrees with them, Iranians chant “death to America” at every rally, Mid East refugees are storming Europe to escape a region on fire and Obama wants “broad progressive partners” out of that mess. I guess it is much easier to put your head in the sand than to come up with solutions in an area where there are no easy answers. That is why true leadership is so hard.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 03/15/2016 - 10:18 am.

      some might say

      It is much easier to advocate US military involvement without seeming to than to analyze the problems the US faces and separate those that might be solved with bombing/droning/boots on the ground from those that cannot; then come up with solutions that do not involve knee-jerk militarism. That is why true US leadership is so hard, so rare and so unappreciated.

    • Submitted by Leslie Kemp on 12/20/2016 - 04:40 pm.

      I Read Original Article

      I actually read the original article, so I did see many of these points addressed that you listed above. What was the most telling to me was Obama’s reference to “free loaders” in the EU and the Middle East; the ones drawing us into these problems, willing to “hold our coats” while we fight it out. That quote in the original article was specifically telling. The base line for Obama foreign policy was the unwillingness to engage on a military level unless it “directly effected” or related to U.S. I agree 100% this was a puff piece to inflate and praise Obama’s “brilliance” in foreign policy. By Obama’s abject failure to effectively take on the middle east Islamic terrorist in a successful and decisive way, IMO he not only weakened our influence in the global sphere and emboldened our enemies of democracy abroad, but he also (ironically yet unintentionally) increased the “free loader” mentality in this nation and possibly around the globe. President Obama’s cerebral elitist and upside down backwards mental Jedi ideology (IMO) is what is killing this great nation.

  4. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 03/14/2016 - 11:46 am.


    I, among many, are happy that we are not losing large numbers of our military like we were eight years ago in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    You all may recall that we spent about ten years in each country and at best achieved an unstable and artificial peace. Both governments that we supported were corrupt taking our money and enriching themselves. Any time that we stepped back, the violence started back up. At some point, don’t these countries have to take care of themselves?

    I am equally happy that we are not losing troops in Syria, Yemen or any where else in the middle east that the GOP wants us to invade. There are no good partners there. I would not want to be allies with Saudi Arabia or Iran. Israel seems like it just wants to keep expanding into Palestinian areas; I heard that there are now 500,000 Israeli “settlers”. That seems permanent. Israel is probably enjoying watching their enemies fighting each other.

    North Korea had nukes eight years ago and they still do. And they still have a crazy leader, just as they did then.

    Iran just gave up its enriched nuclear material and its plutonium reactor. They seem to be following through on its nuclear promises and elected more moderates. They got their money back, but it was their money to begin with. We froze it based on their nuclear activity and a deal is a deal.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/14/2016 - 11:49 am.

    I look forward

    … to Mr. Million and Mr. Gotzman letting us (and the relative or loved one involved) know which of their loved ones they’re willing to sacrifice in a pointless war with Iran or North Korea. More than 50,000 Americans died in my own generation’s foolishness in Vietnam, essentially to no purpose, and largely in the name of “credibility.” An hour spent looking at the names carved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington will give any thoughtful person an opportunity to reflect on the value of bombing because you can, as opposed to bombing because it’s necessary to preserve and protect the United States.

    I am no pacifist, but “Don’t do stupid spit” seems to me an excellent motto for a national government to follow, in both foreign and domestic policy.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/14/2016 - 12:50 pm.

      All so true –

      As is Mr. Coleman’s point of our continual support for corrupt gov’ts. We never learn: no gov’t was better at corruption than South Vietnam. Another point: don’t get involved in another country’s civil war.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/14/2016 - 03:51 pm.

      That’s easy

      For conservatives, they’ll be happy to sacrifice some else’s children, after all it’s duty. They might feel sad for a bit, but they’ll be happy to tell anyone left behind how glorious and honorable their loved ones deaths were, and how rewarded they’ll be in the hereafter. Hmm, I think I’ve heard this story before…

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/15/2016 - 09:36 am.


      Leave my name out of your references. I give absolutely no suggestion of Middle East issues, certainly not war there, or elsewhere. I fear you project your issues, not mine.
      I strongly object to this reflexive remark regarding those views you cannot possibly know.

      Why not, instead, simply ask me?

      “…the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington will give any thoughtful person an opportunity to reflect…” Indeed, Mr. Schoch.

      I was raised to always view both sides of any issue, quite functionally to take either side in formal debate. Of course I have personal points of view, most definitely from the center line; although, that objectivity requires far more discipline today than ever I can remember.

      If you open a discussion, you will learn I am a person of significant reflection in very many respects, and certainly not your adversary here.

      Thanks, Jim

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/14/2016 - 12:47 pm.

    Depending who the next White House occupant is…

    I’ll miss having an intelligent president who does smart and thoughtful things. As we’ve seen in politics and here in our comments, there’s no fixing stupid, but you can work around it and vote it out of office.

  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/14/2016 - 12:54 pm.

    The trend in Obama administration foreign policy is to ask the question as to who really is our ally, and who really is our enemy. It’s certainly not the establishment “wisdom” that says our best allies in the middle east are Israel and Saudi Arabia and orients all policy around that axis. It’s to realize that while Great Britain and other European nations may talk big about world issues, but what they really want the US to do all of the heavy lifting (where did the impetus for Libya first arise ?). It’s to realize the Iran is not our friend, but the time is almost passed where a major war can be avoided, so a deal has to be done. It is to make the statement that if the middle east wants to rid itself of radical Islam, the heaviest lifting needs to be done by other followers of Islam.

  8. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 03/14/2016 - 01:23 pm.

    It’s easy

    to identify the fear and war mongers.

  9. Submitted by John Clouse on 03/14/2016 - 01:39 pm.


    These policies are exactly why I have supported Obama and now support Bernie.
    Let’s get out of the Middle East quagmire.
    I’m afraid we are headed toward WWIII and this time the US will be a battleground.

  10. Submitted by William Stahl on 03/14/2016 - 03:45 pm.

    Obama and Goldberg

    Jeffrey Goldberg is a respected Israeli-American journalist with neo-con tendencies who has written extensively about Middle East issues; he absolutely does not have a record as an Obama apologist. He says that the Atlantic project came from curiosity about why an obscure Illinois state politician came to the correct conclusion in 2002 about American involvement in Iraq while he (Goldberg) and so many others were badly mistaken.

    He has discussed the article in various venues (especially PBS) in the past few days, and it is clear that while he doesn’t necessarily agree with all that Obama said, he has gained enormous respect for the deep thought that Obama has gone through. Goldberg also said that the Republican presidential candidates on this subject are a bad joke in comparison. Today, Goldberg tweeted that Putin’s announcement that Russia was withdrawing most of its military from Syria confirms Obama’s analysis (discussed in the article) of why Russian involvement could not last.

    Obama’s analysis of where American interests really lie (Asia especially but also Africa & Latin America, much more than the Middle East) reminds me of the back-to-basics questions that a management consultant would ask a large conglomerate with multiple business lines: How do you
    make money? What can you influence?

    By all means, read the article.

  11. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/14/2016 - 10:39 pm.


    How long will it be possible to refer to Iraq war with such inaccuracy and draw huge conclusions based on that inaccuracy? Iraq war was a success! Iraq reconstruction was not. Those are two different things so avoiding reconstruction attempts after victory in a war in the Middle East would be the right conclusion while avoiding a war altogether is a totally wrong conclusion. Is it possible to have and win a war and not try to reconstruct a looser country after that victory? Absolutely!

    Obama’s explanation for unimportance of “credibility” reminds me of Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes.” Since Obama does not have credibility, it is not important, just like the grapes that the fox could not get were not ripe. But credibility is not necessarily related to threats and use of force. In fact, credibility is the quality of being trusted, according to its definition. So let’s rephrase what Obama stated: it is not important to be trustworthy. Yikes, as Mr. Black said.

    And of course the real question everyone must ask is this: Is America safer and is the world less dangerous now than 7 years ago? The answer is clearly NO based on the number of people killed, displaced, and suffering. Apparently, “don’t do stupid things” approach is not working.

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 03/15/2016 - 08:35 am.

      Go back one President for the genesis of “stupid things”

      You can’t call a war that never should have happened a success. Hard to tell those who lost loved ones in a war that never should of happened a success. Hard to conduct a war based totally on fabricated information, spend a trillion dollars, and call it a success. If good old George W. Bush and Dick Cheney hadn’t done “stupid things” and let the Middle East quagmire figure out its own problems the world just might be a better place.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/15/2016 - 09:24 am.

      Success ??


      …..The immediate considerations behind the invasion of Iraq were characterized by concerns brought to the forefront by the events of September 11th 2001, namely global terrorism, and more importantly, the weapons at its disposal in a new era of transnational asymmetrical war waged by non-state actors. As President George W. Bush made it clear in his State of the Union on January 29th 2002, in meeting this challenge, the US would not differentiate between terrorist groups and nations which harbour or arm them (Bush, 2002). This policy led to the invasion of Afghanistan, motivated by the need to remove al-Qaeda’s safe haven and training ground.

      Iraq did not specifically harbour al-Qaeda, but it had provided training camps and other support to terrorist groups fighting the government of Turkey and Iran, as well as hard-line Palestinian groups. In fact, “the question of Iraq’s link to terrorism grew more urgent with Saddam’s suspected determination to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which Bush administration officials feared he might share with terrorists who could launch devastating attacks against the United States” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2005). Nonetheless, the official reason that the US cited for launching the invasion was exemplified by Colin Powell’s statement to the United Nations on February 5th 2003 (Washington Post, 2005).

      However, the unofficial reasons why the US led the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 are equally important. The main unofficial consideration was that removing Saddam Hussein would be a demonstration of US military might against a visible enemy, a demonstration which hawkish elements within the Bush administration and the military establishment considered necessary to deter others and to dispel any appearance of weakness following 9/11 (Karon, 2011). This consideration is motivated by Realism, and, according to Daniel Lieberfeld’s explanatory perspectives on the Iraq Invasion, was meant to “maintain unipolarity, maintain hegemony and avoid post-9/11 decline by demonstrating U.S. willingness to use force” (Lieberfeld, 2005).

      (end quote)

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/15/2016 - 03:34 pm.

        To complete my comment above –the reasons for the war are clearly laid out in the quote above.

        What the war was supposed to achieve, achieved exactly the opposite–the increase in terrorism, the rise of multiple, new non-state actors, and the prolonged demonstration of the flaws of conventional military forces in the face of continued guerilla pressure, and the willingness of local governments to tolerate and tacitly support anti-western groups.

        The Iraq war can be rightly described as a failure.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/15/2016 - 09:34 am.

      Exactly what then

      Would separate the US from other belligerents like say, the former USSR? Kind of hard to hold a place of respect in the world community when all you do is go around wrecking other countries and their innocent citizens lives, with no promise of restorative aid. Or perhaps being feared is enough for conservatives? Understandable as its the only motivation that seems to garner a reaction with them. I ask again, this makes us different from all the other tin pot bullies how?

    • Submitted by Steve Vigoren on 03/15/2016 - 10:28 am.


      For the most part, the only people President Obama does not have a credibility with are the right wing in our country, who can hardly wait to get one of their own on the White House so they can start doing “stupid things” again. When you put boots on the ground, and they start dying, the ground quickly becomes a quagmire that you cannot easily extricate yourself from.

      For example; In Lybia, France and England were supposed to step up after we did the air support to get rid of Ghadaffi, and aid in the transition so chaos would not ensue. That required boots on the ground. France and England backed off to see if we would do it. Happy to say our President did not take that bait. A simplification of the Libya situation? Of course, but steps like those are how credibility is created. If your “allies” know they can bait you into stomping/stumbling into an untenable situation, you do not have credibility, quite the opposite.

      Every American needs to be aware that every Republican presidential candidate will be happy to put boots on the ground to the delight of their base and the military industrial complex. And like the invasion of Iraq, it will later be determined to be a very expensive and “stupid thing” by most people.

  12. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/14/2016 - 10:59 pm.

    Yes indeed

    Goldberg’s careful, definitive critique of Obama’s policy positions is a most rare piece of intense, in-depth journalism…and certainly reaffirms my ongoing faith in our President …talk about knowing the man and articulating the man.. Thanks to Goldberg.a master wordsmith with the ability to seek and find the soul of understanding of Obama…wow.

  13. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/15/2016 - 09:19 am.

    President Obama

    will grow in stature as time moves on.

    If, heaven forbid, we end up with a President Trump,…

    Obama will likely be remembered as the LAST great president,…

    because, after his second term,…

    we will have descended into “idiocracy.”

  14. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 03/15/2016 - 03:45 pm.

    Whether or not President Obama always makes the right decisions

    I do so appreciate his thoughtfulness and willingness to buck the foreign policy traditions that too many presidents have let rule.

  15. Submitted by charles thompson on 03/15/2016 - 05:14 pm.


    Why do I recall hiding under my desk in grammar school when I read Ilya’s comments?

  16. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/15/2016 - 07:51 pm.


    Staying out of “credibility” wars guess that’s like “street cred” on the global scale. Is a good thing
    Sun Tzu 101 The smart general wins the war before it is fought.

    VA budget in 2000 ~ $58 Bil
    VA budget in 2017 ~$182Bil
    This is a very small visible cost of the war carnage.
    Fair amount of credibility there.

  17. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/15/2016 - 10:28 pm.

    Still an open question

    It’s amazing that no one tried to answer the questions I asked at the end. But I guess there is a good reason for that: it is impossible to argue that America and the world are better off now than 7 years ago. And no one talked about credibility as trustworthiness either… Anyone?

    Mr. Christiansen, your logic is circular because in your first sentence you already assume that the war was wrong. But anyway, what fabricated evidence are you talking about? WMD? But all intelligence services in the world came to that conclusion. And trillion dollars and quagmire were the result of staying after winning the war, not the war itself.

    Mr. Rovick, thank you for the quotes which support my idea that the war was based on correct reasons and would have been a huge success if Bush withdrew right after capturing Saddam in which case all objectives would have been met with no negative consequences. By the way, the time right after victory was the quietest time in the world in terms of terrorism, let alone Libya’s giving up nukes and Iran wanting to do the same. So again, a failure was not a war but a reconstruction.

    Mr. Haas, the difference is simple: America invaded Iraq to protect itself and its allies. As an example of the opposite behavior, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to install a puppet government. And just overthrowing Saddam did not wreck the country – it could have given them a chance but what they would have done with that chance should have been up to them – there was no reason trying to help them. As for being feared, what else works in the world affairs? Clearly, being laughed at doesn’t work.

    Mr. Vigoren, the casualties of the actual war were very minimal, a fraction of the casualties of the reconstruction period. As for credibility, you may want to read the news and see for yourself that no one takes Obama seriously in the world anymore. Of course, in Libya, France and England baited Obama (with a big help from Hillary) into bombing it – with disastrous results… How come Obama did stupid thing here? And of course, unlike Iraq, Libya was not threatening anyone… So every American should be aware that Sanders will not put boots on the ground even if necessary and Hillary will when it is unnecessary…

    Mr. Thompson, I am sorry I cause that association… but isn’t this what is called “bias?” Just open you mind please…

    Mr. Wagner, the numbers you give are not the result of the war, as I pointed out; they are the result of trying to help Iraqis build a democracy…

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/16/2016 - 06:45 am.

      To protect ourselves and our allies

      From what? Therein lies the crux. Did not the Kremlin state a pressing need for security before invasion? That you choose to believe the lies from ones government and not another is your choice, it has no bearing however, on the reality of the situation. I wonder if your admiration of this country might have been tempered had we always followed the course you suggest? No Marshall Plan, no foreign aid, no shining beacon of freedom, just a big stick, and little care for where we swing it. Your baseline theory, that fear is the only way to force compliance falls on its face when confronted by modern reality, why should ISIS fear us, our killing them is victory in their eyes. Besides, if fear is your only motivator, why resort to half measures? By your standard we should have nuked the Middle East to smoking ruin by now, after all, its not as if we need to rebuild it right? I’m sure folks would be very afraid then…

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/16/2016 - 02:02 pm.

      Sorry to butt in here…

      … but the notion that if we just would have left after deposing Saddam everything would have been OK seems to me to be hopelessly absurd. The same problems we have in Iraq today — sectarian violence leading to the rise of a powerful terrorist organization — would have likely been much worse without the decade or so we spent trying to keep the lid on. An even worse scenario would have been the possibility of an Iranian incursion into Iraqi territory to take advantage of the chaos we unleashed and then abandoned there.

  18. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/16/2016 - 09:33 pm.

    Whom to trust

    Mr. Haas, as I said, all world intelligence services agreed that most likely Saddam had WMD and it is an answer to your question (to protect from what?) so there were no lies then and there. Sure, USSR claimed that by invading Afghanistan it was protecting itself from evil America but that was an excuse for all and any actions of the Soviet government so most people did not believe it. Of course, in general, if you think that American government is as trustworthy as the Soviet government used to be, I can’t help it but you never lived in the Soviet Union and I did.

    I never said that fear is the only tool in foreign policy; it is the only tool in dealing with enemies.
    All the things you listed should be used as well when appropriate: so if Marshall Plan was great for Europe and similar measures worked well in Japan, it was a wrong choice in Iraq. But on the other hand, military leaders always have to sacrifice some lives to win the war. If Bush dropped a small nuclear device on Tora-Bora, most of the conflicts in the Middle East that happened in the last 15 years would not have happened and the number of victims in the world since that time would have been infinitely less than it is now.

    Mr. Olsen, I agree that the sectarian violence in Iraq could have been the same had we left right away but America would not have spent so many lives and money on it and would not have lost the aura of invincibility. In other words, all Middle East leaders would have known that America can come at any moment and get rid of them quickly – and would have behaved accordingly. So no, Iran would not have dared to invade Iraq then.

  19. Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/18/2016 - 07:19 am.

    The right philosophy

    Obama has the right philosophy with “Don’t do stupid …. ” It seems that this creates a high threshold of action before deploying the weight of the most powerful military in global history. That is a very good thing.

    There is no reasonable way to separate the decision to go to war and the terrible results that followed. Think of it as before you jump out of a plane you better have figured out how to land, because if you haven’t got a working parachute nature will take its course. This is true of Kennedy and Johnson with Vietnam and GWB in Iraq and Afghanistan. They acted out of fear rather than thoughtfulness and the results killed hundreds of thousands of people, cost trillions of dollars and made the world a fundamentally worse place for everyone other than defense contractors. It seems that if nothing else the “Don’t do stupid …. ” doctrine is one that shows a certain amount of reasonable humility. In the long view U.S. foreign policy works better when tempered with a large does of such humility. Putin may make waves by being brash and aggressive but in the end his decisions will cost his people much more than anything they happen to gain in the short term. Obama might have dismissed the idea of Russia being a threat during his last election but the consequences from that mistake are less problematic because unlike GWB he didn’t start a war over that belief. The fact that Obama also isn’t so driven by predefined lines in the sand adds a degree of unpredictability that can be very valuable.

    Unfortunately the presidential front runners from both major parties don’t provide much hope of maintaining any sort of humility while in office. No clarification is needed with Drumph in regards to humility and while I think HRC would be much better I she hasn’t shown herself to be any better than GWB which isn’t exactly high praise. The simple act of her voting to allow the Iraq war shows such a fundamental lack of understanding of either how the world works of the impact of her decisions. It bogles the mind that anyone who thinks the war was a bad idea can support her having control of the military. I feel that John Kerry’s good work as Secretary of State has shown even more light on how incompetent HRC has been when it comes to foreign policy. With HRC it always feels as though she is focused on the next job rather than actually being interested in the one she has. Working primarily on gathering power rather than understanding how to correctly wield it. Hence her negative reaction to “Don’t do stupid …. “.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/19/2016 - 10:35 am.


      Of course the war is very much different from the following reconstruction (or occupation). IN most cases in history they were combined but there is no causal connection between them. American troops were pulled out last year and they could have been pulled out in 2003. No hundreds of thousands victims or trillions to pay… On the other hand, doing and not doing things are relative so “don’t do stupid things” should apply to not doing smart things when necessary as well. In other words, NOT doing anything in Syria has resulted in hundreds of thousands dead people as well and burning Middle East. And letting things go without interference in Egypt resulted in Muslim Brotherhood and lost influence. And of course, in general, if America has less influence, someone else does. Russia, Iran, China – do you trust them more than America to affect the world’s affair?

      • Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/20/2016 - 07:44 am.

        Not the right question

        I don’t necessarily trust Russia, China or Iran more than United States but that is a straw man argument. Exercising influence doesn’t require bullets and bombs, those are just the tools of last resort. Military intervention has massive and immediate consequences that are impossible to back away from which makes “no action” less risky than “action”. Hence the idea that “Don’t do stupid …. ” and the humility it suggests will result in better overall outcomes regarding the use of force.

        Of course there is a causal connection between war and reconstruction. It is hard to think of a more direct bit of causality. If you go to war there will be a reconstruction of one sort or another. If, like in Iraq, the reconstruction hasn’t been figured out then the results of the war will be left to chance. If the results of war can’t be determined there is no reason to start one. Make no mistakes, Iraq was a war this country started. There was no existential or systemic threat coming out of the middle east. We invaded for a bunch of really stupid reasons. Something that wouldn’t have happened with a little humility and if GWB, HRC and teams (and their supporters) had cared to avoid stupid “….”.

        The United States invaded Iraq with no intelligent, workable plan to deal with the aftermath. That military forward strategy gave the Syrian conflict room to grow and expand in to what we have today more so than any current reluctance to bomb people. If Iraq is the example the people in Syria would be no better off with U.S. military action. It would also be strange to act in Syria against that regime when our “ally” Saudi Arabia is every bit as barbaric and there are other regimes in Africa which are even worse.

        Also, because it used a great deal of our military resources and the influence we had with our allies it opened up cracks in our ability to project military influence in other parts of the world. Though indirect it is hard to imagine that China, Russia and Iran haven’t considered the fact that the domestic appetite for action is less now because of Iraq. Their past and future decisions in the Ukraine and South China Sea will have taken this in to account.

        Real influence and credibility result not from forcing our ideals on to others but by consistently living up to them. Projection through military intervention destroys that credibility and influence in an attempt to replace it with influence based on fear. We then attract allies who have no problems leveraging that fear for their own purposes. In Egypt for example, who’s side do you take? There isn’t one that represents the traditional fundamental ideas of the United States. The Muslim Brotherhood might be bad but so were all other options. Action alone can’t solve all problems.

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/21/2016 - 10:06 pm.

          The same?

          Do you mean to say that you trust Iran, Russia, and China equally with America? Then we have a huge problem… Anyway, as I pointed out, avoiding military interventions also has huge consequences… Sure, if there is a war, there may be a reconstruction but it should not be the victor’s problem. In case of Iraq’s war, it should have been Iraq’s problem. And again, there was a huge reason to invade Iraq – all intelligence services were pointing to WMD at that time. The facts are the facts. And of course, how can you explain bombing Libya but not bombing Syria?

          What I have to agree is that Iran, Russia, China, and many others considered (favorably for themselves) America’s reluctance to get involved. But that is exactly what I was talking about. If Bush pulled the troops right after victory, this would not have happened; on the other hand, we should not make our decision not to go to war based on the mistake of getting involved in reconstruction.

          Living up to our ideals does not convince those who do not like our ideals. America’s credibility in the world now is at a very low point. As for Egypt, we have to be with the regime which aligns with America’s interests – that should be the only criterion.

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