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Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, brilliantly explained

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has produced an impressive article reviewing the president’s foreign and military policy.

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.’”
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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.

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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.”

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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.