Barack Obama just gave an extraordinary interview to The Atlantic in which he spilled an enormous number of beans regarding his foreign-policy worldview. Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” is worth reading in full. But you probably don’t have time this afternoon — the piece runs close to 20,000 words. Here, then, are the 13 most interesting beliefs that Obama shared with the magazine.
One of the best moments of his presidency was that time he broke his promise about Syria.
To the president’s detractors, no moment crystallizes the Obungler’s toxic combination of naïveté and fecklessness than his refusal to reinforce his “red line” on Syria. In August 2012, Obama warned the Assad regime that if it used chemical weapons against its own people, the United States would respond with force. One year later, the Assad regime had reportedly done just that, and the U.S. was on the cusp of launching retaliatory air strikes, when Obama backed off. Suddenly, he decided that this plan should be sent to Congress — the place where ambitious proposals go to die.
Obama tells Goldberg that several factors influenced his decision to stomp on the brakes. His intelligence agencies, he says, couldn’t guarantee that the sarin gas detected in Syria had been deployed by government forces. He was also concerned that the executive authority over military action had grown too expansive. But above all, Obama was concerned “that while we could inflict some damage on Assad, we could not, through a missile strike, eliminate the chemical weapons themselves, and what I would then face was the prospect of Assad having survived the strike and claiming he had successfully defied the United States.”
Obama told Goldberg he is proud of yielding to these concerns.
“The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
Washington’s foreign-policy Establishment is actually bad.
Obama told Goldberg that the foreign-policy Establishment “makes a fetish of ‘credibility’ — particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force,” arguing, “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
He further suggested that many military leaders and think-tank dwellers are belligerent, arrogant tools of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
He 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.”
The Dark Knight explains the rise of ISIS.
Through interviews with Obama’s advisers, Goldberg discovered the role Christopher Nolan played in shaping Obama’s reading of the Islamic State.
“There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had his turf. And then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. ISIL is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”
Netanyahu could get a two-state solution if he wanted one.
There is no shortage of world leaders who frustrate Barack Obama, but Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in his own category, Goldberg writes.
Obama has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so.
Europe’s “free ride” has to end.
“Free riders aggravate me,” Obama tells Goldberg. While the president sees the United States as the “one indispensable nation” in terms of maintaining the international order, he kind of wishes it weren’t.
Recently, Obama warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who subsequently met the 2 percent threshold.
Saudi Arabia is responsible for the spread of fundamentalist Islam.
Goldberg describes a conversation between Obama and Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister of Australia, in which the president explains why fundamentalist Islam has gained such strength in recent years.
Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family, Obama told Turnbull.
The Middle East needs to pull itself up by its bootstraps.
Explaining what he hoped to achieve with his Cairo speech, Obama tells Goldberg, “My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel … I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”
A major theme of Goldberg’s article is Obama’s desire to shift his focus from much of the Middle East to the developing economies of Asia. In one revealing passage, Obama seems to disapprovingly compare the young people of the Middle East with their pro-American peers in other regions.
“If we’re not talking to them,” he said, referring to young Asians and Africans and Latin Americans, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”
He ain’t afraid of no terrorists.
Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do. Several years ago, he expressed to me his admiration for Israelis’ “resilience” in the face of constant terrorism, and it is clear that he would like to see resilience replace panic in American society.
Human progress is real, but so is human regress.
“I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference. But it’s hugely uneven. And what has been clear throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is that the progress we make in social order and taming our baser impulses and steadying our fears can be reversed very quickly.
The U.S. military should return to Vietnam.
Part of Obama’s desired pivot to Asia involves U.S. troops returning to Cam Ranh Bay.
Administration officials have repeatedly hinted to me that Vietnam may one day soon host a permanent U.S. military presence, to check the ambitions of the country it now fears most, China.
Putin is actually pretty chill.
“The truth is, actually, Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank,” Obama says of the Russian leader. “Our meetings are very businesslike. He never keeps me waiting two hours like he does a bunch of these other folks.”
Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” is insane.
Defending his reluctance to use military force purely as a means of displaying strength, Obama eviscerates Nixon’s “madman theory” — the idea that the U.S. should frighten its enemies by making them think it is capable of anything.
“But let’s examine the Nixon theory,” he said. “So we dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II, and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell. When I go to visit those countries, I’m going to be trying to figure out how we can, today, help them remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids. In what way did that strategy promote our interests?”
China must not fail.
In Obama’s view, an absolutely critical objective of American foreign policy is to ensure that China’s rise remains robust and peaceful. A failed China would be extremely dangerous.
If China fails; if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population and has to resort to nationalism as an organizing principle; if it feels so overwhelmed that it never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order; if it views the world only in terms of regional spheres of influence—then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, but we will find ourselves having more difficulty dealing with these other challenges that are going to come.”