If you want to understand how President Barack Obama views the world and America’s role in it, “The Obama Doctrine” article in The Atlantic is indispensable reading. But if you are hoping to find deep presidential introspection there, you will be disappointed.
Obama gave the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg extraordinary access, and Goldberg supplemented the hours he spent interviewing Obama with conversations and insights from countless others.
What emerges is the picture of a thoughtful, intelligent, cautious President, but also one who is more prone to self-congratulation than self-criticism.
Obama offers a well-considered explanation of why he believes the United States should avoid new entanglements, particularly in the Middle East. And he offers a nuanced assessment of how America should use its power. The U.S. remains the indispensable nation, but it cannot solve all the world’s problems. And he offers his thoughts on the next president who, he says, should “have a sense that you can’t fix everything,” but also that “if we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen.”
An example of what doesn’t happen when the U.S. stands aside is found in Syria, and Obama might have taken some responsibility for holding back when he could have done more. But instead, he took credit for the way he handled the situation.
The article focuses at length on Obama’s controversial decision to reverse his plan to bomb Syria after the nation’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons on thousands of civilians. Obama had declared earlier that using chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” that would trigger U.S. action.
He sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Congress to make an impassioned and stirring defense of the need to uphold the threat of consequences for Assad’s horrific act and demonstrate that when the president of the United States draws a red line, he means it.
But then Obama decided he was on the wrong track and reversed course. According to the Atlantic article, Kerry reportedly told a friend that he got “f—ed over.” Much of the world was aghast at Obama’s backtracking, saying he diminished the credibility and deterrent power of the United States. In the end, Russia brokered a deal to have Assad give up most of his chemical weapons.
Obama told Goldberg he is “very proud of this moment,” of his ability to “pull back from the immediate pressures” of the foreign policy establishment. The irony here is that the pressure was self-imposed. It was Obama who drew the red line. And, in fact, there is nothing in what has transpired in Syria that should give anyone, including Barack Obama, reason to be proud.
Beyond the events of 2013, the larger failure of the President’s Syria policy is that he did not engage early in the kind of low-key but decisive intervention that could have prevented this disaster.
Syria is a total catastrophe, with nearly half a million dead, millions more displaced, the region destabilized, refugee flows at levels not seen since World War II and a terrorist group continuously surpassing its own level of brutality. No, if Obama wants to talk about his accomplishments, he should steer clear of Syria.
But don’t expect Obama to find many faults in his own record.
He admits that intervening in Libya was a mistake, but he won’t take the blame. “There’s room for criticism,” he says, “because I had more faith in the Europeans.”
And in a false show of modesty, he says, “Every president has strengths and weaknesses.” His weakness? “There are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Obama clearly thinks highly of himself, as he should. He is a brilliant man, as the article clearly demonstrates. But he is lacking in the kind of humility that would open him more to other people’s views, from world leaders to some of his top advisers. Among other ideas from loyal aides, he reportedly rebuffed Kerry’s suggestions to launch missiles at regime targets in Syria as a way to send a message to Assad and encourage him to negotiate
In a telling anecdote, Obama is sitting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is lecturing him about the Middle East. He interrupts him to say, “I’m the African-American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.”
It is true that Obama’s rise to the presidency is an astonishing, historic accomplishment, and that the skills and talents that made that possible also give the President important and valuable insights.
Obama has decided that the Middle East is less important to the well-being of the country than previous presidents believed. Some of that is true to the extent that the U.S. is less dependent on imported oil, but as Syria has shown, and as Obama himself recognizes, when the U.S. doesn’t act, problems can spin out of control, and the instability and consequences do not remain contained in the region.
The Syria crisis is affecting America’s allies in Europe and the Middle East. The ideological shock waves have reached U.S. shores — already affecting domestic politics — and the malignancies spawned by the conflict could still worsen
Obama, according to the article, has complained to friends and advisers about how America’s Arab allies have exploited America’s power for their own sectarian ends. The sense that the U.S. is being taken advantage of, even by close allies, is widespread. “Free riders aggravate me,” he said.
The President rightly believes America’s interests extend far beyond the intractable conflicts of that region. The U.S. should look to Asia and Africa and Latin America, he believes, and who can disagree?
The U.S., he says, should use force and put its troops at risk when its national security is at risk, and it should occasionally take action for humanitarian reasons. “The world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place,” he said, “full of hardship and tragedy.” Obama’s response to that: “There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”
That’s also impossible to argue with. The question is where do you draw the line, and that is a decision that rests on the shoulders of the person sitting in the Oval Office.
Obama has shown he is a man of depth; a man who thinks and ponders and ruminates about the heavy responsibilities of his office. But this article is not a repository of genuine introspection. The interviews he gave aimed to burnish his legacy. They amounted to an early draft of the foreign policy portion of his White House memories.
Don’t mistake this article for the product of soul searching. Perhaps that will come years after he leaves the presidency when he contemplates the aftermath of the very difficult decisions he made in office, including those regarding the Syrian war and the nuclear deal with Iran. But even then I suspect the self-criticism will be shared only with those closest to him.