By Amb. Robert Hunter, AIC Board Member
Originally published in LobeLog
As the Obama administration starts to wind down, it has become open season on the president and his record, especially in foreign policy. The literary potshots have even come from people who had been honored with senior positions. The sallies from Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, are perhaps understandable (Hard Choices), considering her consuming focus, even when she was in charge in Foggy Bottom, on becoming president herself. Less understandable are the memoirs of Bob Gates (Duty) and Leon Panetta (Worthy Fights) both having served as Secretary of Defense.
These memoirs-in-haste violate President Franklin Roosevelt’s precept that members of his administration should have a “passion for anonymity,” at least until the boss leaves office. But these are different times, both in terms of media attention and hard cash for kiss-and-tell.
No such restrictions apply to journalists, and the buzz this past week in Washington has been all about a lengthy treatment of Obama’s foreign policy stewardship, especially in the Middle East, by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, titled “the Obama Doctrine.” It is an essential read. Its most important feature is that much of it is based on one-on-one interviews with the chief executive over an extended period of time, and in various locations, from the Oval Office to Air Force One on the way to Kuala Lumpur.
As with any journalism, the asides, the interpretations, and the anonymous sources can be taken with a pinch of salt. Not so the “on the record” comments by President Obama, even if some of them might have been taken out of context.
Obama does come across as many other commentators have observed, as laid back in his approach to foreign policy. That can also be another way of describing his ability not to get rattled during a crisis and to take the long view. In regard to the latter, he presents a case that has long been obvious in his actions. For instance, he sees China as the most important matter for the future, viewed in terms that could be called “geopolitical” or “geo-economic,” though he zeroes in on something that, by now, should be unimpeachably most important: climate change. He is a realist on the latter, as well he might be: it is hard to see how the unavoidable decisions can be made by governments and private sectors in so many countries before it is too late (if it isn’t already). At least Obama is sounding the clarion call, even if too few are heeding it and too many are prepared to let the next generation take care of itself – if it can!
On Russia, Iran, and Europe
President Obama considers that Russia— on the skids economically and socially but engaging in military ventures to mask its second-order status—will not be a major challenge to the West. Further, the president does not see any critical threats to the security of the United States—the number one responsibility of any commander-in-chief—coming from the Middle East. The exception is the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which for now requires a robust response and against which the United States has been taking more military actions than often appears, notably the use of drones to assassinate IS leaders and kill its foot soldiers.
In the long view, he could be right, and let us hope so. Obama has done something pretty significant in gaining agreement with Iran to put its potential for a military nuclear program “in the lock box,” to borrow a phrase from American politics, for at least a decade and more. This is no mean achievement. It ranks with Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel as the most important strategic achievements for US security, and that of everyone else concerned with the future of the Middle East. He does bow to the domestic and foreign opponents of this agreement – notably Israel and some of the Sunni Arab states—by noting that he does not see the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as ushering in a new era of relations with Iran, which he still sees as a major state supporter of terrorism.
In his interviews, as least as presented by Goldberg, the president has little to say about Europe, and nothing at all to say about the flood of refugees posing a major threat to the European Union. Pessimists fear that this flow, as well as challenging notions of cultural identity, could be terminal for the EU. Ironically, none of this would be happening if it had not been for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which started the ball rolling. Perhaps the mare’s nest that Obama sees in the region, “tribalism” is one term he uses in these interviews, would be emerging anyway. But the US cannot escape its share of the responsibility for at least accelerating the pace.
Regarding Europe, Obama seems to have contempt for what he believes has been the inadequacy of allies, whom he sees as “free riders,” to “share burdens.” Perhaps so, but this does not mean that their own problems are any less severe, nor does it lessen the burden of US foreign policy failures to follow through adequately on George H.W. Bush’s effort to foster a “Europe whole and free and at peace.” Some of that happened on Obama’s watch as well as on that of his two predecessors.
Much of what Obama discusses about the long-term role of the United States in the world makes sense and needs to be taken very seriously. His “don’t do stupid sh*t” is ridiculed, but it has a sound basis. He steers between those who want to make the world in our own image (the neocons) and those who would want the US in effect to retreat to a new Fortress America without concern for human rights and suffering. He thus has positioned himself, in the term of art, to foster a most useful “conversation” about what is really in our interests, understanding also that values have historically been a major part of the American perspective of our role in the world.
Syrian Red Lines
Goldberg devotes much of his article to discussing the “red lines” that President Obama outlined for Syria: one was to strike government targets if it used poison gas (it did) and the other was that “[President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria] must go.” The president pulled back from the former at the last moment. But Goldberg and others do not pay enough attention to the fact that the British Prime Minister David Cameron had promised to be by our side – as Margaret Thatcher provided essential international support for George H.W. Bush in the 1991 Persian Gulf war – but then was defeated by the House of Commons.
As the president and others have pointed out, the chemical weapons are gone. The criticism is that once a president draws a red line, he has to act, and the consequences be damned, or US credibility will be gone forever. That’s nonsense. More than one foreign leader in the past has made that mistake about the United States.
The criticism is misplaced. It is not that Obama did not follow through on a pledge, issued perhaps idly. Rather, neither he nor his administration nor US allies had thought through what would happen next. A serious attack on Assad’s forces, and certainly a serious effort to bring about his downfall by military support for “opposition” forces, could bring about a situation in the country and the region even worse that exists now.
In fact, the administration never put together a plausible plan for the future of Syria in which all the different ethnic and confessional groups will have a chance of survival, much less protection. That gap also appears in the Atlantic interview. The future will take care of itself: a fundamental failure of the most basic strategic planning. It is the invasion of Iraq all over again, where the US Defense Department literally trashed plans prepared by the State Department for the aftermath, lest Mssrs Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld might have been denied their war.
It gets worse. In his interviews, President Obama acknowledges that Saudi Arabia, in particular, exported Wahhabi extremism for years, helping cause the current problems in the region. But he and his people have done nothing to stop the Saudis from pursuing their own ends by supporting IS and getting the United States to be party to their side of the region’s Sunni-Shia civil war. When asked by a foreign prime minister about this inconsistency, Obama is quoted here as saying that it’s “complex.” Complex? Here is where the red line should be set and honored.
On Libya and the Pentagon
Something similar is true with regard to Libya. The president makes a convincing case that the US should not have always to be in the vanguard and that the phrase “leading from behind” was both unfortunate and misses out on all that the United States did to bring down Muamar Qaddafi. But he does not seem to understand—at least it is not clear in this interview—that the US and others did not do what they could have done to reduce the consequences of the mess that followed.
There is a major lacuna in administration policy. At West Point in 2014, Obama rightly said that “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” But his administration has done almost nothing to follow though. The Defense Department still gets more than 13 times as much money as all other forms of US engagement in the world combined, and that figure has not shifted in this administration. He himself cites the roles to be played by diplomacy, technocrats, and bureaucrats in dealing with many problems, but he does not talk about economic instruments. For example, he chided the allies, and especially British Prime Minister Cameron, for not spending 2% of GDP on Defense (Cameron then complied). But he didn’t realize that, in Europe at least, that money is needed to bolster the Ukrainian economy (while pressing for an end to corruption), not for more armaments that would not impress Russia’s Vladimir Putin in any event. In the same vein, although Obama sees Russia as becoming entrapped in its military ventures, his top military commanders say publicly that Russia poses an “existential threat” to the Untied States. Someone is not getting the message.
At heart, if there is a criticism to be made of Obama’s very thoughtful precis on his approach to the world, it is that he has not brought into his administration people who could help him figure out how to fit the bits and pieces together and to enable him to make sense of the details of his vision. He rails against “the Establishment,” and it is true that when he first came into office he did not know enough people to be able to choose wisely. But after a few years, at most, he should have made changes, as previous presidents have done, even his predecessor, who threw overboard the officials who had driven an inexperienced president into Iraq. Obama has not done that. Perhaps he still has not bothered to seek out the people who could enable him to be the success that he wants to be. The same has been true of Vice President Biden, who was supposed to be a talent scout but has not performed this role.
A final comment. The interviews were given to Jeffrey Goldberg, whose own perspective is heavily pro-Israeli, and why not? It is a journalist’s prerogative. (It is no coincidence that Goldberg, a US-Israeli dual national, dismisses the notion, common across the Middle East, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a central motivator for other ills in the region.). If the president of the United States is to give unparalleled access to a journalist in order to make his case before history, why did he choose someone who was not disposed to give his vision a fair shot? This has to fit in the same mold of Mr. Obama’s unwillingness to staff his administration (other than solid work-horses like Secretary of State John Kerry) with people who can adequately do his and the nation’s business abroad.