Published March 14, 2016
The Barack Obama show is in town again. The president likes nothing so much as to demonstrate how profound and thoughtful he is, and he recently decided to do it by granting an interview to one of his favorite journalists, The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, to whom he explained his thinking and legacy on foreign policy. The long interview is full of great nuggets and quotes and has been the talk of DC. One cannot help but read it and feel that the biggest problem with U.S. foreign policy in the Obama era has been what can only be called Obama’s preening self-regard.
Let’s get some things out of the way first. I’ve always tried to shy away from the character attacks that so many of my fellow conservatives engage in when it comes to Obama. Although I disagree with him on many, many issues of policy, he has always seemed like a smart, likeable, well-intentioned guy, which is already saying a lot for a politician. And it’s certainly the case that some conservatives haven’t had a very good critique of the Obama era, seeing everything through the lens of a worldview that sees force and confrontation as the answer to every problem.
But it really is the case that the character of presidents shape their policy. And when you read the interview a second time, you realize that the driving force isn’t Obama’s worldview on foreign policy. It’s Obama himself. And in particular, there’s one consistent theme, whatever issue or trouble spot you’re talking about: It’s somebody else’s fault.
Why has Libya been such a disaster? Because the Europeans didn’t pull their weight.
Why are America’s Sunni allies so discontented with the Obama administration? Because they’re free riders who want to use American military might to solve their sectarian gripes. (Another way to phrase it might be: “Expect their main ally to help them in their struggle with their adversaries.” Have they no shame?)
Why are Sunni and Shia at each other’s throats all over the Middle East? Did the United States embolden Iran by negotiating the nuclear deal or by failing to sign a new status of forces agreement with Iraq? Surely you jest! No, the Middle East is on fire because of “tribalism.” The president can’t do anything about that, can he?
Why didn’t the reset with Russia work? Well, Putin is too dumb to realize that it’s in his own self-interest to play nice with America. (Although Obama generously grants that “he’s not completely stupid.”)
Why was the West wrong-footed in Ukraine? Well, Ukraine is always going to be vulnerable to Russia anyway.
Any regrets over calling ISIS a “JV team”? Well, intelligence analysts said ISIS was “marginal.”
Why isn’t there peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Because Netanyahu is too scared to reach out to the Palestinians. Forget the fact that Fatah has rejected every serious peace overture by the Israelis, and that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is quite intent on genocide against Jews.
None of these viewpoints are indefensible on their own merits, and all of them have at least a grain of truth in them (except for the last one). But together, they paint quite the picture — of someone disconnected from reality and sure of his own perfection.
To be sure, all presidents have very large egos — it’s a requirement of aspiring to the job. And politicians will never admit to a mistake unless they have a metaphorical gun to their head. But there’s always been something grating and, at the end of the day, unseemly, about Obama’s performance of himself as The Most Thoughtful Man in Washington.
Obama came to national prominence vowing to heal our partisan divide. He did it through a rhetorical style that can be summed up as “I have understood you.” He was so good at making speeches where he could restate opponents’ views that they thought he really could see things from their own perspective; only later did people catch on that the whole sentence is “I have understood you, but I’m not going to budge.” (Which isn’t to say that Obama is wholly to blame for the partisan rancor of his years.) In a similar way, Obama’s performance of his own thoughtfulness and rumination becomes unbearable once you realize that he will turn around thoughts in his head, but never end up changing them. There’s an almost dizzying feeling when you realize something you thought was profound turns out to be incredibly shallow.
The cake is taken by the part of the piece that drove the most headlines: Obama’s statement that he was “very proud” of one of the most indefensible moments in his presidency, the moment when he refused to enforce his “red line” in Syria and stood by while Assad gassed his own people. His rationale is worth quoting in full:
“I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “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.”
This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the”Washington playbook.” [The Atlantic]
Nevermind the merits of the action. Why is Obama proud of his decision? Because it had the best outcome? No, because of the way he thought through the decision. Obama thinks his decision was good because of the way he reached it. The most salient aspect of the decision is not how it affected millions of Syrians, or the international norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction in warfare (and the credibility of the United States as the lone superpower and guarantor of international norms writ large), with incalculable potential ripple effects, it is how the whole thing played out in the theater that is the mind of Barack Obama.
Ultimately, Obama’s legacy will be written by history, and we will not be able to appreciate it until many years hence, if then. But we can at least be certain of one thing: For as long as he lives, Barack Obama will feel good about it. And that doesn’t make me feel good at all.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.