Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in the Atlantic is canonical. Or at least it should become canonical. Goldberg, a sympathetic foreign policy writer at The Atlantic, has written one of the most luminous pieces on the much vaunted Obama Doctrine. It brims with anecdotes and insights into Obama’s thinking and personal revelations that get at what makes Obama tick. It humanizes Obama in important ways by getting behind the shroud of rational detachment that his supporters love to tout. He’s just so reasonable! Goldberg’s piece gets down to Obama’s gut and teases out the deep contradictions in Obama’s, and by extension, the Democratic party’s, current impasse in foreign policy.
Obama is no dummy. Goldberg does a nuanced job of demystifying some of the mystery. He portrays Obama’s appreciation of the paradox of action and the dangers of overreach. Obama has advocated for sharing the load, especially placing greater pressure on the Europeans. I couldn’t agree more. Europe’s woeful defense spending is indefensible. The Sunni’s have gotten a pass for a long time, and he is now asking them to pull more weight. Obama has been willing to challenge, to an extent, certain assumptions of the foreign policy establishment. Good for him.
But he is also no foreign policy savant, and his instincts on the world stage are not natural and are rarely effective. His relationship with Putin is exhibit A. Obama is reflective, calculating, and more authentic than many world leaders. He doesn’t like to fake it. But faking it, posturing, and ambiguity are standard fare for effective leaders. He comes across as being above faking it. One of the greatest American war time leaders, FDR, was a master of this. So was Reagan. Churchill played FDR, but FDR played Churchill even better. It’s a dance, but not one Obama particularly enjoys or is very good at.
The most interesting part of Goldberg’s piece is his narration of Obama’s Syria red line policy and Obama’s change of mind the following day. It is a piece of presidential leadership, or lack thereof, that illuminates Obama’s thinking beyond all others. After taking a firm stance on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons one day, the next day Obama’s conscience and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough get to him. He does a complete about face.
The portrait Goldberg paints is one of leaders, American and European, waffling, hesitant, and indecisive. The Europeans and Saudis are looking to Obama, Obama to Prime Minister David Cameron and Congress. Angela Merkel says Germany is staying out. Obama’s reasons for the about face? 1) UN inspectors on the ground 2) Failure of Cameron to get support 3) Fear of the outcome of a strike without UN mandate 4) Danger of abusing executive power.
One lesson I draw from this piece, among many, is the danger of presidential inaction. Obama is the mirror opposite of his predecessor. Bush, overly confident, jumps the gun while Obama, consummately skeptical, remains aloof and passive. Though Goldberg is reluctant to draw cause and effect relations, it’s hard not to. Most world leaders did. The French Foreign Minister’s, Manuel Valls, prediction stands as the epitaph and final judgment on Obama’s inaction on the red line: “By not intervening early, we have created a monster…If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.” While Obama is quick to point to the sins of rash action, he refuses to learn the sins of inaction. With the death toll from anywhere between 300,000-500,000 (our best figures on Iraq place it at 100,000) and rising, upwards of 5 million people displaced, and Europe on the brink of a full on crisis, it’s hard not to find his self-satisfaction with his decision in Syria as spotlighting one of Obama’s biggest moral blind spots: his penchant for blinding self-righteousness. Obama’s favorite philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, worried more than any other about blinding self-righteousness. Oh the irony!
Obama and Bush demonstrate the dangers of overly aggressive and overly passive foreign policies, but they share something in common: a deeply moral vision of America’s role in the world. But their moral visions devolved into forms of moralism that are dangerous in foreign policy. Obama retreats on the world stage in order to keep his and America’s hands morally clean and pure. Hundreds of thousands may die, but at least we didn’t act without a UN mandate! Bush’s moralism was overly confident and reckless by failing to be sufficiently skeptical about the dangers of the invasion and the challenges of building a democracy in the heart of a divided religiously sectarian society. Obama seems to imagine that not acting is the morally superior thing to do, but we have seen that inaction can be even more catastrophic than action. You are damned if you do, but also damned if you don’t.
Furthermore, they were too optimistic about their own abilities to shape world events. Benghazi deeply disillusioned Obama because it “didn’t work,” but one intervention to save a city does not a problem solve, just as one swallow does not a spring make. Bush too imagined a too rosy scenario for post-War reconstruction. The American desire for quick and easy solutions to complex, long, and difficult problems is the Achilles heel of our foreign policy. Both Bush and Obama gave into this temptation. To Bush’s credit he recalibrated, adjusted, and righted the ship. Obama remains adamant in his position, and that is to his shame.
Interventions such as Benghazi are not solutions and will not magically solve the problem of dictators or Middle East instability. Only resolve, a sense of moral purpose, coherent strategy, realistic expectations, and a long view of events can help us steer the ship with some sort of compass. Otherwise, we are at the whims of outcomes, always trying to neurotically produce certain outcomes that are elusive because human action rarely can produce outcomes in such a straightforward way, let alone among nations.
On foreign policy I generally believe Obama has failed, and failed immensely. His supporters will soften the blow by throwing in complicating factors. They are right to see the nuance, but will rarely extend such nuance beyond Obama’s presidency.
Putting aside judgments on Obama, Goldberg’s piece left me with a profound appreciation for the challenges of crafting and executing foreign policy. Often, there are no good outcomes, and the sort of strategic and moral calculus that needs to be undertaken is fundamentally different from personal or domestic political action. The moving pieces are many and resist easy solutions.
Machiavelli talked endlessly about fortune and the role of fortune in the outcome of historical events. Every president must deal with fortune. Notice FDR did not complain when he faced the single greatest threat of any US president in Fascist Germany and Imperial Japan. He embraced it and rallied the nation. Reagan, likewise, took on the Soviets against the advice of his own advisers and managed to bring an end to the USSR without a single shot fired. That fortune is cruel is nothing new. Complaining about it when it strikes is pathetic and pointless. Obama’s defenders complain endlessly about the problems he faces and how he can’t be blamed for them. On the contrary, he can and should be.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listen to the national anthem during the September 11th Observance Ceremony at the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va., Sept. 11, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, via Flickr)