The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg begins his roughly 19,000-word examination of Barack Obama’s foreign policy by recounting the moment, on August 30, 2013, when the president reversed himself on his pledge to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. Mr. Goldberg posits two contrasting judgments of that fateful hour: “the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower” or “the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void.”
Mr. Goldberg’s much-discussed article leans lopsidedly toward the latter judgment. He arrives at this unlikely destination by allowing Mr. Obama (and his advisors) to offer a specious, self-serving version of events unencumbered by unpleasant realities. Throughout the essay the reader is treated to a peculiar brand of journalism: an investigation that avoids asking hard questions, omits contradictory evidence, and either ignores or distorts seminal moments in American diplomatic history.
In Mr. Obama’s telling of his disastrous policy in Libya—now a failed state and safe haven for the Islamic State—the fault lies everywhere except at the White House. “When I go and ask myself what went wrong,” he said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”
Here is the vintage Obama evasion: blame his failure of leadership on others, in this case the British, the French, or the previous administration. Mr. Goldberg is silent about the bitter irony that Mr. Obama, like his predecessor in Iraq, did not anticipate the chaotic aftermath of a post-Kaddafi regime in Libya. Nor is there any mention of the deadly assault on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, or of the White House’s dishonest attempts to cover up their misdeeds in an election year.
In his treatment of the rise of the Islamic State, Mr. Goldberg simply parrots the administration’s risible claim that it was given bad intelligence about the organization’s potency: “By the late spring of 2014, after ISIS took the northern-Iraq city of Mosul, he came to believe that U.S. intelligence had failed to appreciate the severity of the threat and the inadequacies of the Iraqi army, and his view shifted.”
Nonsense. We know from congressional testimony that intelligence officials were warning the administration about the threat of the Islamic State long before the seizure of Mosul. We know that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq made possible its lightening success in seizing large swaths of territory and strategic resources. Yet Mr. Goldberg does not allow these facts to intrude upon his narrative.
The omissions continue apace. There is no scrutiny of the fact that Mr. Obama, during his agonized decision-making over U.S. troop commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, ignored the counsel of his top military advisors. His inept mishandling of Russia’s seizure of Crimea is brushed aside with glib fatalism. Mr. Obama is not asked about the Russian intrusion into Syria and its assault on Syrian rebels; or about Mr. Assad’s indiscriminate bombing campaigns on civilian targets, including hospitals; or about a refugee crisis not seen since the end of the Second World War. The president’s bluff over Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is ultimately portrayed as an act of political courage. In all this, the reader never learns that three of Mr. Obama’s former defense secretaries have severely criticized him for his blindness to the threats to America’s national security.
President Obama defends his emphasis on diplomacy by denouncing what he calls “mythologies” about Ronald Reagan’s tough-minded foreign policy. President Reagan’s success in dealing with the Soviet Union, according to Mr. Obama, “was to recognize the opportunity that Gorbachev presented and to engage in extensive diplomacy.”
Here is liberalism’s fantastical version of the end of the Cold War. It had nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy, but rather was an inevitable and predictable outcome that coincidentally occurred on Mr. Reagan’s watch—except for the fact that not a single liberal predicted its collapse in the 1980s. We know—from Soviet dissidents, internal communist party communique, former Soviet officials, and even from Mr. Gorbachev—that it was the Reagan military build-up and the projection of U.S. military power that greatly accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet instead of challenging Mr. Obama’s ignorance of these facts, his chummy interlocutor remains mute.
The president’s revisionist history grows from the soil of his ideological commitments. One is about power and its relationship to peace and security.
Mr. Obama denies, with an air of absurd self-assurance, that Russia has become more powerful following its adventures in Ukraine and Syria. To believe so, he says, “is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs…Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.” Here is the pacifist delusion: a vision of a world in which the forces of barbarism are domesticated through the sweet reasonableness of the “international community.”
Behind this view lies another ideological commitment—the enlightenment belief in human progress and unlimited human potential. “Look, I am not of the view that human beings are inherently evil,” Mr. Obama said. “I believe there is more good than bad in humanity. And if you look at the trajectory of history, I am optimistic. I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant…more able to manage difference.”
Many of the greatest figures in the Western tradition—its statesmen, political philosophers, and religious leaders—have held the opposite view. They took the fallen nature of man, the tragedy of the human soul alienated from its Creator, as the starting point for their politics. “What is government itself but one of the greatest reflections of human nature?” asked James Madison. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
If Mr. Goldberg is familiar with this tradition, he is too timid to mention it. But can he really be as unreflective as Mr. Obama about the terrible lessons of the last century? I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent. For it was in the twentieth century when the most politically, technologically, and culturally advanced nations of the earth engaged in two horrific global conflicts. It was in this most recent century when political and social revolutions were unleased that enslaved and murdered hundreds of millions of human beings. It was in the century closest to our own that the word “genocide” had to be invented. Thus Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the twentieth century “the caveman century.”
Mr. Goldberg’s conclusions about the “evolution” of the Obama doctrine, he informs us, are based on his exclusive conversations with Mr. Obama during his presidency. Perhaps his many omissions are best explained by his own frankly stated agenda: “My goal…was to see the world through Obama’s eyes, and to understand what he believes America’s role in the world should be.”
It is a curious mission for a journalist, since nearly all the major media outlets—not to mention most of the academy and the entertainment industry—trumpet Mr. Obama’s progressive vision of the world, and have done so every day of his administration. We already know what he believes about America’s role in the world. We now know what kinds of evils can be set loose when those beliefs direct American foreign policy.
In the end, Mr. Goldberg’s essay reveals practically nothing about the president’s thinking on foreign affairs. It merely reinforces the deeply impoverished mental outlook of modern liberalism.
Despite a posture of inquiry, the author’s journalistic empathy dissolves into rank advocacy: journalism as echo chamber. Here is what access to ultimate political power can breed: something that rings false from beginning to end, something much closer to propaganda than truth-seeking. Edward R. Murrow, who raised a new standard for honest and critically-minded journalism in the 1950s, warned about this trend. “A nation of sheep,” he said, “will beget a government of wolves.”
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: Nov. 2, 2105. At dusk, the President boards Marine One at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, via White House Flickr.