Sunday, March 13, 2016

Jeffrey Goldberg elaborates the Obama Doctrine

Jeffrey Goldberg has published a long article on President Obama's foreign policy to date gave a major interview with Obama himself., The Obama Doctrine The Atlantic April 2016 issue.

It's understandably provoking reactions, such as, 'The Obama Doctrine' Is To Whitewash His Foreign Policy Moon of Alabama 03/10/2016. (No, the Alabama reference in the blog name does not make it a Trumpist criticism!)

Goldberg presents Obama's presumably own self-portrait as more realist and cautious than the humanitarian interventions:

The current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who is the most dispositionally interventionist among Obama’s senior advisers, had argued early for arming Syria’s rebels. Power, who during this period served on the National Security Council staff, is the author of a celebrated book excoriating a succession of U.S. presidents for their failures to prevent genocide. The book, A Problem From Hell, published in 2002, drew Obama to Power while he was in the U.S. Senate, though the two were not an obvious ideological match. Power is a partisan of the doctrine known as “responsibility to protect,” which holds that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens. She lobbied him to endorse this doctrine in the speech he delivered when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but he declined. Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States. [my emphasis]
It's all relative, we might say, but that doesn't work for me as a description of Obama's approach.

And in way that has so frustrated base Democrats, he describes it in Republican terms, if not quite 2016 Republican terms:

Obama, unlike liberal interventionists, is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,” Obama once told me). Bush and Scowcroft removed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991, and they deftly managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Scowcroft also, on Bush’s behalf, toasted the leaders of China shortly after the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. As Obama was writing his campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, in 2006, Susan Rice, then an informal adviser, felt it necessary to remind him to include at least one line of praise for the foreign policy of President Bill Clinton, to partially balance the praise he showered on Bush and Scowcroft.
As an aside, let me just say that there are other perspectives on the Bush family that one might take. William Rivers Pitt writes (Please Clap: The Bush Dynasty Has Been Broken Truthout 03/13/2016):

Jeb Bush dropped out of the 2016 presidential race not long ago, and you could hear the earth itself heave a sigh of relief. When he announced he was suspending his campaign, head down with a pathetic shrug between his ears, a political dynasty that has looted and ravaged this nation and the world for going on 80 years was snuffed like a guttering candle in a forgotten church. In that darkness is the light, because the planet doesn't have to worry about the Bush family any more. They'll lurk, sure, like a purse snatcher skulking in the shadows next to an ATM, but the next time you see a Bush on television will be when they are getting lowered into their grave.
Goldberg passes along this bit of stenography:

Over the course of our conversations, I came to see Obama as a president who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events, even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements—controversial, provisional achievements, to be sure, but achievements nonetheless: the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate-change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal. These he accomplished despite his growing sense that larger forces—the riptide of tribal feeling in a world that should have already shed its atavism; the resilience of small men who rule large countries in ways contrary to their own best interests; the persistence of fear as a governing human emotion—frequently conspire against the best of America’s intentions. But he also has come to learn, he told me, that very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership.
This is classic Obama. There are a some things Democratic voters would like: the Iran deal, the Cuba opening. One that Dems would sigh and say, well, I hope it leads to something substantial: the Paris climate agreement. And one that is nails on the blackboard for most Democrats: the latest round of corporate-deregulation treaties packaged as "free trade" treaties. Obama apparently has been bringing more pressure on Congress to achieve that latter than just about anything else during his Administration of Holy Bipartisanship. And of course, a nice flourish of American Exceptionalist rhetoric, "very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership." Goldberg also writes, "If Obama ever questioned whether America really is the world’s one indispensable nation, he no longer does so. But he is the rare president who seems at times to resent indispensability, rather than embrace it."

Goldberg even presents the Iran deal as something from which Obama wants to distance himself: “'The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran,' Susan Rice told me. 'It was far more pragmatic and minimalist. The aim was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.'”

Holy Bipartisanship, Batman!

And if that's not already enough Bipartsanship to give Democrats heartburn, there's also this:

In his efforts to off-load some of America’s foreign-policy responsibilities to its allies, Obama appears to be a classic retrenchment president in the manner of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.Retrenchment, in this context, is defined as “pulling back, spending less, cutting risk, and shifting burdens to allies,” Stephen Sestanovich, an expert on presidential foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained to me. “If John McCain had been elected in 2008, you would still have seen some degree of retrenchment,” Sestanovich said. “It’s what the country wanted. If you come into office in the middle of a war that is not going well, you’re convinced that the American people have hired you to do less.” One difference between Eisenhower and Nixon, on the one hand, and Obama, on the other, Sestanovich said, is that Obama “appears to have had a personal, ideological commitment to the idea that foreign policy had consumed too much of the nation’s attention and resources.”
Goldberg may be trying to stir up problems for the Democrats in the fall with the following. Or to have an excuse to use "s**t" several times. But it's still relevant to the primary campaign:

Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad ... left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit.
Goldberg devotes a lot of space to the decision that Obama made not to massively and directly intervene militarily in Syria during his second term. In his description, this was a case of Obama acting wisely and prudently in the face of advisers include Joe Biden who wanted to go in guns blazing. Or, as Goldberg's stenography puts it, "Obama understands that the decision he made to step back from air strikes, and to allow the violation of a red line he himself had drawn to go unpunished, will be interrogated mercilessly by historians. But today that decision is a source of deep satisfaction for him."

Somehow, I get the feeling there is a lot of spin involved here. Yes, deciding not to do a massive direct intervention was one of the more significant good decisions Obama has made on foreign policy. But as Goldberg's own account shows, he foolishly drew a "red line" that he didn't need to over the use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime. But that was a dumb thing to do in itself. And we don't really know what to make of this until we know a lot more about just who was making which claims about the chemical weapons use. From the reports I've seen, including Goldberg's article, it's never been clear to me that it was the Syrian regime doing it and not one of the rebel groups.

And the Obama Administration also decided to feed the conflict by putting in "clandestine" support for the very dubious Free Syrian Army and who knows who else. Goldberg says that we're currently fielding "a clandestine CIA-aided army of 10,000 rebels battling in Syria." Real news! We've found the Syrian Moderates!! (I'm sure a herd of unicorns will turn up any day now, too.) His policy of insisting on the departure of Assad also looks reckless so far. His Syrian policy looks an awful lot like Obama muddling along, trying to satisfy a variety of competing demands without deciding on a clear and practical policy.

Okay, and this is just depressing: "one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor." (my emphasis)

[Deep sigh]

Obama is trying to distance himself from his own "surge" in Afghanistan: "He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries. Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan."

Goldberg quotes Obama as saying a lot of fluff that amounts to little more than a regurgitation of standard rhetoric that shouldn't much disturb the Very Serious People, e.g., "we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted."

The Jeffrey Goldberg article is another part in Obama's push to create a conventional wisdom among the Very Serious People about his legacy. The article is embarrassingly stenographic. One good sign is the number of nails-on-the-blackboard comparisons of Obama to this Republican and that, comparisons Obama obviously likes. Holy Bipartisanship, Batman! And if you like pages worth of stuff like the following, you'll find it downright entertaining reading. If you have a gag reflex at compulsive Bipartisanship ... not so much:

"Those who speak with Obama about jihadist thought say that he possesses a no-illusions understanding of the forces that drive apocalyptic violence among radical Muslims, but he has been careful about articulating that publicly, out of concern that he will exacerbate anti-Muslim xenophobia. He has a tragic realist’s understanding of sin, cowardice, and corruption, and a Hobbesian appreciation of how fear shapes human behavior. And yet he consistently, and with apparent sincerity, professes optimism that the world is bending toward justice. He is, in a way, a Hobbesian optimist."

Obama admits to Goldberg that his Libyan intervention, a very dubious achievement for which Hillary Clinton also claims credit, was a failure. But at the same time, he defends it:

“So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”

Mess is the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a “shit show,” in part because it’s subsequently become an isis haven—one that he has already targeted with air strikes. It became a shit show, Obama believes, for reasons that had less to do with American incompetence than with the passivity of America’s allies and with the obdurate power of tribalism.

“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said.
Goldberg devotes a couple of paragraphs to the Administration's policy toward Latin America, where he quotes Obama criticizing the leaders of Venezuela and Nicaragua. There is no mention of Obama's support for the coup in 2009 Honduras and the "soft coup" in Paraguay in 2012. Both are incidents which have significantly affected the image of his Administration in Latin America. The latter is a significant model that influences the current effort to oust left-leaning Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

I think this article would have benefited from more active editing. Besides its suck-up tone, a lot of it just seems to be chatter to illustrate the cool places Goldberg got to go with the President.

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