The Obama Foreign Policy Interview

The Atlantic has just published a long essay, "The Obama Doctrine," by their national correspondent, Jeffrey Goldberg. Based in good part on a wide-ranging reflective interview with president Barack Obama, the article makes extensive use of direct quotes from that interview. Considerable space is devoted to the various American engagements in the Middle East along with Obama's views on prospects for the region.

It is a remarkable journalistic event insofar as it represents a preemptive attempt by a sitting president to shape the discourse about his record and his legacy. What he says is revealing --
less as analysis and interpretation of actions taken, though, than as an 'exhibit' of all that is peculiar about Obama's policy-making style -- and what the implications for American diplomacy have been.

Obama's overall stance is one of dissociation from his own administration and its conduct. Throughout, he appears to referring to himself in the third person. This can be seen as the soon to be memoir writer's attempt to cast himself as detached statesman while distancing himself from errors made. However, this degree of dissociation by a still incumbent president is odd. It suggests that he has been playing the role of participant-observer while in the Oval Office. Moreover, it conveys his sense that somehow the words he utters are equivalent to actions. Indeed, a feature of his presidency has been a frequent mismatch of words and deeds which never get reconciled. Nor do they in this seemingly candid interview. That raises a cardinal question: is this honest reflection or a characteristic flight from accountability?

Two, this strange attitude is most pronounced in his remarks about the Middle East. For example, he inveighs against allowing the United States to be placed in a position of picking sides in Islam's Sunni-Shi'ite civil war. He is especially adamant about the dangers of American power being used as a tool of the Saudis to advance their cause. Yet, this is exactly what he has been doing in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Bahrain. Moreover, he never has confronted the KSA leaders about the promotion of wahhabism or their concrete support for ISIL and al-Qaeda (in Syria and Yemen -- where they fight side-by-side) -- either in private or in public.

Obama urges that the KSA and Iran learn to co-exist, "to share space," in the region. Yet, in the wake of the nuclear accord, he's gone overboard in denouncing the IRI as the primary source of instability in the Middle East and insists that until hey cease and desist, no normalization is possible. As Goldberg quotes Susan Rice in seconding the president: The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran." In other words, if the US refuses adamantly to "share space" -- as in Iraq -- on what grounds does he here encourage the Saudis to do so. On Turkey, Obama is similarly mealy-mouthed -- although he refrains from the same direct criticism of Erdogan.

Finally, Obama strongly criticizes Washington's foreign policy Establishment as being overly rigid in their thinking and imposing their views on American leaders. This is baffling -- is not the president the head of the Establishment? Has Obama not stocked his two administrations -- to a man and to a woman -- with members of the Establishment? Does he not invite Robert Kagan to intimate Camp David deep think sessions? Hasn't he bowed the knee before the Israeli lobby? Does he not have the authority to address the country directly and to instruct them about world realities?

Here is the Obama view of where he fits in Washington's power map of foreign policy-makers/Thinkers: "There's a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It's a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don't follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply."

The deference and passivity accorded the upholders of the conventional wisdom exposes the critical flaw in Obama's interpretation of his authority as Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief. He is not a constrained Doge of Venice under strict surveillance by the Great Council of aristocrats. He is not just the custodian and of some Holy Grail in the sacred custody of vestal virgins. He is not the prize student being tested in a simulation by masters of the guild. The Washington Consensus embodied by the head-nodders of the think tanks and op. ed. pages is nothing more than the calcified corpus of failed ideas which have brought the United States nothing but wrack and ruin for (at least) the past 15 years. The Iraq debacle cut the ground from under it -- thereby helping to clear the way for his entry into the White House. His historic task was reformation. Instead, he decided that acceptance into the ranks of the Establishment was worth a ritualized surrender.

All of this is baffling. Part of the explanation lies in the president's singular personality. Despite his high intelligence, he seems to live with a great number of unreconciled contradictions. Some have to do with his background and upbringing. Some are intellectual. The title of the Atlantic article is misleading. There is no "Obama Doctrine." Incoherence is the hallmark of American actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. The interview with Goldberg confirms that.

Barack Obama gave Goldberg many, many hours of his time. The president allowed the writer to accompany on international jaunts, and accorded him entry to his inner circle. Goldberg has thanked the president by concentrating on the supposed historic error of not bombing Syria when Assad allegedly (if mistakenly)was accused of crossing the notorious 'red line' by using sarin gas. That is the pivot of the article; it is returned to time after time in positing the hard-line critique of the Obama foreign policy as the one authoritative perspective. Why does a president afford such liberties to a tendentious journalist?

European monarchs of old had court portraitists. American presidencies have Boswell's like Bob Woodward and now Jeff Goldberg. Boswells who are not friends but on assignment. The purpose is similar: to immortalize the ruler at the height of his powers. To show a forceful leader mastering a daunting problem with resolve, sobriety and dedication to the interests of his fellow citizens. This being America, the subject matter has to be one of action and suspense. Bush the Younger seeking retribution for 9/11. Now Barack Obama in a titanic struggle to escape the coils of stifling dogma.

A narrative account that covers a long span of time, though, does have a few drawbacks. It cannot fix the image at a single moment that will last for eternity. However laudatory, the written account is liable to be viewed differently as time goes by. And Goldberg's portrait is not very becoming. A picture wings the flying hour; a story is part of the flow of events. There is the further drawback that the chronicler may depict persons and things in ways that are not entirely complimentary to the main protagonist in the drama.

Journalistic talents may be available for lease but they do not come with a money back guarantee. For the exchange currency is not hard cash but access. The White House gets surefire blockbuster publicity -- and, in this case, the chance to set in place the first sketch of his presidential record. A further complication is that while the president is the patron, the commission is loosely written to allow the artist unmonitored access to other members of the court. Their vanities and ambitions are not identical with his. See the quoted remarks of John Kerry and Pentagon officials.

In the light of the ensuing risks, why does Barack Obama enter into such a pact? Our celebrity culture provides part of the answer. Publicity is what it is all about. A public figure whose meteoric rise is a testament to star power must be acutely sensitive to the imperative of how vital to success is mythic imagery and turns in the limelight. The stage lights have the special glow when energized by a bestselling graphic account of high performance.

Then there is the simple truth that presidents want to celebrate themselves. They are the ultimate celebrity in a celebrity culture. They in fact feel proud of what they do and how they do it. Reality is clay in my hands. A successful leader must never allow the future to be hostage to history -- even yesterday's history. Except where history can be bent better to serve fresh exigencies -- or a post-presidency career of 30-35 years.

The selection of a hawk like Goldberg to be his interlocutor demonstrates another truth that also can be inferred from the Obama discourse. Authority on matters of foreign policy rests with the guardians of the very Establishment that constrains him. It is the neo-cons and their hard-line companions in arms who, he believes, are the cynosure of core American beliefs about the world and our place in it. So it ultimately with them that he must seek validation. This conviction of Obama's, of course, becomes self-confirming -- as we have observed for seven years.

Obama is a man of reflection, at least as concerns his own identity and self-image. Maybe the serial interviews with Goldberg were the first try at coming to terms with himself as director of American foreign policy. So he invited Goldberg to join him in an excursion through the presidential mind -- a Virgil exploring his own psyche.