Al Qaeda, border security, Democratic Party, foreign policy establishment, Iran, ISIS, Jeffrey Goldberg, Middle East, missile defense, Obama, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, September 11, terrorism, The Atlantic
If you have any interest in American foreign policy, international affairs, President Obama’s overarching strategy, or simply how he makes decisions generally, The Atlantic‘s current cover story based on a series of lengthy interviews with the chief executive is an absolute must-read. Kudos, incidentally, to author Jeffrey Goldberg for his skill at inducing Mr. Obama to open up so completely.
In fact, the only legitimate criticism – and clearly this wasn’t under Goldberg’s control – involves how late in the president’s term most of these thoughts came out. The public would have had a much better basis for judging Mr. Obama’s record and talent as a commander-in-chief and diplomat – and a much better chance of influencing his moves – had this window into his mindset appeared much earlier.
Any number of RealityChek posts can – and I hope will – come out of this material, but to me what deserves spotlighting right away is the completely incoherent approach the president has taken to the Middle East. Specifically, it could not be more obvious that he has concluded that the region is as utterly hopeless as I have contended repeatedly. Yet he still refuses to overhaul American policy, much less American objectives, in ways that logically follow. The result is what Goldberg calls an “Obama Doctrine” that still leaves gaping Middle East-related holes in America’s security.
Not that the president has always dismissed the notion that, within the foreseable future, the Middle East can even be minimally pacified or stabilized, much less modernized or democratized. As the author shows, “The story of Obama’s encounter with the Middle East follows an arc of disenchantment. In his first extended spree of fame, as a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama often spoke with hope about the region. In Berlin that summer, in a speech to 200,000 adoring Germans, he said, ‘This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.’”
Two years in office didn’t change Mr. Obama’s outlook appreciably: “Through the first flush of the Arab Spring, in 2011, Obama continued to speak optimistically about the Middle East’s future, coming as close as he ever would to embracing the so-called freedom agenda of George W. Bush, which was characterized in part by the belief that democratic values could be implanted in the Middle East. He equated protesters in Tunisia and Tahrir Square with Rosa Parks and the ‘patriots of Boston.’”
According to Goldberg, what soured Mr. Obama on the region was a combination of growing pique with most of its leaders and then the failure of his Libyan intervention. That debacle “proved to him that the Middle East was best avoided. ‘There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,’ he recently told a former colleague from the Senate. ‘That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.’” Added Goldberg, the president now believes that “thanks to America’s energy revolution [the Middle East] will soon be of negligible relevance to the U.S. economy.”
Goldberg’s explanation is something of a paradox: “The rise of the Islamic State deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.” Yet in the president’s own words, ISIS “has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”
In fact, these passages reveal one big internal contradiction of the Obama approach. On the one hand, he’s happy to talk endlessly in public about his genuine belief that the Middle East is little more than one big potential Vietnam-like quagmire for America. Indeed, he told Goldberg that the region’s tribalism is “a force no president can neutralize” and is a major source of his fatalism. On the other hand, Mr. Obama insists, as above, that the United States has no choice but to try preventing conflagration.
As a result, here’s the clearest way that the president can describe how he determines when and how to act: “We have to determine the best tools to roll back those kinds of attitudes. There are going to be times where either because it’s not a direct threat to us or because we just don’t have the tools in our toolkit to have a huge impact that, tragically, we have to refrain from jumping in with both feet.” But when Middle East threats are “direct” but the “toolkit” is wanting, the United States should just…what exactly? No wonder so few Americans have confidence in the president’s national security chops.
The more fundamental flaw with the Obama doctrine, however, is its evident assumption that when “direct threats” to American security emerge in the Middle East, or show signs of stirring, extensive intervention in the region’s madhouse politics – whether with meaningful allied assistance or not – is America’s only option.
That’s certainly been the American Way for decades. But as I’ve pointed out, because of the nation’s favorable geography, two vastly superior alternatives have been available since the September 11 attacks so dramatically revealed that simple benign neglect of the region had become unacceptable. The first alternative measure is to establish genuine border security, to ensure that terrorists face much greater obstacles entering the United States and remaining in the country (the visa overstay problem). The second is to build the kind of missile defense that could protect America from the kind of small-scale nuclear strike that Iran could launch in the policy-relevant future if the worst fears about its military ambitions and the president’s de-nuclearization deal come to pass. (Such a system would help counter North Korean nuclear threats.)
Of course, because these programs will take years to complete, a bridging strategy is needed. That should focus on using special forces units and airstrikes to keep ISIS and Al Qaeda (which hasn’t disappeared) sufficiently off balance to prevent consolidation of a terrorist state that could be used as a training center and launchpad for September 11-like operations. Accordingly, talk of finally defeating ISIS et al should be eliminated – because even if the goal is achieved, successor groups will surely arise.
A final point worth making: One of the most important services performed by Goldberg is documenting beyond any reasonable doubt that most of the current Democratic Party foreign policy establishment – including presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s former Secretary of State – is much less ambivalent about interventionism than he is. And generally speaking, these attitudes are even more pronounced in Republican ranks. That’s why it’s hard to look at the politics of 2016 and feel much confidence that the United States will have the wit and wisdom to extricate itself safely from the looney-bin Middle East any time soon.