I try to avoid quoting myself, even as a way of knitting together the ongoing Middle East-related commentary in this column. But sometimes it’s just unavoidable. Last time out, I wrote (allow me only to add a spot of emphasis to mark my purpose in quoting it back to you now):
Why is the Obama Administration determined, still, to do what amounts to nothing in Syria? Why has it been willing to let the Iranians and the Russians call all the significant shots? Why in this case, if not also several others, has it apparently confused “leading from behind” (which is good work if you can get it) into “sitting on one’s behind”?No one really knows, of course, even as I and many others have speculated about the reasons over the past several years. My more or less settled view at this point is that the President simply doesn’t think anything vital to U.S. interests is at stake in Syria and, even more broadly, in the Levant. He has for a while now disparaged those who have told him that “the Russians are winning” in Syria and the region, replying, in effect, “winning what?” He presumed a Russian quagmire this past autumn…he thinks it’s both unimportant in the long run and accident-prone in the short run. If Obama over- or mis-learned the lessons of Iraq, his own desultory experience in Libya only reinforced his allergy to getting the United States involved in Syria….Now, Cold War veterans and those of us who do foreign policy for a day job—especially regional experts—mostly want to throw up our hands at this naivety. Doesn’t this guy realize, we like to say, that Syria isn’t a one-off, that major and protracted international crises are never just one-offs at all, but accumulate into a cascade of perceptions that give shape to acute systemic disorder?… [I]n the fullness of time, as I have wondered in print before, Barack Obama as his sidekick Ben Rhodes may prove to be right. The transition from pax Americana to a better balance may be a bit messy, sure, but in the long run it’ll all turn out for the best. It could be.
We still may not know everything, but thanks to Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic essay, “The Obama Doctrine,” we know a whole lot more than we did a few days ago about how and what the President thinks on a whole range of foreign policy subjects. Never mind for the moment whether it is wise for a sitting President to bare his brain thusly before his duties are completed. The stuff in this essay is deeply attention arresting, and it bears no sign of having been generated in a softball hagiographic set up by Goldberg. It’s the real deal, and it’s the real deal at—these days—uncharacteristic length.For someone like me, interest in this essay is multifold. For one thing, it’s irresistible to do a little scorecard checking. I can now not only hold up the foregoing quote against the backdrop of new evidence, I can do the same for what I’ve written since the beginning of the Obama Administration about Syria, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy more broadly. I’m pleased. I could take you back theme by theme and line by line to show how fairly close I have come to interpolating the President’s behavior back into his thinking. I won’t do that of course (except maybe for my own amusement) other than to mention two points: I claimed many times to much scoffing that Obama’s threat to use force against Iran, if it came to that, to prevent a nuclear breakout was not a bluff, and the Goldberg essay confirms that; and I claimed, too, that Obama could not be put in a realist or an internationalist or any kind of slogan-draped box because he was not by nature an ideological thinker when it came to foreign policy, and he confirmed that assessment almost word for word.But more important to me, as I’ve written many times and as my loyal readers well know, I don’t hate Barack Obama even when I have disagreed with him. I have tried never to be a partisan critic but to take the Dick Gregory approach to the subject: “Start with the truth before you tamper with it.” I’m now more satisfied than ever with that approach, because in this essay the President seems at many points to have been reading my mind. (He has to have read my mind, so to speak, because I’d wager that he’s never laid eyes on a single word I’ve written.) The points of convergence are abundant, far more so than I would have guessed. Naturally, then, my estimation of him has now risen no small degree.Of course, there remain in the end, beyond a better understanding of his thinking, some key points of difference—on the Syria redline back-down, on the Iran deal, on his weighting of the climate change factor in global politics, and on his estimate of what the recent Paris agreement is really worth. I still think he’s mistaken on all this, but here I don’t differ from many of the President’s own past and current advisers—as Goldberg illustrates as he goes. (On one occasion or two, it is now revealed to me that Joe Biden and I took the same view of particular decision points, and that is shocking.)I also think he criticizes the credibility/reputation point excessively. It is of course an argument of scoundrels that we should use force just to prove we will use force. Even if that kind of reasoning made some clinging sense in the Cold War, when we were focused on one main adversary across an array of global points of incidence, so as to give the sense of a seamless canvass of competition, it makes much less sense when one’s revisionist adversaries are many and not in close coordination. But the argument is not entirely void. Reputations still matter. Obama may think that geopolitics and its distempers are atavistic. He may really believe in progress, that the arc of history is bending in the direction of reason, tolerance, and the rest. But in the thicket of diplomatic engagement, it is not possible to be solipsistically correct. What others believe matters, too, even and especially when they believe something at loggerheads from what you believe.All that said, I found non-trivial points of convergence that I did not expect to find—on tribalism in particular, on how we understand Saudi and Pakistani policy, on the non-existential nature of the terrorism threat in general and the ISIS threat in particular, on our mutual admiration of the George H.W. Bush/Brent Scowcroft combo, on the distortion of Ronald Reagan’s true legacy for use against him, and plenty more besides.There are two factual errors in Goldberg’s narrative, or, perhaps more precisely, two facts that are assumed and are allowed to flow into the narrative without interrogation. It makes a difference in what ensues in the essay that something taken to be so probably isn’t. The first concerns the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.Never does Goldberg or anyone else question whether the post-redline chemical weapons deal actually removed all of Syria’s chemical stocks. This implies that everyone believes that the Syrian regime’s declaration of its stocks was complete and accurate. This beggars belief. No Syrian government since Dwight Eisenhower’s time has failed to lie to the U.S. government, so why would anyone expect that to have changed in 2013?ISIS has been caught using chemical weapons in recent months, nasty ones well beyond chlorine gas. Where did ISIS get them? One possibility is that, with the help of former Iraqi specialized military personnel, they are fabricating the chemicals from scratch. Another is that these are old stocks from Iraq, spirited out of the country and to Syria in 1991 or thereafter. But the most likely source by far is that ISIS overran Syrian depots with remaining undeclared stocks of these weapons; yet virtually no one seems willing to connect the dots and draw the conclusion straining to impress itself upon us.The second error is the repetition of the assertion that Muammar Qaddafi had ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi. Now, it seems pretty clear that high U.S. officials believed that to be the case. They may have believed it because the French insisted upon it at the time, and no one thought to ask the intelligence community what the truth of translation was. That, anyway, is what a reconstruction of events seems to suggest.But it was not true, and the passage of time has not made it true. The transcripts of the relevant remarks and broadcasts make clear that Qaddafi was talking only of armed rebels as “rats” to be killed, not the civilian population of Benghazi in general. Goldberg states flatly that (again I am adding the italic emphasis): “The intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do.” A few sentences later, however, Goldberg alludes to the uncertainty of his own claim when he writes: “American bombs fell, and the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre. . .” It’s not clear how to reconcile these two statements.These two flaws notwithstanding, Goldberg has delivered a real corker of a revelation. It does not exonerate all of the President’s judgments by a long shot, yet it does show that the shrill exaggerations of the hater-critics have been precisely that—shrill exaggerations. Obama doesn’t think American power is evil after all. He is not plotting deliberately America’s decline. He is neither a craven coward nor a clueless naif. He’s right about a lot, it seems to me, and wrong about some things, too. That’s normal. So it has been with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and so on back at least to Harry Truman. History will judge the balance, maybe—depending on who gets to write it.