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.American Presidents don't make policy in a vacuum; they are surrounded by thousands of officials of varying levels who all have assumptions about what ought to happen, and it can be hard to go against this grain. Obama felt that he had been trapped into a scenario that was forcing him to intervene in another war, and his instincts told him that would be a mistake. So he refused to let the cruise missiles fly, and as he expected he has taken a lot of grief ever since. In the end Vladimir Putin helped arrange for Assad to ship most of his chemical weapons abroad, which even Benjamin Netanyahu called a “ray of light,” so I would call Obama's decision a great success. But the image of a President fighting to escape from a what he sees as a trap of war is worth contemplating.
“I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the “Washington playbook.”
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. 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.”
It is also interesting that Obama is increasingly fed up with our “allies” in the Middle East and increasingly willing to lambaste them in public:
Though he has a reputation for prudence, he has also been eager to question some of the long-standing assumptions undergirding traditional U.S. foreign-policy thinking. To a remarkable degree, he is willing to question why America’s enemies are its enemies, or why some of its friends are its friends. He overthrew half a century of bipartisan consensus in order to reestablish ties with Cuba. He questioned why the U.S. should avoid sending its forces into Pakistan to kill al-Qaeda leaders, and he privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a disastrously dysfunctional country, should be considered an ally of the U.S. at all. According to Leon Panetta, he has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies receive; but he has also questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism. He is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally. And of course he decided early on, in the face of great criticism, that he wanted to reach out to America’s most ardent Middle Eastern foe, Iran. The nuclear deal he struck with Iran proves, if nothing else, that Obama is not risk-averse.Obama worries that Saudi Arabi and the Gulf states are manipulating the US into conflicts that serve their interests but not ours:
But he went on to say that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he said. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”And then this, explaining why fighting the Islamic State is more important than other issues in the region:
Advisers recall that Obama would cite a pivotal moment in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman movie, to help explain not only how he understood the role of ISIS, but how he understood the larger ecosystem in which it grew. “There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had his turf. And then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. ISIL is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”I would never claim that Obama's foreign policy has been a great success, and I doubt he would, either. But I have always felt that he was acting from a genuine desire to figure out what would be in the best interests of the US and the world, and then act accordingly. I don't see him as motivated by machismo, belligerent nationalism, cowardice, partisan politics, or fantasies like W's democratic Iraqi paradise the mere existence of which would revolutionize the Middle East. When he has been wrong, he has been wrong for reasons I understand and can respect, and in that, at least, he has stood far above the two presidents who came before him.
"When he has been wrong, he has been wrong for reasons I understand and can respect, and in that, at least, he has stood far above the two presidents who came before him."
Overall this is essentially my own sentiment, but I was surprised by the inclusion of Clinton in the final comparison.
Maybe it's my own bias speaking, but I feel like Clinton overall made the right choice in the use (or lack of use) of the military in international affairs. He had the US take an active part in stabilizing the Balkans, helping to end horrific civil war and genocide and bring figures like Milošević to international justice. He made the call to pull out of Somalia at a time when many were championing investing more heavily in boots on the ground. He reached out to Vietnam and China, and although it would eventually prove unsuccessful, he put in motion the best effort yet at achieving peace between Arabs and Israelis.
The one area I really find significant fault in was his views on Iraq, although even there I can understand his reasoning. No decent person could really fault him for denouncing Saddam's regime - Hussein was a morally outrageous monster.
But even while Clinton supported his overthrow, the fact remains he refused to commit US forces to a military invervention. I can really only speculate as to the true reasons why that was, but I'd assume it was largely because he felt we weren't in a position to effectively bring about a stable transition - that Clinton wanted to get the UN on board and handle the situation in much the same way we dealt with the Yugoslav wars, working to stabilize the region and avoid a power vacuum.
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