by James M. Wall
Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic essay, “The Obama Doctrine”, opens with two contrasting conclusions which could be drawn from events on Friday, August 30, 2013.
It was either the day Barack Obama “brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower”, or, it was the day Barack Obama “peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void.”
In President Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, “was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also [defied] the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East.
Barack Obama’s presidential “liberation day” began with a “thundering speech” given on his behalf by Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks”, were delivered in the State Department’s Treaty Room. It dealt with the gassing of Syrian civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
In his remarks, Kerry said Assad should be punished, in part, because the “credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies” were at stake.
It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.
The Pentagon and the White House’s national-security team believed President Obama was ready to attack President Assad for “crossing the red line” by gassing civilians. Goldberg reports that “John Kerry told me he was expecting a strike the day after his speech”.
The President was preparing for an attack. Privately, however, he had “come to believe that he was walking into a trap—one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do.”
Late in the afternoon, President Obama “determined that he was simply not prepared to authorize a strike”. He asked Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, to take a walk with him on the South Lawn of the White House.
Obama did not choose McDonough randomly: He is the Obama aide most averse to U.S. military intervention, and someone who, in the words of one of his colleagues, “thinks in terms of traps.” . . .Obama and McDonough shared a long-standing resentment.
They were “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. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.”
When the two men came back to the Oval Office, the president told his national-security aides that he planned to stand down. There would be no attack the next day; he wanted to refer the matter to Congress for a vote. Aides in the room were shocked. . .
What led to this decision by the President?
Goldberg asked him to describe his thinking on that day. Obama listed the practical worries that had preoccupied him. “We had UN inspectors on the ground who were completing their work, and we could not risk taking a shot while they were there.”
A second major factor was the failure of [British Prime Minister] Cameron to obtain the consent of his parliament.
The third, and most important, factor, he told me, was “our assessment that while we could inflict some damage on Assad, we could not, through a missile strike, eliminate the chemical weapons themselves, and what I would then face was the prospect of Assad having survived the strike and claiming he had successfully defied the United States, that the United States had acted unlawfully in the absence of a UN mandate, and that that would have potentially strengthened his hand rather than weakened it.
The fourth factor, he said, was of deeper philosophical importance. “This falls in the category of something that I had been brooding on for some time,” he said. “I had come into office with the strong belief that the scope of executive power in national-security issues is very broad, but not limitless.”
Obama’s decision to choose further negotiations over a military strike drew heavy criticism. Today, three years after the U.S. came close to yet another military attack on a Muslim state, John Kerry has come to understand the good judgment behind Obama’s choice.
John Kerry today expresses no patience for those who argue, as he himself once did, that Obama should have bombed Assad-regime sites in order to buttress America’s deterrent capability. “You’d still have the weapons there, and you’d probably be fighting ISIL” for control of the weapons, he said. . . . “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Goldberg described the President’s understanding of how his decision would be read by his critics. He writes, “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.
“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”.
Goldberg quotes Obama’s description of this “playbook”.
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.
Obama knows there are times when bellicosity is justified. But choices must be made in our current international arena.
Obama believes that the Manicheanism, and eloquently rendered bellicosity, commonly associated with Churchill, were justified by Hitler’s rise, and were at times defensible in the struggle against the Soviet Union. But he also thinks rhetoric should be weaponized sparingly, if at all, in today’s more ambiguous and complicated international arena.
The president believes that Churchillian rhetoric and, more to the point, Churchillian habits of thought, helped bring his predecessor, George W. Bush, to ruinous war in Iraq. Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he was not seeking new dragons to slay. And he was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable.
Secretary Clinton thought differently:
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”.
President Obama opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion launched by President George W. Bush. He told Goldberg that invasion “should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid [things]”.
Hillary Clinton has said she regrets her vote to support President Bush’s decision to attack Iraq. She has, however, continued to maintain her support for interventionism.
Less than a year later, after she was no longer Secretary of State, The Week charged that Clinton had stepped up her criticism of Obama’s foreign policy.
Clinton distanced herself from President Obama’s foreign policy, suggesting that he has not made it clear how D.C. “intend[s] to lead and manage” international affairs. Clinton advocated a more interventionist approach, arguing that, “We have to go back out and sell ourselves” as guarantors of worldwide stability.
Clinton’s opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, gave Obama strong and immediate support in his posting in the Huffington Post, called, “No More War”.
His post had appeared September 12. 2013 (updated November 13), less than a month after Obama’s peaceful “stand down”.
Obama’s (and Kerry’s) subsequent negotiations to relieve Syria of its chemical weapons, reached a successful conclusion in June, 2014.
Sanders had written in 2013:
At a time of great political division in our country President Obama has found a remarkable way to unite Americans of all political persuasions — conservatives, progressives and moderates. With a loud and clear voice, the overwhelming majority of the American people, across the political spectrum, are saying NO to another war in the Middle East — Syria’s bloody and complicated civil war.
Bernie Sanders enjoyed an election sweep Saturday in Democratic caucuses: Washington (72-27), Alaska (82-18) and Hawaii (71-29). Earlier, Sanders won Tuesday caucuses in Utah (80-29) and Idaho (76-21).
Before the caucus vote, Washington state’s governor, and all of its Democratic members of Congress, handed over their non-binding super delegate votes to Clinton.
It may be time for those political leaders to take some long walks with trusted aides.
The picture from the cover of The Atlantic magazine is a screen shot. The picture of Bernie Sanders is from flick.com (image by marcn) DMCA.