Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.
In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
"Fight against the impossible and win" (Wikimedia Commons)
In March, I drove with my family from the Cuban capital, Havana, to the colonial town of Trinidad, through the city of Cienfuegos. We were more or less the only car on a very rutted road. Cienfuegos is a city of roughly 150,000 people, but it seemed dead. Its buildings were in a state of decay—just like most of the neighborhoods of Havana—and goods were being moved by donkey cart. My wife and I explained to our children that this is what can happen to a people, and to an economy, under communist rule. We spent days trying to teach them about Cuba's dual-currency system—a dollar-based system for tourists, and a make-believe one for ordinary, sometimes-hungry Cubans—but they had difficulty understanding it, because it made so little sense.
On the way to Trinidad, we made a quick stop at Playa Giron, the beach on the Bay of Pigs where a CIA-sponsored invasion ended in disaster. The place was a shambles; some of the faded signs at the decrepit hotel were in Russian. Near the beach was a tiny store that, like most Cuban stores, sold virtually nothing, except for Che Guevara T-shirts, and, unaccountably, Pringles and Coke. One of my daughters made for the Pringles. "Look," she said, "we won."
Critics of the Obama administration, and critics of the Castro regime, will say that today's decision to normalize relations between the two countries represents a victory for one-party rule. I think they are wrong; there is a very good chance that the U.S. comes out the winner in this new arrangement, and not only because Alan Gross is now home.
It is difficult for a Castro to agree to normalized relations with the United States; anti-Americanism is a pillar of the regime. But looking around Cuba earlier this year, it was apparent that there was an opening for the Obama administration to change direction and actually influence the course of events inside Cuba.
President Obama—and Benjamin Rhodes, the National Security Council aide who led the negotiations with Cuba—saw an opportunity to open up Cuba to American influence, and they took it. They will be criticized mercilessly—they already are—for giving too much ground to the Cuban regime. But Obama and his team knew something that many previous administrations before them also knew: U.S. policy toward Cuba was self-defeating. Five decades of an embargo, five decades of hostility, had not dislodged the Castro brothers, and had not brought even a suggestion of democracy to the island.
Alan Gross's hapless mission to Cuba was proof of a dysfunctional, sclerotic, and mindless policy. The United States Agency for International Development, which is not a spy agency, sent an unprepared and untrained contractor to break Cuban law, by smuggling into Cuba banned telecommunications equipment. His mission was a vestige of Cold War thinking. The goal was to help Cubans communicate freely, even while under the thumb of an oppressive regime. The goal was not achieved.
Now, the U.S. has a better chance of achieving this important mission. Critics of Obama's Cuba initiative have a point: There is no way to guarantee the success, in human-rights terms, of this dramatic new opening. But time has discredited the alternative vision. The seemingly never-ending embargo did nothing to bring about the conclusion of the seemingly never-ending rule of the Castro brothers. After 50 years of trying one thing, and seeing that thing fail, and fail again, it was about time that the United States try something else.
A person falls from the World Trade Center's north tower after jumping, on September 11, 2001. (Richard Drew/AP)
On September 12, 2001, Time magazine, in a special issue devoted to the Qaeda attacks of the previous day, published a column by one of its most prominent contributors at the time, Lance Morrow. The column was headlined, "The Case for Rage and Retribution." The subtitle read: "What's needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury—a ruthless indignation that doesn't leak away in a week or two."
Morrow's core argument:
Let America explore the rich reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa. A policy of focused brutality does not come easily to a self-conscious, self-indulgent, contradictory, diverse, humane nation with a short attention span. America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness—and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred.
I don't recall reading this essay when it first appeared, though I bought a copy of the special issue as a keepsake—a keepsake I recently discovered in my basement. I opened the magazine to the Morrow essay and was shortly appalled, though, of course, in the days following the 9/11 attacks, I remember being more than sufficiently upset, in the Morrow manner. Even today, if I concentrate my mind on images of innocent people throwing themselves from the Twin Towers, I can easily induce anger.
So I don't mean to single out Morrow for his intemperate words; he wrote at a particular, appalling moment, and he captured the fury most people felt at the time. But this fury explains why we should resist the urge to make believe that what the CIA did to some of its detainees, according to the newly released Senate report, reflects poorly on the CIA alone. Lance Morrow was wrong: A policy of focused brutality does, in fact, come easily, even to a self-conscious and self-indulgent country such as ours, if we allow the rage terrorists create in us to shape our behavior.
The lesson is obvious: The next time a group of Islamist terrorists succeeds in killing large numbers of Americans—and such an attack should be expected—it is important for those who are in positions of power (very much including the writers and commentators who shape popular thinking) to keep in mind that the goal of the United States is to neutralize the threat, and not to seek retribution for the sake of retribution. It is a terrible idea, both morally and practically, to allow hatred to shape counterterrorism policy, but that, I think, explains in part what happened at the CIA. In an atmosphere of comprehensive rage and loathing, bad ideas rose to the surface, and found their champions.
The other day I fell into conversation with a very smart congressman named Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Florida, about his minimum requirements for an Iran nuclear deal. Deutch, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is—like a large number of Democrats—fairly-to-very dubious about the possibility of a true breakthrough with Iran, and fairly-to-very worried about the consequences of a bad deal. (On Monday, negotiators extended the deadline for a final deal until next July.)
Democrats such as Deutch will need to be convinced by the Obama administration that it hasn’t been outplayed by Iran. If an accord is eventually reached, and if Obama cannot convince the Democrats that he has delivered to them the toughest possible deal, then Congress will do everything in its power to undo the agreement. The Republicans, of course, are itching to subvert an Obama-negotiated deal, and Democratic support will be important to them as they make their case.
As I’ve written previously, I support a diplomatic solution to the challenge posed by the Iranian nuclear program because such a solution could theoretically achieve, without bloodshed, what a military strike might not achieve with bloodshed. But as I outline in this column, I don’t believe that either the diplomatic solution, or a solution that requires crushing sanctions and the credible threat of force, are overly likely to neutralize this threat. (And yes, it is a threat. An Iran with nuclear weapons would pose an acute challenge to pro-American moderates across the Middle East, and to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation, in particular in the world's most volatile region. And it would pose a genocidal threat to Israel; please see, in case you haven’t read it yet, John Kerry’s condemnation of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s recently tweeted nine-point plan for Israel’s destruction.)
(One more parenthetical: Of course the Iranian regime wants a nuclear capability. Iran is surrounded by enemies—imagined, in some cases, but real, in others—and it is completely rational for Iran’s leaders to want to deter these enemies with nuclear weapons. Its leaders see what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who didn’t have nuclear weapons. And these leaders also have pretensions of empire, by the way.)
The goal of a deal is to make it as hard as possible for Iran to reach the nuclear threshold. Deutch’s analysis focuses on three potential weaknesses. The first is the notion that any agreement to curtail Iranian uranium-enrichment activities would one day expire. “I worry about a time-limited deal, one which remains in place for a 10- or 15-year term,” he said. “What happens after that period? Does Iran then have a free path to a bomb?”
The answer is, yes, Iran would have a free path to the bomb. Ten or 15 or even 20 years might seem like a long time in the U.S., but the people of the Middle East are patient. Any agreement that contains an expiration date is an inadequate agreement, because it will, in essence, grant Iran time-delayed permission to build nuclear weapons. This could be mitigated, of course, by a multi-decade commitment to whatever framework agreement is negotiated. (Addendum: Matt Duss points out that the statement "the people of the Middle East are patient" is overly broad and subject to easy misinterpretation. He's right. What I mean here is that many Middle Eastern leaders, and often the people they lead, have shown impressive strategic patience in various conflicts. The Israeli-Palestinian fight is a case in point. Many Palestinian leaders are committed to a multi-generational effort to bring about the end of Israel, and many Jewish settlers, and their leaders, believe that they can somehow outlast Palestinian nationalism. Certainly, the current Israeli prime minister is committed to thwarting and outlasting the U.S. president. In the Iranian context, it seems obvious that the country's unelected leader has been committed to maintaining a nuclear program even after a decade of sanctions, and I have no reason to believe that he's incapable of staying on his current course. See this Ray Takeyh op-ed on the subject.)
Deutch’s second concern relates to sanctions relief: “I don't want to see the Iranian economy prematurely bolstered.” A legitimate fear on the part of skeptics is that the U.S. will agree to lift the most biting sanctions now in place before guaranteeing real progress in the deconstruction of Iran’s nuclear program. “The third issue,” Deutch went on to say, “concerns our ability to access any enrichment, research, or military sites.” He makes the point that the Iranian regime had kept hidden from the world at least two uranium-enrichment facilities, at Natanz and Fordow. “We need access to sites like Parchin which have military dimensions and which the Iranians prohibited us from seeing. If we can't become comfortable in our knowledge about what they're doing in nuclear-weapons development, then I'm not comfortable with a deal.”
It seems unlikely that the Iranians will share with the West the true scope of their nuclear-weapons development work. And unfortunately, it seems as if the West is willing to let Iran slide on this important issue. From Reuters:
World powers are pressing Iran to stop stonewalling a U.N. atomic bomb investigation as part of a wider nuclear accord, but look likely to stop short of demanding full disclosure of any secret weapon work by Tehran to avoid killing an historic deal.
Officially, the United States and its Western allies say it is vital that Iran fully cooperate with a U.N. nuclear agency investigation if it wants a diplomatic settlement that would end the sanctions severely hurting its oil-based economy. ...
A senior U.S. official stressed that the powers had not changed their position on Iran's past activities during this week's talks: "We've always said that any agreement must resolve the issue to our satisfaction. That has not changed."
Privately, however, some officials acknowledge that Iran may never be prepared to admit to what they believe it was guilty of: covertly working in the past to develop the ability to build a nuclear-armed missile—something it has always denied.
Deutch's position on the matter of Iranian concealment is not particularly hawkish for his party. He is fairly representative of a broad swath of Democratic thinking and, in fact, on important issues he scans less hawkish than the (putatively) most important Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Given what Clinton told me in an interview over the summer, I can't imagine that she's overjoyed by reports coming out of the nuclear talks this week. "I've always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment," she said. "Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position."
It will be near-impossible, especially after the immigration debate, to sell the Republican-controlled Congress on whatever Iran deal Obama negotiates. But the Democrats won't be an easy sell, either.
One of the most shocking aspects of the murderous attack on a Jerusalem synagogue this morning by men with guns and axes is not the attack itself—we've seen, from time to time, this sort of sectarian barbarism take place in places like Jerusalem, and Hebron. The most shocking aspect is the wholesale endorsement of this slaughter by Hamas, a group that, during this summer's war in Gaza, half-succeeded in convincing the world that it wasn't what it actually is: a group with actual genocidal intentions.
According to witnesses, the two attackers entered the synagogue, in the Har Nof neighborhood, and began killing worshipers with pistols and axes. (Both assailants were killed by police, but not before they murdered four worshipers and injured at least six others, including two police officers.)
“To see Jews wearing tefillin [phylacteries] and wrapped in the tallit [prayer shawls] lying in pools of blood, I wondered if I was imagining scenes from the Holocaust,” said Yehuda Meshi Zahav, who leads an emergency-response team, according to The New York Times. "It was a massacre of Jews at prayer.”
This is how a Hamas spokesman reacted to the massacre of Jews at prayer: "The new operation is heroic and a natural reaction to Zionist criminality against our people and our holy places. We have the full right to revenge for the blood of our martyrs in all possible means."
Twenty years ago, shortly after the Jewish fanatic Baruch Goldstein massacred Muslims at prayer in Hebron, the then-prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, said of the killer, "You are not part of the community of Israel. ... You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out."
Hamas's endorsement of the massacre of Jews at prayer in their holy city confirms—as if we needed confirming—that its goal is the eradication of Israel and its Jews. We should pray for the day when the leaders of Gaza react to this sort of massacre in the manner of Yitzhak Rabin.
The Palestinian Authority leader, the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas, has condemned the attack, but it is also fair to say that he helped create the atmosphere in which attacks like this one become more likely. As the Times reports, the attackers "were described as being motivated by what they saw as threats to the revered plateau [the Temple Mount] that contains Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has repeatedly asserted that he will not alter the status quo at the site, where non-Muslims can visit but not openly pray, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has called on his people to protect the area and has warned of a 'holy war' if it is 'contaminated' by Jews."
The Temple Mount, of course, is the holiest place in Judaism. Abbas's belief that the presence of Jews "contaminates" the Mount speaks to his own smallness, and to his susceptibility to Muslim supremacist ideology. The status quo should absolutely be preserved, for the sake of peace, and those Israeli politicians currently calling for a change in the status quo should put away their gasoline cans. But the events of the past couple of weeks in Jerusalem suggest that a core issue of the conflict remains the unwillingness of many Palestinian Muslims to accept the idea that Jews have rights in their ancestral homeland. And in the case of Hamas and like-minded groups, that Jews have a right to live.
If George W. Bush's foreign policy was a testament to the perils of overreaction, Barack Obama's foreign policy is becoming, to many experts, a testament to the dangers of underreaction. On the matter of Syria, in particular, fear of renewed U.S. involvement in the problems of dysfunctional Arab countries (a legitimate fear, of course) kept the Obama administration from trying to shape the Syrian opposition, and therefore the outcome of that country's ruinous civil war. The Syrian war is not Obama's fault (people in Washington have a tendency to think that Washington matters more than it does, and they also have a tendency to avoid holding Arab countries accountable for their own disasters), and he has had his victories in Syria—most notably, the removal of most of Bashar al-Assad's chemical-weapons stockpile. But Syria is a catastrophe, and our Syria policy is a hash, and the U.S. is not winning its struggle against ISIS, and is no longer much interested in removing Assad from power.
Our own policy dysfunctions matter a great deal in all of this, David Rothkopf argues in his latest book, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear. Rothkopf, the preeminent historian and analyst of the crucially important and usually misunderstood National Security Council (NSC), argues that, “It is not strategy to simply undo the mistakes of the recent past.” (This is a corollary to an observation Hillary Clinton made not long ago about Obama administration foreign policy.)
Rothkopf was an acidic critic of the Obama administration's policy-formulation process long before such criticism became the thing that one does in Washington. Writing in the Financial Times, Edward Luce says that Rothkopf's new work "could lay claim to being the definitive book on how 9/11 affected US foreign policy."
I interviewed Rothkopf recently about his beliefs and findings. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You're an expert on the organization and purpose of the NSC. Why are most national security advisors—Brent Scowcroft being one obvious exception—perceived to be failures? Susan Rice is in the barrel right now, but she's not the first.
David Rothkopf: I'm not sure I agree with that characterization. While the job is tough and a clear lightning rod for criticism given its importance, proximity to the president, and the number of hot-button issues its occupants must tackle, it really can't be said that most of its occupants can be perceived as failures. Rice's immediate predecessor, Tom Donilon, was certainly not perceived that way—getting a mixed grade, perhaps, but hardly a failing one. His predecessor, Jim Jones, was not seen as a success, but that was largely because he was undercut by a coterie of staffers close to the president and, indirectly, by a president who didn't fully empower him or back him up. Steve Hadley was quite successful, actually, as Bush's national security advisor, helping with the benefit of a largely new team elsewhere in the administration to enable Bush to change course in his last couple of years and finish much stronger than he had started.
Condi Rice oversaw a deeply troubled period in U.S. foreign policy in Bush's first term, but that was largely attributed to the president enabling others in the administration, notably the vice president and the secretary of defense, to gain too much traction and to backdoor the interagency process. Sandy Berger was quite a successful national security advisor in the Clinton second term. Tony Lake, not as successful—he was, like Rice and Jones, an example of a "learning curve" national security advisor, overseeing the process while his boss was getting his sea legs—but he was not seen as a failure. His greatest challenge, in some respects, was that his predecessor, Scowcroft, was seen as the gold standard in the job. You can go back further through history and pick out others who were seen as capable, like Colin Powell or Frank Carlucci, and some who were seen as particularly strong, like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger. So it is a mixed bag.
JG: Your answer suggests that success in this job is derivative, meaning that if a president is prepared to meet the challenges, his national security team will look good, not dysfunctional. Maybe there's only so much she can do.
DR: If there are lessons to be drawn from this track record, they include the fact that it's harder to be the first national security advisor of a president with little foreign-policy experience and, in the end, more broadly, the national security advisor is really only ever as good as his or her president enables him or her to be.
If the president knows what he wants, is committed to respecting the policy-formation process and entrusting it to the national security advisor and his or her team, and fully empowers the national security advisor, the advisor has a good chance of being successful. This is a job that's not mentioned in the Constitution, not described at length in the National Security Act of 1947 that formed it, and therefore is largely whatever the president wants it to be. A national security advisor with a committed, trusting, experienced president is always more likely to be successful—although if the national security advisor lacks the right traits, experience, relationship with colleagues inside and outside the government, etc., then even with the backing of the president, they can and will fail. The fact is, I think your question largely flows from the fact that right now, under President Obama and Susan Rice, we are in the midst of a particularly dysfunctional period for the NSC.
JG: So this is really about Obama, in your mind?
DR: If Obama had any material management or foreign-policy experience prior to coming in to office or if he had the character of our stronger leaders on these issues—notably a more strategic than tactical orientation, more trust in his team, less risk aversion, etc.—she would be better off, as would we all. But his flaws are compounded by a system that lets him pick and empower those around him. So, if he chooses to surround himself with a small team of "true believers" who won't challenge him as all leaders need to be challenged, if he picks campaign staffers that maintain campaign mode, if he over-empowers political advisors at the expense of those with national-security experience, that takes his weaknesses and multiplies them by those of the team around him.
And whatever Susan Rice's many strengths are, she is ill-suited for the job she has. She is not seen as an honest broker. She has big gaps in her international experience and understanding—Asia. She is needlessly combative and has alienated key members of her staff, the cabinet, and overseas leaders. She is also not strategic and is reactive like her boss. So whereas the system does have the capability of offsetting the weaknesses of a president, if he is surrounded by strong advisors to whom he listens and who he empowers to do their jobs, it can also reinforce and exacerbate those weaknesses—as it is doing now.
There have been signs of dysfunction in this administration from earlier. Jim Jones was never really given a chance as the president's first national security advisor, being cut out by a small group of former Obama campaign members. The first Afghan review was convoluted. And the memoirs of Panetta, Gates, Clinton, Vali Nasr, and others pointed to other issues, whether with the president, or with exclusion of cabinet members. But matters began to deteriorate last year.
JG: Go into this dysfunction you're talking about in greater depth. Is the “red line” with Syria crisis the moment you thought that the current process was dysfunctional?
DR: Even before the Syria red-line fiasco, there was confusion around how to respond to the overthrow of the Morsi regime in Egypt—marked by poor communications between the State Department and the White House. You also had the fumbled response to the National Security Agency (NSA) scandal that involved lying to and alienating allies; the very weak response to Putin in Crimea that also involved miscommunications between the White House and the State Department; the failure to respond to ISIS when it was clearly emerging as a major threat almost a year ago (remember, it took Fallujah in the beginning of 2014); the self-inflicted wound of touting the Bowe Bergdahl release; and the president's own communications gaffes associated with the process, from his assertion that his guiding principle was "don't do stupid shit" to his assertion that he didn't have a strategy versus ISIS. And, most recently, we have the poorly managed, strategy-less mission against ISIS that is unfocused, inadequate to the challenges, and has already revealed major rifts with the Defense Department's military and civilian leadership.
All administrations make errors. No process is perfect. But here, everything you look for in a high-functioning process—a national security advisor seen as an honest broker among cabinet departments; the full inclusion and empowerment of the cabinet to harness the resources of the administration; the formulation of good policy options for the president; the effective implementation of the choices the president makes; the effective communication of White House positions; the formulation of strategic perspectives (a role really only the White House can do); the effective separation of political and national-security decision-making processes ... good management, good execution, good results—all of that has been missing or disappointing.
It's as poorly functioning an NSC process as we have seen since Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney back-doored the process in the early years of the Bush administration, or, perhaps, since the Reagan years, the acknowledged nadir of NSC performance. What is especially distressing, however, is that this dysfunction is coming in year six of the administration, at a time when most two-term administrations actually start to perform better. Unfortunately, President Obama's process is actually regressing.
JG: Compelling case, but two questions come to mind: Am I wrong to say that this is far from the most disastrous foreign-policy presidency we've had, post-World War II? The second question is, can anyone possibly manage this process anymore? Information—good and bad—comes in unceasing waves. I'm thinking of what [Deputy National Security Advisor] Tony Blinken [now nominated to be deputy secretary of state] told you for your book about the exponential increase in constant, unceasing communication. Even if the NSC were to manage this process successfully, how would anyone know? Do you think this can be slowed down—or would having a grand strategy do the slowing for you? (i.e., If you're not buffeted from issue to issue all the time because you have a target on the horizon, would that help significantly? Or is this just a matter of events upending everything?)
DR: It's too early to say whether it is far from the most disastrous foreign-policy presidencies we've had post-World War II. It is certainly not among the best. Among the worst we have some strong choices—Vietnam was calamitous (although, today, Vietnam is more market-oriented and friendly to the West than we might have thought possible back then, and we did win the Cold War so we achieved our goals to a greater extent than we thought we had in the 1970s). The first term of the Bush administration was a mess and the invasion of Iraq was particularly ill-conceived and damaging. Iran-Contra marks a low point for the NSC's operations.
Will we someday say our impulse to pull out of the Middle East and our failure to effectively confront the rise of militant extremism or the adventurism of Putin unleashed prolonged instability and real damage to American interests? Possibly. A new administration in 2016 might reverse our stance quickly or, someday, history might say it was really beyond our ability to control events linked to longer term trends.
But I don't think being the worst or just being average is really what we should focus on now. That's for historians benefiting from the perspective of time. The real question is, are we doing the best that is possible? Is the system working well? Are we making unnecessary mistakes? Can we, by understanding the origins of those mistakes, do better? I think we can. Even in the face of the kind of avalanche of information to which Tony referred or the growing complexity, speed of events, and overall volatility of the planet, we could certainly avoid the self-inflicted wounds of gaffes that offend allies, mismanagement that alienates key parts of the U.S. government and key appointees of the administration, dithering and convoluted decision processes that produce late action and contradictory or halfway measures, and the failure to follow through on promises or actions—from the Cairo speech to the invasion and pull-out from Libya, now in flames.
JG: Do you think I'm overvaluing grand strategy?
DR: Grand strategy would help, of course. It is useful to have a course. America does best when its foreign policy is aspirational, linked to our desire for growing peace, prosperity, stronger alliances, a healthier planet, than when it is reactive as it has been for the past several years. Frankly, setting aside dreams of grand strategy and the kind of playbook we had in the Cold War that did make many foreign-policy decisions easier, as Brent Scowcroft recently pointed out to me, how about just having clearly defined national interests and a discussion about medium-term strategy, rather than the reactive, tactical, politically driven small-think that has dominated the "don't do stupid shit" era?
JG: Given the tone of your comments, I'm not sure you have an answer for this, but: Can you name something good the Obama administration has done overseas? I have some achievements in mind, but I'd rather not lead the witness.
DR: The Obama administration has done a number of good things overseas—far too many to list here. But the idea behind the pivot to Asia was excellent (even if the execution has been spotty in the second term). His early speeches set an important tone; coordination with the European Union during the economic crisis was vitally important—their export-promotion team including the Export-Import Bank and the Department of Commerce especially have done a great job; approving LNG exports was a good idea; the Syria chemical deal reduced a specific threat; he got Osama bin Laden and other key terrorists, which was a positive; helping to get rid of Qaddafi was good, even if the post-crisis Libya results have been pretty awful; the political deal they just struck in Afghanistan was not easy and should be stabilizing for at least a while. He put together a pretty good team in the first term. In short, Barack Obama doesn't get a zero on foreign policy by any means. He gets a C or a low C.
Some of his failures and missteps may have greater long-term negative consequences than the gains. It remains to be seen. But what is indisputable is that especially during his second term the quality of the policy process has deteriorated and the errors and gaffes have added up and, seemingly, accelerated. Right when he should be getting stronger, refreshing his team, learning from his errors, he doesn't seem to be doing so. But there are still two years left. Hopefully between bad results and the elections and a glance at the calendar he will see that time is ticking away, and that if he wants a successful international legacy, he may have to embrace changes and approaches he has resisted to date.
JG: I've noticed, as have you, a tendency by the president to analyze events from the podium. Is this sort of public analysis a good thing? It's high-level analysis, but does it help the public orient itself around an issue? Or does it convey detachment, rather than leadership?
DR: President Obama's tendency to "analyze from the podium" is, as you suggest, a mixed bag. It shows his thought process and often reveals his great intelligence. It also looks like he is improvising, doesn't have a clear worldview or strategy and does not have a policy process that is preparing him properly. It's a kind of academic trait, one you would expect in a professor. It would be tolerable from him if he were a better manager, had a more disciplined policy process, had a more diverse team that he actually listened to, and if he had more faith in the ability of the United States to engage internationally and in so doing advance our national interests.
The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon and Carol Lee reported this week that President Obama recently wrote a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, in which he laid out the benefits for Iran of a nuclear compromise.
“The letter appeared aimed both at buttressing the campaign against Islamic State and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal,” the Journal reported. “Mr. Obama stressed to Mr. Khamenei that any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by a Nov. 24 diplomatic deadline.”
This is, by most counts, the fourth letter President Obama has written to Ayatollah Khamenei. He has received approximately zero responses. There are two ways to interpret this asymmetry. The first is to conclude that Obama is chasing after Khamenei in the undignified and counterproductive manner of a frustrated suitor. The second is to conclude that Obama is cleverly boxing-in Khamenei in the court of international opinion: When the nuclear talks collapse, the administration will at least be able to say: We tried. We reached out repeatedly to the supreme leader, in whose hands nuclear decisions ultimately rest, and he spurned us, and spurned us again.
Both of these conclusions track with reality, but both are incomplete, because we do not know the tone of these letters, or much about their substance. What we can reasonably assert, however, is that the letter will not have its intended effect. Quite the opposite, according to the Brooking Institution's Suzanne Maloney:
[T]here is simply no plausible scenario in which a letter from the President of the United States to Ali Khamenei generates greater Iranian flexibility on the nuclear program, which the regime has paid an exorbitant price to preserve, or somehow pushes a final agreement across the finish line. Just the opposite—the letter undoubtedly intensified Khamenei's contempt for Washington and reinforced his longstanding determination to extract maximalist concessions from the international community. It is a blow to the delicate end-game state of play in the nuclear talks at the precise moment when American resolve was needed most.
This most recent letter was delivered at an unfortunate moment in the run-up to the putatively climactic negotiations between Iran and world powers scheduled for later this month. The Obama administration has already given the impression that it wants a nuclear deal more than Iran wants a nuclear deal. The U.S. has good reason to want a strong agreement: It could prevent a nuclear-arms race in the world’s most volatile region; it could protect America’s allies, including and especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; it could help ensure that Iranian-sponsored terrorists are denied the protection of a nuclear umbrella; and so on. But it is Iran that actually needs a deal more than the U.S. Its economy has nearly been crushed by American-led sanctions, and the ruling regime understands that further domestic economic hardship could pose a threat to its existence.
And yet, it appears, superficially at least, that it is the U.S. that is bending to the demands of Iran. The most recent example comes via official Iranian-state media, which reported that U.S. negotiators have agreed to allow Iran to run 6,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges, which is up from the previous maximum American concession, 4,000, proposed just two weeks ago.
Iranian negotiators could take such premature concessions as signs that more concessions are coming, in exchange for … not very much. Certainly, no broad shift in Iranian strategic thinking seems likely. As Michael Singh, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently observed, “(T)he changes in U.S.-Iran relations have been decidedly one-sided. The central aim of American policy toward Iran in recent years had been to persuade Tehran to make a strategic shift: away from a strategy of projecting power and deterring adversaries through asymmetric means, and toward one that would adhere to international norms and reinforce regional peace and stability. Détente—and, for that matter, a nuclear accord—resulting from such a shift would be welcome by not only the U.S. but also its allies in the region and beyond. Iran does not, however, appear to have undergone any such change.”
The most potentially damaging aspect of this latest Obama letter is that U.S. allies in the Middle East weren’t informed of its existence. Given the dysfunctional nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship right now, I doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was particularly surprised to be surprised in this manner.
But America’s Gulf allies could legitimately feel some level of disappointment. These countries, which face twin threats—from Shiite extremism in the form of the Iranian regime, and Sunni extremism, in the form of the Islamic State terror group, or ISIS—count on the United States to protect them from both. Lately, and uncharacteristically (particularly in the case of the Saudis), they are actually helping the U.S. fight extremism. The Saudis and Emiratis are both currently participating in attacks on ISIS. In other words, they are part of an actual wartime alliance led by the United States. It would have been appropriate for the Obama administration to let its friends know that it was reaching out, again, to one of their enemies. The Gulf allies are already paranoid about U.S. intentions toward Iran. Now they are more paranoid.
It would help, of course, if we could see the contents of the letter, and read it for tone. Since we don't have it—yet—all I can do is hope that it says the following:
Dear Ayatollah Khamenei,
I hope the family is well. Now on to business. Here’s the deal—I’m the best thing you’ve got going. If you don’t agree to a deal that shelves your nuclear program, I’m going to crush your economy. You think sanctions are bad now? Just wait. I’ll have just about every member of Congress, and a majority of the American people, behind me. Even if I didn't want to crush your economy, the U.S. Senate would do it anyway. And while we're crushing your economy, by the way, I’ll be reminding you that all options remain on the table. If you know what I mean.
If you agree to a deal (and this is a deal that will preserve your dignity and your country’s ability to maintain a peaceful, transparent, nuclear program), then we set that table in a very different manner. We can talk about ISIS, and economic integration, and whatever else you want to talk about. But if you don’t agree to a deal that puts you very, very far away from nuclear breakout, the future of your country, and its government, will be in doubt. Most American politicians—certainly most of the people running to replace me—aren’t interested in dealing with you at all. I am. I don’t need this deal—our economy is fine, especially compared to yours. You need this deal. So think about what I'm saying carefully.
The Iranians originally came to the negotiating table because U.S.-led sanctions were hurting them badly. I understand the need for give-and-take in negotiations, but I’m getting worried that the U.S. is focused too much on the first half of that equation.
Construction in a Jewish neighborhood in a disputed section of Jerusalem (Reuters )
More proof, if more proof were needed, that there is a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, and that the crisis goes deeper than simply the dysfunctional personal relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu's government and the Obama administration (or between their colorful staffs): A lead editorial in The New York Jewish Week, the flagship American Jewish newspaper, center to center-right in orientation, with many thousands of Orthodox Jews among its readers and an ardently pro-Israel editorial line, bluntly asks whether the Israeli government has become unmoored from reality.
The editorial, "Bibi Takes on the World," takes note of the recent snub by top American officials of the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon (a snub prompted by Ya'alon's earlier insults directed at Secretary of State John Kerry), and of the Netanyahu government's announcement that it would build more than 1,000 new housing units in parts of Jerusalem captured by Israel in 1967—"fully aware," the editorial reads, "of the negative response it would receive in America and in the international community."
The editorial continues:
(T)he State Department (called) the plans “incompatible with the pursuit of peace.” A European Union spokeswoman went further, asserting that the move “once again” calls into question Israel’s commitment “to a negotiated solution with the Palestinians.” She also warned that “the future development of relations between the EU and Israel will depend” on Jerusalem’s “engagement towards a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.”
Netanyahu responded by saying that Israel will “continue to build in our eternal capital,” adding: “I heard the claim that our building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem makes peace more distant, but it is the criticism itself that makes peace more distant.” He said the criticism feeds the Palestinians’ false hopes and is “detached from reality.”
And then The New York Jewish Week drops the hammer:
But it’s fair to ask just who is more detached from reality these days, the president of the U.S. and leader of the free world, or the leader of a small country almost totally dependent on American support? (It’s not so much the $3 billion a year in U.S. aid that counts as much as its support at the UN and in countless other ways that would be felt should the relationship continue to erode.)
When future historians write about this period in U.S.-Israel relations, this editorial will warrant serious mention. The unease felt by some American Jews about Israel's direction is moving into the mainstream. Over the past few months, I've spoken with lay leaders of many of the largest Jewish organizations (organizations that would very much prefer not to be affiliated with such left-wing outfits as J Street), and the question they ask is this: Just what is Bibi doing? If American Jews are forced to choose between their liberal values (and most American Jews are liberal) and support for a Jewish state that seems to be growing increasingly illiberal, these leaders say that Israel—and not the Democratic Party—will be the one to suffer.
The Israeli government doesn't seem to understand that the status quo is unsustainable. As I've written (over and over again), I am not arguing for an immediate pullout from the West Bank; the times are too dangerous, and the Palestinian Authority too weak and corrupt and cowardly, for such a move. But in the meantime, Israel could help create conditions so that a Palestinian state could one day be born. What this means is simple: Netanyahu should take no steps that further entangle Israel in the lives of Palestinians. It also means that Israel should try to negotiate in good faith with President Mahmoud Abbas, who is the best interlocutor Israel is going to have, despite his many obvious flaws. If nothing else, Netanyahu should call his bluff.
It also means understanding that while most settlement expansion that is now taking place in the West Bank is happening in areas that will most likely come under Israeli control in the event of a final peace deal, the Palestinians haven't agreed to this division yet. Unilateral moves do not help. They certainly don't help Israel's international standing, which is lower than it has ever been, and they certainly don't help maintain Israel as a cause that garners bipartisan support in the U.S.
I asked Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, what he thought the fallout from this editorial might be. He emailed back the following: "Having been in Jewish journalism for more than four decades, I can tell you that there was a time when there would be hell to pay in the community for editorials in an American Jewish newspaper criticizing Israeli policy. That’s no longer the case. An optimist could say it’s because our community is more open and enlightened; a pessimist could say it’s because people don’t care as much and/or they don’t connect to Israel in their kishkas (guts) the way their parents or grandparents did. Or quite possibly because they do care about Israel but don't agree with the policy under fire."
The New York Jewish Week editorial closes with this thought:
Jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with its most important allies to prove a point — that Jerusalem is not up for grabs — at a time when his country is increasingly isolated on the diplomatic level, when violent unrest in the capital since the summer has prompted some to call it “the silent intifada,” and when the Palestinians may well seek statehood through the UN, makes sense if the prime minister is ready to go it alone. But that’s not what his citizens want, and it would be a terrible mistake.
The Obama administration's anger is "red-hot" over Israel's settlement policies, and the Netanyahu government openly expresses contempt for Obama's understanding of the Middle East. Profound changes in the relationship may be coming.
The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.
This comment is representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors, and is yet another sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations— dual guarantors of the putatively “unbreakable” bond between the U.S. and Israel—is now the worst it's ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.
The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has “written off” the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a “red-hot anger” at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.
Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.) But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.” I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding. From time to time, current and former administration officials have described Netanyahu as a national leader who acts as though he is mayor of Jerusalem, which is to say, a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency. (President Obama, in interviews with me, has alluded to Netanyahu’s lack of political courage.)
“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickenshit Israeli prime minister looks like. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.”
I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
This assessment represents a momentous shift in the way the Obama administration sees Netanyahu. In 2010, and again in 2012, administration officials were convinced that Netanyahu and his then-defense minister, the cowboyish ex-commando Ehud Barak, were readying a strike on Iran. To be sure, the Obama administration used the threat of an Israeli strike in a calculated way to convince its allies (and some of its adversaries) to line up behind what turned out to be an effective sanctions regime. But the fear inside the White House of a preemptive attack (or preventative attack, to put it more accurately) was real and palpable—as was the fear of dissenters inside Netanyahu’s Cabinet, and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters. At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, analysts kept careful track of weather patterns and of the waxing and waning moon over Iran, trying to predict the exact night of the coming Israeli attack.
Today, there are few such fears. “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing,” this second official said. “He’s not Begin at Osirak,” the official added, referring to the successful 1981 Israeli Air Force raid ordered by the ex-prime minister on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
The belief that Netanyahu’s threat to strike is now an empty one has given U.S. officials room to breathe in their ongoing negotiations with Iran. You might think that this new understanding of Netanyahu as a hyper-cautious leader would make the administration somewhat grateful. Sober-minded Middle East leaders are not so easy to come by these days, after all. But on a number of other issues, Netanyahu does not seem sufficiently sober-minded.
Another manifestation of his chicken-shittedness, in the view of Obama administration officials, is his near-pathological desire for career-preservation. Netanyahu’s government has in recent days gone out of its way to a) let the world know that it will quicken the pace of apartment-building in disputed areas of East Jerusalem; and b) let everyone know of its contempt for the Obama administration and its understanding of the Middle East. Settlement expansion, and the insertion of right-wing Jewish settlers into Arab areas of East Jerusalem, are clear signals by Netanyahu to his political base, in advance of possible elections next year, that he is still with them, despite his rhetorical commitment to a two-state solution. The public criticism of Obama policies is simultaneously heartfelt, and also designed to mobilize the base.
Just yesterday, Netanyahu criticized those who condemn Israeli expansion plans in East Jerusalem as “disconnected from reality.” This statement was clearly directed at the State Department, whose spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, had earlier said that, “if Israel wants to live in a peaceful society, they need to take steps that will reduce tensions. Moving forward with this sort of action would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace.”
It is the Netanyahu government that appears to be disconnected from reality. Jerusalem is on the verge of exploding into a third Palestinian uprising. It is true that Jews have a moral right to live anywhere they want in Jerusalem, their holiest city. It is also true that a mature government understands that not all rights have to be exercised simultaneously. Palestinians believe, not without reason, that the goal of planting Jewish residents in all-Arab neighborhoods is not integration, but domination—to make it as difficult as possible for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem to ever emerge.
Unlike the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, I don’t have any hope for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state (it could be dangerous, at this chaotic moment in Middle East history, when the Arab-state system is in partial collapse, to create an Arab state on the West Bank that could easily succumb to extremism), but I would also like to see Israel foster conditions on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem that would allow for the eventual birth of such a state. This is what the Obama administration wants (and also what Europe wants, and also, by the way, what many Israelis and American Jews want), and this issue sits at the core of the disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem.
Israel and the U.S., like all close allies, have disagreed from time to time on important issues. But I don’t remember such a period of sustained and mutual contempt. Much of the anger felt by Obama administration officials is rooted in the Netanyahu government’s periodic explosions of anti-American condescension. The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, in particular, has publicly castigated the Obama administration as naive, or worse, on matters related to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Last week, senior officials including Kerry (who was labeled as “obsessive” and “messianic” by Ya’alon) and Susan Rice, the national security advisor, refused to meet with Ya’alon on his trip to Washington, and it’s hard to blame them. (Kerry, the U.S. official most often targeted for criticism by right-wing Israeli politicians, is the only remaining figure of importance in the Obama administration who still believes that Netanyahu is capable of making bold compromises, which might explain why he’s been targeted.)
One of the more notable aspects of the current tension between Israel and the U.S. is the unease felt by mainstream American Jewish leaders about recent Israeli government behavior. “The Israelis do not show sufficient appreciation for America’s role in backing Israel, economically, militarily and politically,” Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, told me. (UPDATE: Foxman just e-mailed me this statement: "The quote is accurate, but the context is wrong. I was referring to what troubles this administration about Israel, not what troubles leaders in the American Jewish community.")
What does all this unhappiness mean for the near future? For one thing, it means that Netanyahu—who has preemptively “written off” the Obama administration—will almost certainly have a harder time than usual making his case against a potentially weak Iran nuclear deal, once he realizes that writing off the administration was an unwise thing to do.
This also means that the post-November White House will be much less interested in defending Israel from hostile resolutions at the United Nations, where Israel is regularly scapegoated. The Obama administration may be looking to make Israel pay direct costs for its settlement policies.
Next year, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, will quite possibly seek full UN recognition for Palestine. I imagine that the U.S. will still try to block such a move in the Security Council, but it might do so by helping to craft a stridently anti-settlement resolution in its place. Such a resolution would isolate Israel from the international community.
It would also be unsurprising, post-November, to see the Obama administration take a step Netanyahu is loath to see it take: a public, full lay-down of the administration’s vision for a two-state solution, including maps delineating Israel’s borders. These borders, to Netanyahu's horror, would be based on 1967 lines, with significant West Bank settlement blocs attached to Israel in exchange for swapped land elsewhere. Such a lay-down would make explicit to Israel what the U.S. expects of it.
Netanyahu, and the even more hawkish ministers around him, seem to have decided that their short-term political futures rest on a platform that can be boiled down to this formula: “The whole world is against us. Only we can protect Israel from what’s coming.” For an Israeli public traumatized by Hamas violence and anti-Semitism, and by fear that the chaos and brutality of the Arab world will one day sweep over them, this formula has its charms.
But for Israel’s future as an ally of the United States, this formula is a disaster.
Somewhat to my surprise, Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators, a group portrait of the men and women who invented computers and the Internet, is riveting, propulsive, and at times deeply moving. My surprise is not rooted in doubts about Isaacson’s skills; he is considered to be the leading biographer of the digital age for a reason. I was surprised because I find books about technology unreadable. I enjoy machines as much as the next Amish-by-disposition American, which is to say, among other things, that I don’t care very much about where they come from, and on those occasions when I do apply myself to the study of machines, I usually fail to understand how they work.
One of Isaacson’s jealousy-provoking gifts is his ability to translate complicated science into English—those who have read his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs understand that Isaacson is a kind of walking Rosetta Stone of physics and computer programming. Thanks to my close read of The Innovators, I could probably explain, with a gun to my head, the principles of semi-conduction.
But it is the very human humans behind the digital revolution who are the main focus of The Innovators, and they are the reason I found this book to be not infrequently inspiring. I read The Innovators this past summer, a comprehensively unhappy summer, as Gaza was on fire and ISIS was erupting and Ebola was beginning its fatal run across West Africa. Here at home, the mood long before the summer had soured. We are living through a period of straitened dreams, of doubt about our country and its purpose, and of widespread cynicism about its most important institutions. What I’m saying is that right now I’m a sucker for optimism, and The Innovators is one of the most organically optimistic books I think I've ever read. It is a stirring reminder of what Americans are capable of doing when they think big, risk failure, and work together.
One of the surprising features of Isaacson’s latest book, coming, as it does, after his biography of Steve Jobs—who is generally, though not entirely correctly, understood to be the model of the radical (and congenitally irascible) American —is that it is a paean to cooperation, to the idea of force-multiplication through collective effort and, in particular, to the transformative power of the diamond triangle of industry, academia, and government. (In the interview published below, I ask Isaacson why America has traditionally been the seedbed of global innovation, and whether that will continue).
Isaacson sets out to accomplish several large things in The Innovators. Since he is fundamentally an optimist, he argues that human-computer symbiosis, rather than artificial intelligence, represents the main and best path forward, and he makes a compelling case that A.I., whether it manifests itself in benevolent or malevolent form, always seems to be 20 years away for good reason. (For a dystopian view of our future robot overlords, see this interview Isaacson just conducted with Elon Musk.) Building an "intimate connection between humans and machines” is what Isaacson says he believes in, and what he argues for.
The Innovators is also an extended argument for the U.S. to renew its commitment not only to the funding of basic scientific research, but to the rebuilding of an equitable and universally accessible public education system. Isaacson tells the story of Jean Jennings, an early computer programmer (one of six women who made themselves quietly indispensable in the development of the University of Pennsylvania’s ENIAC computer), who grew up practically penniless in Alanthus Grove, Missouri, but was able to pull together $76 in tuition each year to earn a mathematics degree from Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. The same education today, Isaacson notes, would cost $14,000, a 12-fold increase even after adjusting for inflation.
Another goal of the The Innovators is to restore to history the many women who were instrumental in the development of computing, first and foremost Lord Byron’s daughter, the visionary mathematician Ada Lovelace, whose work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine makes her, in essence, the world’s first computer programmer. Isaacson makes it a point to celebrate the achievements of other women in computing, including Admiral Grace Hopper, and the aforementioned Jean Jennings, who, with her female ENIAC colleagues, had been shamefully forgotten. (One maddening moment in The Innovators comes when Jennings and the other women were excluded from a January 1946 celebration at the University of Pennsylvania held to mark the first public demonstration of ENIAC. “That night there was a candlelit dinner at Penn’s venerable Houston Hall,” Isaacson writes. “It was filled with scientific luminaries, military brass and most of the men who had worked on ENIAC. But Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder were not there, nor were any other women programmers.” Isaacson quotes Jennings: “Betty and I were ignored and forgotten following the demonstration.”)
Mainly, though, The Innovators is a group biography of men who, building on each other’s achievements (and occasionally borrowing each other's achievements), accomplished extraordinary things. The heroes of this book include such figures as Vannevar (rhymes with "achiever") Bush, who is something of a hometown hero at The Atlantic, which in 1945 published his article, “As We May Think,” perhaps the most important single article about technology ever written. In it, Bush predicted the coming of personal computers, the Internet, and, in essence, Wikipedia.
Isaacson’s other heroes include J.C.R. Licklider, the father of interactive computing; Douglas Engelbart, the creator of the mouse (and much else); and Alan Kay, who is more-or-less the father of the personal computer. The lives of these men, who are known to almost no one today outside the world of technology (compare their fame to men such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who stand on their shoulders) are testaments to collaboration, entrepreneurship, curiosity, and risk-taking.
These first chapters, about figures largely unknown outside Silicon Valley, are fascinating. Later chapters deal with better-known figures. Steve Jobs, about whom Isaacson probably knows more than any other observer, makes an extended appearance, and Isaacson has drawn a vivid portrait of Bill Gates. I imagine that most readers will find these later chapters more interesting than the front-half profiles, but it is the men and women who did their work before the rise of the celebrity innovator that I found so exceptionally interesting.
Below are portions of an interview I conducted with Isaacson about this book. Read it; his answers are illuminating.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You had already set out on this book when you were diverted by an offer you couldn’t refuse, to write the biography of Steve Jobs. Did the act of spending so much time with Jobs, and immersing yourself in his thinking, change the focus or idea behind The Innovators?
Walter Isaacson: The main thing I learned from Jobs was the importance of the connection between the humanities to technology. And that became a theme in this history of the digital age. Ada Lovelace represented this, all the great innovators—Alan Kay at Xerox Parc—all of them realized that beauty mattered and that our technology should have a streak of humanity in it.
Goldberg: Literally a streak of humanity, by which I mean, you are quite skeptical about the future of artificial intelligence, and everyone has worries about this dystopian artificial intelligence future when machines run away from us.
Isaacson: The intimate connection between humans and machines is something that Steve Jobs really believed in, and it was a great counter to the notion that the machines would take over. The other thing that was important from Steve, something that I had to wrestle with when understanding him, was that he had this quality of loner individualism that made him a difficult person to work with and yet he was also a builder of really strong teams, and it helped me appreciate the importance of collaboration and teamwork but also the importance of having a strong visionary as part of the team. Steve seemed on the purpose to be a prickly, difficult teammate but in fact he brought together the strongest and most loyal team of any company in the digital age. So I had to get beyond looking at him as a kind of headstrong loner.
Goldberg: So he wasn’t a radical individualist in the classic American model?
Isaacson: The American mythology is of the person with the radical individual streak, but what Tocqueville missed is that individualism is not antithetical to forming associations. Americans have been great at barn raisings and quilting bees and all sorts of common endeavors that were undertaken by very individualistic and pioneering people.
Goldberg: Stay on this idea of pioneering for a moment. The West Coast, East Coast, divide. As a Penn guy, this nags at me. By rights, the University of Pennsylvania should be to digital innovation what Stanford actually is today, because of the work done there on ENIAC, just as Bell Labs should be Xerox Park. But they aren’t. What causes incubators to go stale?
Isaacson: The early East Coast pioneers were the University of Pennsylvania and Bell Labs, but they were hierarchical and they didn’t allow for entrepreneurial growth. For example, (John) Mauchly and (J. Presper) Eckert, the two who create ENIAC, wanted to commercialize it at Penn but couldn’t. Neither was there an entrepreneurial culture at Bell Labs, where there was not this sort of anti-authoritarian, entrepreneurial culture that you saw develop in the Bay Area in the 1970s. You have a cultural mix in the Bay Area that includes Stanford being a very entrepreneurial place, where people are encouraged to do startups, where you have a counterculture that emanates from the hippie movement and the anti-war movement, plus you have the individualist Whole Earth Catalogue mentality that involves wanting to have access to tools.
Intel is founded by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore who rankled under the authoritarian, hierarchical system at Fairchild Corporation. They ran a division of Fairchild but they having to report back to headquarters on the East Coast. So they start their own company, which becomes Intel, with almost no hierarchy, just an open work space where Noyce and Moore just sit in the middle of the room.
Goldberg: East Coast culture would have swamped them?
Isaacson: Even Xerox, when it decides that it wants an entrepreneurial research center, decides to put it across the country from its headquarters.
Goldberg: Go to something that I worry about: the status of the U.S. as a whole as the best incubator of technology and risk-taking invention. Most of the action in The Innovators takes place in America, but I don’t think that’s because the author is American, it’s just that such a disproportionate percentage of the most important innovations were created here. Why is the U.S. the seedbed of digital innovation, and will it remain in the dominant position for a long time to come?
Isaacson: The U.S. indulges and even encourages risk-taking and failure. The pioneering spirit translates into an entrepreneurial spirit. You have a mix of anti-authoritarian startup junkies and venture capitalists willing to roll the dice. This also brings us to the education question. America had a great education system, the kind in which a young girl from Atlantis Grove, Missouri, Jean Jennings, could go to a state college for $78 a month and become a mathematician and become a programmer of ENIAC. Today, that same college costs $14,000 a year. Our education system used to serve everybody. Now there’s a divide between the education wealthy people get versus what poorer people get.
Goldberg: Has the pace of innovation slowed because of this?
Isaacson: I don't think so. I do think that America’s education system does promote creativity. It allows people to question and challenge. Einstein ran away from his school in Germany because he hated the fact that it was considered improper to challenge the teacher. I suspect that in a lot of Asian countries, the notion of challenging the teacher is less accepted than it is in the United States. I also think that societies that are comfortable with the free flow of information and the clash of opinions tend to be more creative in the information age because that’s the DNA that defines the information age.
Goldberg: Another huge task you’ve set out to achieve with this book is to remind people of the contributions women have made in advancing technology, starting, of course, with the pioneer Ada Lovelace.
Isaacson: I think I’m careful to show that a lot of women played these important roles but how they were not as much a part of the system. On Ada Lovelace, sometimes you hear criticism that she wasn’t a great mathematician, at which I ask them to explain Bernouli numbers, and how you would write a program to generate them, something I wrestled with for several days. And wrestling with it caused me to admire her even more, to admire her ability to write such a program.
Goldberg: Which figure in this group biography do you admire the most? It’s pretty clear that William Shockley is the one you least admire.
Isaacson: J.C.R. Licklider is certainly among the most noble. I think there’s a little-known succession of people who, instead of pursuing artificial intelligence, pursue an intimate connection between humans and machines, and that procession starts with Vannevar Bush, then Licklider, then Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Steve Jobs. Someone like Licklider is a true hero of mine because he knew how to form teams; he envisioned interactive computing with easy-to-read screens—because he was developing an air-defense system where the console jockeys had no room for error if they misread the screen; then there’s the Intergalactic Computer Network, which showed that he had a great sense of humor, it showed that he had a good “aw shucks, let’s do this together” sense about him. He wasn’t the sort of person who was trying to take credit for the big idea. Then he becomes the first director of the Pentagon office that creates Arpanet, which becomes the backbone of the Internet. His fingerprints are on everything, but he doesn’t claim credit for everything, which proves the maxim that there’s an unlimited amount you can get done if you don’t seek credit.
Goldberg: Is this one of the reasons you wrote this book, to give credit where credit is due?
Isaacson: As a kid, I was a real electronics geek. I loved soldering circuit boards. When I started doing digital media at Time, Inc., I couldn’t figure out who invented computers, or who invented the Internet. I became fascinated by these little-known people, but I also realized—and remember, I’m at Time, where we were always putting an individual on the cover, and I'm also a biographer—I realized that these contributions were collaborative in nature, and that many of the people who invented computers and invented the Internet worked in teams. We don’t always celebrate people who do things in teams very well. We celebrate the big, high-profile individual. But this was something I did with Evan Thomas when we wrote “The Wise Men,” which was about six not-very-well-known people who shaped foreign policy. I wanted to write a story about people who work in groups.
Goldberg: Another of your obvious heroes is Vannevar Bush, who wrote the 1945 Atlantic article, "As We May Think," which might be the most important article about technology ever published. What was Bush’s genius?
Isaacson: Vannevar Bush built a big analog computer at M.I.T. He was a great, great academic. He helps found Raytheon, so he understood the corporate world. And finally, he manages America’s military research efforts during World War II, overseeing computers and the Manhattan Project. He’s able to get people to collaborate—government, private industry, and universities. This becomes the core of America’s creative strength. And then he writes the article in which he says that machines are going to be extensions of our minds. They’re going to amplify our minds, they are going to help us think. This was a counter-thought to the idea that machines were going to replace us, machines that were going to think instead of us. If you read Vannevar Bush’s other great article of 1945, “Science, the Endless Frontier,” which unfortunately wasn’t published in The Atlantic, he argued that government has to fund basic scientific research because that becomes the seed-corn for future inventions. Especially in the Eisenhower years, government spent a lot of money encouraging basic scientific research that led to things like transistors and microchips and rockets to the moon and the Internet. Government has cut back radically on basic research funding today. There are two things that make me have some worry about America’s future in innovation. One is the cutback in basic research funding for universities by the government. The other is the decline of America’s K-12 education system, and the fact that it is a two-tiered system for rich and poor.
Goldberg: Is it possible that the U.S. could cease being the world leader in digital innovation?
Isaacson: I’m more optimistic than that. I didn’t write this book as a warning. I’m optimistic because I can just look at the data points. We still have people creating Google and Amazon and Facebook and Snapchat. My worries are pretty specific—the cutbacks in basic research funding, the problems in our K-12 education system. But venture capital is doing fine. People who are well-educated are doing fine. We still have a tolerance for risk—just talk to Travis Kalanick at Uber. Ask him what he did before Uber and he’ll tell you about all the companies that flamed out. And you still don’t see companies and ideas like Uber springing up from Europe and Asia. So I’m an optimist.
Goldberg: Is there a lesson for Washington in the way the tech sector has worked?
Isaacson: It’s an interesting question. Government has trouble being as entrepreneurial as the private sector. As you know, people in the private sector have a tolerance for risk and failure that doesn’t really exist in government. You know what happens in government—you get devastated even if you make a gaffe, much less have an actual failure. So there is something there.
A few days ago, I posted a piece about my rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, the senior rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., the largest Conservative movement-affiliated synagogue in the nation's capital. The post concerned an excellent Rosh Hashanah sermon he had delivered about Israel and Hamas.
It turns out that there was a lot more on Rabbi Steinlauf's mind during the High Holidays than just the Middle East. This afternoon, he e-mailed his thousands of congregants to announce that he and his wife, Batya, a respected rabbi in her own right, were getting divorced, because he has come to the realization that he is gay.
There is sadness here, of course, because Gil and Batya have had, in many ways, a good, even model, marriage (their three children are testament to this), but there is also relief, and anxiety, and most of all a leap into the unknown. I am posting his letter in full below (with his permission) because it is beautiful and thoughtful and heartbreaking and deeply religious:
I am writing to share with you that after twenty years of marriage, my wife Batya and I have decided to divorce. We have arrived at this heartbreaking decision because I have come to understand that I am gay. These are great upheavals in my personal life, as in Batya’s and that of our children. But it is plain to all of us that because of my position as Rabbi of Adas Israel, this private matter may also have a public aspect. We recognize that you may well need a period of reflection to absorb this sudden news. I am most grateful for the support Adas’ lay leaders and clergy have provided my family and me in the short time since I brought this matter to their attention. That support makes it possible for us to prepare for this new chapter in our lives, and for me in my ongoing service as Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation.
While I struggled in my childhood and adolescence with a difference I recognized in myself, that feeling of difference did not then define my identity, much less the spouse I would seek. I sought to marry a woman because of a belief that this was the right thing for me. This conviction was reinforced by having grown up in a different era, when the attitudes and counsel of adult professionals and peers encouraged me to deny this uncertain aspect of myself. I met and fell in love with Batya, a wonderful woman who loved and accepted me exactly as I am. Together, we have shared a love so deep and real, and together we have built a loving home with our children—founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition. But my inner struggle never did go away. Indeed, Batya herself has supported me through this very personal inner struggle that she knew to be the source of great pain and confusion in my life over decades.
A text I’ve sat with for years is from the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 72b) and states, “Rabbah said, any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar. Abaye, and some say Ravah bar Ulah, said [one whose inside does not match his outside] is called an abomination.” Ultimately, the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable. With much pain and tears, together with my beloved wife, I have come to understand that I could walk my path with the greatest strength, with the greatest peace in my heart, with the greatest healing and wholeness, when I finally acknowledged that I am a gay man. Sadly, for us this means that Batya and I can no longer remain married, despite our fidelity throughout our marriage and our abiding friendship and love. As our divorce is not born of rancor, we pray that together with our children we will remain bound by a brit mishpachah, a covenant of family.
I hope and pray, too, that I will be the best father, family member, rabbi, friend, and human being I can be, now that I have resolved a decades-long struggle. The truth is that like anyone else, I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life. I ask for your continued trust in me to guide you as your spiritual leader as I truly am. I also ask for your love and kindness toward Batya and our children as they seek to live their lives with dignity, as they journey the challenging road ahead.
I feel immensely proud that for many generations our congregation has set standards of vision and leadership in the American Jewish community and am sincerely grateful for the privilege of serving Adas Israel. Now, with deepened humility, I look forward to continuing the delicate task of marking and celebrating our shared human journeys in joy and in holiness.
Rabbi Steinlauf fell into an odd liminal moment in history. If he were a 25-year-old rabbi, there would be no drama here, no nothing, in fact, because he would simply be a rabbi who happens to be gay. The Conservative movement of Judaism has changed over the past decade or two in unimaginable ways. I have trouble picturing a synagogue that wouldn't hire a gay rabbi. On the other hand, if he were 60 years old now, with the same identity, he most likely would have been able to glide toward retirement, his secret intact.
There is no need for this sort of secret anymore. There is no reason for the rabbi of a progressive synagogue to hide from his congregants who he, in fact, is. These are difficult times for the Steinlaufs (it should go without saying that Batya Steinlauf is a woman of valor), and they should have our prayers. I am also proud of them, as are the other congregants I've spoken to so far today (one of my fellow congregants, Frank Foer, the editor of the New Republic, noted that Rabbi Steinlauf has just discovered the most dramatic possible way to break the Yom Kippur fast).
These are uncharted waters, but I have faith in our synagogue, and in the broader Conservative movement. It also seems to me that a clergyman who knows himself and doesn't engage in concealment will be of great service to his flock.
A cradle left behind by Syrian Kurdish refugees at the Turkish-Syrian border in late September (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
The theme of the week in the Syria conflict—that airstrikes are of only limited use in the struggle to degrade and destroy the Islamic State terror group—is about to be underscored in terrible fashion in the besieged border town of Kobani, which is under sustained, and mainly unanswered, assault by as many as 9,000 ISIS terrorists armed with tanks and rocket launchers.
I just got off the phone with a desperate-sounding Kurdish intelligence official, Rooz Bahjat, who said he fears that Kobani could fall to ISIS within the next 24 hours. If it does, he predicts that ISIS will murder thousands in the city, which is crammed with refugees—Kurdish, Turkmen, Christian, and Arab—from other parts of the Syrian charnel house. As many as 50,000 civilians remain in the town, Bahjat said.
"A terrible slaughter is coming. If they take the city, we should expect to have 5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours," he told me. "It will be worse than Sinjar," the site of a recent ISIS massacre that helped prompt President Obama to fight ISIS. There have been reports of airstrikes on ISIS vehicles, but so far, Bahjat said that these strikes have been modest in scope and notably ineffective.
Kobani is located on the Turkish border, but Bahjat said he is receiving reports that Turkey is pulling its troops back, rather than risk armed confrontation with ISIS. "It's unbelievable—Turkey is in NATO, so you literally have NATO watching what is happening in this town. Everyone can see it—the TV cameras are there, watching. It's terrible."
He went on, "This just can't be allowed to happen. I'm upset personally as a Kurd, seeing my brethren killed. I'm upset as a secularist seeing the hope of freedom being murdered and I'm upset as a human being, watching these monsters commit genocide."
Kurdish fighters are outnumbered by ISIS, and they have no heavy weaponry. There are reports coming out of Kobani that at least one female Kurdish suicide bomber has struck at ISIS terrorists already. The situation is grim, growing grimmer, and one in which hesitation by the international community may not be easily forgiven.
A couple of weeks ago, Laurie Goodstein, in the Times, wrote of American pulpit rabbis who are sometimes too skittish to express their true feelings about Israel and, in particular, its current government:
Debate among Jews about Israel is nothing new, but some say the friction is now fire. Rabbis said in interviews that it may be too hot to touch, and many are anguishing over what to say about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days ...
I expressed the thought on Twitter (a famous vehicle for complicated thoughts) that it is pathetic for rabbis to avoid discussing certain subjects for fear of offending members of their congregations. What's the point of being in the clergy if you can't speak your heart? Many rabbis, particularly in the Conservative and Reform movements, have sometimes found themselves to the left of their congregations—or at least to the left of their most influential congregants—on matters related to Israel, but speaking truth to (synagogue board) power is a risk they are required to take.
Later that day, I also endorsed a seemingly contradictory position, one advanced by Peter Beinart, that pulpit rabbis would serve their congregations better by talking about Judaism, rather than about geopolitics (where, he suggests, they have no huge comparative advantage over such paid scribblers as Beinart and Goldberg). Here's Peter:
The greatest threat to Jewish life in the United States is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s religious illiteracy. The American Jewish community represents an unprecedented experiment in what happens when you combine mass ignorance of Jewish law and tradition with radical acceptance by the gentile world. The result is tragic. It’s not tragic because more than seventy percent of non-Orthodox American Jews now intermarry. People should grab love where they can. It’s tragic because so many of the young American Jews who choose not to raise Jewish families don’t even know what they’re discarding.
That evening, Goldblog Chief Rabbi Gil Steinlauf (who in his spare time also serves as senior rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation, the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington), emailed me with a question, which went, essentially, "What do you want from me?" But nicely, of course.
I acknowledged the seeming contradiction in my tweeting by telling him that I'd rather hear rabbis teach their congregants Judaism, but if you're going to talk about Israel, then you might as well say what you think. He assured me that that was his plan for Rosh Hashanah.
And he executed the plan very well. I've been collecting sermons from around the country on the subject of Israel, in order to understand where mainstream Jewish thought is today. (Hint: It's not where Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson think it is, but nor is it where the left might think it is—many rabbis, like many rank-and-file Jews, were shocked this summer by the ferocious return of anti-Semitism, and by the deep desire on the part of Hamas and its sympathizers to annihilate the Jewish state. So far, the sermons I've read seem less naive about the nature of the conflict than they have in the recent past.) I've read some eloquent writing, but so far I'm partial to Rabbi Steinlauf's, because he managed to be crystal-clear in his condemnation of Hamas and of global anti-Semitism, but also resolutely clear about the responsibility of Jews to keep hate from hardening their hearts.
Through much of the summer, I was trying to explain the actual nature of Hamas, which is a hard thing to do when the prevailing narrative has the group playing the role of the aggrieved resistance. Steinlauf solved this conundrum by doing something deceptively simple. He read from Israel's Declaration of Independence, and then from the Hamas Charter, as a way of illustrating the radical moral difference between two competing understandings of the world:
At a moment like this, we need to go back to basics. We need to remember who we are as Jews, and why we are here, and what the vision and dream of the State of Israel is in the first place. On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion spoke these words.
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Thank God, the modern state of Israel is indeed all of these things. Within these words we hear of Israel’s commitment to be based on prophetic values of justice. In the haftarah of Yom Kippur, we will recite the words of Isaiah who tells us that God wants us to “... unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke ... to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
Contrast the Israeli Declaration with the foundational “Covenant of Hamas,” where article 7 quotes the Koran and reads, “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: “O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”
He then went on to caution against the temptations of hatred:
Yes, these terrorists are motivated by an anti-Semitism as pure as that of Hitler. But on this New Year, as we face the unshakable truth of anti-Semitism in Gaza and the world, and reel from the deaths of children—we must, above all else, resist the urge to sink to Hamas’ level. Instead, we must stand strong and hold fast to the foundational principles of Israel and Judaism. If we are to play our part in overcoming the darkness of our time, the narrative of Israel must no longer be about Jews vs. Arabs, or Israelis vs. Palestinians. ... It is not about the powerful vs. the powerless. The struggle in the Land of Israel is a struggle between those who yearn for peace and those who do not yearn for peace.
And he continued:
We must ... realize that no one people or ideology owns the claim to the worst victimhood in this world. There is, in truth, only one story of victimhood in the entire human saga, and that is the loss of innocent life at the hands of any and all people who do not value peace and justice and the dignity of life itself. The Mishnah itself, in Sanhedrin (4:5), explains: God created the world from one single person, from Adam, "... for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, 'My parent was greater than your parent.' ... There is a parallel teaching to this in the Koran itself! The evil that we struggle against is not in Islam. Yes, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has its problematic texts—but as a religion it is not evil. [The evil] is in the twisted, distorted ideas of Hamas and other fanatics.
I remain partial to the view that American Jewry is threatened more by its own ignorance than by anything that may happen in the Middle East. But if rabbis are going to speak about Israel, then they should speak with clarity, as Steinlauf did at Rosh Hashanah.
Obama at the UN General Assembly (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
President Obama, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, just delivered a speech that reminded me of Hillary Clinton at her most pugnacious, and of John McCain at his most tranquil. He reminded me of the second-term George W. Bush as well.
Obama labeled ISIS "evil" (remember the trouble Bush created for himself when he used such terms?) and promised the destruction of its "network of death"; he excoriated Russia explicitly and at length for bullying its way into Ukraine; he made a direct demand on the Muslim world to disassociate itself from the extreme Islam of ISIS; and, most striking for us here at Goldblog headquarters, he dashed the hopes of the linkage-meisters, the foreign-policy analysts who continue to believe that Israel and its problems represent the core crisis of the Middle East. "Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure ... the illusion that Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main source of problems in the region,"he said. Five years ago, in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Obama labeled the Israeli-Palestinian dispute one of the three major sources of tension between the U.S. and the Muslim world. This bit of analysis has been overcome by events. (He did, though, talk about the unsustainable status quo in the West Bank, something he has talked about before.)
Obama's critics will say that he has shed his public diffidence on matters related to the conflicts of the Middle East because pollsters have been telling him that Americans want a less professorial president. But my impression from watching him in recent weeks, and from talking to people who know him well, is that two sets of recent events in particular have actually shifted his thinking about the relative importance of "soft power"; about the nature of America's adversaries; and consequently about the role the U.S. must play in the world, in order to keep these adversaries at bay.
He understands now that Russia's new czar worships power, and is immune to appeals based on notions of rational self-interest. Obama's forthright promise to stand with America's NATO allies in Eastern Europe, made recently in Estonia, can now be understood as prologue to today's speech.
And he has been truly shaken—as have many people—by the depths of ISIS depravity. And more than that, he realized that no other country apart from the United States had the will or capability to stop ISIS's advance. In other words, Obama understands today that the U.S. is the world's indispensable nation. (Two areas in which Obama was notably discreet: He did not criticize Iran, with which he is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal; and he was distressingly silent on the subject of Bashar al-Assad, who is in many ways the father of ISIS, and is certainly the cause of Syria's collapse. Unlike John McCain, Obama is not interested in confronting Assad at the moment.)
Obama's advisors say that this speech can be placed on a continuum of previous statements. The deputy national security advisor, Benjamin Rhodes, in an e-mail sent after the speech, wrote, "President Obama has always had three themes that appeared prominently today: Calling on nations to meet their responsibilities to uphold international norms; no safe haven for terrorists; (and noting that) ordinary people can bridge divisions of race and religion, and deserve governments who do the same. Remember the August 1, 2007 speech when he said he'd go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Or the Nobel address. I think this is in a direct line with those."
Rhodes may be right, but this speech did feel, temperamentally at least, like a break with the past.
Possibly not a good night for the putative caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Reuters TV)
So, our reluctant, hesitant, wan, diffident loner egghead of a president somehow managed to pull together a potent Arab coalition and launch an air war against extremists of the Islamic State terror group on their home turf. Very surprising, given his reputation.
Defying expectations is one thing; winning a war in which victory has not yet been adequately defined is another. And yet, President Obama has taken the first, significant steps to at least slow, and possibly reverse, ISIS's expansion.
Four quick, early morning observations (to be followed by more, I hope):
1. The Arabs of the Gulf (Arabian Gulf, Persian Gulf, take your pick) have overcome their fear of Obama's irresolution and joined him publicly in this campaign. This has happened for two reasons: One, Obama made a convincing case to U.S. allies that he's in the ISIS fight for the long-term. The Gulf Arabs are exposed, almost existentially so, to the ISIS threat, so they obviously feel that the U.S. is not pivoting away from them (to borrow a term). The second reason is embedded in the first reason: the president was pushing on an open door. Precisely because the Arab states fear ISIS so much, they needed to take a bit of a leap of faith with a man they haven't trusted since the "red line" crisis of last year. That said, Obama's critics will attempt to downplay his achievement in building this coalition. They shouldn't. Getting this set of countries to act in their own defense has never been an easy task.
2. It is true that there exists no strategy for victory, and no definition of victory. The advantage of launching strikes against ISIS positions early in this fight is that its commanders now have to spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and resources merely digging in, and protecting their human and materiel assets, rather than pushing on toward Baghdad, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. A terrorist preoccupied with his own survival has less bandwidth to threaten yours. But these strikes will not bring about the end of ISIS. Like other terror groups, it can "win" this current round of fighting by surviving, and maximizing civilian casualties on its own side.
3. This struggle is now owned by the United States. President Obama has spread around the risk, but make no mistake, this is an American fight. If President Obama wasn't convinced that the U.S. is—and should be—the world's sole remaining superpower, he is now. Our reluctant president came to the conclusion that it would be insane for the civilized world to allow the barbarians of ISIS to overspread the Middle East. He looked around, and realized that the only country that could lead the anti-ISIS campaign was his. He's right, alas, and this leadership has a cost. ISIS was mainly interested, for the moment, at least, in securing its own borders, and building the infrastructure of a state. I have a feeling its long-term planners woke up this morning newly interested in finding ways to hurt Americans.
4. This American-led campaign isn't unalloyed good news for Bashar al-Assad. ISIS has been, in practical terms, his best friend this past year. The threat of ISIS caused numerous anti-Assad parties to think twice about calling for his removal. And ISIS did a great job on Assad's behalf of eliminating the more moderate Syrian opposition. Nevertheless, American bombs are falling in Syria, and they're not falling on Assad. Very few people a year ago could have predicted this.