Washington, D.C. (March 10, 2016, 6AM ET)—The moment many foreign policy observers consider one of the worst of Barack Obama’s presidency—not bombing Syria in the summer of 2013 after Bashar al-Assad had breached the “red line” on chemical weapons—the president sees as one of his best. Through many hours of in-depth and unusually candid interviews, The Atlantic offers an exclusive and historic account of President Obama’s worldview, in which the president offers extensive explanations of his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world. The Atlantic’s April cover story, “The Obama Doctrine,” is now at TheAtlantic.com and will be on newsstands next week.
National Correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed President Obama in the White House, aboard Air Force One, and in Malaysia, and spoke to many of his current and former top national-security and foreign-policy advisors for this cover story. Across 19 pages—the longest article The Atlantic has published in more than a decade—Goldberg details Obama’s deliberations on the most important international moments of recent history: from not enforcing the “red line” in Syria—which Obama calls “as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make”—to the nuclear deal with Iran, to the threat of ISIS, to the “shit show” of Libya, to Russia and Ukraine.
Obama delivers often brutally candid commentary on the intractable tribalism of the Middle East, saying that Saudi Arabia needs to “share” the neighborhood with Iran; on the shortcomings of America’s allies who act more like, in Obama’s words, “free riders”; and about Ukraine, which Obama believes is not a core U.S. interest and will always be vulnerable to Russian domination. And he suggests that he is preserving and enhancing U.S. power, not diminishing it, by refusing to wage unnecessary and unwinnable wars in the “fraying” states of the Middle East.
“I had come into office with the strong belief that the scope of executive power in national-security issues is very broad, but not limitless,” Obama tells The Atlantic. “Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power. That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
James Bennet, The Atlantic’s editor in chief and president, writes in his Editor’s Note to begin the issue: “The result of the reporting here is an extraordinary—maybe singular—portrait of a presidential mind at work on the haunting questions of war and peace, the questions that only a president, on the country’s behalf, can answer.”
The cover is part of a multimedia report at TheAtlantic.com, including videos, interactives, and additional commentary and analysis by a panel of foreign-policy experts that will roll out across the next week. One video provides a narrative account of Obama’s “red line” decisions on Syria; in a second, Goldberg and Bennet dive deeper into the piece and Goldberg’s reporting.
Bennet and Goldberg will talk about “The Obama Doctrine” at Sixth & I on March 30 in Washington, D.C. Event tickets are on sale now. Media credentials are available.
Below are highlights from the piece; all excerpts must be credited to The Atlantic. Quotes are attributed to President Obama, unless otherwise noted.
On not enforcing the red line in Syria in August 2013:
Goldberg reports that Obama is proud of the moment during the Syrian red line crisis, when he chose not to strike. Goldberg describes that day, in Obama’s mind, as “liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East.”
Obama outlines his thinking on that day; chief among the deterrents was the assessment that a missile strike could inflict some damage on Assad, but not eliminate chemical weapons. He tells The Atlantic: “I’m very proud of this moment. The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus has gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to push the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was about to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
The move stunned U.S. allies and Obama’s cabinet and closest advisors. Goldberg reports that when Secretary of State John Kerry learned of the decision, he told a friend, “I just got fucked over.” Goldberg also reports that, over the last year, Kerry has repeatedly lobbied Obama to launch missiles at specific Assad regime targets in Syria, which Obama has steadfastly resisted. Goldberg reports: “Recently, when Kerry handed Obama a written outline of new steps to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, Obama said, ‘Oh, another proposal?’ ...At a National Security Council meeting held at the Pentagon in December, Obama announced that no one except the secretary of defense should bring him proposals for military action.”
On the unfixability of the Middle East:
Goldberg reports that the mess of Libya proved to Obama that the Middle East was best avoided. “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,” he recently told a former colleague from the Senate. “That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.”
“Right now, I don't think anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East. You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You've got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You've got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”—President Obama
On comparing ISIS to the Joker from the Dark Knight, and the real threat the group poses:
Goldberg writes: “Advisers recall that Obama would cite a pivotal moment in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman movie, to help explain not only how he understood the role of ISIS, but how he understood the larger ecosystem in which it grew. “There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had turf. And then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. ISIL is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”
“ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.”—President Obama
On Saudi Arabia’s role in the Middle East:
“The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”—President Obama
On Europe’s responsibility for the “shitshow” of Libya:
Obama blames Great Britain and France, in part, for losing Libya (which he refers to privately as the “shitshow”). “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”—President Obama
On Ukraine and America’s interest:
Obama declares Ukraine to be not a core American interest and that he is reluctant to intervene in the country, because Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there. “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”—President Obama
On Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
Obama has also not had much patience for Netanyahu and other Middle Eastern leaders who question his understanding of the region. Goldberg reports: “In one of Netanyahu’s meetings with the president, the Israeli prime minister launched into something of a lecture. …Finally, the president interrupted the prime minister: ‘Bibi, you have to understand something. I’m the African American son of a single mother, and live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.’”
On Russian President Vladimir Putin:
“The truth is, actually, Putin, in all our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank. Our meetings are very businesslike. He never keeps me waiting two hours like he does a bunch of these other folks. ...He’s constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished.”—President Obama