The Disappointment of Barack Obama

He admits one major mistake: not making sufficient allowances for how unreasonable other people are.

President Obama at the State Department (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

About a quarter way into Jeffrey Goldberg’s intimate profile of President Obama, Goldberg mentions German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects.”

Thirty-five years ago, The Atlantic ran one of the most famous interviews in the history of journalism: Bill Greider’s “The Education of David Stockman.” Goldberg’s interviews deserve to become equally famous, perhaps under the heading: “The Disappointment of Barack Obama.” For the dominant theme of these interviews is that we, all of us, have grievously let down the president.

Obama, concludes Goldberg, “has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is.” The good news is that these inadequate partners and purblind adversaries will soon suffer their comeuppance: “What they don’t understand is that history is bending in his direction.”

The trouble is that this historical consummation seems to be rather slow in arriving. Across Europe and the Middle East, old friends and new worry that under President Obama the United States has lost its bearings and its will. “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does,” Goldberg quotes the King of Jordan as saying—and he is not alone. Obama is obviously aware of the growing level of concern that he has set the United States adrift. The president insists that the United States, not its geopolitical rivals, continues to set the agenda for G20 meetings. When it comes to clerical tasks, the U.S.A. apparently remains No. 1. And to those impatient with the gaps in his leadership, Obama replies with scorn: They’re mad at him? No! He’s the one who’s mad at them!

In Goldberg’s telling: “By 2013, Obama’s resentments were well developed. He resented military leaders who believed they could fix any problem if the commander in chief would simply give them what they wanted, and he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex” that many in the White House see as “doing the bidding of ... Arab and pro-Israel funders.” Obama has had “not much patience for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and other Middle Eastern leaders who question his understanding of the region.”

And when his understanding proved wrong, that only confirmed Obama’s disdain for everybody else. Early on, Obama had pulsed with excitement over the so-called Arab Spring. But there too, as Goldberg observes, the president “grew disillusioned” as “brutality and dysfunction overwhelmed the Middle East”—a development that apparently caught the president entirely by surprise. Now, Obama wistfully says, “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.” “Smart” here is shorthand for “conforming to Obama’s wishes.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has certainly ruled autocratically. Yet Obama is vexed, reports Goldberg, that Erdogan “refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria.”

Obama seems to feel gathering disdain too for both sides of the Arab-Israeli dispute. On the one hand, Obama appears annoyed that Muslims worldwide did not heed his advice “to more closely examine the roots of their unhappiness.” On the other hand, “According to [former Defense Secretary] Leon Panetta, [Obama] has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge.”

This may all seem a roundabout way of arguing, “It’s not my fault!” Goldberg records only one major self-criticism by the president: Obama admits he does not make sufficient allowances for how unreasonable other people are. In the president’s words: “Every president has strengths and weaknesses. And there is no doubt that there are times when I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

Thus, for example, now that the war in Libya has left chaos in its wake, Obama blames himself for not anticipating other people’s shortcomings. “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.” British Prime Minister David Cameron stopped paying attention to Libya, Obama said, instead becoming “distracted by a range of other things.” Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy behaved even worse. “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure [for the war].”

The Libyans likewise disappointed Obama. “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected.” So, having overthrown Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, and plunged into civil war a country only a short boat ride away from southern Italy, the president sorrowfully disengaged. “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa.”

Yet the Middle East and North Africa were not so easily kept at bay. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, a vast surge of migrants and asylum-seekers sought entry into Europe from across the Mediterranean—and tried, in smaller numbers, to reach the United States too. When voters reacted negatively to Obama’s plan to resettle Syrians in the United States, the president was stunned.

The president seemed similarly stunned by the anxiety that last November’s Paris attacks provoked in the United States. “Everyone back home had lost their minds,” an official tells Goldberg. “Later,” in Goldberg’s words, “the president would say that he had failed to fully appreciate the fear many Americans were experiencing.” Even after he appreciated it, he apparently still could not respect it. The “sort of panic,” in Goldberg’s words, that Obama “worries about most is the type that would manifest itself in anti-Muslim xenophobia or in a challenge to American openness.” Such xenophobia Obama regards as a much greater danger to the United States than terrorism.

Politics is a realm of paradox. The Obama foreign policy is especially rich in them. A president who professes multilateralism has left the country’s alliances in disarray. A president who justly criticized his predecessor for poor postwar planning in Iraq launched his own war in Libya with no postwar plan at all. A president who rejects religious extremism and authoritarianism has built his Middle East policy on visions of cooperation with extremist and authoritarian Iran. A president who sought to teach America the wisdom of humility never learned that lesson himself.

Of all the paradoxes, maybe the most important will be this: A president who came to office so deeply uneasy about American leadership has—over almost eight years of not providing it—reminded the rest of the world why that leadership is so badly needed.