Now, does the resulting U.S. role feel a little downsized? Do America’s allies feel a little less sure of our support? Are adversaries emboldened? Does the foreign-policy “establishment” (of which Obama has such a low opinion) feel the United States is not really going to be leading at all? The president waves aside these concerns. Credibility—in the form of pressure to act when no real interest is threatened—must not become a fetish, he suggests. Friends and allies need to do more to defend their own interests. The U.S. can’t lead if it keeps doing “stupid shit.”
Obama is not wrong about any of this. Yet turning his sensible principles into an effective foreign policy is harder than he admits. The president is so locked into an angry debate with Washington conventional wisdom that he may not understand how unthoughtful some of his explanations sound.
Take his comments about credibility—what he ridicules as “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone.” It’s a good line, but Obama’s reason for treating credibility as an empty concept is not so good. He wants to persuade us that, when he retreated from the famous “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, nothing much was at stake and nothing bad happened as a result.
Alas, something was—and something did. Just hours before he changed course, Obama himself said that if you do nothing when a major international norm is violated, the norm becomes meaningless. A great power values credibility so opponents know not to challenge its interests. That’s why Susan Rice, his own national-security adviser, said the damage done by backtracking on the “red line” would be severe.
Has it been? Obama says no, but surely he understands that if he had taken out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force in 2013, as many were urging him to do (and as he clearly could have done), Vladimir Putin would never have intervened in Syria in 2015. Obama may not ask himself why Putin would have held back, but the answer is very clear. He would have worried about taking on the United States. Now he doesn’t. Putin has taught us that credibility means something.
Obama, of course, has a different view. Putin, he tells Goldberg, has gained nothing from intervening in Syria. To think he has “is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally.” Propping up Assad, Obama claims, “doesn’t suddenly make [Putin] a player.” Why, he says, “there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.” (You have to wonder what Putin will make of this passage when he reads it: The president of the United States really believes setting the agenda of the next totally forgettable G20 meeting matters more than deciding who wins the civil war in Syria?)