On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama gave a speech opposing war in Iraq—perhaps, in retrospect, the most important speech he ever gave. He was right, of course, and the foreign-policy establishment was largely wrong. The problem is that politicians who were right about Iraq tend to overestimate what that says about their foreign-policy judgment. For Obama, the effects of being right are magnified. He became president, in part, because of Iraq and the considerable damage the conflict had done to the country. Obama offered the promise of a decisive correction and, for true believers, a kind of spiritual atonement.
It is unclear what being right on Iraq would mean for your likelihood of being right on Syria, since the contexts in question are, in a way, opposites: Civil war in Iraq began after the United States intervened. Civil war in Syria happened in the absence of intervention. History will have to judge, but it may actually be the case that being right on Iraq made you more likely to be wrong about subsequent interventions. The tragedy of Iraq, if you weren’t careful, was likely to distort your perception of everything that followed, for wholly understandable reasons.
Iraq’s dark shadow seems to be everywhere in Jeffrey Goldberg’s fascinating yet unsettling exchanges with Obama. “Multilateralism regulates hubris,” Obama says. And he is right: It does. What is left unsaid is why, exactly, regulating hubris should, seven years after the conclusion of the Bush era, remain a primary preoccupation. It is hard to imagine any world leader citing the hubris of overextension as the problem that the United States, today, must take extra care to correct for or guard against. Obama has already corrected for it, many times over.