In October 2007, Senator Barack Obama, then a struggling Democratic presidential candidate, stood before a few hundred students at DePaul University in Chicago and delivered a speech that few in the foreign-policy world noticed. Five years after his famous statement against the disastrous Iraq invasion, Obama wanted to do more than remind his audience that he had been right all along, which was of course a useful distinction with his chief rival at the time, Hillary Clinton. He didn’t blame the Iraq War simply on George W. Bush or some neoconservative cabal that had hijacked the government, as many Democrats preferred to believe so as to absolve themselves of responsibility. Instead, Obama delivered a broadside against what he called Washington “groupthink.”
“The American people weren’t just failed by a president,” Obama said. “They were failed by much of Washington. By a media that too often reported spin instead of facts [and] by a foreign-policy elite that largely boarded the bandwagon for war.” For Obama, the mentality that led to Iraq was the most prominent example of a systemic breakdown—the result of a distinct mindset that had dominated U.S. foreign policy for too long.
To drive this point home, Obama delivered the same speech twice more that day. But he drew scant attention; his message barely registered in the next day’s papers. Yet looking back, the DePaul speech was a harbinger. For the past seven years, Obama’s efforts to defy this kind of thinking—and redefine American “strength” and “power” in the world—have proven one of the defining features of his presidency. In many ways, this campaign is more far-reaching than any single accomplishment—bigger than the Iran nuclear deal, or the diplomatic openings to Cuba and Burma, or the rebalance to Asia, or even the recent Paris agreement on climate change. And as Jeffrey Goldberg’s remarkable article makes clear, with only 10 months to go before a new president is sworn in, it is a project that remains incomplete. Obama is still trying to overhaul what he calls the “Washington playbook.” (Full disclosure: I talked with Goldberg several times for this story, and have also sought his advice for my own forthcoming book on Obama’s foreign policy.)