Jeffrey Goldberg’s fascinating article taps into President Obama’s thinking about foreign policy and reveals its wellsprings. In that sense, he does more to help the president define and explain “the Obama Doctrine” than previous efforts by the White House itself, captured in those memorable lines “don’t do stupid shit” and “leading from behind,” which do not do justice to a doctrine that is both complicated and far-reaching in its implications for American foreign policy.
By his own reckoning, Obama’s most radical departure from the “Washington playbook” came on August 30, 2013, when he decided not to enforce his self-declared red line against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. For Obama that was a defining moment and, as he told Goldberg, even a proud one. Most of his closest foreign-policy advisers—including his national-security adviser, secretary of state, and vice president—had warned him that he was putting the credibility of the United States on the line.
But the president was caught between two conflicting imperatives.
The first was his determination to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction, which stems from his belief in the importance of promoting a rules-based international order. A priority for Obama is protecting the global commons from the threats of terrorism, pandemics, climate change, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For him, that takes precedence over a return to geopolitical competition with revisionist powers like Russia, China, or Iran. The Paris climate-change accord, the elimination of the Ebola threat, the Iran nuclear deal, and the war against ISIS all result from Obama’s shift in focus from regional to global threats. Demonstrating diplomatic deftness, mobilizing the international community behind effective sanctions, and applying force where necessary, he has succeeded in protecting American interests and promoting an international order that serves the global community.