The Disappointment of Barack Obama, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My colleague Chris passed along several reader criticisms to my piece on the “The Obama Doctrine,” and my response is below. Here’s the first reader:

So, correct me if I’m wrong here, but Frum just spent a whole article complaining about Obama’s tone and messaging and haughtiness while simultaneously saying Obama’s recognition of that problem is facile. I don’t get it. Obama admitting a mistake—that he overestimated Europe’s stomach for military action—is somehow another critique, presumably because of the tone in which Obama made that admission, but remember that Obama recognizing he has tone problems is also illegitimate because he should be admitting his mistakes!

I also don’t get why Frum would spend most of a piece building his arguments about Obama’s view around what another reporter (Goldberg) editorialized about.

Also, this is untrue: “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.” The country was already in the midst of a civil war, and it was a UN-mandated international mission that ended, not a unilateral U.S. commitment.

Another reader, Jim Elliott:

What I deeply dislike about Frum’s piece is the unwritten but clear subtext that these decisions are easy and apparent if you just have the proper state of mind and moral resolve. What Goldberg’s article makes clear—whether you agree with Obama’s philosophical orientation or his analysis or neither—is that these decisions are never simple and that Obama thinks very, very carefully about them. What I gathered from Goldberg’s interview, more than anything, is that even when I disagree with Obama’s decisions—I am far more willing to make use of our bellicose nature than he is—I profoundly respect the thought process that goes into them.

One more reader:

One thing I really like from the original article was President Obama making the point that the Middle East/North Africa is not all that important to America's broader interests. So, when Frum complains that Obama is unwilling to provide sufficient “American leadership” in the region, he is almost unknowingly complimenting the president’s vision.

After all, what has America gotten from its “leadership” in the Middle East? Duplicitous allies who create problems and then get angry when we don’t solve them? Angry radicals driven by their belief that the West (i.e. America) are the cause of all their problems?

Just look at the Libya/Syria contrast. In Libya, the president listened to the Washington consensus (against his better judgment) and got involved on one side of an ongoing civil war. When chaos emerged, it was his and America’s fault. Then in Syria, the president did not get involved in an ongoing civil war. When chaos emerged, it was his and America’s fault.

The Middle East is not the center of American foreign policy; it is a quarantine zone. The region was important to the U.S. when oil was dominant natural resource in the world. We needed those Arab despots to keep it flowing. Now, the U.S. has moved toward energy independence and the world as a whole is (slowly) moving away from fossil fuels. It’s a different ballgame. Our only goal now should be to minimize the extent to which the corruption, extremism, and overall dysfunction of the region contaminates the rest of the world. That’s all.

President Obama came to office promising a “new beginning” in the Middle East. That was literally the title of the speech he delivered in Cairo in 2009. The premise of the “new beginning” was that we were living in a time of “great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world.” The new administration would salve those tensions, in part by the transformational impact of a president with a Muslim name and family history … and in part by a series of conciliatory initiatives by the U.S. government: an expression of regret for the invasion of Iraq, a crackdown on expressions of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States, and rededication to the task of creating a Palestinian state. (Re-read the speech here if you suppose I exaggerate.)

Above all else—and at the very center of the new policy—would be the attempt to build a new relationship with Iran. Obama accepted partial U.S. culpability for Iran’s enmity: “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” That was counterposed by a nicely equivalent condemnation of Iran’s actions: “Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” Now it was up to Iran to decide “what future it wants to build.”

Jeffrey Goldberg’s interviews should be understood in the context of the soaring ambitions of 2009. President Obama imagined vast sweeping transformation occurring—not only because of his words and actions, but by virtue of his very presence at the head of the U.S. government. Plainly, those hopes have been badly disappointed. The animating purpose of these interviews is to answer the question: Why?

I won’t disagree with those readers who salute the president’s intellectual sophistication, his grasp of nuance and complexity. Clearly that’s true. But the president’s message here is neither complex nor nuanced: It is to fix the blame for the disappointment of his hopes on everybody in the vicinity except himself. That, at any rate, was the theme I saw in the Goldberg piece that I thought most worthy of reader attention.

The final reader argues that we should applaud the president’s disengagement from a dysfunctional region. But “quarantine” does not describe the president’s current policy, which aims instead at pressing Congress and the European allies to accept huge migration flows from the Middle East and North Africa. The dysfunction is not being kept at a distance. It is being brought inside the gates.