President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, like many foreign policy doctrines, was contradictory at times, and it sometimes lacked coherence. Obama himself resisted the desire of others (including yours truly) to corral his various foreign policy and national security impulses into a comprehensive, globe-spanning, capital-D doctrine. But Obama possessed a number of well-developed foreign policy predispositions, and he exhibited, over time and under pressure, extraordinary fidelity to some of these views. One such view held that the U.S. has traditionally paid too much attention to the Middle East, and that, in any case, even concentrated American attention could not make the region a better place—and actually, in some instances, made it worse. Another of Obama’s salient foreign policy views held that the U.S., particularly in the Middle East, had traditionally been too quick to pursue military solutions to problems that neither represented core U.S. national security interests, nor were susceptible to amelioration by missile strike.
These two impulses, more than any of his other views, informed his decision, in 2013, to go back on his promise to punish the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians. Early in the Syrian civil war, Obama publicly drew a red line concerning Assad’s behavior, but later decided to forgo military strikes, even after being presented with near-definitive proof that Assad had crossed the red line in grotesque fashion. Obama was widely criticized at home and abroad—particularly by the leaders of many U.S.-allied nations—for behavior interpreted as feckless and weak, but he later told me, in one of the interviews I conducted with him for a 2016 article on his worldview, that he was “very proud of this moment.”