Even by the comic-book standards of American politics, this presidential campaign is presenting fantastical accounts of America’s power to bend the world to its will: A little carpet bombing here, some downed Russian fighters there, a torrent of demands laced with insults, and the greatest country on Earth can once again count on being comprehensively rich, content, and immigrant-free, just like when George Washington and Ronald Reagan were president. In this telling, the current president, Barack Obama, has blown his chance to achieve this happy outcome through sheer fecklessness—a characterization one hears these days from Democrats as well as Republicans.
Jeffrey Goldberg, in our cover story, presents a far more illuminating view of what it takes for an American president to influence, let alone command, the course of world affairs. In addition to interviewing this administration’s key national-security officers, its allies, and its critics, he spent many hours questioning and occasionally debating the president about his evolving worldview and his attempts, across more than seven years, to act on it, from Syria to the South China Sea.
Goldberg has covered foreign policy through four presidencies, with a focus on the Middle East. He has learned from hard experience to challenge not only his subjects’ assumptions, but his own. The result of his reporting here is, I think, an extraordinary—maybe singular—portrait of a presidential mind at work on the haunting questions of war and peace, the questions that only a president, on the country’s behalf, can answer.