Portrait of a Presidential Mind

Reflections on Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with President Obama and our April issue

President Barack Obama and Jeffrey Goldberg continue their long-running discussion of foreign policy in the Oval Office, January 26, 2016.  (Ruven Afanador)

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.

There’s plenty here to confound Barack Obama’s more thoughtful critics and supporters, and also plenty to confirm the biases of the unreflecting members of both camps. As Goldberg shows, Obama—so self-assured, so rational, so alone—has repeatedly tossed aside what he derides as the “Washington playbook” on foreign affairs. He has tilted away from long-standing Sunni allies—allies like Saudi Arabia that for decades abetted the radicalization of Muslims worldwide—while patiently isolating and then boldly engaging Shiite Iran, removing, for now, its nuclear capability. He has been reluctant, to his political peril, to label isis an existential threat to America, for the simple reason that he believes it isn’t. He believes in multilateralism because he thinks it can advance American interests in part by restraining American hubris. (This is a president who, in one conversation with Goldberg, could declare that “the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world” only after first affixing this hedge: “For all of our warts …”) His own upbringing and reading of history have deprived him of Bill Clinton’s optimism about globalization’s power to override tribal impulses and also George W. Bush’s assurance about American democracy’s manifest global destiny.

Threaded through this article, as through this presidency, is a basic question: Is the patient, and at times even humble, pursuit of diplomacy a better bulwark of American credibility than the spectacular deployment of force? The catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan—and, on Obama’s watch, Libya—might seem to offer a simple answer. But as Goldberg shows, the answer is not simple, and to the president’s credit Obama, unlike the cartoonish contenders for his office, doesn’t pretend that it is.

Of course, a campaign debate should never come across like a white paper from the Council on Foreign Relations. It should, instead, be more like the best of comic books, which long ago dispensed with Kryptonian visions of saintly might (though it may be a good idea for someone to remind Donald Trump that Superman was an illegal immigrant). As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes elsewhere in this issue, these sorts of comics, with their vivid colors and sharply drawn characters, can help us make sense of the world by penetrating complex questions and ambiguities. I hope that this president’s candor about his own hard compromises may yet help our current candidates make themselves the heroes, instead, of that kind of tale.