The Conversation

Readers respond to our April 2016 cover story.

The Obama Doctrine

In April, Jeffrey Goldberg reported on the president’s foreign policy. John Bew called the article “a masterpiece of journalism” in New Statesman, while former U.S. Representative Barney Frank said Goldberg’s interviews with Obama amounted to “the most thoughtful presidential statement on a major issue I’ve seen in a very long time.

I am a Republican, though not sure what that means anymore. I have not been thrilled with what I assumed was Mr. Obama’s approach to Islam, and the world in general. After reading this article, I believe I have seen a valid template for our foreign policy for the foreseeable future—one that is measured, practical, fact-based, and solidly grounded in political realities. The current crop of candidates would do well to study it.
Rex T. Williams
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

If there’s a single sentence in the essay that encapsulates Obama’s view of America’s place in the world, it’s this one: “For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world.”
I confess that what I love about that sentence is just how many people it will infuriate. Every conservative in America will rebel against the first clause. America has warts? That’s heresy!! It’s un-American to say that!! Obama’s willingness to acknowledge the United States as a flawed country is at the root of conservative criticism of this president as someone who doesn’t love the United States. Indeed, they tend to get so furious that they don’t notice the second clause in the sentence.
Many liberals do notice that second clause, however, and it infuriates them. Supporters of Bernie Sanders and left-wing critics of Hillary Clinton (and a few on the Buchananite right) severely doubt the second part of Obama’s claim, pointing to Iraq and Libya and myriad other American foreign-policy screwups. And those are pretty big warts. But as the president noted in Goldberg’s essay, an awful lot of countries in the Pacific Rim, Latin America, and elsewhere have looked to the United States during the Obama era.
Daniel W. Drezner
Excerpt from a Washington Post article

George W. Bush responded to the couple dozen bad guys on 9/11 by going to war with terrorism and occupying Afghanistan, killing tens of thousands of Afghans. Bush responded to the bad guy Saddam Hussein by manipulating evidence of WMDs and invading Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. That’s how Afghans and Iraqis, especially Muslims, got the correct impression that their lives do not matter to Americans. Out of this perceived indifference to their lives, ISIS rose up.
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Mr. Obama has tried mightily to just go after the bad guys, to limit broad attacks, to reduce civilian casualties—using drones and Special Forces to track down, capture, and kill Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda operatives, and members of ISIS—reasserting through his actions and words that we are not at war against Islam, but are merely acting in self-defense against those who would do us harm. For this sensible response, he has been criticized by the right for not using enough force in Syria and Iraq and by the left for overusing drone strikes.
It seems to me that Mr. Obama has struck the right balance: taking sufficient action to kill the bad guys, thus protecting Americans, and avoiding big invasions that kill thousands indiscriminately and act to recruit the next generation of terrorists.
Mr. Obama’s restrained, sensible approach will end with a Clinton, Trump, Cruz, or Kasich presidency. A vote for one of these four is a vote for unnecessary war, a vote to make the same mistakes Mr. Bush made, a vote for going big versus going smart, a vote against our national-security interests.
John E. Colbert
Arroyo Seco, N.M.

[Goldberg’s article is] fascinating to read in the midst of a presidential campaign. It shows how insanely far removed campaign bloviation is from the reality of actually governing. It also reveals that the performance of presidents, especially on foreign policy, is shaped by how leaders attach to problems. Some leaders are like dogs: They want to bound right in and make things happen. Some are more like cats: They want to detach and maybe look for a pressure point here or there …
There are successful examples of both types. But I’m struck by how catlike Obama is. And it’s striking how many Americans have responded by going for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are bad versions of the bounding-in/we-can-change-everything doggy type.
David Brooks
Excerpt from a New York Times op-ed

The Obama that emerges from the Atlantic interview is preternaturally icy, contemptuous of both his adversaries and his own staff, thin-skinned, angry, and oddly self-satisfied. That character portrait aside, it would have been nice if the article had shed light on the worldview that governs Obama’s decisions. Rather, it illuminated the fact that he doesn’t have a worldview. Instead, the president of the United States has opinions, and lots of them. And people he really doesn’t like, and lots of them. And countries he thinks don’t count, like those that make up the Sunni Middle East.
The commander of the world’s most powerful military reveals that he is skeptical that military power is a solution to what ails the world … Seven years in, when confronted with a challenge, he still silently asks himself, “What would Bush do?”—and then does the opposite.
Danielle Pletka
Excerpt from a Foreign Policy post

It is unclear what being right on Iraq would mean for your likelihood of being right on Syria, since the contexts in question are, in a way, opposites: Civil war in Iraq began after the United States intervened. Civil war in Syria happened in the absence of intervention. History will have to judge, but it may actually be the case that being right on Iraq made you more likely to be wrong about subsequent interventions. The tragedy of Iraq, if you weren’t careful, was likely to distort your perception of everything that followed, for wholly understandable reasons.
Iraq’s dark shadow seems to be everywhere in Jeffrey Goldberg’s fascinating yet unsettling exchanges with Obama. “Multilateralism regulates hubris,” Obama says. And he is right: It does. What is left unsaid is why, exactly, regulating hubris should, seven years after the conclusion of the Bush era, remain a primary preoccupation. It is hard to imagine any world leader citing the hubris of overextension as the problem that the United States, today, must take extra care to correct for or guard against. Obama has already corrected for it, many times over.
Shadi Hamid
Excerpt from a article

Obama, to judge from Goldberg’s article, interpreted the chemical-weapons red line he himself had drawn in a very narrow way. He saw it being mainly about Syria and Syria’s war.
But what happened at Ghouta was bigger than one war, bigger than one country. It was a question of what can be done today, in the 21st century, in full view of a watching world. The standout moments of the past 20 years—the massacre at Srebrenica, the genocide in Rwanda—have passed from the hands of politicians to historians.
But Ghouta happened while the world was watching. And the U.S. president walked away.
Understood like that, Obama did the right thing for a small country. But he did the wrong thing for a great nation.
Foreign policy doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is a complicated dance, where intentions, postures, and history matter.
When the U.S. announces a “red line” and then allows it to be violated, it changes the calculations of many policy makers in many states. It emboldens those who would oppose U.S. policy and demoralises those who would support it. The world becomes subtly more dangerous, because the effect is to bring more people to the point where they could, perhaps, defy the U.S., and by proxy the international order.
Faisal Al Yafai
Excerpt from an Independent op-ed

#Tweet of the Month

I was surprised (perhaps I should not have been) by Mr. Goldberg’s report that the president “secretly disdains” the Washington foreign-policy establishment. Mr. Obama seems to believe that because he was right about Iraq while most of the establishment was wrong, it follows that he will be right in every other instance of disagreement.
But not all conventional wisdom is false, just because it is widely held. Credibility is important, for example. Saying one thing and then doing another has consequences.
William A. Galston
Excerpt from a Wall Street Journal op-ed

Politics is a realm of paradox. The Obama foreign policy is especially rich in them. A president who professes multilateralism has left the country’s alliances in disarray. A president who justly criticized his predecessor for poor postwar planning in Iraq launched his own war in Libya with no postwar plan at all. A president who rejects religious extremism and authoritarianism has built his Middle East policy on visions of cooperation with extremist and authoritarian Iran. A president who sought to teach America the wisdom of humility never learned that lesson himself.
Of all the paradoxes, maybe the most important will be this: A president who came to office so deeply uneasy about American leadership has—over almost eight years of not providing it—reminded the rest of the world why that leadership is so badly needed.
David Frum
Excerpt from a article

Mr. Obama’s deracinated calculation misses the human dynamic in international relations. There is no algorithm to mimic the personal judgments that leaders invariably make of their allies and adversaries. Perceptions count for as much as reality. It really does matter if an adversary concludes that hesitation here will be replicated by weakness there. Beijing notices when Mr. Putin gets away with it. Successful diplomacy demands leverage; semaphoring an aversion to military entanglement depletes that leverage …
What is missing from the Obama doctrine is a strategic view of the role of U.S. leadership in sustaining global order. Analysis drifts into an excuse for paralysis, but inaction carries as many dangers as intervention. Mr. Obama’s realism bleeds into fatalism. To observe that the U.S. cannot solve every problem in a disordered world should not be to conclude it is powerless. Disorder is contagious and does not respect neat lines drawn around core national interests.
Philip Stephens
Excerpt from a Financial Times op-ed

Goldberg writes, “Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” This has become a widespread and commonplace way of referring to Obama’s original foreign-policy vision.
Goldberg is half right. Obama came into office determined to get out of Iraq. But I’m old enough to remember when Senator Obama spoke very highly of the war in Afghanistan.
In fact, he campaigned on a pledge to rededicate our nation’s efforts to the “good war” …
He promised at least two additional brigades of combat troops and an additional $1 billion in civilian assistance every year.
In 2009, when I worked for the Obama administration as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council, I saw no sign that the new team had any other intent than to follow through with the candidate’s actual words.
They wanted to fix Afghanistan, partly to give themselves cover for withdrawing from Iraq. Afghanistan was supposed to prove, with foreign policy, that they were responsible.
Obama did not enter office bent on getting out of Afghanistan. He entered office bent on winning in Afghanistan …
These are the fine distinctions on which presidential legacies are judged. If Obama had truly campaigned on ending the war in Afghanistan regardless of the outcome or aftermath, then he would have come close to achieving his pledge. He has withdrawn almost all U.S. troops from the country with scant regard for Afghanistan’s security, the resurgence of the Taliban, or the expansion of the Islamic State to South Asia.
Paul D. Miller
Excerpt from a Foreign Policy post

Obama is right that, in the long run, Asia has been relatively neglected as a result of our entanglements in the Middle East. China is the most important long-term threat that the United States faces. Unlike the Islamic State, China is a big, rich, and well-organized state that has clear hegemonic intentions in East Asia, and it has been moving in a more nationalistic direction since 2008.
Obama’s problem is that he sees primarily the upside of all those young entrepreneurs in Kuala Lumpur, and not the real and immediate dangers that China poses to Malaysia and many of its neighbors. He has not followed through on the rebalance or moved toward the sorts of investments in air and naval capacities that would make balancing a reality. He should have been more confrontational in the South China Sea.
Francis Fukuyama
Excerpt from an American Interest post

The interview was a fascinating window to a man who wants to detach from [the] Middle East and questions America’s old alliances. On Israel, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen this president got it wrong.
Michael Oren
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., as quoted in The Jerusalem Post

Obama’s retrenchment from the Middle East reflects deep disillusionment with the region.
But it also reflects disdain for an Arab world that should be avoided. Obama ignores those states seeking tepidly to implement reforms and fight terrorism. He coldly and correctly diagnoses the ills of the majority of Arab states: predatory autocratic regimes, violent Islamist groups, diminishing civic traditions, rampant sectarianism and tribalism. But he does not see any ray of hope or promise in this bleak scene. It is as if the Arab world is inhabited only by angry Arab youths “thinking about how to kill Americans,” and totally bereft of decent Arab men and women, like those millions who marched and struggled against tyranny and called for freedom, empowerment, dignity, and modernity. He laments that if the U.S. is not talking to the young people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.” It is as if the president of the United States is declaring a whole generation of Arabs to be the devil’s rejects; it is as if he wants to have large swaths of the Middle East quarantined indefinitely.
Hisham Melhem
Excerpt from a article

#Other Tweet of the Month

[Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan said the leaders from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that he met during [a recent trip to the Middle East] peppered him with questions about President Barack Obama’s recent criticisms of Arab allies in The Atlantic
In the article, the president accused U.S. allies of being “free riders” who enjoy the benefits of America’s security umbrella without contributing themselves. He also said that regional adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran needed to find a way to “share the neighborhood.”
“I can’t tell you how often I heard about that Atlantic article,” Ryan said. “It was quoted to me verbatim by heads of state … It’s rattled our allies.”
John Hudson
Excerpt from a Foreign Policy post

Usually people unload with such undiplomatic language once they’re outside of government. I don’t remember anyone inside of government, never mind the president, saying something like this.
Alberto Fernandez
Vice president, Middle East Media Research Institute, as quoted in The New York Times, about Obama’s Saudi Arabia comments

No, Mr. Obama. We are not “free riders” …
You accuse us of fomenting sectarian strife in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. You add insult to injury by telling us to share our world with Iran, a country that you describe as a supporter of terrorism and which you promised our king to counter its “destabilizing activities.”
Could it be that you are petulant about the Kingdom’s efforts to support the Egyptian people when they rose against the Muslim Brothers’ government and you supported it? Or is it the late King Abdullah’s (God rest his soul) bang on the table when he last met you and told you “No more red lines, Mr. President.”
Or is it because you have pivoted to Iran so much that you equate the Kingdom’s 80 years of constant friendship with America to an Iranian leadership that continues to describe America as the biggest enemy, that continues to arm, fund, and support sectarian militias in the Arab and Muslim world, that continues to harbor and host al-Qaeda leaders, that continues to prevent the election of a Lebanese president through Hezbollah, which is identified by your government as a terrorist organization, that continues to kill the Syrian Arab people in league with Bashar Assad?
No, Mr. Obama. We are not the “free riders” to whom you refer. We lead from the front and we accept our mistakes and rectify them. We will continue to hold the American people as our ally and don’t forget that when the chips were down, and George Herbert Walker Bush sent American soldiers to repel with our troops Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait, soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with soldiers. Mr. Obama, that is who we are.
Turki al-Faisal
Prince of Saudi Arabia
Excerpt from an
Arab News editorial

I had an in-depth conversation with President Putin a while back about Syria and Ukraine. And he had read an article in The Atlantic that Jeff Goldberg had done about my foreign-policy doctrine. And he said, “Well, I disagree with some of the things that you said in there.” And Jeff is a remarkable journalist who I admire greatly, and all the quotes that were directly attributed to me in there, I completely agreed with.
I said, “Well, but some of the things that were shaped may not fully reflect all the nuance of my thoughts on the particular topic” that President Putin was mentioning. But I pointed out to him, of course, that “unlike you, Vladimir, I don’t get to edit the piece before it’s published.”
Barack Obama
President of the United States
Excerpt from a March 28 speech

The Big Question: What is the greatest prank of all time?

(On, reader’s answered May’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

5. El Dorado, the mythical city made of gold used by native South Americans to mislead European conquistadors. Just by pointing south and saying things such as “A week from here, keep straight,” they managed to drive thousands of greedy men to madness and death.

— Fernando Nuñez-Noda

4. To paraphrase George Carlin, the greatest prank of all time must be what organized religion is trying to peddle: “There’s this man who lives in the sky; he knows everything, and he sees everything … and he needs your money!”

— Frank Tokarsky

3. In the 1970s, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley supposedly created the first “alien” crop circle after a long night at a Southampton pub, unwittingly setting off a worldwide, decades-long craze that other pranksters have escalated with elaborate geometric patterns.

— Dan Fredricks

2. Arthur Conan Doyle supposedly once sent a telegram to 12 of the wealthiest and most influential men in England stating: “Fly at once, all is discovered.” Within 24 hours, it is said, all 12 had left the country.

— Michael E. Zuller

1. Orson Welles’s October 30, 1938, “The War of the Worlds” broadcast fooled more than 1 million people into believing that an alien invasion was in progress.

— Gerald Johnson

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