Obama delivers often brutally candid commentary on the intractable tribalism of the Middle East, saying that Saudi Arabia needs to “share” the neighborhood with Iran; on the shortcomings of America’s allies who act more like, in Obama’s words, “free riders”; and about Ukraine, which Obama believes is not a core U.S. interest and will always be vulnerable to Russian domination. And he suggests that he is preserving and enhancing U.S. power, not diminishing it, by refusing to wage unnecessary and unwinnable wars in the “fraying” states of the Middle East.
“I had come into office with the strong belief that the scope of executive power in national-security issues is very broad, but not limitless,” Obama tells The Atlantic. “Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power. That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
James Bennet, The Atlantic’s editor in chief and president, writes in his Editor’s Note to begin the issue: “The result of the reporting here is 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.”
The cover is part of a multimedia report at TheAtlantic.com, including videos, interactives, and additional commentary and analysis by a panel of foreign-policy experts that will roll out across the next week. One video provides a narrative account of Obama’s “red line” decisions on Syria; in a second, Goldberg and Bennet dive deeper into the piece and Goldberg’s reporting.
Bennet and Goldberg will talk about “The Obama Doctrine” at Sixth & I on March 30 in Washington, D.C. Event tickets are on sale now. Media credentials are available.
Below are highlights from the piece; all excerpts must be credited to The Atlantic. Quotes are attributed to President Obama, unless otherwise noted.
On not enforcing the red line in Syria in August 2013:
Goldberg reports that Obama is proud of the moment during the Syrian red line crisis, when he chose not to strike. Goldberg describes that day, in Obama’s mind, as “liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East.”
Obama outlines his thinking on that day; chief among the deterrents was the assessment that a missile strike could inflict some damage on Assad, but not eliminate chemical weapons. He tells The Atlantic: “I’m very proud of this moment. The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus has gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to push the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was about to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”