Of every way President Obama frustrates opponents and supporters alike, it is his stubborn refusal to fit into a narrative. In the Age of Takes, trying to piece together a grand theory based on one or two stories is to be quickly refuted by another narrative. Think of the glee the winger press had when Obama turned out not to be great at throwing a baseball- he’s weak, un-American, etc- but conspiciously silent about his basketball prowess.
This is especially true in foreign policy (though honestly, I could write “especially true in domestic policy” as well: he’s an tyrant, or a weakling, or a compromiser, or a canny operator, or someone who keps getting played). Obama’s critics on the left and on the right see two vastly different Presidents. On the left he is essentially a war criminal, reckless with drones and all-too-willing to engage in wars on every continent, vastly overstepping his power. On the right, he is the weak and feckless appeaser, letting our enemies run roughshod over us, at best. At worst, he is deliberately handing over the store.
In a long piece based on a series of interviews at The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, who for years has been kind of Obama’s foriegn policy father-confessor, tries to piece together some kind of doctrine that goes above the fabled “don’t do dumb shit”. If there is a grand narrative of the Obama years, it is someone with a tragic sense, who believes that people can be rational if the conditions are right, but who have a wild atavistic past just lurking in the background, and can revert to irrational behavior at any moment. That our first African-American president seems to be guided by Conrad- “we live in the flicker”- is material enough for generations of grad students to parse out.
Obama’s sense of tragedy is what fuels a genuinely radical foreign policy proposition. Perhaps the most important passage in the excellent article- which pivots largely around Obama deciding not to bomb Syria after Asad had crossed his chemical weapons “red line”- was when Goldberg asked him a question, essentially, about the state of man. Obama’s answer was a typical Obama answer: a broad discourse that ends up right where he wants it. Apologies for the long quote, but…
“I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference. But it’s hugely uneven. And what has been clear throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is that the progress we make in social order and taming our baser impulses and steadying our fears can be reversed very quickly. Social order starts breaking down if people are under profound stress. Then the default position is tribe—us/them, a hostility toward the unfamiliar or the unknown.”
He continued, “Right now, across the globe, you’re seeing places that are undergoing severe stress because of globalization, because of the collision of cultures brought about by the Internet and social media, because of scarcities—some of which will be attributable to climate change over the next several decades—because of population growth. And in those places, the Middle East being Exhibit A, the default position for a lot of folks is to organize tightly in the tribe and to push back or strike out against those who are different.
“A group like ISIL is the distillation of every worst impulse along these lines. The notion that we are a small group that defines ourselves primarily by the degree to which we can kill others who are not like us, and attempting to impose a rigid orthodoxy that produces nothing, that celebrates nothing, that really is contrary to every bit of human progress—it indicates the degree to which that kind of mentality can still take root and gain adherents in the 21st century.”
The “default position” is to me the heart of the Obama Doctrine. It’s recognizing that people are not on a chessboard, but have their own histories, their own instincts, and their own self-interest in mind. This in and of itself isn’t radical, but the way it plays out for Obama’s foreign policy is. He rejects the Establisment consensus that people will play ball with an application of pressure, the threat of violence, and because America is “credible”. He has recognized that people, and nations, are far more likely to break into their most feral nature if cornered.
(The extent that this recognitions is due to, or at least augmented by, the rise of tribalism and nationalism in America that greeted his election is up to the reader.)
This is part of what came to play in the Syrian debate. As Goldberg explains, most of the Washington- and indeed global- consensus was that if we bombed Asad, he would have to do what we asked. Obama took a step back, though, and began to believe that wouldn’t work. After all, we couldn’t actually bomb the weapons depots (blowing up chemical weapons is essentially the same as deploying them), and then Asad would be even more cornered, and would still have his weapons. And I think what Obama recognized is that a completely cornered Asad, who is fighting to stay in power, but also to protect his Alawite tribe, was likely to go even more apololyptic, in a way that would draw in US forces.
You can argue about whether or not he was right (indeed, you can argue about whether his point of view is legitmate at all). But this was a wild break. Obama got lucky with the Russian out, but the end result is that Asad no longer has chemical weapons, and US troops aren’t fighting the Syrian army. The point is that if he had followed the consensus, and the accepted playbook, there wouldn’t have been the possibility for the Russian out.
That’s the radicalism: the notion that American “credibility” might be an important factor in NATO meetings or in editorial boardrooms, but that it isn’t in the lived reality of people who conisder themselves to have their own national destiny. This seems obvious. It generally isn’t.
Obama’s foreign policy is, in the main, based on the idea that a country needs to feel that it is in control of its path, or else it will act “irrationally”, because it will take a rational course of political, cultural, or economic self-interest based on the bad options it is given. The role of great powers is to set a destination, and make a path forward, but to have them take steps forward on their own. This was the heart of the Iran deal, which is by all measures an unbelievable triumph of American diplomacy and credibility. Iran was given a chance to take tentative steps toward rejoining the world community in a way that allowed it to save face and gain something while still taking their most powerful weapon off the table.
It’s been the same in Cuba, Vietnam, and throughout Latin America and Asia. In these regions, Obama has gotten more out of presenting American partnership as the best option, instead of the only choice, than generations of gunboats could do. Again, you can argue about the merits of the TPP, but it was another masterstroke of American leadership, because it presented the choices as one of self-interest, and not just self-preservation.
It’s hard to buck the consensus that say American “credibility”- here defined as the willingness to bomb anything- is the only way the world can find peace. And Obama has failed in this too. His reliance on drones is war on the cheap, and helps to stoke that “tribalism” as much as his other policies try to militate against it.
This could be a way to remake foreign policy. It’s a way of gaining new allies, not in a military sense, but in a rough community of nations who are warily aligned in enlightened self-interest. It’s the willingness to let enemies be the ones to do dumb shit- like Russia breaking itself in the Ukraine and Syria- and using that leverage to get what you want. It’s recognizing that other countries don’t see themselves as marks in our ledger, or as pieces to be moved. It’s about understanding that tribalism and atavistic anger lurks just underneath the surface of civilization- all civilizations- and doesn’t need much of a push to resruface. It’s about knowing that not every enemy is an existential one, and Munich isn’t a weekly happening. It’s about recognizing that the huge problems- namely climate change, but also terrorism and the end of the state system- are global, and in order to be mitigated, the world can’t be divided into “with us” or “against us”. Because once you start asking that, every group responds back with the same question.
I think the summation is his notion of “toughness”. Iran-Contra, he reminded Goldberg, did nothing to help us in Iran or Central America. Nixon was also a failure. Toughness is a way of feeling good, but not doing anything. It’s a posture. And it’s ok ok if your posture is criticized if you ultimately get what you want. He reminds us that during Vietnam we “dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II, and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell. When I go to visit those countries, I’m going to be trying to figure out how we can, today, help them remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids. In what way did that strategy promote our interests?”
I think history will remember the cool, cautious, Obama era as one of the truly radical Presidencies in modern times, who- for good or ill- dared to ask questions other leaders take for granted.
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