As Andrew Bacevich pointed out in his 2010 book Washington Rules, a consensus view of the United States’ role in the world has generally prevailed among bureaucrats, politicians, military officers and opinion leaders since the end of the Second World War. That view instinctively assumes that any conflict around the world bears upon US interests, and that American military power can and must provide the solution. While in the wake of the Vietnam War a few leading civilian and military figures called for a reassessment of our assumptions, they quickly faded from view, and when in 1979 Jimmy Carter told his countrymen that military power was not the solution to our energy problems, he was almost laughed out of office. The end of the Cold War briefly left the foreign policy establishment at sea, but large scale human rights violations and chaos provided new pretexts for intervention in places like Somalia and Yugoslavia. Then came 9/11, and suddenly, any turmoil in the Muslim world became grounds for American intervention. Fifteen years later, we find ourselves in the midst of an endless war.
Only weeks ago, Jeffrey Goldberg published a long interview with President Barack Obama in the Atlantic. The interview seems to me unprecedented: I cannot remember a sitting President sharing his private thoughts on the US and the world at such length at any time in the past. Both surprising and revealing, it has drawn astonishingly little comment, perhaps because so much of our attention is focused on the election, but it tells us a lot about where we are, how we got there, and, crucially, where we shall probably be in another year or two, after the President has left office.
I have been very critical of Barack Obama in these pages, especially since July of 2010. Elected at a critical moment in American history, he missed his chance, I believe, to reverse the domestic course that the United States was on. Rather than trying to replace the economic system that had developed since the 1980s—marked above all by the growing power of capital—he simply tinkered with it to get it back on its feet. He did not provide enough immediate help to the American people, resulting in the loss of the House of Representatives and the end of any possibility of serious reform for the rest of his term. Even his signature achievement, the Affordable Health Care Act, simply enlarged a terribly flawed health care system, rather than trying to reform it. I have also written that in many ways he continued the foreign policies of his predecessor. Yet it is clear from the interview that I underestimated him intellectually, and that the two of us, who have never met, actually agree on a great deal about the state of the world, where it is headed, and what the United States can and cannot do about it. That, however, is only half the story. Obama’s world view is smarter and more sophisticated than those of his immediate predecessors or his most likely successors, but he has done little to introduce it to his countrymen, and he has not even stuck to it at one or two crucial junctures in his presidency. In the end, the interview confirms my view of Barack Obama as a tragic figure caught in one of the great crises in American history.
Goldberg’s article begins with a long account of Obama’s 2013 decision not to intervene in Syria after the Assad regime was found to have used chemical weapons. Like John F. Kennedy when he refused to send combat troops to South Vietnam and start a major war there in 1961—as I have shown in American Tragedy—Obama reached that decision against the advice of nearly all of his senior advisers, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who insisted that he had no option but to enforce the “red line” that he had laid down. Obama later explained his decision to Goldberg in words that echoed Bacevich. “Where am I controversial?” he said. “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. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. 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.”
The restraint Obama showed over Syria reflects a broader sense of the limitations of US power that comes up again and again. While he completely rejects isolationism and believes that only the United States can set a truly international agenda, he does not want an all-encompassing one. “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery,” he said. “We have to choose where we can make a real impact . . . There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.” That last sentence is a direct slap in the face of his U.N. Ambassador, the academic Samantha Power, whose book, A Problem from Hell, argued that the US could and should stop genocide anywhere in the world, but the President obviously trusts his own opinion. The President also spoke realistically about the balance of forces in Syria, where the foreign policy establishment and interventionists like John McCain have assumed from the beginning that the US could transform the situation by standing up mythical groups of pro-US rebels. “When you have a professional army,” he said to Goldberg, “that is well armed and sponsored by two large states [Iran and Russia] who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict …The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”
In Syria the President disappointed Sunni allies in the Middle East and the government of France, but at another point in the interview, he echoed JFK once again talking about the importance of allied support. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris . . . .We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.” Kennedy in the same way argued in 1961 that the United States should not intervene in Laos or South Vietnam without the support of major European allies. Johnson, faced with the same situation, concluded that the allies were simply wrong. Different attitudes towards allied support also distinguished the foreign policies of the first President Bush from the second.
And Obama, has taken positive steps that defy the traditional consensus on specific points of foreign policy. Both the Iran nuclear deal and the resumption of relations with Cuba went against conventional foreign policy wisdom and drew heavy opposition. Privately he also questions whether nations like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are truly allies of the United States, and he obviously has grave reservations about the policies of the Israeli government, but those views have not fundamentally changed American foreign policy on his watch.
The President also has a sense of history and an ability to put the news of the day in perspective—a talent that has been lacking among bureaucrats, military leaders, politicians and pundits since 9/11. “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told Goldberg. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Regarding the Middle East, he was evidently seduced into optimism by the Arab spring protests in 2011, and he demanded the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which has had disastrous consequences. Now he has become more skeptical—even about the Turkish government, which he once viewed as a model—but he still looks to some “reformation” of Islam to bring the region into the modern world. He also deeply and frankly regrets the intervention in Libya, which Secretary of State Clinton talked him into, because it reduced another Middle Eastern nation to chaos and opened up another opportunity for ISIS. He resisted the calls of his second Secretary of State, John Kerry, to take military action in Syria simply to demonstrate American credibility, the shibboleth that led the US (and Kerry himself) into Vietnam and kept us there for many years.
Nor is this all. The President has kept the threat of ISIS to the US in perspective. “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told Goldberg. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” He has remarked that more people drown in bathtubs in the US than are killed by terrorists. His cool rhetoric is reminiscent of another one of his heroes, Dwight Eisenhower, who refused in the late 1950s to become alarmed about a “missile gap” which he had excellent reasons to believe did not exist. Obama also thinks that the US has to focus more on the more functional parts of the Third World, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America, rather than focus exclusively on the Middle East. And in that region itself, he seems to understand that the Sunni-Shi’ite regional war that is being fueled by Iran and Saudi Arabia is the critical problem tearing the region apart, and that it has to be resolved by those nations themselves. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he says. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East
The President has also thought long and hard about the other great powers of the world. While he believes Putin’s Russia is on a dysfunctional course, he also told Goldberg bluntly that Ukraine is of vital importance to Russia, but not to the United States, and that we cannot therefore expect our wishes to prevail there. He also said that the United States will be less threatened by a thriving China than by a China in turmoil, a position with which I agree.
Exactly how Obama developed his iconoclastic views remains something of a mystery. The President lived in Indonesia as a child, but that was a long time ago, and that seems to be the only time in which he immersed himself in a foreign culture. He does not seem to care much about Europe. Goldberg does not seem to have asked him what books have influenced him, and he does not volunteer any answers. But he has thought very carefully about the interplay of long- and short-term factors in history and his sense of the limitations of US power is, in my opinion, far above average for an American political leader.
What, then, is missing?
Skeptical though he is, the President may still be too optimistic. He clearly believes that the world as a whole is on a path to progress, and that movements like ISIS are an unfortunate detour, provoked by economic and cultural turmoil, that will not change the course of history if we keep our heads. He rejects Samuel Huntington’s idea of a clash of civilizations, even though he knows from his own experience that Islam is much more traditional and conservative even in Indonesia, where he lived, than it was fifty years ago. Believing as I do that world civilization reshapes itself every eighty years or so, and that change does not always point in the same direction, I am not so hopeful. The question of how we will deal with the Muslim world if it becomes increasingly radicalized remains open. Europe faced that challenge from the 15th through the 17th centuries, and I believe western civilization could again, but we have no blueprint for doing so.
Even in the short run, though, Obama in practice has been a disappointment in two critical ways. To begin with, as he freely admits, he has not consistently followed his own instincts. In 2009 he allowed the Pentagon to talk him into escalating in Afghanistan, and in 2012 he let Hillary Clinton persuade him to strike at Qadaffi. Both decisions had fateful consequences and helped keep American policy in the Middle East on the same fundamentally counterproductive course. He will leave both of those problems to his successor.
The second problem is more general and more serious. Because he has been inconsistent—and because he has been reticent in most of his public statements—Obama has not sold an alternative vision of American foreign policy to the American people, much less to our political and foreign policy establishment. In No End Save Victory I documented how Franklin Roosevelt, beginning in 1937, reshaped his fellow citizens’ views of the threats the nation faced and the proper responses to them. Kennedy put forth a new vision of US foreign policy in his last year in office, calling for true peace instead of confrontation, and Nixon did something similar during his first term. Ronald Reagan, of course, carefully restored the atmosphere of the Cold War. But Obama has not tried to reshape American attitudes in a sustained manner. He obviously feels responsible for what he has done—but he is willing to leave the future to others, and specifically to Hillary Clinton, who showed clearly during her time as his Secretary of State that she shares the traditional postwar assumptions of U.S. foreign policy. That will make Obama’s legacy rather fleeting. Unless Bernie Sanders manages to secure the nomination and win the election as President, it is extremely likely, in my opinion, that the US will be involved in another major military action in the Middle East by 2019. New excuses will inevitably arise, and the impulses which Bacevich documented and Obama chose to reject will triumph once again.
By the time I had finished Goldberg’s article I had begun to think of one of my favorite historical passages. It comes from George F. Kennan, perhaps the greatest diplomatic thinker the US has ever produced, who was also skeptical about the assumptions of postwar American foreign policy and our ability to move history in our preferred direction. Kennan in the second volume of his memoirs gave a lengthy and moving account of his dismissal from the Foreign Service by John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, who, Kennan argued, had to get rid of him to distance himself from the containment policy Kennan had explained to the American people—all the more so since Dulles, though he had attacked the idea of containment, knew that he would have no alternative but to continue the policy. That in 1953 brought Kennan’s formal careers to an end, but the Administration continued to consult him from time to time. After telling this story, Kennan shared some most interesting observations about Eisenhower, who in my opinion was the President that Obama most wanted to emulate. And indeed, Obama, like Eisenhower, would have been far more effective when the nation was winding down from one of its great crises, rather than in the midst of one. Kennan’s appreciation of Eisenhower’s personal qualities and of his impact upon our history has stood the test of time, and while Eisenhower and Obama differ in many ways, certain critical similarities outweigh the differences. Someday, if serious history survives, I suspect that a sensitive historian will see Obama in somewhat the same way.
“Dwight Eisenhower,” wrote Kennan, “was in fact, and remains in the light of history, one of the most enigmatic figures of American public life. Few Americans have ever had more liberally bestowed upon them the responsibility of command, and few have ever evinced a greater aversion to commanding. His view of the presidency resembled more closely the traditional pattern of the European head of state than that of his own country. In manner as well as in concept of the presidential office—the concept of the President, that is, as the supreme mediator, above politics, reconciling people, bringing them together, assisting them to achieve consensus, softening the asperities—he would have made an excellent crowned head. . .
“For all these reasons, there was a tendency in some quarters to view Dwight Eisenhower as an intellectually and politically superficial person whom chance, and the traditional love of the American voter for the military uniform, had tossed to the apex of American political life. The impression was quite erroneous. He was actually a man of keen political intelligence and penetration, particularly when it came to foreign affairs. Whether he used this understanding effectively is another question; but he had it. When he spoke of such matters seriously and in a protected official circle, insights of a high order flashed out time after time through the curious military gobbledygook in which he was accustomed both to expressing and to concealing his thoughts. In his grasp of world realities he was clearly head and shoulders (this required, admittedly, no very great elevation) above the other members of his cabinet and official circle, with the possible exception of Foster Dulles, and even here he was in no wise inferior.
“Dwight Eisenhower’s difficulties lay not in the absence of intellectual powers but in the unwillingness to employ them except on the rarest of occasions. Whether this curious combination of qualities—this reluctance to exert authority, this intellectual evasiveness, this dislike of discussing serious things except in the most formal governmental context, this tendency to seek refuge in the inanities of the popular sport—whether this came from laziness, from underestimation of himself, or from the concept he entertained of his proper role as President, I would not know. But it is my impression that he was a man who, given the high office he occupied, could have done a great deal more than he did.”