In a meandering and often self-indulgent 19,000 word article published in Atlantic Magazine, President Obama’s favorite personal journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, offers a spirited and unapologetic defense and justification of the president’s notoriously risk-averse foreign policy. The article is a convoluted review of how the policy evolved during Obama’s seven years in office as he resisted further US involvement in foreign wars which Obama says are not critical to US national interests.
Goldberg is not a neutral observer. He has interviewed Obama many times since first meeting him as a US Senator in 2006. He writes that he has admired Obama’s grasp of foreign policy since reading a speech he delivered at an anti-Iraq war rally in Chicago in 2002, when Obama was still an obscure member of the Illinois state senate.
The article in the Atlantic focuses on the thinking which led to Obama backing down in 2013 after drawing a red line in the sand against the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad. After condemning Assad for using sarin poison gas to kill more than 1,400 civilians in an opposition-held Damascus suburb, Obama did nothing.
Goldberg describes how Obama’s resistance to calls from his inner circle of advisors for direct intervention in Syria grew as the civil war deepened and spread chaos and death across the region over the past five years.
Dennis Ross, a White House adviser on Syrian during Obama’s first term, is quoted as saying that during the early months of the civil war, the president accepted the assessment of the intelligence community that Assad’s regime would collapse in the face of growing domestic opposition in the same way that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s did in early 2011.
At first, Obama was assured that US military help for the Syrian rebels was unnecessary. By the time it became clear that Assad would not be disposed without the rebels receiving more outside help, Obama had decided that the risks of intervention outweighed the benefits to US national interests, especially while the US was still engaged in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
WEAK OBAMA RESPONSE IN SYRIA LED TO THE RISE OF ISIS
Early in his first term, Obama defied the demands for US intervention by Samantha Powers, then a member of his National Security Council, and later the US Ambassador to the United Nations, in order to prevent a genocidal humanitarian disaster. Her calls were later seconded by Obama’s first term secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, as well as then-CIA director David Petraeus and defense secretary Leon Panetta when UN attempts to reach a negotiated a settlement collapsed in mid-2012.
Goldberg cited his conversation with Clinton in 2014, a year after she stepped down as secretary of state, in which she regretted “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
Goldberg says Obama views the war against ISIS as the only new US military involvement in the Middle East which is justified by US national security interests. Even that has been limited because Obama says that “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States.”
Goldberg depicts Obama’s response to the ISIS’s threat to the US homeland as a distraction from issues which the president considers to be more important to the country’s long term interests. These include a vigorous response to the supposed threat from climate change and Obama’s long promised US “pivot” towards its allies in the Asian-Pacific. Obama prefers to focus on responses to the increasingly aggressive actions from China and its client state, North Korea intended to intimidate their neighbors.
Goldberg praises “a set of potentially historic foreign policy achievements” late in Obama’s presidency, including “the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal.” They remain highly controversial and are still subject to the judgement of history.
OBAMA’S CONTRADICTORY FOREIGN POLICY
The article says Obama “has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events,” even as he pushed through his latest accomplishments in defiance of opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress and even some members of his own administration. He tried to explain away the “apparent contradiction” in Obama’s conviction that the US “can’t fix everything,” while at the same time believing that, “if we don’t set the [international] agenda, it doesn’t happen.”
Obama insisted to Goldberg that he is still “very much the internationalists,” despite the failures of his foreign policy to meet declared goals, such as the overthrow of the Assad regime.
Obama is unconcerned about the negative impression that his about-face on attacking Syria had on US allies around the world. Saudi Arabia and Japan were among several that concluded that they could no longer rely on US guarantees of military protection from attack by their enemies. They are now pursuing their own defense arrangements against attacks by rogue states such as Iran and North Korea by forming new regional alliances. In an effort to dissuade these US allies from developing their own nuclear weapons capability in the wake of the Iran deal, Obama has expanded shipments of sophisticated US arms to countries across the region which feel threatened by Iran.
WHY OBAMA DECIDED NOT TO ATTACK ASSAD
Obama publicly endorsed the initial statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that the US would attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons. Even Vice President Joe Biden, who usually counseled caution about new military involvements, argued that the US was committed to act against Syria and must not turn back, because, “big nations don’t bluff.”
Goldberg describes the series of events and decisions which caused Obama to second-guess that decision. These include a warning by James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, that the intelligence about Syria’s use of “sarin gas,” while “robust,” was not a “slam dunk,” recalling the false assurance by CIA director George Tenet about the presence of weapons of mass destruction which prompted George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003.
He was also influenced by the decision of the British Parliament to withhold permission for Prime Minister David Cameron to participate in an attack on Syria, adding to Obama’s doubts that the American public would support such a strike.
Obama was aware that Pentagon plans for the strike on Syria would not target the chemical weapons depots themselves, but rather the Syrian delivery systems. Neither was the attack intended to force Assad from power. As Kerry indicated, it was intended to be a token military strike, which would leave Assad in possession of his chemical weapons, and capable of using them for further mischief.
If Obama had struck back in the immediate wake of the chemical attack, as had been expected, the American people and Congress would have supported the decision. The longer he delayed, the more doubts were raised, not only about the wisdom of the retaliation, but also the resolve of the US to fulfill its role as the leader of the free world, which Obama claims he still supports.
Goldberg believes that August 30, 2013, the day Obama decided not to attack Syria, will be recorded in history either as the day when Obama eliminated the threat of another chemical attack on Israel, Turkey or Jordan, and avoided US involvement in another unnecessary Middle East war, or the day when the Middle East was allowed “to slip from America’s grasp” and “turned over into the hands of Russia, Iran and ISIS.”
KERRY WAS LEFT OUT ON A LIMB
Obama failed to confide his doubts to Kerry, whose initial reaction to the about-face was to conclude that his trust in Obama had been betrayed. The feeling that it was a major blow to US credibility was shared by Panetta, Mrs. Clinton and two Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, with whom Obama had confided his initial attack plans, as well as several US allies in the region and around the world.
Kerry eventually convinced himself that Obama’s decision to accept Putin’s deal to eliminate the chemical weapons was the right choice. Kerry is still advocating for a more aggressive US military stance against the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, to promote progress in the restarted Syrian peace talks. Goldberg reports that this has prompted Obama to issue an order forbidding Kerry, or anyone else in the administration outside the Pentagon, from proposing any further US military action in Syria.
Obama told Goldbertg that he had always believed that the idea promoted by some of his advisors that a little bit of US help for a Syrian opposition made up largely of former civilians “could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit US military forces, changed the equation on the ground there, was never true.” That is because the Syrian rebels are up against “a professional army that is well armed and sponsored by two large state, Iran and Russia, who have huge stakes in this.”
US ALLIES FELT THEY HAD BEEN DOUBLE CROSSED
Manuel Valls, prime minister of France, later told Goldberg, “By not intervening early, we have created a monster. We were absolutely certain that the US administration would say yes. Working with the Americans, we had already seen the targets. It was a great surprise. If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.”
The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who was already upset with Obama for “abandoning” Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and demanding that he step down in the face of Arab Spring street protests, declared Obama to be “untrustworthy” as an ally. Even King Abdullah II of Jordan complained privately in the wake of the about-face over attacking Syria, “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.”
OBAMA’S “COMPLICATED” ATTITUDE TO THE SAUDIS
In his interviews with Goldberg, Obama admitted that he has long questioned the value of the US alliance with Saudi Arabia. He began calling them a “so-called ally” of the US long before he became president. Obama objected to Saudi support of Wahhabi fundamentalism through sponsoring its schools and mosques in Muslim communities around the world, including the US, as well as the strict enforcement of Islamic practices in Saudi society.
The Saudis were deeply disturbed by Obama’s attempts, early in his administration to reach out to the leaders of Iran, their main regional rival. They were upset when he rejected private calls by Saudi leaders for US military strikes on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In September, 2012, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, reported back to his government in Riyadh that Obama’s decision to cancel the retaliatory strike against Assad meant that, “Iran is the new great power of the Middle East, and the US is the old.”
During last November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Manila, Obama complained to Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister of Australia, about formerly open-minded majority Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, which are adopting Islamic fundamentalist practices.
When Turnbull asked Obama why it was this happening, he replied that the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have been funding fundamentalist madrassas (schools) and imams throughout the Islamic world.
Turnbull then asked Obama, “Aren’t the Saudis your friends?”
Obama smiled and replied ruefully, “It’s complicated.”
OBAMA THREW ASSAD A LIFELINE
Many other regional leaders share the Saudi assessment of America’s declining influence, especially after Obama turned to Russian president Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit in St. Petersburg a week after the poison gas incident came to light, and asked him to broker a deal with Assad to give up his chemical weapons in response for a US promise not to attack. The deal was a lifeline Obama had thrown to Assad keeping him in power, and it undermined US influence around the world. Putin later exploited Obama’s weakness and indecision by annexing the Crimea and staging a proxy invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Ironically, the only leader who welcomed the Moscow-brokered deal with Assad was Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, who told Goldberg that the peaceful elimination of most of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile was “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”
OBAMA’S FAILED CAIRO SPEECH TO THE MUSLIM WORLD
The hostile relationship between Obama and Netanyahu began when Obama bypassed Israel during his first visit to the Middle East, and went begging forgiveness from the Muslim world in a speech he delivered at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.
Obama says he considers that speech to be a failure because it did not inspire Muslim leaders to “adapt their religious doctrines to modernity,” or to “communicate that the US is not standing in the way of this progress, that we would help, in whatever way possible, to advance the goals of a practical, successful Arab agenda that provided a better life for ordinary people.”
Obama said his goal was “to persuade Muslims to more closely examine the roots of their unhappiness. My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel. We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting.”
CRITICIZING OTHER US ALLIES
Obama says he is frustrated by his failure to elicit the desired reaction from Middle East leaders. He felt that he did everything right in orchestrating the US-led NATO campaign to protect the Libyan people from their leader, Muammar Gaddafi, but Libya fell apart as a country soon after Gaddafi was ousted. According to Goldberg, Obama blamed the chaos in Libya on the French for failing to work to stabilize the country, and on British Prime Minister David Cameron for getting “distracted by a range of other things.”
The White House quickly retracted the accusation after a storm of protest erupted in the British media. Obama’s spokesman issued a statement Friday claiming that “President Obama values deeply the special relationship between the United States and our allies in the U.K.” Goldberg noted that Obama had previously warned the British that the “special relationship” would be ended if the English government did not agree to spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. These “free riders aggravate me,” Obama told Goldberg, referring to all US allies who do not pay what Obama believes is a fair share of the cost of their defense.
The White House did not challenge the article’s assertion that Obama was critical of then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy for claiming credit for the French air campaign in Libya after the US did the hard work of wiping out Libya’s air defenses, and Obama’s criticism of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for failing to deploy Turkish troops to end the fighting in Syria.
A SAUDI RESPONSE
Price Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, took strong exception to Obama’s comments, including his characterization of US allies as “free riders,” and his suggestion that the Saudis will need to learn to “share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold piece with Iran.” In a published letter, Turki noted that the Saudis have formed their own “Islamic military alliance” to fight terrorism in Syria and Yemen, in addition to its large contributions to humanitarian relief efforts for Syrian refugees.
The fact that the letter was published in English and directly addressed at Obama’s criticism makes it clear that it was aimed at an American audience. While the Saudi government had no official comment, the negative opinions of Obama expressed by the letter are widely shared by other Saudis who are awaiting the next US president.
NETANYAHU IS IN A CATEGORY OF HIS OWN
According to Goldberg, Obama’s deepest disappointment was with Netanyahu, who is in a “category” all its own.
“Obama has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so,” Goldberg wrote. When Netanyahu began to lecture Obama during one of their White House meetings about the dangers Israel faces in the region, Obama cut him off, saying, “Bibi, you have to understand something. I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.”
MK Michael Oren, who was Israel’s ambassador to the US at the time and who accompanied Netanyahu on that visit to the White House, told Israel Army Radio that the alleged conversation between Obama and Netanyahu did not take place.
Goldberg says that according to Obama’s former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, the president has also questioned why the US should continue to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge by providing more sophisticated weapons systems to Israel than to America’s Arab allies.
The Obama administration has been very generous with defensive help for Israel, helping fund the development and deployment of the Iron Dome missile defense system which proved its effectiveness during the war with Hamas in Gaza in the summer of 2014. But the US has been much less forthcoming in providing Israel with offensive weapons, especially those which would enable Israel to launch an air attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
A REASON WHY NETANYAHU CANCELED HIS WHITE HOUSE VISIT
In an effort to mend fences with supporters of Israel after the bitter political fight last summer over the Iran nuclear deal, Obama promised to increase US military aid to Israel, which has long been set at about $3 billion a year. The current 10-year US military aid agreement expires in 2018. The Obama administration has reportedly offered to increase that figure to $4 billion, but Israeli military experts say that they will need $5 billion annually to meet the increased threats from Iran, ISIS and other enemies in the region.
Re-elected last year, Netanyahu has formed a small but stable coalition, and his position as Israel’s leader seems secure for the foreseeable future, while Obama is a lame duck, with 10 months left in office.
Obama has made it clear that he intends to make diplomatic moves that will keep the pressure on Israel to move forward on a 2-state solution, an option which Netanyahu says he believes is no longer feasible, if it ever was. Presumably, the US is pushing for a quid pro quo in the negotiations with Israel over future aid, in return for Israeli concessions on the peace process.
If Panetta is correct about Obama’s pessimistic attitude toward maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, one way for Netanyahu to circumvent that would be by running out the clock on Obama’s presidency, and taking up the military aid issue with his White House successor. This would explain Netanyahu’s decision earlier this month to turn down an invitation to visit Obama in the White House.
OBAMA QUESTIONING ALL US ALLIANCES
Goldberg points out that Obama has questioned other long-standing alliances which have long served as the base for US foreign-policy thinking, including the close “special relationship” the US has maintained with England since the darkest days of World War II. Obama also reached out to longstanding US enemies, such as Iran, and overthrew half a century of bipartisan consensus in support of the boycott of communist Cuba.
Obama has long questioned the sincerity of Pakistan’s friendship with the US, including its history of providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, necessitating constant raids by armed US drones to kill them. Unfortunately, the US cannot afford to alienate Pakistan, or to further destabilize its government, both because of its strategic position in the region and its arsenal of nuclear weapons, which could fall into the hands of the Islamic terrorist groups which operate openly on Pakistani territory.
ANOTHER EXPLANATION OF OBAMA’S IRAN POLICY
Obama’s persistent attempts to deal with America’s most dangerous Middle East foe, Iran, are most perplexing of all. Goldberg points out that Obama “has bet global security and his own legacy that one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism will adhere to an agreement to curtail its nuclear program.”
He denies the argument “that Obama sought the Iran deal because he has a vision of a historic American-Persian rapprochement.” Goldberg says that Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice told him that, “the Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the US and Iran. It was far more pragmatic and minimalist. The aim was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.”
Obama told Goldberg that he is confident that the nuclear deal with Iran, while not perfect, will be seen in the future as the best option that was available to him at the time. “Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, G-d willing,” Obama told the Atlantic. “If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this. … I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
In January, Goldberg told Obama that former Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and many other people believed that he was bluffing when he threatened, before signing the nuclear deal with Iran, to attack Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. Obama assured him that “I actually would have” attacked Iran “if I saw them break out” and try to build a nuclear weapon because that “was in the category of an American interest” in Obama’s eyes.
FIGHTING ISIS WHILE TOLERATING ASSAD
US officials continue to pay lip service to the demand that Assad must step down from power for there to be a satisfactory end to the Syrian civil war, while continuing to let him dictate the terms of internationally sponsored peace talks. Obama sees the defeat and destruction of ISIS as a much higher national priority. He, of course, refuses to accept his own responsibility for the development of ISIS due to his stubborn refusal to intervene years ago to topple Assad and end the chaos in Syria.
Despite the rise of ISIS, Obama does not see Assad’s continued rule as posing a direct threat to US national security. He is therefore willing to tolerate the continued existence of Assad’s regime rather than precipitate a confrontation over it with Iran and Russia.
Obama also told Goldberg that he does not see Putin as a direct threat to vital US interest. He believes that Putin’s military commitment to keeping Assad in power, as well as his aggressive moves in eastern Ukraine, could overextend the Russian military.
WHY OBAMA WANTS TO TURN HIS BACK ON THE MIDDLE EAST
According to Goldberg, Obama sees America’s relationships with China and other Asian-Pacific countries to be far more important going forward than the Middle East, especially given the major strides the US has made towards energy independence.
Obama believes that the tribal nature of Middle East politics, as demonstrated by the chaos in Libya, Syria and Yemen, makes it very difficult for any American president to do much to improve the situation in the region, and that any attempts to try will exact too high a price measured in the lives of US soldiers.
He is not concerned about the decline in US influence in the Middle East, which is dominated by fundamentalism and sectarianism. Obama believes that there are other places in the world, such as the Asian Pacific, where the US can find partners much more willing to cooperate in pursuing US goals of promoting economic development, education and Western human rights values. Obama firmly believes that despite some recent setbacks, history is bending in that direction.
Goldberg cites Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who says that Obama disagrees with the foreign policy establishment, and holds an opposing view, “which is that overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national security interest.”
OBAMA’S SYRIA POLICY UNDERMINING EUROPE
The long term consequences of Obama’s refusal to intervene to end the civil war in Syria is now having a destabilizing impact on American allies in Europe. By throwing open Germany’s borders to millions of Syrian refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has unleashed a tidal wave of Syrian refugees who threaten to change the ethnic and religious balance across Europe.
Many European countries are already struggling to absorb previous waves of unassimilated immigrants and their descendants. Merkel’s invitation to the Syrian refugees has triggered a backlash among many native citizens of EU countries who feel that their national cultures and way of life are being threatened by the immigrant influx.
The refugees are also a security problem. They are likely camouflaging a stream of ISIS terrorists into Europe. Because there is no way to do a security check on their backgrounds, they are indistinguishable from innocent civilians actually escaping from the chaos in Syria. Once they sink roots in their host countries, they will be able to serve as a terrorist fifth column, ready to carry out strikes on the orders of their ISIS handlers in Syria.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN AFTER OBAMA LEAVES OFFICE?
It is an open question whether Obama’s foreign policies will survive his presidency, even if he is succeeded by Hillary Clinton. For the purposes of the current presidential campaign, Clinton has publicly promised to protect and continue to promote Obama’s progressive domestic policy agenda. Given the serious challenge from the left mounted against her by Bernie Sanders and the activist Democrat voter base, she has had little choice but to adjust her former domestic positions accordingly.
But her commitment to continuing Obama’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East, especially with regard to Syria, is not as clear.
Clinton angered the White House when she was quoted as criticizing Obama for lacking a coherent comprehensive foreign policy. She said that “great nations need organizing principles,” and that Obama’s own summary of his approach “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
For the purposes of the presidential campaign, Clinton and Obama have closed ranks, even on foreign policy. She has publicly endorsed Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and promised Israel’s supporters that as president, she would strictly enforce its safeguards against cheating and will vigorously support Israel’s defense.
The leading Republican candidates have been much more pro-Israel in their campaign rhetoric, but even as Mrs. Clinton portrays herself as a great friend of Israel, some still remember her lengthy, angry telephone confrontation with Netanyahu in 2010 as she protested an announcement of new construction in Ramat Shlomo in Yerushalayim, which Clinton calls a settlement.