by Bret Stephens
Hat tip: Dr. Jean-Charles Bensoussan
A journalist takes a deep dive into the president’s shallow mind. Crises to follow.
Barack Obama—do you remember him?—will remain in office for another 311 days. But not really. The president has left the presidency. The commander in chief is on sabbatical. He spends his time hanging out at a festival in Austin. And with the cast of “Hamilton,” the musical. And with Justin, the tween sensation from Canada.
In his place, an exact look-alike of Mr. Obama is giving interviews to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, interviews that are so gratuitously damaging to long-standing U.S. alliances, international security and Mr. Obama’s reputation as a serious steward of the American interest that the words could not possibly have sprung from the lips of the president himself.
I was a bit late in reading Mr. Goldberg’s long article, “The Obama Doctrine,” which appeared last week and is based on hours of conversation with the president, along with ancillary interviews with John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Manuel Valls of France, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and other boldface names. Kudos to Mr. Goldberg for his level of access, the breadth of his reporting, the sheer volume of juicy quotes and revealing details.
Still, it’s a deep dive into a shallow mind. Mr. Obama’s recipe for Sunni-Shiite harmony in the Middle East? The two sides, says Mr. Obama, “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood,” sounding like Mr. Rogers. The explanation for the “sh— show” (the president’s words) in Libya? “I had more faith in the Europeans,” he says, sounding like my 12-year-old blaming her 6-year-old sister for chores not done. The recipe for better global governance? “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy,” he says, sounding like—Barack Obama.
Then there’s Mr. Obama the political theorist. “Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence,” the president says in connection to Vladimir Putin’s gambles in Ukraine and Syria. That’s true, in a Yoda sort of way. But isn’t seizing foreign territory without anyone doing much to stop you also a form of “real power”? Is dictatorial power fake because it depends on the threat of force?
Elsewhere, Mr. Obama airily dismisses the concept of “credibility” in U.S. foreign policy, noting that Ronald Reagan’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Lebanon after the 1983 Marine barracks bombing didn’t affect U.S. credibility with China or Russia. That’s debatable. But the withdrawal affected our credibility with Iran, which was behind the bombing, and with a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.
“Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place in 1983?” bin Laden asked in his 1996 declaration of war on the U.S., which also cited Bill Clinton’s abrupt withdrawal from Somalia after the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident. “You left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you.”
As for current threats, Mr. Goldberg asks Mr. Obama what he would do if Mr. Putin made a move against Moldova, “another vulnerable post-Soviet state.” Mr. Obama’s answer—“if it’s really important to somebody, and it’s not that important to us, they know that, and we know that”—is of the April Glaspie school of diplomacy. So long, Moldova.
Mr. Goldberg also discloses that Mr. Kerry has begged the president to launch cruise missile strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, for the sake of a little leverage in negotiations. Mr. Obama has brushed the requests away. Mr. Assad can at last rest easy, if he isn’t already.
U.S. allies fare less well under Mr. Obama’s gaze. David Cameron comes in for a scolding on U.K. military spending, as well as for getting “distracted” on Libya. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former and possibly future president of France, is dismissed by Mr. Obama as a posturing braggart. Regarding the president’s commitment to Israel’s security, Mr. Goldberg reports, citing Mr. Panetta, that the president “has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies.”
As for those allies, Mr. Obama treats the Saudis with such naked contempt that it prompted former intelligence minister Turki al- Faisal to denounce the president in an op-ed: “Could it be,” the prince asked, “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?”
Summing up the president’s worldview, Mr. Goldberg describes him as a “Hobbesian optimist”—which philosophically must be the equivalent of a Jew for Jesus. But Mr. Obama has shown that he lacks Hobbes’s understanding that Leviathan must fill the vacuums that will otherwise be filled by an ISIS or a Putin, or an optimist’s belief that American power can shape the world for the better.
The French diplomat Charles de Talleyrand once said of the (restored) Bourbon dynasty that “they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Given the mix of score-settling and delusion on display in this interview, that may well be the president’s foreign policy epitaph, too. Write email@example.com.
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