Editor’s Note: President Obama has sat for several interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. These interviews have concerned the president’s worldview. Goldberg wrote them up here. Jay Nordlinger has been commenting on them. Part I of his notes is here. The series concludes today.
I think even anti-Obamites have to smile at a certain line from him. As Goldberg points out, presidential travel is a “massive military operation.” And early in his first term, Obama “noted ruefully to aides, ‘I have the world’s largest carbon footprint.’”
‐I was taken aback by something Obama said. Let me quote it: “When I came into office, at the first Summit of the Americas that I attended, Hugo Chávez was still the dominant figure in the conversation. We made a very strategic decision early on, which was, rather than blow him up as this ten-foot giant adversary, to right-size the problem and say, ‘We don’t like what’s going on in Venezuela, but it’s not a threat to the United States.’”
By this, does Obama mean that his predecessor, George W. Bush, “wrong-sized” the problem? If so, he is dead-mistaken.
Let me quote John Negroponte, in an interview with me (2009). Negroponte, you recall, was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Bush, and later the director of national intelligence. “I think one of the great things Mr. Bush did was not give Hugo Chávez the satisfaction of reacting to his various provocations. My sense is that that bothered Chávez. I don’t think Mr. Bush ever mentioned his name, frankly.”
Many of us Obama critics have long noted: One of the worst things about him is that he thinks, or gives the impression that he thinks, that the world began with him. Avant lui, rien, or simply darkness.
‐Obama: “The truth is, actually, Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank. Our meetings are very businesslike. He never keeps me waiting two hours like he does a bunch of these other folks.”
Well, a high compliment! A head of state does not make the American president wait two hours? Maybe just an hour instead?!
‐Obama: “I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force.”
President Bush did not rush into Afghanistan. He gave the Taliban — i.e., the Afghan government — every opportunity to cough up al-Qaeda, the attackers on 9/11. The Taliban refused. Bush went in.
In the months leading up to the Iraq War, Bush said, over and over, that he had to weigh the “risks of action and the risks of inaction.” This was hard, and necessary. He did it. And finally decided that the risks of inaction outweighed the risks of action.
I would have thought that seven years as president would have matured Obama about Bush, and the problems faced by a president. But he still talks like a grad student, occasionally.
Bush would have preferred to avoid the Afghan War, obviously. The Taliban was unyielding. Bush would have preferred to avoid the Iraq War, obviously. Saddam Hussein was unyielding. He refused to let inspectors in. Etc.
A big topic …
‐Obama: “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”
Jeffrey Goldberg asked whether this was realistic or fatalistic.
“It’s realistic,” Obama said. “But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.”
Well, there is not much ambiguity in Obama. He has told Ukrainians that, essentially, they are on their own. They don’t belong to NATO, after all.
Also, isn’t there some room between war against Russia and doing zero for the Ukrainians? Obama is a great setter-up of false choices.
Concerning this matter of ambiguity, a memory: The United States had long had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” about China and Taiwan. Would America come to Taiwan’s defense, if China attacked Taiwan? The U.S. had always tried to blur that.
Early in his first term, George W. Bush said yes: We would defend Taiwan.
I asked one of his key national-security aides, “Did Bush mean to change American policy or did he simply make a mistake, in speaking?”
The aide fixed me with a look — a twinkle in his eyes — and borrowed from an old advertising slogan: “Only his hairdresser knows for sure.”
‐Nothing that Obama told Goldberg repulsed me more than his words on Indochina. Maybe I have misunderstood them. I hope so. Anyway, I will quote them:
“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 could write reams, but let me offer one simple memory — of Vernon Walters, speaking to a bunch of students (including me). He said approximately this:
“For over ten years, bombs rained down on every village and hamlet in South Vietnam, and no one budged. No one moved. It took the coming of a Communist ‘peace’ to send hundreds of thousands of people out into the South China Sea, on anything that could float, or might float, to risk dehydration, piracy, drowning — everything.”
Moving on …
‐“When you think of the military actions that Reagan took, you have Grenada — which is hard to argue helped our ability to shape world events, although it was good politics for him back home.”
That was Obama, to Goldberg. He obviously thinks that Reagan took action in Grenada for selfish political reasons. Others of us think that Reagan checked the Soviets and their Cuban and other proxies in the Caribbean — which was good for mankind (starting with the Grenadians).
How the hell did we get a president who sounds like Ron Dellums (who adored the Marxist junta on Grenada)?
‐Obama: “You have the Iran-Contra affair, in which we supported right-wing paramilitaries and did nothing to enhance our image in Central America, and it wasn’t successful at all.”
Oh, is that what the Contras were, right-wing paramilitaries? Can Obama ever grant that people who oppose Communists, and are even willing to fight them, are democrats? Has he ever met a Contra, by the way?
Reagan said, “I’m a Contra, too.” Much of the world hooted. They can hoot at me, too.
In Central America, the Reagan administration worked against both the extreme Left and the extreme Right. And for democracy.
Take El Salvador as an example. On the left were the FMLN. On the right were ARENA. I believe we put our thumb on the scale of an election, which is unsettling. But possibly justifiable. Consider Italy after the war.
José Napoleón Duarte and his party were the democrats in El Salvador. I remember a startling moment in 1987 — when, on the White House lawn, Duarte kissed the American flag. He had dodged a lot of bullets, left and right. Reagan said on that occasion, “If peace is to prevail, so must democracy.”
Was the Gipper a “neocon,” by the way?
The Left is loath to give Reagan credit for anything, sure. But one of his administration’s most unsung achievements, I think, is Central America, and Latin America more broadly. The Reaganites were invaluable in helping Latin America democratize.
Here is Reagan, speaking to students at Moscow State University in 1988: “The growth of democracy has become one of the most powerful political movements of our age. In Latin America in the 1970s, only a third of the population lived under democratic government; today over 90 percent does.”
Obama’s view of Central America is exactly the view I was taught, by the leftists who taught me. But reality opened my eyes. Obama’s?
Is his view any different from that of CISPES, or the Christic Institute? What did he think of those outfits at the time? What does he think of them even now?
Incidentally, Obama called Hugo Chávez “mi amigo” — to his face, I mean. Chávez was no amigo of any democrat.
‐“Now, I actually think that Ronald Reagan had a great success in foreign policy,” said Obama, “which was to recognize the opportunity that Gorbachev presented and to engage in extensive diplomacy — which was roundly criticized by some of the same people who now use Ronald Reagan to promote the notion that we should go around bombing people.”
Oh, dear. Let’s review the basics.
Ronald Reagan was one of the most important anti-Communists in history. He dedicated much of his life to fighting Communism, beginning with his days in Hollywood, where he was a union leader. For decades, the Soviet Union had no more determined foe.
When he became president, he rebuilt the American military. He backed anti-Communist rebels all over the world (in the “Reagan Doctrine,” which was meant to oppose the “Brezhnev Doctrine”). He denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” He installed cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. He launched SDI. He refused to bargain it away.
He harassed the Soviet Union night and day, in every way conceivable: military, economic, diplomatic, cultural, you name it.
And the Left opposed him every step of the way, damning him at every turn, saying that he was a maniac who would incinerate the world.
I’ll give you a tidbit from the ’84 campaign: Mondale said over and over, “Reagan is the only American president to fail to meet with his Soviet counterpart.” (Reagan: “They kept dying on me.”)
Yes, Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev in the second term. But everything he had done as president, and in the arc of his life, really, paved the way to that moment. Made it possible. (The advent of Gorbachev was critical too, no doubt.)
And if Barack Obama had had his way? A U.S. military buildup? The arming of anti-Communist rebels? “Euromissiles”? SDI? And so on? Never, ever, ever.
‐Goldberg writes, “Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests.”
How might that be? Because we wish it weren’t? Unfortunately, nations don’t get to choose what is important to their interests.
I myself wish that Obama were right — that the Middle East were no longer terribly important to our interests. People like me are sometimes accused of wanting to be entangled in the Middle East. But believe me: If we had our way, we would never hear about that sad region again.
You remember the old line about war — that you may not like it, but it likes you. By the same token, you may not be interested in the Middle East. But the Middle East, maddeningly, is interested in you.
We can try to wash our hands of the Middle East. But this will only get us dirtier later, I’m afraid.
‐Goldberg writes that George W. Bush “will be remembered harshly for the things he did in the Middle East.” I don’t know about that. It may depend on who’s doing the remembering. The interpreting.
Even as lengthy a piece as Goldberg’s cannot include everything. There is one issue I would have liked to see addressed: Obama’s handling, or mishandling, of Iraq. Did he “lose” Iraq? Was he handed a favorable and grindingly earned situation that he then tossed away, because he did not want to be associated with “George W. Bush’s war”? Did he want to get out of Iraq more than he wanted to secure the gains of the previous years?
I will say once more: Good for President Obama for sitting for these interviews. And good for Jeffrey Goldberg for conducting them, and writing them up so well.