National Security & Defense

The World According to O, Part I

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)
A critique of Obama’s critique of the world and himself

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has had several interviews with President Obama. These interviews have concerned foreign policy, and America’s place in the world. Goldberg has now written a big, magisterial piece, conveying what Obama thinks. And how this president judges his own presidency. (Positively!)

Obama says a number of thoughtful and sensible things. I will not concentrate on them in this column. I will concentrate — you’ll forgive me — on some other things.

‐“The president,” writes Goldberg, “believes that Churchillian rhetoric and, more to the point, Churchillian habits of thought, helped bring his predecessor, George W. Bush, to ruinous war in Iraq. Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he was not seeking new dragons to slay.”

Unfortunately, dragons often seek you out. And you can slay them, deny their existence, temporize with them — there are options. Often, the drama comes down to: slay or be torched.

As for Churchill, the world was pretty fortunate to have him, I think. And I have a memory of Zell Miller, the veteran Georgia Democrat. About George W. Bush, he said, “This is a president who has some Churchill in him and who does not flinch when the going gets tough.” Miller is a very different kind of Democrat from Obama.

Now there is the matter of Bush’s “ruinous war in Iraq.” In my view, Obama’s handling of Iraq was ruinous. Indeed, one of the worst things about his presidency. I think he petulantly wanted to wash his hands of that country, and American sacrifices there.

And we have been, of course, drawn back in.

‐Goldberg writes, “Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of ‘credibility’ — particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force.”

It’s wrong to make a fetish of anything, I guess. But the importance of credibility in world affairs is fundamental. If a president doesn’t quite buy this concept, or get it, that is a problem.

But say this for Obama: He has not made credibility a fetish, by a long shot. If his aim was to put a dent in credibility: mission accomplished.

‐Obama drew a red line in Syria. Then he shrank from it. Here is Goldberg:

… the president had grown queasy. In the days after the gassing of Ghouta, Obama would later tell me, he found himself recoiling from the idea of an attack unsanctioned by international law or by Congress. The American people seemed unenthusiastic about a Syria intervention; so too did one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She told him that her country would not participate in a Syria campaign. And in a stunning development, on Thursday, August 29, the British Parliament denied David Cameron its blessing for an attack.

1. Setting international law aside, Obama was worried about a lack of sanction by Congress? Mr. Unilateral? President Unilateral? Mr. Executive Order? Mr. “Congress? What Congress?” Amazing.

2. The American people seemed unenthusiastic? Okay — but a job of leadership is to persuade. It is to try to make people understand why something is important. It is, in short, to lead.

Plus, “the people” hire you to make some tough decisions.

One more thing: How did Obama, or anyone else, know that the American people (there are a lot of them) “seemed unenthusiastic”? A poll?

3. I am reminded of Michael Gove, after that parliamentary vote. He was then education minister. (Now he is justice minister.) The victorious MPs were cheering wildly. They were jubilant at having blocked action in Syria. Gove shouted at them, “You’re a disgrace!”

Later, he explained, “There were Labour MPs cheering as though it were a football match and they’d just won, and at the same time on the news we were hearing about an attack on a school in Syria. The death toll there was rising and the incongruity of Labour MPs celebrating as children had been killed by a ruthless dictator got to me.”

‐Jeffrey Goldberg quotes a very interesting observation by Abdullah II, King of Jordan: “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.”

‐To say it again, Obama drew back from his red line in Syria. “I’m very proud of this moment,” he told Goldberg.

I can understand thinking, “It was the right thing to do, grim a decision as it was to make. A hard thing to swallow, given the carnage in Syria. But, in the end, I thought it was the right thing to do. The non-action was right.”

But proud? Really? Nay, very proud? “I’m very proud of this moment”?

There is all too much pride among us humans, and not enough humility.


‐As Goldberg’s article proves, there is one thing Obama is entirely certain of (apart from his own ability): the grave threat that climate change poses to the earth.

This conviction has long puzzled me. I believe that people will look back on our era as one of mass hysteria, where climate change is concerned. Mass hysteria, fear-mongering, and falsification. It could be, however, that the alarmists will be proven right.

Wish I could know …

‐Here is Goldberg: Obama “has come to learn, he told me, that very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership.”

I’m reminded a little of Jimmy Carter, and his dawning understanding of the Soviets. This was after their invasion of Afghanistan.

‐Obama told Goldberg, “For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world. If you compare us to previous superpowers, we act less on the basis of naked self-interest, and have been interested in establishing norms that benefit everyone. If it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it.”

You know, I’m a little surprised at this statement of Obama’s. (No offense.) I’m impressed. I doubt that Obama’s profs and classmates at Columbia U, or elsewhere, would approve. What would Said say?

Anyway, good.

‐Writes Goldberg, “If Obama ever questioned whether America really is the world’s one indispensable nation, he no longer does so. But he is the rare president who seems at times to resent indispensability, rather than embrace it.”

Interesting. My guess is, most presidents lament American responsibility at one time or another — their equivalent of “white man’s burden.” (How redolent, or odorous, that phrase is.)

‐Goldberg: “Those who speak with Obama about jihadist thought say that he possesses a no-illusions understanding of the forces that drive apocalyptic violence among radical Muslims, but he has been careful about articulating that publicly, out of concern that he will exacerbate anti-Muslim xenophobia.”

I have my doubts about this no-illusions understanding (i.e., I doubt whether our president has it). But, good. Glad to know. As for this extreme gingerliness about Islamophobia: I think it’s both unnecessary and insulting.

What’s more, I think a Muslim has more cultural protection, so to speak, than a Jew. And the statistics — “hate crimes” statistics — bear it out.

‐Nowhere is Obama more misguided, I think, than in his understanding of the scope of the Muslim problem. Listen to him: “There is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction — a tiny faction — within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.”

I grant you that a tiny portion — a teeny-tiny portion — of Muslims carry out atrocities: fly planes into buildings and so on. If that were the extent of our problem, we would have a happily manageable problem.

But a huge portion of Muslims either cheer on, defend, excuse, or don’t mind the tiny portion. And that is our problem.

#related#After 9/11, on television, I saw those hijab-wearing women, all over the Muslim world, ululating their lungs out, more thrilled than they would be if their son won the Nobel Peace Prize.

There are a lot of those women (not to mention the men). They would probably never murder anyone, with their own hands. But when others do — they ululate their brains out. Or quietly approve. Or don’t mind terribly.

You get the picture.

Why was Salah Abdeslam, from the Paris attacks, able to hide out for so long in that Brussels suburb? Because his neighbors were his fellow terrorists and murderers? No. Because they sympathized.

That is our problem.

I congratulate Jeffrey Goldberg on his superb interviews, and President Obama for sitting for them. And I’ll continue these sometimes sniffy or grudging notes tomorrow.


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