Obama is still trying to win Washington over to American power as he sees it: limiting military interventions while convening players for peace.
In October 2007, Senator Barack Obama, then a struggling Democratic presidential candidate, stood before a few hundred students at DePaul University in Chicago and delivered a speech that few in the foreign-policy world noticed. Five years after his famous statement against the disastrous Iraq invasion, Obama wanted to do more than remind his audience that he had been right all along, which was of course a useful distinction with his chief rival at the time, Hillary Clinton. He didn’t blame the Iraq War simply on George W. Bush or some neoconservative cabal that had hijacked the government, as many Democrats preferred to believe so as to absolve themselves of responsibility. Instead, Obama delivered a broadside against what he called Washington “groupthink.”
“The American people weren’t just failed by a president,” Obama said. “They were failed by much of Washington. By a media that too often reported spin instead of facts [and] by a foreign-policy elite that largely boarded the bandwagon for war.” For Obama, the mentality that led to Iraq was the most prominent example of a systemic breakdown—the result of a distinct mindset that had dominated U.S. foreign policy for too long.
To drive this point home, Obama delivered the same speech twice more that day. But he drew scant attention; his message barely registered in the next day’s papers. Yet looking back, the DePaul speech was a harbinger. For the past seven years, Obama’s efforts to defy this kind of thinking—and redefine American “strength” and “power” in the world—have proven one of the defining features of his presidency. In many ways, this campaign is more far-reaching than any single accomplishment—bigger than the Iran nuclear deal, or the diplomatic openings to Cuba and Burma, or the rebalance to Asia, or even the recent Paris agreement on climate change. And as Jeffrey Goldberg’s remarkable article makes clear, with only 10 months to go before a new president is sworn in, it is a project that remains incomplete. Obama is still trying to overhaul what he calls the “Washington playbook.” (Full disclosure: I talked with Goldberg several times for this story, and have also sought his advice for my own forthcoming book on Obama’s foreign policy.)
What we see in Goldberg’s story is a president who engages global issues in a way that seems all too uncommon today. At a moment when politics is becoming only more cartoonish and corrosive, Obama’s conversations with Goldberg bring to mind what Colin Powell said in his endorsement of Obama in 2008—that he demonstrates “the kind of calm, patient, intellectual, steady approach to problem-solving I think we need in this country.”
This is Obama unplugged: his skepticism that military force should be the answer to every problem; his perspective that ISIS is a real danger, but not an existential threat; his belief that Russia’s behavior in Ukraine and Syria is ultimately self-defeating; his frustrations with “free rider” allies and suspicions about Arab partners, especially the “complicated” relationship with Saudi Arabia; his conviction that when it comes to solving global problems, the U.S. is flawed but indispensable, and must remain clear-eyed about its limits; his deep optimism about the American people; his low regard for posturing and empty gestures; and, of course, his frustration and genuine puzzlement with what passes as foreign-policy wisdom in Washington.
For those of us who served in the Obama administration, such views ring familiar. They’ve been the themes of a running conversation the president has been having about America’s role in the world, and have infused every decision of his. Although it is not quite right to characterize these themes as a “doctrine”—like most presidents, Obama eschews such all-encompassing frameworks, once remarking that he didn’t need a George Kennan—Obama has a coherent approach to projecting global leadership in an era of seemingly infinite demands and finite resources. Obama plays the “long game.”
The problem is that most of Washington plays a different game—one where the rules are black and white and quick results are rewarded, even if they don’t solve the problem (and in fact may make it worse). In this sense, Obama is reminiscent of the Christian Bale character in the movie The Big Short. He remains an outsider, seeing things in ways the establishment herd does not; he is both perplexed by the herd’s willingness to be repeatedly wrong and outraged by its irresponsibility in making the same mistakes over and over.
Take, for example, the 2013 red-line episode in Syria. The decision to refrain from striking President Bashar al-Assad is nearly universally viewed as the original sin of Obama’s foreign policy—as a devastating blow to American credibility and strength. As Obama admitted to Goldberg, it is “the point of the inverted pyramid upon which all other theories rest.” Obama confronts this critique head-on, expressing not only little regret, but also unabashed pride with how things turned out. Goldberg is right when he describes this incident as Obama’s moment of liberation.
Although it is politically incorrect in today’s Washington to say it, I agree with Obama’s conclusion. As a Pentagon official during this crisis, my top concern was the future of Syria’s chemical weapons—that Assad would use them or lose control of them. It was a threat for which the United States (or any other country) did not have an absolute answer. Obama was prepared to use force, and after Assad crossed the red line in August 2013 by using chemical weapons against his people, advocated for it. Yet most members of Congress, and an overwhelming majority of the American people, thought military action against Assad was a bad idea. While Obama concedes that the process he pursued during the red-line episode would not win many style points, in the end the United States achieved something through diplomacy with Russia that the use of force against Syria would not have accomplished: the removal of nearly all Syria’s chemical weapons, which at that time constituted one of the world’s largest stockpiles. By contrast, the planned strikes that Obama called off at the last minute would have only neutralized a small fraction of Assad’s arsenal.
Imagine if Syria’s chemical weapons were still there today. With the rise of ISIS since the red-line crisis, we would be confronted with an even worse threat than the Bush administration wrongly claimed to be facing when it invaded Iraq. While the five-year Syrian Civil War remains a nightmare, and there were things the Obama administration could have—and should have—done differently to mitigate the conflict, I share the president’s doubts that the U.S. had the means to “solve” the problem in Syria in a way that would not have driven America straight into another Middle East quagmire.
Obama believes strength is about much more than big talk and military muscle. As he told Goldberg, “real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.” Strength comes not from bullying others or blowing things up, but from using America’s unique capabilities to convene countries in pursuit of common action, offering ideas, setting the agenda, and organizing the effort. Nor does strength come from pretending that solving problems is easy—and that if only the U.S. did more, things would be better. Most important, American strength abroad derives from its resilience at home, which is why Obama places such a priority on what he calls “nation-building at home.”
This conception of strength and leadership could not be more different than what’s on offer from the Republican candidates for president, who are taking macho posturing to new heights. Overseas, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea of strength provides a perfect antipode to Obama’s, one the critical herd should consider. Does it really want the American president to be “tough” and “strong” like Putin?
This is why Obama persists, with the same logic he deployed during his 2007 remarks at DePaul. As he nears the end of his time in office, the president is not cowering in defeat. I suspect, in fact, that the more establishment critics claim he’s doing things wrong, the more convinced he becomes that he is right.
NEXT STORY: The Obama Doctrine