Most US Presidents use their retirement to construct their interpretation of events transpiring during their service. They prefer to distance their more candid, more personal observations from the people, places, and activities that occupied their incumbencies. The mythology of the magisterial presidency demands that nothing tarnish the contrived imagery of sobriety, civility, and selfless governance. Therefore, it is uncommon for a President to air differences and confidences while still in office. That reticence makes President Obama’s recent comments, as told to Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg (The Obama Doctrine, April, 2016), even more interesting.
Now Goldberg is no leftist. His commentary accompanying his interviews shows him to be a reliable consumer and purveyor of the official, self-serving Washington line on good guys and bad guys, freedom-lovers and freedom-haters. For Goldberg, Ghaddafi, Assad, Hugo Chavez, Putin, and the others who defied US diktat personify evil, while despots who toe the US line get a free pass. The fact that Obama does not unqualifiedly endorse this simplistic picture makes the interview most interesting.
For the vast majority of the entertainment-driven, scandal-seeking media, Obama’s openly expressed disdain for those US allies that he labeled “free riders” served as blood-soaked red meat. They relished the gossipy blast at putative friends like Hollande, Cameron, Erdogan, and the Saudis. But they never stopped to develop the implications of his remarks, refusing to frame the comments in the context of a new balance of power and shifting alliances.
For a time, the Obama administration has been moving away from the triumphant unilateralist (one dominant super power) position emerging from the demise of the Soviet Union. Obama would like us to believe that this is part of a rational, measured policy that he describes as “realist” and “internationalist”—a rejection of both “isolationism” and “liberal interventionism.” In fact, it is a move imposed by events: the endless, unwinnable wars, the intensification of nation-state rivalries, economic stagnation, and the resultant international instability. The Obama foreign policy vision reflects these new realities more than it shapes them.
Obama was vetted and anointed by significant sectors of the ruling class, and subsequently elected because his youth, dynamism, différence, and “hope/change” slogan fit the needs of a country wounded by economic crisis, political dysfunction, and military blunders. Just as James Carter emerged as a clean, pure and decidedly different candidate to legitimize the Presidential myth after the Nixon fiasco, Obama was the best option to clean up the Bush mess. Obama obliquely concedes this when he characterizes himself as a “retrenchment” President.
He embraced the responsibility with gusto, attempting to replace open military aggression and occupation with bombs, drones and special forces. The goal of advancing US national interests (really, capitalist interests) is addressed best, he believes, with care and deliberation: “We have to choose where we can make a real impact.” Or as he put more crudely, “We don’t do stupid shit.”-- An obvious allusion to the foreign policy of his predecessor.
But it is not only the hyper-militarized foreign policy of the Bush administration that Obama rejects; it is also the shrewd, cynical Clintonesque foreign policy of “liberal interventionism” that he opposes.
Liberal interventionism-- sometimes known as “humanitarian interventionism”-- is the doctrine that disguises US regime change, aggression, and meddling as inspired by the promotion of human rights. Whether it's aiding in the dismantling of Yugoslavia, noxious policies against Cuba or Venezuela, saber-rattling in the South China Sea, threats to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a coup in Ukraine, or the wholesale dismantling of the state of Libya, the US hides its moves behind a hypocritical appeal to the cause of encouraging human rights and democracy. The self-serving US doctrine of exporting human rights and democracy is a US counterpart to the British Empire's previous mission of civilizing the non-European peoples; both are a transparent cover for imperial design.
Within the Obama Administration, the chief proponents of liberal interventionism were Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, according to Jeffrey Goldberg.
When not sitting on an opportunistic fence, John Kerry will side with the “humanitarians.”
Goldberg traces Obama's “realist” foreign policy position to a speech the then senator made before an anti-war rally:
“I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein,” he said. “He is a brutal man. A ruthless man … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors.” He added, “I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
Certainly Obama deserves some credit for anticipating the strong and enduring resistance to an unprovoked invasion and occupation of a sovereign country. But it's important to note that it is not a defense of Iraq's sovereignty and right of self-determination that anchors his argument, but a calculation. Obama, like all bourgeois politicians, has not abandoned the imperialist project; he has only sought to improve it-- a point lost on those worshiping him in the run-up to the 2008 election.
The decisive event spurring Obama to settle accounts in The Atlantic interviews is the overthrow of Ghadaffi and the destruction of the Libyan state. It has become impossible to see the US, NATO, and Gulf states' war on Libya as anything more than a criminal enterprise and a strategic disaster. Obama is unconcerned about the criminality, but troubled by the debacle as a blemish on his record. Thus, he goes to great lengths to push responsibility onto his allies (Sarkozy, Cameron, etc.) and the liberal interventionists in his administration:
“...as tragic as the Libyan situation may be, it’s not our problem. The way I looked at it was that it would be our problem if, in fact, complete chaos and civil war broke out in Libya. But this is not so at the core of U.S. interests that it makes sense for us to unilaterally strike against the Qaddafi regime. At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
Since we know from the Tony Blair phone transcripts (see my Journalists or Courtesans?) that on February 25, 2011-- barely two weeks after most journalists date the beginnings of the Libyan “uprising”-- the US and NATO were already threatening armed intervention, Obama's proclaimed reluctance to act seems less than convincing. But his determination to deflect the blame is certainly apparent. Despite his slipperiness, the fact is that the US vigorously bombed the Libyan government into defeat.
Goldberg notes Obama's reflections:
“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said. He noted that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, lost his job the following year. And he said that British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things.” Of France, he said, “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention. This sort of bragging was fine, Obama said, because it allowed the U.S. to “purchase France’s involvement in a way that made it less expensive for us and less risky for us.” In other words, giving France extra credit in exchange for less risk and cost to the United States was a useful trade-off—except that “from the perspective of a lot of the folks in the foreign-policy establishment, well, that was terrible. If we’re going to do something, obviously we’ve got to be up front, and nobody else is sharing in the spotlight.”
With the Libyan fiasco as a backdrop, one understands Obama's subsequent hesitancy to bomb the hell out of Assad's Syria. Goldberg (and others) make much of Obama's turn away from his “red line” ultimatum on Syria: “History may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war...”
But the truth is far more complicated. The rebuff of Cameron's partnership by the UK parliament, US opinion polls, Merkel's disapproval, and intelligence hesitance all played a large role in causing Obama to throw the question of war into Congress's reluctant lap. Rather than defying “Washington's playbook” and rebuffing his own liberal interventionists, the President got cold feet.
Nonetheless, in this election season, Obama's uncharacteristic criticisms of his Administration mates do not bode well for the post-Obama era. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive next President, departs little from the “Washington playbook” on Obama's reckoning, seemingly willing to unleash the bombers at the slightest provocation. In this, she differs little from the Republican bullies. Only Sanders, with little chance to win the nomination, shows some leaning toward Obama's “realism,” his “enlightened” imperialism.
Obama's pull-back from the Syrian intervention left many allies confused, angry, even disgusted. It brought many existing frictions to a new, more damaging level. The old Washington consensus-- a euphemism for complete and servile Washington hegemony-- has been unraveling for some time. The rise of new economic powers and power blocs, the scramble for recovery and advantage after the trough of the economic crisis, and the US continuing engagement in costly, multiple wars sharply challenges US dominance.
Obama's backing away from overt action in Syria and recent rapprochement with Iran left the Jordanian leadership unhappy. Similarly, Turkey's Erdogan, who Obama considers a failure and an “authoritarian,” now challenges US leadership and authority in the region.
But the long-standing Saudi relationship is nearly fractured; festering differences only deepened with the Syrian and Iranian moves. Criticism of Saudi actions in Yemen, the US jettisoning of Mubarak, and the oil wars preceded the current hostility. With US energy production nearing self-sufficiency, the Saudi grip on Obama's foreign policy was loosened. One might speculate that Saudi Arabia's decision not to put a floor on falling oil prices constituted a response to the new-found independence. The US responded by removing the ban on exporting US energy resources. For a recent account appreciative of Obama's candor regarding Saudi Arabia in these interviews see the always perceptive commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Patrick Cockburn, writing in Counterpunch.
Goldberg's interviews show clearly a growing exasperation with the US's traditional Middle Eastern allies and a yearning for new, more promising relations on the part of Obama. Israel and Saudi Arabia-- traditional loyal cops for US aims-- often defy US orders, adding to what Obama calls the post-Libyan “mess.”
Obama makes it clear that he he would like to get past his Middle Eastern mess, a task that he was elected to perform. He would like to focus on his Asia pivot. He would like to shift his attention to dampening Chinese influence and strengthening US economic links with other Asian countries-- the policy of isolating the PRC embodied in the Trans-Pacific Pact.
He acclaims his “restraint” in South and Central America as a formula for patient, but effective regime change, a formula that he hopes to exercise in his new relationship with Cuba.
If we take the Obama interviews as a kind of candid valedictory, we can say that he bitterly regrets failing to fulfill his mission of restoring a stability to the Middle East favorable to US corporate interests. We also can say that, after Libya, he came to the conclusion that tolerating the liberal interventionists in their knee-jerk military responses to advancing US imperial designs is a recipe for further entanglements and costly “messes.” He has arrived at an alternative, measured, “rational” imperialism in its stead, an imperialism that reflects the rise of new regional and international powers, the weakening of US hegemony, and the need to not be drawn into unconditional alliances.
Others have seen the Obama valediction for what it is: a step away from the New American Century war hawks and their “liberal” counterparts who hide their war mongering behind human rights. The Wall Street Journal responded to The Obama Doctrine with a scathing attack issued by Global View columnist, Bret Stephens (Barack Obama Checks Out, 3-15-16). Stephens agitatedly charges Obama with giving interviews to Goldberg “...that are.. gratuitously damaging to long standing US alliances, international security and Mr. Obama's reputation as a serious steward of the American interests...” Harsh words, indeed.
But even more troubling is the pack of rabid candidates seeking a chance to replace Obama. Neither Hillary Clinton nor any of the Republican candidates shares Obama's professed sobriety in pursuing imperial goals. All see military might and its ready exercise as the fulcrum of foreign policy. None share Obama's preference for drones and special operations over mass bombings and overt military operations. None would call out the “free-riders” and trouble makers. If one of them becomes President, we are back to the cowboy imperialism of Bush, the younger. Obama-imperialism is bad enough.