Yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest interview with President Obama was published. There have been numerous worthwhile takes on what is a very revealing conversation, such as Max Boot and Nibras Kazimi, and it is very difficult to quarrel with the conclusion of David Frum that “the dominant theme of these interviews is that we, all of us, have grievously let down the president,” who has exactly one self-criticism: “Obama admits he does not make sufficient allowances for how unreasonable other people are.” What I think deserves most attention is that the President has finally aligned his rhetoric, especially on Iran, with his actual foreign policy.
The key passage is this:
[Obama] went on to say that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he said. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”
Some of us have long argued that, despite what the President says in public, his actual policy as executed is the pursuit of détente with the Islamic Republic of Iran, using the nuclear agreement as a facilitator. The President came in with one overwhelming goal: to draw down U.S. resources in the region. By deputizing Iran to protect core U.S. interests, such as this malign fantasy that the U.S. and Tehran share an interest in defeating the Islamic State (IS), while creating an “equilibrium” that protects Iranian “equities,” it would allow an order to take shape that did not require the U.S. to police it. By definition this meant empowering Iran against its neighbours, notably the Gulf States, since Iran had heretofore been contained. Here Obama confirms virtually every point of that argument.
In this time of isolationism in the West, this vision is likely to appeal well beyond the Democratic Party’s base. This is a troubled vision, however.
For one thing it neglects the wisdom of Ibn Hazm, who explained a millennium ago: “If you treat your friend and enemy the same, you will arouse distaste for your friendships and contempt for your enmity and you will not be long for this world.” Obama “is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally,” Goldberg writes, and given some of the things Riyadh has done, one has a measure of sympathy. (One is even more sympathetic to Obama’s view of Pakistan.) But, first, the Saudi regime of 2016 is not the Saudi regime of 1996 when it comes to foreign policy. Second, if one wants to strengthen negative trends within Saudi foreign policy, making them feel isolated is a pretty good way to go about it. The dawning realization they were alone has already had the Saudis reconcile with Qatar and support the Jaysh al-Fatah alliance in Syria, which contains groups Riyadh had previously shunned. Third, and more to the point, it is not only the Saudis that Obama has alienated; it is virtually every ally in the Middle East that feels betrayed by the United States. For a President so intent on avoiding massive, unilateral U.S. military action, it makes no sense to turn allies overboard in the search of conciliating adversaries: if something happens that compels the U.S. to act, Obama has left himself—and, at least for a time, his successors—no levers to use except the massive, unilateral one.
The vision fails because any notion of “balance” between the Iranian revolution and its neighbours is a mirage. The clerical regime does not intend to take the U.S. offer to “share” in bringing order to the region; Tehran intends to upend the entire U.S.-underwritten structure and replace it with Iranian hegemony—a project in which it is now receiving Russian help. Thus, “balance” is ceding the region to Iran under another name. On paper the Gulf States have military prowess that dwarfs Iran’s. In reality, Iran has asymmetric structures like the Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps led by Qassem Suleimani, which the Gulf States do not, capable of terrorism and subversion in a way the Gulf States cannot match. Indeed both Obama and John Kerry have lamented that the Arabs do not have a Quds Force or a Suleimani, something and someone who can get things done.
This is perhaps the largest problem of all for Obama’s vision: Iran simply cannot do what he wants it to—namely bring order to the region. Iran does not want order, of course: the IS threat is very helpful in keeping Iran’s client governments in Baghdad and Damascus pliable and in inducing concessions from the Americans, plus IS’s caliphate covers areas in western Iraq and eastern Syria dominated by Sunni tribes that Iran knows it could not rule even if it wanted to. And if Iran tried to move into the Sunni Arab zones, as it has done in parts of Iraq, through its rabidly sectarian Shi’i jihadist militias, the result is terrible destruction, demographic engineering, and the setting of the stage for long-term instability.
The lesson of Iraq and the Awakening was that to defeat IS it required empowering local Sunnis to take care of their own security. This was so successful that IS itself recommended, in its post-Surge policy post-mortem (yes they really have them) that this “clever, bold idea” be annexed. Obama’s political disengagement, long before the military pull-out, from Iraq allowed the Awakening forces to wither under the dual onslaught of an Iranian-backed government that saw armed Sunnis as a coup menace and IS who saw them as traitors to the cause. The President then failed to seriously engage with the Syrian rebellion because Syria has been given to Iran as a sphere of influence in this new order. This left Sunni populations with the horrific choice of the Islamic State or the Islamic Republic, and in the circumstances they will pick the former. Iran’s presence, and especially that of its proxy regime in Syria, is not a bulwark against IS; it is a spur to IS.
There are many other revealing snippets in the interview where the President appears to feel the time for truth is upon us—even if it does not quite align with the known facts of objective reality.
Obama has a major problem with “free riders” on the American security system, specifically Europe. This complaint is the equivalent of the “waste, fraud, and abuse” slogan in budgetary debates—a Europe that disarms itself because America guarantees its security is annoying, but it means they can’t fight each other and suck America into a global cataclysm (again). Blaming the Europeans and Libyans for the lack of follow-through after the deposition of Muammar el-Qaddafi is especially rich, though. The President ran on a platform of learning the lessons of Iraq, and one such lesson—whatever view one takes politically of the invasion—was the need for Phase IV planning. Iraq did have Phase IV planning, it was just bad. Expecting the Europeans to step up means Obama literally had no plan for post-Qaddafi Libya.
Obama announces himself “very proud” of his decision on August 30, 2013, to stand down from his threat to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing to death 1,400 people nine days earlier. The collapse of the international taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction and the devastation to America’s allies, notably France but also inside Syria, which allowed the strengthening of extremist forces within the insurgency, was “liberation day” for Obama, says Goldberg: he successfully defied America’s foreign-policy establishment and America’s allies.
The “deal” orchestrated by Vladimir Putin—to decommission Assad’s chemical weapons in exchange for sparing the dictator military strikes—has of course never been fulfilled: while the deal lasts Assad is legitimized as a partner in disarmament, so Assad and the Kremlin have ensured the process lasts forever. Meanwhile, Assad has switched to gassing civilians with chlorine, and paid no price.
Goldberg also teases out some revealing statements on Obama’s ideology, what one might call progressive-realism. “Obama … is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (‘I love that guy,’ Obama once told me).” Stepping over Bush 41 standing aside to let Saddam Hussein massacre a rebellion he had incited, leading to a running international security crisis with progressively fewer options for its solution, which doesn’t seem especially realistic, and Scowcroft’s saying that the post-1945 Middle East, until the fall of Saddam, was “fifty years of peace” (this is a period covering inter alia the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Lebanese Civil War, Qaddafi’s reign of terror, and the barracks bombing). Obama “jokes” about wanting “a few smart autocrats,” the exact prescription of the Scowcroft-style realists, which led to America supporting brittle dictatorships, which worked to ensure the only people available to fill the vacuum when they were suddenly overthrown were religious radicals. To this magical realism, Obama adds “internationalism,” not of a muscular, Truman-esque kind; one where the blessing of the United Nations is needed to act and which is encapsulated in the President saying that he felt no obligation was laid on him by calling on Assad to go. The statement was a justified act of “moral authority,” Obama says, but it didn’t mean he was “obliged to invade” Syria (the strawman do-nothing-or-occupation dichotomy the President has used for many years in explaining his Syria policy).
Goldberg reminds us that Obama’s advisors didn’t know he was going to lay down the red line and that Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel weren’t in the room when Obama decided to throw the matter to Congress, and it’s extremely interesting to see that Kerry has advised—repeatedly—that Obama undertake limited strikes against Assad to pressure him in the negotiations. In other words, some of Obama’s officials understand, as apparently the President does not (or will not), that military action is part of a political settlement in Syria, not its antithesis. But even as the Syria crisis widens from a regional crisis to one threatening Europe and the Atlantic Alliance, “Obama has not recategorized the country’s civil war as a top-tier security threat,” and continues to take the view that he is letting Russia make a mistake in Syria—despite Moscow having stabilized Assad and weaponized the refugee flow it is causing against the European Union.
The President’s remarks on Russia are especially troubling. It is true, as Obama says, that Russia does not control the layout of paperwork or the order of discussion at G20 meetings. It is also unfortunately true that Russia controls Crimea and large sections of eastern Ukraine and western Syria. One wonders what the Baltics make of a U.S. President saying, in public, of Ukraine, a European State with more than a tenth of its territory under occupation by Moscow and its capital penetrated and assaulted by Moscow’s intelligence agencies, that it “is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” This shredding of the post-Cold War order apparently does not worry the President. It “doesn’t suddenly make [Putin] a player,” Obama says. What really does worry the President is climate change, “a potential existential threat to the entire world”.
It seems that Obama has finally decided, with less than a year left in office left, to come clean and make the case for his legacy. The President has now laid out the parameters on which he wants to be judged; it would be churlish to refuse. The academic and media criticism might be the least of it, however. There are many predatory regimes watching and calibrating when to make their move.