Why The Obama Doctrine Failed

Film review of The Final Year (2018)

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 31 January 2018

The Final Year, a new documentary film directed by Greg Barker, tracks the closing stages of the administration of President Barack Obama in 2016. Senior officials are followed and interviewed, and the White House is watched as it tries to react to daily events. Much of the substance contained in the film was knowable in real time, but it is very useful to have these officials on record—on video, no less—explaining the assumptions and thought processes they were operating with as they made decisions that led to a series of such intense disasters around the world. This is especially interesting since the ripple effects from these catastrophes ultimately set the conditions for the election of Donald Trump and dismantling of much of the Obama legacy.

THE FORMAT

While President Obama himself appears in the film, the story is primarily told through four senior officials. The official who receives the most air time is Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting throughout the entire administration. Samantha Power, who served as the United States ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 until Obama left office, is the next most prominent. Then there is John Kerry, the Secretary of State for Obama’s second term. And, finally, Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador for the first term and National Security Advisor since 2013.

There is no narrative thread; no attempt to make a case for or against the Obama administration. The film simply lets the administration tell its own story. And the tone is set very early.

Within three minutes, Rhodes has told us that he “got hit by lightning” by Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention and made a decision that at all costs he must work for Obama. Power says she came on board after a series of discussions about ideas around genocide prevention, and Rhodes says this was very exciting as a fresh, new way of doing things. “We’re gonna change the world” was the feeling, according to Rhodes. This kind of idealism evidently has its supporters, particularly among younger audiences, and for those prepared to overlook the consequences of this philosophy’s application—which is measured in the massacre and displacement of tens of millions of people and the erosion of the international order—the flame is kept alive. For those who find this grating and naïve, there is another eighty-five minutes of such irritation.

THE BIG IDEA

Rhodes says that the Obama administration came in with a plan to show “a different way of doing foreign policy”, one that “re-elevate[s] diplomacy”, is less reliant on the military to make American seriousness understood, and is “more engagement-focused”. At one moment, where Rhodes is instructing Kerry on how he should make the administration’s case and how many questions he’s allowed to answer, Rhodes makes reference to a need for Kerry to disseminate the message that the Obama Team has a “whole theory” of how to do things that departs from its predecessors.

Throughout the film it is made clear by all that Rhodes is effectively a proxy for Obama. Power refers to Rhodes having a “mind meld” with Obama, a phrase that is apparently common among White House staffers. Obama’s speech at Hiroshima, where those gathered were instructed of the need to “change our mind-set about war itself”, suggests that Rhodes was indeed in sync with the commander-in-chief when expressing his hyper-ideologised view of how the world works—or can be made to work.

The administration claims that its philosophy led to three main successes: the Iran nuclear accord, the Paris climate agreement, and the normalization of relations with the dictatorship in Cuba. (“[I]f these two countries [the U.S. and Cuba] can try to put the past behind them, maybe we can all do that”, Rhodes says). The signing of a peace agreement in Colombia that ended the narco-terror-insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Obama’s visit to Laos, among other things, are counted in as subsidiary examples of this doctrine at work.

TESTING THE THEORY

In May 2016, a profile of Rhodes in The New York Times created quite a stir. “We created an echo chamber” staffed by 27-year-old journalists who “literally know nothing” to sell the Iran deal to the American public, Rhodes was quoted as saying. Rhodes rather amusingly says that the most troublesome aspect of this article was that it deflected attention away from the issues and focused instead personally on him. The reality is that that profile, highlighting as it did the way the administration operated to pollute the information environment about what it was doing and what the effects were, was the issue, and not only over Iran.

A microcosm of how this fits together is when Rhodes explains that he deflected questions asking the administration’s relative level of concern about climate change and the Islamic State (IS). “We think climate change is a bigger threat”, Rhodes admits, but that cannot be allowed to be a headline or to be covered on the television networks. Given this hierarchy of priorities and the claim that leaving the Paris agreement is “condemning our children and their future”, it is to be assumed that the accord is a highly-effective measure. Except that it wasn’t. The Paris agreement was not a treaty in any usual sense—there was not even a notional enforcement mechanism—and even had the promises made in Paris been kept it would have made no difference whatsoever to the climate situation, while robbing the planet of up to $2 trillion per year in economic growth.

The Paris accord was, in short, a messaging success rather than a policy success: an expression of good intentions that received good press coverage, while being based on a wholly illusory premise (in this case, that First World can run on “green” energy, provided there’s enough government subsidy), having no impact on the issue it was supposed to effect, and causing quite considerable unintentional damage in other areas.

A trip to Africa sees Ms. Power lament the fact that nearly three-hundred Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped in Chibok in April 2014 by Boko Haram, remain missing two years after they were taken, as if she and the U.S. are simply bystanders to this unfortunate episode. In her speech to the assembled relatives, Power makes this explicit: the U.S. cannot just act, certainly not militarily: what if acting too precipitately to recover the children creates more terrorists? Later in her trip, in a fairly on-the-nose metaphor, Power goes to Cameroon to offer comfort to refugees driven from their homes by Boko Haram and her convoy kills one of their children.

SYRIA AND RUSSIA

The shadow over the whole film is Syria, where for six years the administration did nothing as half-a-million people were slaughtered and twelve million more were displaced—fully half of the population. This was the price willingly paid for Iran’s signature on the nuclear accord. Squaring these facts with the claim to have been an administration of peace, Obama and Rhodes, separately, resort to Iraq as their explanation. Any move to restrain Bashar al-Asad’s regime, or its Russian and Iranian backers, would result in a full-fledged occupation, is the argument—as it has been from the start. With the Obama administration, it was always “either boots on the ground or head in the sand”, as the late Fouad Ajami wrote in February 2012, mere months into the armed rebellion. It is telling that Rhodes believes that only had the U.S. intervened in Syria would anyone have “start[ed] a war” in that tormented country. Again, the posture and messaging stands above concrete outcomes like saving lives or avoiding regional instability.

Rhodes expands on his thinking by explaining how he apparently changed his mind over Syria. Rhodes says he was initially in favour of intervention, but was swayed by Obama. The President’s view was that there was no international support and no Congressional support, and therefore, as leader, he had no choice but to follow foreign states and the bodies of the U.S. government not charged with making U.S. foreign policy. The Iran deal, Paris, and Cuba couldn’t have happened if there was any intervention in Syria, says Rhodes, trying a more cold-blooded political explanation for neglecting Syria—and vindicating those who argued that the Iran deal wasn’t simply an arms control agreement but a means of geopolitical alignment for which Syria was being sacrificed. Then there is the price to the U.S. military of intervention, an appeal with populist and isolationist undertones that was once more forthrightly expressed as, “Let Allah sort it out”.

The most dramatic set-piece of the film comes in September 2016, when the U.S. made an agreement with Russia to implement a ceasefire for a number of days and then to begin sharing intelligence to develop a joint target list. Note that this was only meant to lead to airstrikes against al-Qaeda and to a lesser extent IS, the terrorists the Asad regime helped to dominate the insurgency to ensure its discredit and defeat. The Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), nor the IRGC proxy militias like the Iraqi Kataib Hizballah and Lebanese Hizballah, all of them U.S.-registered terrorist organisations responsible for keeping Asad in power and crimes against humanity on a scale IS cannot even dream of, were to be left alone. The deal came crashing down on 12 September, four days after it was signed, when an aid convoy headed to besieged Aleppo, with all the required permissions from the Asad regime, was strafed for hours by regime and Russian warplanes, murdering two-dozen aid workers and denying basic supplies to nearly 80,000 people.

The episode is important as a reminder of the Obama administration’s actual approach to Russia.

Kerry and Power are shown in the film making the necessary statements of outrage, but their general faith that the United Nations is stocked with friends and potential friends, and their specific belief that Russia can be coaxed into viewing its interests differently in Syria, remain essentially unchanged. Rhodes’ reaction is even more revealing. Rhodes seems genuinely troubled by this one, resorting to expletives and saying it is a new low for Russia. There are “no consequences” for this are there, Rhodes asks, as if—like Power in Nigeria—he has no ability to determine the answer to that question. Rhodes and his aides settle on the full force of the “condemnation of the international community” as the penalty Russia and Asad will have to bear for their atrocity—something even spokesman Josh Earnest notes sarcastically “they care deeply about”.

Questioned more extensively about the convoy fiasco, Rhodes concludes that the lesson is that Putin pursues his interests, not Russia’s interests. Apart from being yet another case of trying to tell foreign states what their interests are—a tic that was partly at the root of creating a crisis in relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, among others—it is astonishing that it took this long to realise that kleptocratic tyrants, who’ve raided their own national treasuries, might act selfishly, even at the expense of their countries.

These scenes are an important reality check. With the Democrats now claiming the mantle of #resistance to malevolent Russian designs, it is often left out of accounts that until the final days of 2016, when Russia was invoked as (at least part of) the explanation for the Democrats’ electoral defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, Obama pursued a radically conciliatory policy toward Moscow. It began with the famous “reset” button in 2009. In 2012, Obama was caught on video telling Putin’s factotum that he would display more “flexibility” to Russia’s needs after the election, and in an Election debate joked that “the 1980’s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back” in response to the suggestion that Russia was the U.S.’s greatest geopolitical challenge. This ideological outlook translated into irreversible damage to the U.S. position in the world,[1] which inevitably spilled back into domestic politics.

THE LEGACY

Trump flickers in the background throughout the film, and it is fascinating to be transported back to a time when it was known that President Trump couldn’t happen; the question was simply, What margin will Hillary Clinton win by? The film concludes with Power hosting the thirty-seven female ambassadors from the United Nations to watch as the first female President is brought to office. This error on Power’s part is awkward to watch, and was made no less cringe-worthy by her recent interview, where she said that her worry had been that Mrs. Clinton would win too quickly, denying Power the ability to “milk the soft power dividend of this moment”. Ben Rhodes is left genuinely speechless.

Once Rhodes recovers himself, he says, “The irony of the Obama years is going to be that he was advocating an inclusive, global view rooted in common humanity and international order”, and he leaves as chaos, the worst forms of nationalism, and authoritarianism are rising across the world. At no point does Rhodes, nor any of Obama’s other staff, nor the President himself—who still speaks of History having a direction known to him—see any connection between these two aspects, between Obama’s vision and policy, and the disintegration of the international order that created such a sense of threat that people looked for answers from outside the political mainstream.

*          *          *          *          *

NOTES

[1] Some of the damage Russia was enabled to inflict on the U.S. during the Obama years was relatively small, such as the January 2016 release of Ali Fayad from a Czech prison. Fayad, a Ukrainian citizen who worked for Putin to ship weapons into Asad, was caught in a U.S. sting operation in 2014, and released back to Moscow after the U.S. made no effort to extradite him. In Syria, things were much more serious: Obama abandoned his “red line” on chemical weapons in 2013 and cut a deal re-legitimising Russia’s ally as a partner in disarmament. Russia soon after stole Crimea and—despite efforts in Congress—the Ukrainian government was denied access to the weapons it needed. In 2015, Russia moved directly into Syria, on NATO’s doorstep, making itself the key actor in the Middle East, reversing one of the most important strategic gains of the Cold War. Adapting to this new reality, which the administration made no attempt to halt, let alone reverse, Kerry worked tirelessly to come to terms with the Russians to at least reduce the killing in Syria, but knew that it required imposing tangible costs on the Asad regime for its criminal behaviour. Elements of this are seen in the film with an exasperated Kerry telling Obama of Russia’s shameless conduct in support of Asad. Nonetheless, every request Kerry made for the most limited U.S. action to impose a penalty on Asad for mass-murder was turned down. The Secretary was left with “nothing beyond a smile and a shoeshine”, as Fred Hof put it, to try to curb rampant war crimes. And then came this effort—over the objections of U.S. intelligence agencies—to create a direct military pact to eliminate the opponents of Russia’s blood-stained client regime in the Levant.

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