An excellent piece in the New York Times argues that Obama has a flawed sense of realism, “For any believer in the trans-Atlantic alliance, liberal interventionism and the overall beneficence of American power, President Obama’s long exposition of his foreign policy to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic made for pretty depressing reading. In all the thousands of words, the fate of the troubled European Union and NATO merit zero reflection. Allies are mostly portrayed as freeloaders. We learn that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is “one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects” (a sentiment only partially reciprocated, at best, if my Berlin soundings are correct). Through several interviews with Goldberg, Obama emerges as a realist and an internationalist, in that order, dismissive of the notion that he has undermined American credibility in the world, resolute in defence of his inaction in Syria, skeptical of interventionism, unsentimental about Europe (and most things), and more inclined to view climate change as an existential threat than terrorism. Obama tells Goldberg, “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening.” There is truth to these words. Yet, coming from an American president, they are unusual. Reference to American-backed coups serving strongmen in far-flung lands is not the usual Oval Office fare of America-as-beacon”.
The author goes on to argue “In electing Obama, a chastened United States chose a left-leaning intellectual. It chose a man sobered by history, childhood years in Indonesia and African-American suffering, disinclined by temperament and experience to beat the drum of American patriotism. This was a radical departure. The chest-thumping American irredentism symbolized by Donald Trump is in part a reaction to Obama’s 21st-century realism. Trump is theater to Obama’s theory, saber rattling to sobriety, America-first to America-in-the-world. After two unsuccessful post 9/11 wars, Obama’s restraint was needed. But did he take it too far in Syria, where close to half-a-million people are now dead and nearly 5 million have fled — horrific unmentioned numbers? Above all, did his decision in August 2013 not to uphold with force his “red line” on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons sound the death knell of American credibility, consolidate President Bashar al-Assad and empower President Putin? “I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama insists”.
The writer asks pointedly, “Proud? It is possible to believe that the situation in Syria would be worse if Obama had followed through with punitive strikes. It is possible to believe that ISIS would have emerged, seized vast territory, beheaded Americans, rattled Paris and struck through sympathizers in San Bernardino anyway. It is possible to believe that Putin would have annexed Crimea anyway. It is possible to believe that Putin would have started a war in eastern Ukraine anyway. It is possible to believe that Assad would be stronger as a result of Russia’s military intervention anyway. It is possible to believe that Saudi “Obama-is-a-Shiite-in-the-pocket-of-Iran” derangement syndrome and Saudi war in Yemen would have occurred anyway. It is possible to believe that more than a million Syrian refugees would have shaken Europe anyway. It is possible to believe the moon is a balloon. But the weight of evidence is that Obama’s Syrian wobble was a terrible error. The president is portrayed mocking the foreign policy establishment’s “fetish of ‘credibility.”’ But it’s American military credibility that, over decades, stopped Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap. It is American credibility that has underwritten the “less violent, more tolerant” world to which Obama alludes. His dismissal of credibility is ahistorical and dangerous. Secretary of State John Kerry was right when he said that actors around the word were “watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.” Syria got away with it. The world was put at greater risk”.
The piece continues “Goldberg writes that Obama believes Churchill’s “eloquently rendered bellicosity” was “justified by Hitler’s rise.” Good to know. Even if Assad did not meet the do-something test. The thing about pendulums is they swing too far. Obama is right on many fronts. He’s right that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to “institute some sort of cold peace.” Right to conclude the Iran nuclear deal, open to Cuba, clinch the Paris climate accord and back free trade with Asia. But his cool realism has been disastrous in Syria and damaging to Europe. It also failed to seize tantalizing opportunities for liberty and democracy in Iran and Egypt. The greatest liberation movement since 1989 — the Arab Awakening — withered on his watch”.
He concludes “Obama concedes that he has not been attentive enough to “emotions” in politics. He thinks the best argument against his foreign policy is that he has failed to “exploit ambiguity enough,” the kind of ambiguity that allows people to believe “this guy might be a little crazy.” That, of course, would not be a problem with a President Trump — who would also make Americans and the world deeply nostalgic for Obama’s deeply flawed realism”.