Next month’s cover story for The Atlantic is the final installment of Jeffrey Goldberg’s series of foreign policy interviews with President Obama, a conversation that has spanned all eight years of his presidency. If each interview has served us a taste of what the most powerful man on earth was thinking at the time, then this final piece—an essay, not a transcript like the others—was the whole meal start to finish.
As the name of the essay suggests, Goldberg’s piece lays out The Obama Doctrine, the organizing principle behind the momentous foreign policy of a man whose unlikely rise to the American presidency often overshadows his far more unlikely rise to the seat of Commander in Chief. Here’s a man who went from being the Illinois State Senator to the commander of our armed forces in a mere four years—quite a remarkable feat.
No less remarkable a feat than Goldberg’s essay itself, “The Obama Doctrine” isn’t conjecture from historians poring through State of the Union transcripts decades later, but rather the words of a sitting president. The gravity of this essay cannot be overstated. In it, we see Obama reflect on specific decisions—not striking Assad, pivoting to Asia, intervening in Libya—only in order to make broader claims about his presidency, to situate himself historically among the liberal interventionists, the internationalists, the isolationists, and the realists.
Out of these schools, Obama says he is closest to the realists, believing that “we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery.” He says, “We have to choose where we can make a real impact.” That is why, he says, he stood quietly as Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, a core interest for Russia but hardly one for the United States. That is why he reneged on his 2012 promise to intervene in Syria after Assad deployed chemical weapons on his own people.
But not even the most sympathetic Obama supporter could go through Goldberg’s piece and chalk his decisions these past eight years up to realism. Throughout the interview, one observes an insuperable level of disillusionment in our president. He laments the diplomatic ties and obligations he has to tolerate because of mere tradition—the misogynistic Saudis, the autocratic Turks, Bibi Netanyahu’s exhausting condescension.
Obama also deplores the Western allies who ride on American coat tails, a claim that would be understandable if he at least took part of the blame for his missteps. In perhaps the most irritating line of the entire interview, Obama comments on the failure to stabilize Libya: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”
“There’s room for criticism because I had more faith in the Europeans”—no line better betrays this administration’s gross misunderstanding of global power dynamics. A true realist—if we are to take Obama’s self-identification seriously—understands that free-riding is a negligible price to pay for stability and is moreover an inevitable outcome of coalition diplomacy. If our president’s sensibilities on fairness are enough cause to retreat, Russia and Iran are eager to eat the costs of free-riding if it means they could fill the lucrative power vacuum we would leave behind.
The most compelling case for the Obama Doctrine—which if not an offshoot of realism, is something more akin to “isolationism with drones and special-ops forces” as one critic calls it—was blown up this week in Brussels along with 34 civilians, in the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgian history.
Obama claims that “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” rather “climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” This is jaded Obama at work—recklessly allowing his Weltschmerz to cloud his judgment, choosing more romantic, less controversial battles like climate change and the favorite cause of his first term, the “pivot to Asia.”
This is not to discount Obama’s likely genuine belief that climate change demands our attention more than terrorism. But at the root of this claim is not logic, but a fatigue of the Middle East and a yearning for something new. Obama explains to Goldberg about why he prefers to talk about Asia more than ISIS, “They are not thinking about how to kill Americans,” he says. “What they’re thinking about is 'How do I get a better education? How do I create something of value?'” This sounds like a man so lustful for hope that he’s willing to radically skew his priorities.
Hope is the Obama doctrine’s Achilles' heel. Where Obama does not find hope, he shies away. Where a good leader does not find hope, he is duty-bound to keep looking.
David Frum’s takeaway from Goldberg’s final essay is that all of us have disappointed Barack Obama—that our Western allies are guilty of free-loading, that Americans are guilty of overestimating the threat of ISIS to the point that out fear devolves into bigotry, and that the entire world just needs to be more realistic. President Obama is probably not wrong about any of this, but he is certainly wrong in expecting others to sympathize with his disappointment.
In what will probably be the most cited line of Goldberg’s piece, he quotes the King of Jordan as saying, “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.” Indeed, by the end of this essay, Obama does not seem like a realist, but a man too world-weary to lead, too keen on finding hope to take hopeless situations seriously.
Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @shubchhokra.
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