What accounted for Vladimir Putin’s surprise decision Monday to start pulling Russian forces from Syria? Is it possible that he spent last weekend reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in the Atlantic and decided that President Obama was right about the Syria mess — and that he should quit before he got any deeper in the quagmire?
Goldberg’s account of how Obama fell out of love with the Arabs has inspired so much commentary that even the author’s parents are probably sick of hearing discussion about it. But here are a few brief thoughts, occasioned in part by Putin’s adoption of what in the Vietnam era was known as the “Aiken strategy” — named after Sen. George Aiken (R-Vt.), who said in 1966 that the United States should declare victory and redeploy its forces — but which we now might rechristen the “Goldberg variation.”
• Goldberg’s piece is authoritative and compelling. But it illustrates why presidents usually save such explanations for their memoirs. Such candor is destabilizing: Friends and foes discover what the president really thinks, a matter usually shrouded by constructive ambiguity. We may have imagined Obama’s growing disdain for the Arabs, his skepticism bordering on contempt for the foreign-policy establishment and his “fatalistic” view about the limits of U.S. power. Now, in “The Obama Doctrine,” we have chapter and verse.
When Obama visits Saudi Arabia this spring, will it help that we now know that Obama sardonically told the Australian prime minister “it’s complicated” when asked whether the Saudis are America’s friends? Ditto Goldberg’s revelation that “in private” (ha!) Obama said of the Saudis’ suppression of women’s rights that “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half its population.”
Maybe it will be beneficial for Obama to have been so open. Mutual hypocrisy has been one of the historic weaknesses of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But this is opposite of the Brent Scowcroft-style quiet diplomacy that Obama supposedly values.
• Obama’s tone throughout the article is supremely self-confident and also weirdly defensive; a reader senses that he has been waiting to tell off the foreign-policy establishment since 2009, when he feels he got pushed into adding 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan despite his better judgment. His message, basically, is: I’m right, and you’re not listening.
You might think, with a metastasizing Syria crisis that has claimed 300,000 lives, has wrecked Syria and threatens European stability, that Obama might have second thoughts about the wisdom of his policy. Not so. Goldberg writes: “As he comes to the end of his presidency, Obama believes he has done his country a large favor by keeping it out of the [Syria] maelstrom—and he believes, I suspect, that historians will one day judge him wise for having done so.”
It’s hard to know what would have been the right decisions in Syria. But how can this be an outcome in which the president takes such pride?
• In such a comprehensive piece, there were two topics that were oddly minimized, since both were priorities for Obama from the day he took office.
The first was Obama’s drive to achieve the nuclear agreement with Iran — a goal to which he subordinated many other Middle East objectives. In online postings about the Goldberg article, Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal and Dennis Ross, a former senior administration official, have both argued that Obama didn’t militarily enforce his “red line” against Syrian use of chemical weapons, in part because he didn’t want to derail the Iran talks.
Obama low-keys his expectations for the Iran deal these days, beyond its specific limits on Iran’s nuclear program. But I suspect he views it as a fundamentally important strategic opening in the Middle East that could lead to eventual balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sunni and Shiite, mending the feud that is ripping the Middle East apart. Personally, I think he’s right to see this as the potential start of a new security architecture. Maybe he’s saving that theme for his memoirs.
The second missing element is what I’ve described as Obama’s “cosmic bet” in 2011 on Islamist democratic parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a Muslim Brotherhood clone, in Turkey. Obama treated Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the instruments of democratic change. That was an understandable decision, but we can see now that it was a very bad mistake. It spun the Arab Spring in a dangerous direction from which it never recovered.
Whatever else might be said about the coup that installed Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as president in Egypt, it probably prevented an Egyptian-Turkish Muslim Brotherhood alliance that would have been catastrophic. Goldberg doesn’t really address this strand of policy.
• The overarching question in “The Obama Doctrine” is whether Obama was right to reduce America’s “overextension” in the Middle East, as White House aide Ben Rhodes puts it. Obama reasoned that the Middle East “is no longer terribly important to American interests,” that there’s “little an American president can do to make it a better place” and that American meddling leads to the deaths of our soldiers and “the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power.”
Obama was wrong on all three, in my view: The Middle East does matter; the United States can help, and not doing so hurts our global standing. But even if he’s right, he needs to reckon better with one clear lesson of his presidency: As the United States stepped back in the Middle East, others stepped forward. Russia has moved into the vacuum left by retreating American power; so has Iran; so has Saudi Arabia; so has the Islamic State.
Is the United States better off in a world where these other powers advanced as we stepped back? I don’t think so.