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Five thoughts on the Obama Doctrine

Barack Obama talked a lot to Jeffrey Goldberg about his foreign policy worldview. Here are my takeaways from it.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watches as President Obama speaks during a state dinner at the White House on Thursday. (Pool photo by Olivier Douliery via European Pressphoto Agency)
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Remember Barack Obama? Nice guy, occasionally deft with words, surprisingly popular, and the current president of the United States. The 25-car pileup that has been the 2016 presidential primary season has obscured that last fact, but he’s still the leader of the free world for the next 10 months.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has released to the world a nearly 20,000-word essay that consists primarily of Obama’s thoughts on foreign policy and America’s place in the world. For anyone interested in American foreign policy, it is well worth reading.

Clearly, many people read faster than I do, since hot take after hot take has already been filed. As someone who has written in the past about whether there’s an Obama Doctrine, I have thoughts. Here are the five things that surprised me the most from Goldberg’s essay:

1) Obama does not respect America’s foreign policy community. The essay is shot through with disdain from both the president himself and his White House staff about the opinions and judgments of the array of foreign policy think tanks and institutions in Washington. As Goldberg writes, “Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of ‘credibility’—particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam.” Then there’s this:

By 2013, Obama’s resentments were well developed. He resented military leaders who believed they could fix any problem if the commander in chief would simply give them what they wanted, and he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex. A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”

I mean, damn. Speaking of Arabs …

2) Obama respects Arab Middle East leaders even less. The president does not think highly of Benjamin Netanyahu, but that’s nothing compared to his opinion of Arab leaders.  Simply put, Obama does not say a single laudatory thing about any leader in the Arab world in this essay. He inherited a bunch of uneasy alliances with Sunni Arab states, but he doesn’t like it. He talks about how Saudi Arabia and Iran need to share power in the region, which is kind of like waving a big red cape in front of Riyadh. It’s clear that he resents any amount of time he has to devote to, in his opinion, ne’er-do-well partners in the region.

3) There’s a little bit of Donald Trump in Barack Obama. Trump is campaigning on the idea that the United States is getting a raw deal from the rest of the world and says he’d get along with Vladimir Putin. Surprisingly, Obama says his one-on-ones with Putin have been perfectly fine. And it was particularly interesting to see Obama espouse like-minded sentiments about free-riders:

If Obama ever questioned whether America really is the world’s one indispensable nation, he no longer does so. But he is the rare president who seems at times to resent indispensability, rather than embrace it. “Free riders aggravate me,” he told me. Recently, Obama warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who subsequently met the 2 percent threshold.

That said, Obama’s logic for wanting more burden-sharing is radically different from Trump’s logic. Obama sees multilateralism as a useful constraint, “a way to check America’s more unruly impulses,” in Goldberg’s words. That’s a sentiment you will never hear from a current Republican.

4) Obama’s biggest foreign policy failure has been domestic in nature. Goldberg was overseas with Obama as the president whiffed badly in his initial response to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. And everything about Obama’s reaction to those attacks in Goldberg’s essay confirms what I wrote in December.

As I noted a few days ago, Obama’s grand strategy de-emphasizes terrorism and the Middle East as threats in relation to the rise of China and climate change. Obviously, most Republicans disagree with that set of priorities, and as they say in this town, reasonable people can disagree about that set of priorities.
Obama’s greater problem is that he has failed to convince Americans that the threat of terrorism has been wildly overhyped.

5) Here’s the sentence that will infuriate so many about Obama, and it’s the reason I still admire him. If there’s a single sentence in the essay that encapsulates Obama’s view of America’s place in the world, it’s this one: “For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world.”

I confess that what I love about that sentence is just how many people it will infuriate. Every conservative in America will rebel against the first clause. America has warts? That’s heresy!! It’s un-American to say that!! Obama’s willingness to acknowledge the United States as a flawed country is at the root of conservative criticism of this president as someone who doesn’t love the United States. Indeed, they tend to get so furious that they don’t notice the second clause in the sentence.

Many liberals do notice that second clause, however, and it infuriates them. Supporters of Bernie Sanders and left-wing critics of Hillary Clinton (and a few on the Buchananite right) severely doubt the second part of Obama’s claim, pointing to Iraq and Libya and myriad other American foreign policy screw-ups. And those are pretty big warts. But as the president noted in Goldberg’s essay, an awful lot of countries in the Pacific Rim, Latin America, and elsewhere have looked to the United States during the Obama era. That ain’t beanbag.