Jeffrey Goldberg on Obama’s foreign policy


in Bombs and rockets, Economics, History, Law, Politics, Security, The environment

The Atlantic has a long and interesting article about Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

It discusses the use of chemical weapons in Syria; Obama’s take on Churchillian rhetoric; Obama’s appreciation for elements of the George H. W. Bush foreign policy; disagreements within the Obama foreign policy team; Obama’s views on Israeli security; Obama’s “secret disdain” for the Washington foreign policy establishment; his limited respect for foreign leaders (aside from Angela Merkel); a bit of his perspective on climate change (a “comparatively slow-moving emergency” and “a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it”); Obama’s views on ISIS (which he compares to the Joker in The Dark Knight); his perspective of the central role of U.S. leadership in international cooperation; the use of drones with “near-certainty of no collateral damage”; Pakistan as a “disastrously dysfunctional country” and questionable U.S. ally; the impact of tribalism and misogyny in the Middle East; America’s misunderstanding of Reagan and the Iran hostage crisis; America’s overblown fear of terrorism (“Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do”); his frustration with “free rider” allies who don’t contribute to the costs of U.S. foreign policy objectives they support; and his views on the scope of executive power in foreign policy.

It describes the resentments which Obama had developed by 2013:

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.”

On climate change, Obama is quoted saying:

“As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face,” he said. “If you start seeing more severe drought; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse. That’s above and beyond just the existential issues of a planet that starts getting into a bad feedback loop.”

The article also includes some interesting analysis of how Obama adjusted his strategy in response to particular events, as well as interpersonal disagreements among his key advisors.

Another interesting comment is that Obama sees the Middle East as “soon be of negligible relevance to the U.S. economy” “thanks to America’s energy revolution”. It would be interesting to know if he means the noble course of improved efficiency and the deployment of climate-safe energy sources, or the massive expansion of oil and gas production which he has helped drive.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. March 13, 2016 at 8:55 pm

“Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power. Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. Obama believes that history has sides, and that America’s adversaries—and some of its putative allies—have situated themselves on the wrong one, a place where tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism still flourish. What they don’t understand is that history is bending in his direction.”

. May 6, 2016 at 5:43 pm

Another priority—which goes some way to preventing an overreaction—is to reassure ordinary people that the government is working to protect them. Some politicians think that popular fears of perishing in a terrorist attack are irrational. Barack Obama, in a recent interview in the Atlantic, explained how he likes to remind his staff that more Americans die from falling over in the bath. But terrorism is different from accidental death or even from random murder. The public react to terrorism so strongly because they sense that their government cannot fulfil its basic duty to keep them safe from such enemies. The fear that terrorism provokes is not just a statistical delusion but also an inkling that people who know no limits are organising a conspiracy against the state.

. June 2, 2016 at 10:06 pm

In his April cover story for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg delivered what now stands as the definitive assessment of US foreign policy under the current president. At about 18,000 words, “The Obama Doctrine” is double the length of your typical Atlantic cover story. But Obama has been in office for two terms. And the American empire is a big place.

What amazed me about Goldberg’s article isn’t just what it contained—it’s also what it didn’t. Here is a comprehensive assessment of America’s relationship with the rest of the planet that mentions the word “oil” precisely . . . once. And even then in the context of its irrelevance: “For Obama, Asia represents the future . . . And the Middle East is a region to be avoided—one that, thanks to America’s energy revolution, will soon be of negligible relevance to the US economy. It is not oil but another of the Middle East’s exports, terrorism, that shapes Obama’s understanding of his responsibilities.”

To any student of foreign affairs, this caps an astonishing development—and one that, as recently as a decade ago, few could have been predicted. For more than half a century, the need to protect the flow of cheap oil from the Middle East to Western refineries had been a non-negotiable parameter of US foreign policy. That era is now over.

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