Obama's break with the foreign policy establishment

A week ago, the influential Boston-based magazine, The Atlantic, published a cover story based on an interview with President Barack Obama written by Jeffrey Goldberg. The essay below distils the report's new insights into Mr Obama's toughest foreign policy decisions.

The biggest story in Jeffrey Goldberg's 20,000-word report on The Obama Doctrine is United States President Barack Obama's open break with the foreign policy establishment.

The critique of orthodox national security policy thinking that Mr Obama outlined in interviews with Goldberg goes farther than anything delivered on the record by a sitting president. It showed that Mr Obama's view on how to define and advance US "national security" diverges sharply from the orthodox views of the national security bureaucracy and Washington foreign policy think-tanks on US "credibility", the real interests of the US in the Middle East and how the US should respond to terrorism.

It was the controversy surrounding his decision in the 2013 Syrian crisis not to authorise airstrikes against government forces that provoked Mr Obama to go public with his position in that broader struggle. The foreign policy elite in Washington has issued a steady drumbeat of opinion pieces portraying Mr Obama's failure to launch a cruise missile attack against the Syrian air force and its air defence system in 2013 as a major blow to the US role in the world because it forfeited the country's "credibility".

Mr Richard Haass, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the closest thing to a spokesman for the foreign policy establishment, summed up the elite's attitude towards Mr Obama's decision in Syria in a Feb 23 tweet. Mr Haass suggested that Mr Obama's decision not to bomb Syrian regime targets was on a par with the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. In his tweet, Mr Haass linked to another attack on Mr Obama's decision by the just retired French foreign minister Laurent Fabius.

On Twitter, Mr Haass wrote: "2003 #Iraq war error of commission; not enforcing #Syria red line error of omission. fair debate which more costly.http://nyti.ms/1oEOfjm"

But the more important struggle over that decision was played out within the administration between Mr Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the charge in pressing for cruise missile strikes against military targets of President Bashar al-Assad's regime over its alleged responsibility for the Aug 21, 2013 sarin attack.

The foreign policy elite in Washington has issued a steady drumbeat of opinion pieces portraying Mr Obama's failure to launch a cruise missile attack against the Syrian air force and its air defence system in 2013 as a major blow to the US role in the world because it forfeited the country's "credibility". PHOTO: REUTERS

"There's a playbook that presidents are supposed to follow," Mr Obama told Goldberg. "The playbook prescribes responses to different events and those responses tend to be militarised responses." Such a "playbook" can be "a trap that can lead to bad decisions", he continued. "In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you can get judged harshly if you don't follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply."

Mr Obama has said that "dropping bombs on someone to prove that you're willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force". PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Goldberg writes that Mr Obama "had come to believe that he was walking into a trap - one laid both by allies and adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do".

Mr Obama was implying that he was being pushed into committing American military force to the Syrian conflict less to eliminate the threat of chemical weapons than to tilt the military balance in favour of the opposition and to support "regime change" - something he did not want to do.

Mr Kerry made no bones about his commitment to striking Syrian government military targets. In Senate testimony on Sept 3, 2013, he referred 28 times to the idea that such strikes would "deter" Mr Assad from further chemical weapon attacks and "degrade" the government's military capabilities.

A big reason Mr Obama had begun to doubt the wisdom of a military response to the Aug 21 attack, Goldberg reports, was that national intelligence director James Clapper came to see Mr Obama on the morning of Aug 30 and told him he could not say that the intelligence on Mr Assad having carried out the attack was a "slam dunk".

Mr Clapper's reference was to the misguided assurance that CIA director George Tenet reportedly gave then President George W. Bush in 2002 that the intelligence community could back up Mr Bush's WMD (weapons of mass destruction) claims about Iraq and that to do so would be a "slam dunk". Mr Clapper was saying that US national intelligence was not at all certain that the Mr Assad regime was at fault for the attack.

Over the past week, in the mainstream media's denunciations of Mr Obama's comments in The Atlantic, this passage about Mr Clapper's uncertainty about who had launched the sarin attack is ignored, although it would seem to be a key point.

Furthermore, Mr Obama did have an alternative to going to war in Syria that would eliminate any future threat of chemical weapons attacks by Mr Assad's government. In September 2013, Mr Obama reached an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Mr Assad would give up his entire chemical weapons arsenal, while the US would not go to war against Damascus and as Mr Assad continued to deny a role in the sarin attack.


In The Atlantic interview, Mr Obama's harshest criticism is reserved for the cardinal rule of national security policy orthodoxy: that US "credibility" for using military force must not be eroded by a failure to follow through on a threat to use it.

Of course, Mr Obama's so-called "red line" over chemical weapons was never explicitly defined as a threat to go to war over the issue, so it was a red herring argument for cruise missile strikes in Syria. But there was even substantial doubt inside the US intelligence community that Mr Assad had crossed the "red line".

Mr Obama responded to the "credibility" argument by Mr Kerry and ambassador to the UN Samantha Power at a White House meeting by pointing out that "dropping bombs on someone to prove that you're willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force".

Mr Obama recalled how difficult it was to reject the "credibility" argument then, because, "to press the pause button at that moment… would cost me politically".

The political threat to which he was referring was not merely a figment of his imagination. During his first year in office, his national security advisers had pressured him to accept a smaller and slower withdrawal from Iraq and a much larger military escalation in Afghanistan than Mr Obama had believed were justified by the facts. They had tightened the pressure by giving the mainstream news media anonymous accounts of the issue calculated to make Mr Obama appear naive and irresolute.

Mr Obama has also riled the foreign policy elite by renouncing its tenet of faith that the US has vital interests in the Middle East because of its de facto - but not formal - alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Mr Obama clearly resents the pressure on him to treat both of those "allies" with kid gloves.

Goldberg writes that 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-Israeli funders". Although Goldberg, the most openly pro-Israel big-name journalist in Washington, is obviously disapproving of that observation, it reflects the well-known reality of the funding of the leading think-tanks focused on the Middle East.

Mr Obama rejected the idea of giving unconditional support to the Saudis in their sectarian conflicts, because "Our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own", so such unconditional support "would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the US nor of the Middle East".

Yet Mr Obama has continued to give de facto support to those very sectarian Saudi policies in Syria and Yemen, which have destabilised those countries but which key US national security officials have championed.

Just last week, the New York Times revealed that Mr Kerry had had been a "forceful advocate" last year of the view that the US should support the war the Saudis were planning to launch against Yemen, because the Saudis had questioned American "priorities" in the region in the light of Mr Obama's negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran.


Mr Obama has also sharply dissented from orthodox thinking about terrorism, although not on the record.

Goldberg writes that Mr Obama "frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than hand guns, car accidents and falls in bathtubs".

That view has scandalised his national security advisers, who have been "fighting a constant rearguard action", according to Goldberg, "to keep Mr Obama from placing terrorism in what he considers its 'proper' perspective, out of concern that he will seem insensitive to the fears of the American people".

Those reported remarks by Mr Obama to his staff are consistent with his statement in a May 2013 speech on terrorism policy that "Any US military action in foreign land risks creating more enemies…." He also said: "A perpetual war - through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments - will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways."

Nevertheless, Mr Obama has continued to preside over a vast increase in drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The fact that he has voiced a perspective that directly contradicts his own administration's actual policies on wars in Yemen and Syria as well as on counter-terrorism policy suggests that he has consistently compromised with senior national security officials, despite his misgivings, for political reasons.

That same pattern of behaviour was evident in his response to the US military's request for a steep increase in American combat forces in Afghanistan in 2009. He had privately disagreed sharply with his national security team over the issue, even arguing that Afghanistan was far less important to US national security than the future of Pakistan, as revealed by Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars.

But in the end, Mr Obama reached a compromise between his own view of what should be done and the demands pressed on him by his national security team. The fact that then Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were both supporting the military was central to his calculation of the political cost he anticipated if he rejected the escalation.

Mr Obama's readiness to go along with policies about which he had serious misgivings - with one signal exception (bombing Syria in 2013) - bears similarity to the political dynamic that propelled the US into the Vietnam war.

Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson said privately that South Vietnam was not worth a war, but both agreed to major steps towards war under pressure from the senior advisers, including their secretaries of state and defence.

The new revelations of Mr Obama's disenchantment with foreign policy orthodoxy on the use of force illuminate an enduring structural problem of presidents perceiving their national security officials as having the power to impose high political costs on them if their demands for war were rejected. On the other hand, Mr Obama's public break-up with the national security elite appears to represent a new stage in the politics of national security in which broader resistance to those powerful interests may possibly be feasible.

•Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the US war in Afghanistan. His new book is Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story Of The Iran Nuclear Scare.

•This article first appeared in Consortium News, a website for independent investigative journalism.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline Obama's break with the foreign policy establishment. Subscribe