Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist.
When you think you’re the smartest person in the room, it’s tempting to make up your own grand strategy.
It is a criticism I have heard from more than one person who has worked with President Obama: that he regards himself as the smartest person in the room—any room. Jeffrey Goldberg’s fascinating article reveals that this is a considerable understatement. The president seems to think he is the smartest person in the world, perhaps ever.
Power corrupts in subtle ways. It appears to have made Obama arrogant. As described in Goldberg’s story, he is impatient to the point of rudeness with members of his own administration. His response to Secretary of State John Kerry when he hands him a paper on Syria is: "Oh, another proposal?” "Samantha, enough,” he snaps at the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "I’ve already read your book.” We learn, too, that he "secretly disdains … the Washington foreign-policy establishment.”
The president is also bluntly critical of traditional American allies. He is said to have told Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain "would no longer be able to claim a ‘special relationship’ with the United States” if it did not "pay [its] fair share” by increasing defense spending. The Pakistanis and the Saudis get especially short shrift here, as—predictably—does Israel.
"Bibi, you have to understand something,” he tells the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. "I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.” Netanyahu may have wondered what exactly in Obama’s biography gives him such insight into the present-day predicament of Israel.
The president is also dismissive of a number of past presidents as strategists. "We dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II,” he tells Goldberg, "and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell.” So much for Nixon and Kissinger.
He is equally dismissive of "mythologies” about Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The release of the American hostages in Iran had "nothing to do with … Reagan’s posture, his rhetoric, etc.” Invading Grenada did not help "our ability to shape world events.” The Iran-Contra affair "wasn’t successful at all.” Nor was Reagan’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon in 1983. These views are not necessarily wrong. Instead, it is the president’s tone that jars—the sarcasm that Goldberg notes. The same tone is manifest in Obama’s sole comment on his immediate predecessor. "As I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does,” he says, "Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.”
Is there anyone to whom Obama does not feel himself superior? The surprising answer is President George H.W. Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. "I love that guy,” Obama is quoted as saying. This will come as no surprise to readers of his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, but most people will scratch their heads. The president explains: "I am … an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights” not only out of self-interest, but also because "it makes the world a better place.” But "you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery. … We’ve got to be hardheaded … and pick and choose our spots. … There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights.”
Power corrupts in subtle ways. It appears to have made Obama arrogant.
Which brings us to Syria, the central foreign-policy failure of the Obama presidency. The grim details of what has happened as the Syrian Civil War has escalated are all too familiar: a death toll of 470,000 according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, nearly 4.8 million refugees according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and a flood of displaced persons and migrants arriving in Europe by sea at a rate of roughly 100,000 a month. Aside from the human suffering, the escalation of the conflict has had grave strategic consequences, not least of which has been the return of Russia to the region as a major player for the first time since the early 1970s.
The consequences of American non-intervention in Syria have, in some ways, been as bad as the consequences of American intervention in Iraq, though fewer American lives and dollars have been expended. Yet the realist in Obama has no regrets. Goldberg does future historians a valuable service by setting out in detail the president’s reasoning.
The president dragged his feet on Syria for three reasons. First, having been elected partly on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War, he was and remains in principle reluctant to deploy U.S. troops (though not U.S. drones). In 2009, he felt the Pentagon had "jammed” him into approving a troop surge in Afghanistan; four years later, he felt he was being jammed again. Second, he misread the Arab Spring, initially equating protesters in Tunisia and Tahrir Square with Rosa Parks and the "patriots of Boston.”
Third, Obama regretted succumbing to pressure from his own advisers as well as from European allies to intervene in Libya in 2011. When similar pressures were brought to bear on him over the red line he himself had drawn regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Obama revolted. On August 30, 2013—after consulting only Denis McDonough, his chief of staff—he decided to call off planned air strikes against the Syrian government, telling McDonough of his "long-standing resentment: He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries.”
The president’s rationalizations of his U-turn need not detain us ("Assad would place civilians as ‘human shields’ around obvious targets … U.S. missiles would not be fired at chemical-weapons depots, for fear of sending plumes of poison into the air,” and so forth). The point is that if those arguments had been any good, there would have been no need to circumvent his own cabinet and advisers.
Susan Rice was "shocked.” When he found out that evening, Kerry told a friend: "I just got fucked over.” Even Vice President Joe Biden was on the other side of the argument ("big nations don’t bluff”). The usually loyal Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, thought it was a mistake. So did the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. So did the king of Jordan. And so, of course, did Hillary Clinton.
When she later made public her criticism of Obama’s handling of Syria, Obama became "rip-shit angry,” according to a senior adviser. It was at this time that the White House went demotic with the facile slogan: "Don’t do stupid shit.” According to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser for strategic communication, "the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’”
This, then, was The Moment: Obama’s decision not to carry out his threat against Bashar al-Assad was, we are told, the defining moment of his presidency. "I’m very proud of this moment,” he tells Goldberg. "The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest … was as tough a decision as I’ve made.”
We see with Obama a full-blown revolution in American foreign policy: The foes shall become friends, and the friends foes.
August 30, 2013 was Obama’s "liberation day,” writes Goldberg—"the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies.” It was the day he finally threw out "what he calls, derisively, the ‘Washington playbook … [the] playbook … that presidents are supposed to follow … [the] playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment.’”
One of the more remarkable aspects of the president’s defense of his Syrian flip is the role played in it by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. As Goldberg writes:
At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, which was held the week after the Syria reversal, Obama pulled Putin aside … and told the Russian president "that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike.” Within weeks, Kerry, working with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would engineer the removal of most of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal.
Now, some of us would argue that the foreign-policy establishment’s playbook said "Keep the Russians out of the Middle East” for a reason. Some of us would point to the sharp escalation of violence in Syria since Putin sent Russian bombers into action in the country. But, no, the president is one step ahead of us again. Letting Putin into the Syrian conflict, we learn from Goldberg, is known in Obama’s National Security Council as the "Tom Sawyer approach”—meaning "that if Putin wanted to expend his regime’s resources by painting the fence in Syria, the U.S. should let him.” Smart! Except that if any of Tom Sawyer’s friends had taken Putin’s approach to fence-painting, there would quickly have been no more fence to paint.
At first sight, all Obama has done has been to exclude Syrian stability from the A-list of U.S. vital national interests. Goldberg mentions "a handful of threats in the Middle East” that the president decided early on "conceivably warranted direct U.S. military intervention”: the threat posed by al-Qaeda, any threat to the continued existence of Israel, and the related threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. By contrast, "the danger to the United States posed by the Assad regime did not rise to the level of these challenges.” On this point the president has been consistent.
Yet his reason for downplaying Syria bears closer scrutiny. In Obama’s mind, Syria’s civil war is just a senseless deviation from what he likes to call "the arc of history.” He believes (following my Harvard colleague Steve Pinker) "that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference.” The big exception is the Middle East, because of the persistence of tribalism, which he sees as an atavistic reaction to the stresses of globalization, "the collision of cultures brought about by the Internet and social media,” and "scarcities—some of which will be attributable to climate change over the next several decades.”
This analysis helps explain why the president underestimated—and still underestimates—the Islamic State, the principal beneficiary of the Syrian disaster. In a 2014 interview, as is well known, he called the group a "jayvee team.” More recently, he has come up with a new analogy. ISIS, the president has explained to his advisers, is like the Joker in the Batman movie The Dark Knight. When the Joker started decapitating American citizens, the president abandoned his policy of non-intervention in Syria. But his low-intensity air campaign against ISIS has conspicuously failed to destroy the organization.
"One of the top goals of the American national-security apparatus in Obama’s last year,” we learn, is to assassinate the "so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” Well, the strategy worked with bin Laden, right? Decapitation of the organization is a sufficient response because, as the president tells Goldberg: "ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States.” He "frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.” (Maybe so, but bathtubs are not actively plotting to kill us.)
There is, however, a second reason why Obama downplays the threat posed by ISIS: He remains more worried about "the sort of panic … that would manifest itself in anti-Muslim xenophobia” than about Islamic extremism itself. Those who believe in a "violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam” are, the president insists, "a tiny faction.” But this view is very hard to reconcile with the president’s own observation to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that Indonesia—where he lived for several years as a child—has been moving, in Goldberg’s words, "gradually … from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation”:
Large numbers of Indonesian women, [Obama] observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering. Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening? Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country … [funding] seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam.
The "tiny faction” theory of Islamic extremism is also hard to reconcile with the conduct of the country on which the president has placed the biggest bet of his career: Iran.
Grand strategies are judged by their consequences, not by their intentions, and in the Middle East the consequences are not looking pretty.
Not intervening in Syria may have been the toughest decision of Obama’s presidency, but it shrinks to strategic insignificance alongside his deal with Iran to slow down that country’s nuclear-arms program. The president assures Goldberg that he "actually would have” struck Iran’s nuclear facilities if he had seen the Iranians "break out,” or get to the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet the essence of his deal is that Iran’s breakout has merely been postponed—and Iran’s brazen testing of ballistic missiles in recent days strongly suggests that Tehran sees it that way.
The president may yet prove to be the smartest person in the world, or at least the smartest person in Washington. Perhaps Iran will become more politically liberal in the 10-year life span of the nuclear deal. Perhaps, too, the world will realize that climate change is a more serious, existential threat than, say, Islamic extremism. And perhaps future presidents will thank Obama for his "pivot” to Asia, which reflects his belief that the rise of China is a more important strategic challenge than the disintegration of the Middle East.
In the words of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the president "consistently asks, even in the midst of everything else that’s going on, ‘Where are we in the Asia-Pacific rebalance? Where are we in terms of resources?’” We read of a possible U.S. naval base in Vietnam, part of the president’s strategy to check China’s ascendancy in Asia. "If you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea,” he tells Goldberg (in language that will not endear him to President Xi Jinping), "we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly.”
Goldberg concludes his important and illuminating article by crediting Obama with "a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements … the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate-change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and … the Iran nuclear deal.” The key word here is "potentially.”
If you think you are smarter than every foreign-policy expert in the room, any room, then it is tempting to make up your own grand strategy. That is what Obama has done, to an extent that even his critics underestimate. There is no "Obama doctrine”; rather, we see here a full-blown revolution in American foreign policy. And this revolution can be summed up as follows: The foes shall become friends, and the friends foes.
In the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia are out, Iran is in. Similarly, in the Far East, China is out, Vietnam is in. As for a special relationship, the president would rather have one with Cuba than Britain. Nothing could better illustrate the extent of Barack Obama’s repudiation of the "foreign-policy establishment.”
Yet grand strategies are judged by their consequences, not by their intentions, and in the Middle East—not to mention North Africa and parts of South Asia—the consequences are not looking pretty.
If the arc of history is in fact bending toward Islamic extremism, sectarian conflict, networks of terrorism, and regional nuclear-arms races, then the 44th president will turn out to have been rather less smart than the foreign-policy establishment he so loftily disdains.