Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine – The Atlantic

CK MacLeod

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94 Responses

  1. Kolohe says:

    Goldberg’s rewriting history vis a vis Obama & Afghanistan in his very first paragraph, I’ll have to read the rest later.Report

    • CK MacLeod in reply to Kolohe says:

      I think you must mean the second paragraph, since the first one does not mention Afghanistan.

      What Goldberg says in the second paragraph on Afghanistan is the following:

      Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he was not seeking new dragons to slay. And he was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable. “If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, and his foreign-policy amanuensis, told me not long ago.

      I don’t think that’s a re-writing of history, though I do think it subordinates some complex politico-military maneuvers under an overarching preference. If you dial back to 2009, when Obama was new and had other priorities, Petraeus was a warrior-saint with presidential prospects, and the Iraqi Surge was still viewed as a success, Obama’s reluctant adoption of a critically modified “surge to the exits” strategy – escalate in the short term, with a stated timetable for withdrawal – fits under Goldberg’s simple heading. The only politically feasible way to get out was to get in further, but with limits.

      Setting aside the openly announced deadline – a clear subordination of military to political calculation – the approach wasn’t even unusual: In order to conduct a fighting retreat, one may need to add reinforcements or even stage an offensive during the initial phase. One may even, prudently, leave open the possibility of exploiting some greater than anticipated success. So, the prudent course entails the kind of superficial contradiction that makes it vulnerable to attack from all sides, especially from those most strongly committed to one of the two contrary directions and underlying flexibility it necessarily embodies.

      Whatever the flaws of the piece, it qualifies as something of a must-read for any of us interested in second and further drafts on recent history. To me, the most interesting aspect of Obama’s self-analysis is his denunciation of tribalism and his connected confession of his own excessive rationalism. He understands, rationally, that his rationalism will be dissatisfying for those who seek or need to derive a perhaps irrevocably non-rationalizable, or not merely rational, meaning from political allegiance or identity. How can a nation survive, can its institutions function, can it prosper and triumph, can the People experience satisfaction without recourse at some point to such “tribalism”?Report

  2. North says:

    It read as pretty fair to me at first blush and reminded me of how, while I was one of the mildest breeds of Obama supporters initially, I am overall pretty satisfied with his performance in office. On foreign policy I hope HRC steals lots of pages from his book.Report

    • greginak in reply to North says:

      Agreed. There were many interesting bits. His displeasure and suspicion of the Saudis and Pakistanis is entirely correct. Wanting the Euro and ME partners to do more makes sense but i’m sure will be viewed as weakness. I’d hope Clinton would learn from him but libya doesn’t’ suggest that.Report

    • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to North says:

      I am an unabashed fan of Obama: to my mind, he has been the finest president of my lifetime. He has accomplished pretty much as much as could be politically done, given the situation he walked into, and the character of his opposition. As an excessively rational voter, I have appreciated his largely unheralded steady pursuit of best outcomes, even when the political credit doesn’t redound to him and his administration.

      When he was running in 2008, I had viewed him as another potential Roosevelt: a gifted communicator, and thought that he had the potential to lead a political realignment. Alas, he is personally uncomfortable with political theater, and has largely chosen to neglect those gifts since taking office.

      But I always wonder what the alternate universe would look like in which he had fewer crises and a less intransigent opposition.Report

  3. LeeEsq says:

    Obama inherited a horrible policy mess from his predecessor and actually made it better rather than making it worse from an American standpoint. The United States didn’t get suckered into any expanding or new wars to a large extent and things that would have led to war with another President were solved by diplomacy by Obama. It seems to be a revision of Truman’s containment strategy.Report

  4. To my mind the fourth conclusion Goldberg imputes to O, ” that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power” is the assumption that makes all the others worth talking about. It, and the argument against it, are also perhaps the unifying idea behind the structures of neo imperialism you have explored previously.

    The fourth conclusion invites I think, one to consider its opposite. Can the world afford to see the continuation of an exceptional America, and the exercise of its power given conclusion 2 and 3, applied not just to the Middle East, but the world in general.

    It may be that the fourth conclusion and its opposite are equally valid.Report

    • Atomic Geography: It, and the argument against it, are also perhaps the unifying idea behind the structures of neo imperialism you have explored previously.

      We haven’t discussed “neo-imperialism” in these parts very much. Maybe someday.

      Sorting out the contradictions that bleed into your description of them would be part of that discussion, and one of its most difficult if not impossible requirements. Understanding them perfectly would require something, really, like absolute knowledge (or we might say “absolute knowing”) of world history. We can see how even our resplendently intelligent, articulate, cosmopolitan, wonderfully informed, by now thoroughly experienced, reasonable and well-meaning president is far from being able to master the case.

      The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power.

      We could, indeed, put the statement in both positive and negative forms and declare them equally true: The world cannot afford the diminution of U.S. power, and, to use your phrasing, the world cannot afford “the continuation of an exceptional America.” One question elided in this formulation is whether, in fact, “continuation” is possible without constant expansion. Since the world keeps revolving and changing, there may be no staying in place, or, to say the same thing, staying in place would require a constant movement forward in two ways. Or we always need to be getting ahead of ourselves in order to keep up with ourselves.

      If that proves too much for us – or has already proven too much for us – then the other way to put the observation two-sidedly would be this: The world cannot afford the diminution of U.S. power, but U.S. power is diminishing: The world is therefore in some kind of danger or is going bankrupt or whatever we mean when we say that something is happening to an entity that that entity cannot afford.

      I think it means that the world will be, or would be, or is a different world under the diminution of U.S. power. I think it also means that no one should feel too confident about predicting what such a transformation will entail. I think that even if the neo-empire has passed its half-life, there might be still a lot of less-than-half to go, including multiple opportunities for everyone who got what they wished for to beg for a do-over.Report

  5. aaron david says:

    Well, as a Libertarian/former Democrat I will have to be a dissenter here. I don’t feel that his handling of foreign policy has been successful in the slightest. In fact I feel that his appointment of an incompetent SoS, a sop to a failed presidential candidate, was a leading cause of many of these FP failures, such as the Russia Reset and Libyan war of choice. And those two specific actions have lead to further destabilization of the region, with the spread of ISIS into North Africa and the increased beligerance of Putin in both Syria and the Ukraine.

    I do think that Goldberg is correct about what Obamas conclusions reguarding the ME are; indeed, I think they are for the most part selfevident. “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.” This is an area where his failure to be an actual leader, and not a politician, have come to the fore.Report

  6. Now, I actually think that Ronald Reagan had a great success in foreign policy, which was to recognize the opportunity that Gorbachev presented and to engage in extensive diplomacy—which was roundly criticized by some of the same people who now use Ronald Reagan to promote the notion that we should go around bombing people.

    I’ve been saying this for years, so I have to conclude that Obama’s a pretty smart guy. (In fact if you, look at the group that was calling Reagan a dupe of Gorbachev at the time, they’re largely the same geniuses who thought invading Iraq would be a good idea.)Report

    • trizzlor in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Stalin was, in the prophetic words of a 19th-century Russian revolutionary, Genghis Khan with a telegraph. Gorbachev is Khrushchev with a tailor. Why is Gorbachev so readily extenuated by the leaders of the leading democracy? Because there is nothing that Western publics hunger for more than a communist with a human face. So when the smile reveals iron teeth, it is best to pretend we do not see them. Or better still, to argue that they cannot be there.

      ~ CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, 1987Report

      • CK MacLeod in reply to trizzlor says:

        You might try reading the quote above in context, since the latter has nothing to do with criticizing Reagan at all. In fact, Reagan’s name isn’t even mentioned in the op-ed, which concerns the way that members of a Congressional delegation meeting with Gorbachev appeared, in Krauthammer’s opinion, to be in a hurry to forgive certain remarks of Gorbachev’s, one concerning Jewish dissidents, another concerning racial minorities in the United States and the possibility of creating separate homelands for them.

        It is true that Reagan had critics on the right. Almost every development in Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union produced anxiety on on the right, just as almost every development in Obama’s anti-terrorism policy has been received with anxiety by elements on the left.Report

        • North in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          And the right!Report

        • trizzlor in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          I’m not sure where we disagree. Dr. K has dozens of op-eds where he predicts that Reagan’s warming relationship with Gorbachev spells the doom of American power; they’re not hard to find. This quote is interesting because it distills Dr. K’s view of Gorbachev: he’s no different from any Soviet leader, he’s fooling US leadership with his cooperative act, and US leadership is willfully ignoring this. It goes without saying that Dr. K was spectacularly wrong in his assessment, but the algorithm hasn’t changed: Given a foreign leader, ascribe to him characteristics that would lead to the most militaristic response; any positive non-militaristic development with that leader is just him hiding his iron teeth and playing you for a fool; any negative non-militaristic development is further evidence that a militaristic response is needed.Report

          • Francis in reply to trizzlor says:

            you wouldn’t be thinking of recent writings on Iran, by any chance?Report

            • trizzlor in reply to Francis says:

              Actually, this made me wonder if Krauthammer has *ever* come out for non-intervention or de-escalating a military situation. And – go figure – he was castigating Clinton for intervening in Kosovo and predicted the whole region would become a Vietnamized quagmire (ably documented by infamous ex-Leaguer Barrett Brown). In 2001 Krauthammer concluded that Macedonia was a lost cause and warned:

              There is little more that we can do about this quagmire. But it should be a lesson the next time a president comes to the American people and asks for intervention in a local war, on the grounds that if we could only get rid of the bad guys, peace and light will reign. Sometimes that is true; most times it is not.

              Words to heed.Report

  7. trizzlor says:

    Right after Obama’s reversal, Hillary Clinton said privately, “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.”

    This is easily the most damning part of the article. This isn’t even a sunk-cost fallacy because nothing besides rhetoric had been spent. It’s a we-promised-costs-and-now-we-have-to-sink-them fallacy. Just madness.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to trizzlor says:

      Without weighing into the specifics, I’m not sure this is accurate in the abstract. If you tell someone you’ll do X if you do Y and then they do Y and you don’t do X, the next time someone is tempted to do something you don’t like, they’ll be that much more likely to ignore you… even if we aren’t talking about X and Y anymore.

      Does this mean you should stay pot committed and bomb people? Heck no. But it means you need to be really judicious when making such threats and not threaten anything you aren’t willing to do and don’t think should be done.

      I mean, this is like Parenting 101…Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Kazzy says:


        On one reading of it, the entire (really long) article is about squaring Obama’s decision to not enforce the red line with the logic you’re employing here. If use-of-force decision-making was as simple as parenting 101 (which is Clinton’s view, btw) the article wouldn’t have been written and there’d be nothing of interest revealed by interviewing Obama about his decision-process.

        And even after reading the article you could still believe that the Parenting 101 model of US foreign policy isn’t still operative, of course.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to Kazzy says:

        I take the point that this wasn’t a zero-cost decision. But Clinton’s assertion is that even if there is no direct benefit, the country is against it, Congress doesn’t want it, and the military says it’s not a slam dunk – you *still* have no choice. To me that’s crazy. I mean, if I’m driving and tell my daughter “knock it off or I’ll pull the car over and let you out” and she calls my bluff, it would not actually be good parenting for me to let her out in the middle of the highway to run into traffic.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to trizzlor says:

      This is easily the most damning part of the article.

      From a couple of perspectives – political, personal, institutional.Report

  8. I’ve read only the excerpt and not the article, and frankly, I don’t know enough about Obama’s foreign policy to know if Goldberg is right or wrong. However, I do think this,

    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.

    is wrong. Not the part about whether Obama believes it. I’ll take Goldberg’s word for that. But the part about history having “sides.” Maybe the trend isn’t toward whatever the counterpoints to tribalism, fundamentalism, etc., are. Maybe in 20 or 50 or 100 years’ time we’ll see that the world was ever trending in that direction. Or maybe we won’t. But I don’t know how we can know that.

    To be clear, I do believe in right and wrong. I do believe that tribalism, fundamentalism, etc., can be and often are damaging and therefore bad. Maybe not 100% bad–few things are 100% bad–but bad enough to be called bad. That doesn’t mean they’re the “wrong” side of history.

    To suggest there’s a “side” to history is akin to invoking providence or divine approval for the side one favors. I suppose there are better and worse ways to do that. Perhaps one can adopt a historical equivalent of “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” But the Whiggishness implicit in the view that those bad things will inevitably cede to the ongoing onslaught of “history” is in my opinion mistaken.

    Again, though. I haven’t read the full article. So maybe Goldberg clarifies that point, and maybe at least as far as it applies to Obama’s beliefs, it’s accurate.Report

  9. Kolohe says:

    Ok, I finally finished the article. The Atlantic needs some new fact checkers – Godfather 3? There were only 2 Godfather movies, no idea where Goldberg is getting his data.

    But seriously – I can be fairly positive on Obama’s foreign policy decisions and results, and still find that this article was a bunch of source greasing malarky that, yes, did rewrite history, and more than anything else, an looks like an attempt of Goldberg to find himself – to redeem himself – after his own worldview is still trying to find coherence as his (Goldberg’s) support Operation Iraqi Freedom wound up not going so well.

    The reverse chronological order of the tale, along with some jump cuts and further flashbacks, provides an origin story of sorts, but it elides some of the steps of that evolution, making events 2 or more years apart seem almost simultaneous – and thus shows an evolutionary process that is quite damning to Obama.

    We are to take that the Obama Doctrine, in current form, and as finally more or less enunciated, came into effect in late August 2013, in the immediate aftermath of the accusation that Assad used chemical weapons. That’s a fine enough touchstone, I accept it wholeheartedly.

    Many of his advisers did not grasp the depth of the president’s misgivings; his Cabinet and his allies were certainly unaware of them. But his doubts were growing. Late on Friday afternoon, Obama determined that he was simply not prepared to authorize a strike.

    And there’s the decision point, made the day it was announced. And by the account Goldberg is provided, almost nobody else knew what the President was thinking. Even though

    Obama also shared with McDonough a long-standing resentment: He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries. Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.

    And elsewhere, Goldberg tells how he was similarly jammed on Libya, and that’s why he was reluctant to do Syria.

    But here’s the thing. This is a President in the fifth year of his Presidency, a person that has been elected and re-elected. On the first day on his first term, he’s the man behind the Resolute desk, he’s the one in charge, he cannot, he should not be jammed.

    Ok, alright, the first few days, weeks, even months after an inauguration is a learning curve for anyone, especially someone who has no deep exposure to the national security apparatus. I give him some slack for not really knowing what advice was good, what was not so good, and who generally gives which.

    But this is now *year fishing FIVE*. He knows where the bodies are buried by now. Standing up for himself is not an act of bravery at this point- it’s a Chris Rock cookie; it’s what he’s *supposed* to do.

    The fact that nobody really knew what the boss was thinking up until the boss said something on that day in late August is telling. Only two logical outcomes

    1) Goldberg’s narrative mis-emphasized the critical junctures of decision process. Obama was onboard with the strikes against Syria, but the UK no vote was its own political shock and awe that made Obama completely reverse course. Goldberg does say that Obama says the UK vote played a role, but it was Obama thinking of the on-site weapons inspectors that was the first issue, and additionally the lack of potential utility of the airstrikes.

    2) Obama had these long standing reservations against what most of what his government was doing and planning – and said nothing to no one. That’s…incredibly piss poor leadership. I’m not expecting, and I don’t want Obama to lead the world, but I want him to lead his own gorram people in his own gorram government. You certainly don’t want people to only tell you want you want to hear, but if you really have good people – which was the entire fishin point of electing Obama twice, to have good people in the government – good people need to know what the big boss in thinking *and* they will tell him or her stuff that they don’t necessarily want to hear.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Kolohe says:

      I agree with this:

      an looks like an attempt of Goldberg to find himself – to redeem himself – after his own worldview is still trying to find coherence as his (Goldberg’s) support Operation Iraqi Freedom wound up not going so well.

      I gotta admit that, given the tone and texture of the piece, I could not help but read it primarily in a “Goldbergian” context: that is, I read the article as being more about Goldberg himself, and his attempt to justify/reaffirm his own already-expressed views about ME politics, than anything specifically about Obama. But that’s how I read all of Jeffrey Goldberg’s pieces: as subtle forms of propaganda.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Stillwater says:

        “his attempt to justify/reaffirm his own already-expressed views about ME politics,”

        It’s subtly different than that, and why I said Goldberg is trying to ‘find himself’. While Goldberg has long had a primary interest in the Middle East, he is explicitly accepting the premise of the ‘Asian Pivot’*, so it seems he’s looking for a new place to hang his hat.

        What Goldberg perceives, wrongly imo, is that the institutional powers are all too focused on the Middle East to the detriment of Asia. The institutions within and adjacent to the US government (and those on the outside trying to influence the US government) that deal in East Asian diplomatic, military, and political policy are every bit the equal than those that deal with Middle East policy (and which Goldberg attributes some person saying they are ‘Arab occupied territory’)

        The East Asian institutions are simply different and generally separate, often due to legacy Cold War (and heck, World War 2) institutional origins that separated in-house and /or into separate institutions all affairs that dealt with the Pacific and those that dealt with the Atlantic. In fact, for the longest time, ‘Middle Eastern’ affairs were an adjunct to one of these two institutional frameworks, and really only started breaking out on its own under Clinton administration in the first wave of post-Cold War reorganization (and consolidation.) Heck, a large part of the naval part of OIF was *still* run from Japan. I got a OIF medal, and I was in motherfishin Guam when everything kicked off.

        All of which is to say – I don’t think Goldberg is correct when he says that institutional pressure is keeping him in the Middle East when he’d like to go elsewhere. The institutional pressure is balanced, and probably has been in favor of Asia for a long time, even before his term.

        *which is a fine premise to accept. “Asia” has nearly half the people in the world, and now, a quarter of the money and growing. The Middle east has far less of either than the popular notion of the place.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Kolohe says:

          I’ll accept that. It’s certainly more flattering to Goldberg than the view I just expressed. 🙂

          {{My own algorithm for reading Goldberg is to keep in mind the objectives of the piece as informed by his past expressed views and then filter away the propagandistic purposes of quoting certain people or presentation of certain facts or “facts” to leave something objective in the residue. For better or worse, *that’s* what Goldberg has trained me to do when reading his work. 🙂 }}Report

        • greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

          Disagree about the institutional pressure. There is a huge focus on the ME from influential think tanks ( which often does carry weight), the press and very definitely on the Right. Much pressure is applied about doing things in the ME from our various “allies” who have quite a bit of sway in washington. Israel and Saudi Arabia have influential friends. The ME does take up a lot of our energy. To much, far to much, and trying to move away from that has been a good idea.

          How long have people been freaking about ISIS brining the end of the world nigh, yet how often do we here about Boko Harem or talk about the actual events in the far east?Report

      • trizzlor in reply to Stillwater says:

        >>But that’s how I read all of Jeffrey Goldberg’s pieces: as subtle forms of propaganda.

        Glad I wasn’t the only one. Like 80% of the piece is a humble-brag about how much access Goldberg has and how insightful his questions are – here Obama left the Malaysians waiting to talk to me on Air Force One; here I bumped into him in the Oval Office to ask the one key question; here I get really cerebral about Hobbes; here I shit on gauche CNN reporters with his staff. We get it, they picked you to be the stenographer, at least try to be a little modest.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to trizzlor says:

          It’s not so much the humble-braggin (tho that’s part of the overall shtick), it’s the predilection to compel public support for US military engagement in ME for ostensibly myriad IMPORTANT geo-political reasons, sometimes even including “risking” ((!!)) Israel going it alone (!!!) (egad!!), when the motive actually reduces to bare, cynical (in my view) advocacy for advancing Israeli interests while the US bears the cost.

          See – or recall – for example, this excellent piece of propaganda.Report

    • trizzlor in reply to Kolohe says:

      >>Obama had these long standing reservations against what most of what his government was doing and planning – and said nothing to no one.

      If we’re being generous to Obama, his problem is with the whole military-industrial machine. From Goldberg’s anecdotes, it certainly doesn’t sound like Obama surrounded himself with “yes-men” or had a hard time telling them to obey his authority. I’ve heard this before – perhaps even from Goldberg – where Obama complained that the military generals were purposefully bringing him bad options to steer his choices. And other presidents have expressed similar concerns.

      The problem is that Goldberg wrote a puff piece that pretends to be a serious foreign policy assessment, so it’s actually very hard to figure out how generous we should be to Obama. The one instance where Obama allegedly bucked the trend was actually a huge management disaster, and one where he was already boxed out by Congress, public opinion, and our allies. And by my read, Goldberg never expresses any serious weakness or blindspots to the Obama doctrine. I mean, yeah, he talks about how Obama is really calm and Spock-like, that he doesn’t react to tribalism, etc. But that’s like saying your biggest weakness is that you work too hard. When a journalist cannot ever express disapproval, it’s hard to take his approval seriously.Report

    • CK MacLeod in reply to Kolohe says:

      Kolohe: Obama had these long standing reservations against what most of what his government was doing and planning – and said nothing to no one. That’s…incredibly piss poor leadership.

      If you go back to Obama’s statements at the time, the record for someone seeking a defense of Obama’s leadership is even more difficult, in my opinion, although it’s not a major interest of mine to attack or defend Obama personally. He was clearly reluctant about Syria all the way along. It wasn’t as though suddenly in August 2013 he got neo-isolationist religion. Long prior to the mass atrocity at East Ghouta, his policy on Syria appeared confused and contradictory, as in the tragicomical on and off search for supportable rebels to arm and train. Even the original “red line” statement, which is quoted in the piece, was studiously ambiguous about what might occur if and when the line was crossed, and in fact about what the line actually consisted of.

      Indicatively, Obama seemed to be hoping that a legacy of American “credibility” on such threats would be sufficient to make this one work, without acknowledging – perhaps according to all the best and latest political scientific critiques of “credibility” – the possible damage to American credibility that his own policies had reinforced. Was it ever really believable to Assad and his allies that the U.S. would really be ready to climb the escalation ladder in Syria? Or was it more likely laughable?

      Democratic or left-liberal thinking on the credibility question is actually quite split, as indicated by the differences observed elsewhere on this thread regarding HRC’s “parental” understanding of presidential threats, or the tangled critique of Obama’s possible bluff about bluffing, etc. The problem goes to a much larger issue and set of contradictions. If you re-read Obama’s own statements to the nation in the aftermath of his reversal and then his abortive campaign to get public and congressional permission to strike, they have a forlorn tone: He continues to say that he still believes “we” should punish Assad for the atrocity, but he acknowledges that we won’t. He turns the matter into a profound collective self-indictment, with himself as neurotic enabler in chief.Report

      • greginak in reply to CK MacLeod says:

        I think O’s actions about Syria have been pretty clear. He doesn’t want to go in and has resisted it. Due to various pressures he can’t just say to hell with it, but he has consistently tried to avoid entanglement there for many good reasons. It really has been easy to see. He wants to spend and risk little there since the likely outcomes of us trying to do much are all bad. He has always seemed to grasp the difference between what it would be nice to do and what we can actually do. Would it be good to punish Assad or get him out for someone better….of frickin course. Can we do that…..ur well not really. So don’t risk much but try to nibble around the edges and let other states risk more.Report

  10. Kolohe says:

    @ck-macleod You’re right, it was a few paragraphs in, when I read the first part of the story on my phone, everything was kinda mushed together.

    Here’s what I mean about rewriting history – yes, some of it is under the radar maneuvering, but in an article as long as this, that is essentially about all the maneuvering, it’s not as easy of a sin to ignore.

    “Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan”

    Candidate Obama was very straightforward about his promise to get out of Iraq. On Afghanistan, though he promised to greatly expand the war in Afghanistan, and make it war “we have to win.”

    Which he did. Now, in detail, what happened was that the military had put in a bunch of request for forces as the Bush Administration was winding down (and after the peak of the Iraq surge), that the Bush Administration rightly delayed on, not wanting to encumber the new President, whoever it was, with a commitment Bush made but of course wouldn’t be able to follow through on. (unlike everyone’s, including Obama’s, favorite Bush, who send forces to Somalia in the twilight of the administration that Clinton then had to deal with). In any case, about a month or so after election, Obama approved most of these requests (which was what he promised to do)

    *then* the military came to him with phase 2 of the request, when Obama replaced the guy in charge of Afghanistan, ISAF allies re-prioritized Afghanistan with a new guy in charge of America, and Afghanistan heading into it’s first ‘real’ Presidential election. That phase 2 request was for All the Things, because 1) the military always asks for All the Things, unless specifically told not too and 2) President Obama had repeatedly said as Candidate Obama that Afghanistan effort was failing because we were diverted to Iraq. Since Iraq got sent All the Things, and candidate Obama thought that was the difference maker, ergo, let’s send All the Things to Afghanistan now.

    Obama balked at All the Things, his first real lesson as President. And said, no you’re not going to get All the Things. Then Obama had to personally but quietly reprimand McCrystal for getting too far out in front about All the Things (even though McCrystal, as a special operator, was personally and professionally disinclined to accept Big Army’s and NATO’s preferences for All the Things).

    Learning, Obama made his West Point speech in Dec 2009 where only *then* he promised to start bringing the troops home (in 18 months from then or almost 5 years ago now) Then McCrystal’s personal staff, who were horrible people for the most part, burned (figuratively) McCrystal badly, causing him to (rightly) get fired, then Petraeus came in and left, and things in Afghanistan started to be put out of sight out of mind. No one cares anymore.

    brief PS on Iraq – Obama promised to get out of Iraq consistently, but when he was in office, his government did continue to hold talks with the Iraq government to try to strike a deal on the SOFA and extend US troop presence. It’s going to be a battle for the historians to figure out if these talks were at all in good faith (the people inside the diplomatic-miltary establishment thought they were) or if the Administration deliberately sandbagged them, not approaching the Iraqi’s (and our own) non-negotiable positions about sovereignty over criminal matters of individual service members, in order for Obama to keep his campaign promises (and maintain the popular position of getting the fish out of Iraq)Report

  11. Kolohe says:

    One other sidenote – Isis/Isil is not the Joker – George W Bush was the joker that blew up the existing power arrangements of the definitely evil people that were vying for control of the Middle East.Report

  12. Damon says:

    Well, let’s see. Bush invaded iraq and afganistan. Obama pulled out of iraq and allowed isis a foothold, destabilized syria (again with isis) is funding isis, destabilized libya, ukraine, allowed SA to attack yemen. North africa is a shambles, hundreds of thousands of migrats fleeing the war have swamped n europe, russia is flexing it’s mussels in syria. The only thing I see he actually achieved is with Iran.

    Oh year, great foreign policy.Report

  13. Kolohe says:

    Another thing where Obama dd a good enough thing, but the framing that Goldberg uses, in a passing reference gives Obama too much credit.

    He overthrew half a century of bipartisan consensus in order to reestablish ties with Cuba.

    Again, yay! And it’s about time! (and really, it isn’t happening fast enough. You still can’t just get a tourist visa and go to Cuba, and there’s no indication of when that will occur)

    But the bi-partisan consensus went away pretty much when the Berlin Wall and USSR did. The institutional thought has long been to approach Cuba the same way as China and Vietnam, thinking (and maybe just hoping, without proper analytical foundations) that commercial and diplomatic relations would eventually lead to political liberalization.

    The political pressure for the Cuba status quo is well known, a sizable voting bloc in a Presidential swing state. But there were bi-partisan overtures during the Bush administration for ending the hard line stance on Cuba, though George Bush himself was adamantly against it.Report

  14. Francis says:

    I find the conservative critiques of Obama on this thread quite interesting. Looking at both Damon and aaron’s comments, the unifying theme is that the US has both the interest and the capabilities to take on everyone everywhere.

    As best I can tell, the US should have: (a) forced a reversal of the Bush SOFA and stayed in Iraq, (b) prevented the multi-part civil war in Syria, (c) prevented a multi-part civil war in Libya, (d) forced Russia to withdraw from Crimea and Ukraine, and (e) prevented Russia [a nuclear power, let’s remember] from coming to the assistance of its ally the Syrian government.

    This kind of wishful thinking is what a lot of liberals call Green Lanternism — if only our will were strong enough, the rest of the globe (6.7 billion, give or take) would do as we demand.

    But the Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, Crimeans and Ukrainians were all headed for, or already in, a fight no matter what we did. Oddly enough, foreigners have their own agency. That’s why the Turks, Saudis, Russians and Iranians are not doing what we want them to do in Syria. As an old diplomat once told me, when dealing with foreign countries you can (a) persuade, (b) bribe or (c) blackmail, and that’s pretty much it. Threats are pretty much useless you’re actually willing to use the military and I don’t see any appetite among the voters for actually sending substantial forces into Iraq / Libya / Syria / Ukraine. Air strikes are fine in support of ground troops, but which ground troops should we be supporting? There are times in the world when no one is on “our” side, and that’s pretty clearly going on right now in Syria.Report

    • greginak in reply to Francis says:

      Agreed. Good stuff. Although ISIS is getting pushed back w/o us having to do much which is a good thing. That still leaves Assad but the conservative critics in general seemed to have missed that we can’t work against both Assad and ISIS in any non-cartoonishly insane way.Report

    • aaron david in reply to Francis says:

      “the unifying theme is that the US has both the interest and the capabilities to take on everyone everywhere.”

      Not sure how you got that from my, or Damons for that matter, comment, but I will try to clarify. The US doesn’t have the interest or capability to take on everyone, everywhere. Period, never said it did. But, if you are going to be in the middle of something, such as the ME, even trying to extract yourself, you cannot bring people in as advisors who don’t have a fishing clue as to what they are doing, a la HRC. Nor can you assume that “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.” Other leaders often have goals of their own, and definately constituents to answer to. If he doesn’t like that then he needs to start leading. You need to lead them, change the minds of these leaders. Bring them along.

      Which Obama has shown little ability to do, at home or abroad. Abroad if Goldberg is correct, at home witnessed by the state and congressional losses suffered by the D’s under his leadership.Report

      • Francis in reply to aaron david says:

        “You need to lead them, change the minds of these leaders. Bring them along.”

        yah, it’s just a matter of exercising our will. And when, as happens on a regular basis, our allies say “no thanks”, then what? The Europeans asked for our assistance in preventing slaughter in Libya and we went along, providing air power. Our allies then decided to do nothing about an on-the-ground presence after Qaddafi fell. Now what?

        There are no good options whatsoever in Syria and never were. Now what?

        The Iraqis flatly refused to change the SOFA and Obama campaigned on withdrawing from Iraq. He gave the American and Iraqi people what they wanted, and Iraq collapsed even faster than expected. Now what?

        Ukraine is within Russia’s sphere of influence. We are about as likely to go to war over Russia’s current involvement in Ukraine as we were in 1956 when Russia invaded Hungary: 0%. Yah, Russia’s a bully. Are you ready for WWIII? The only possible way to deal with that kind of behavior is through patient sanctions, or risk the death of billions of people.

        There is the incredible contradiction in conservative thinking which states both that we want a limited government for ourselves and that we can impose our will and our view of what government should be on others. To quote your own words, aaron, all we need to do is exercise our will and “bring them along.” wait, what? Voters should tell Washington to fish off, but when the world tells Washington to fish off we’re supposed to reject that answer?

        The world is not pre-school and we’re not the teacher who can tell everyone to settle down. Other countries are perfectly in their right to reject American ‘leadership’. And after the utter disaster of the Bush II administration, I don’t much blame them.Report

        • trizzlor in reply to Francis says:

          Goldberg makes a good point along those lines in the piece:

          Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.

          This seems accurate to me. And the only way to break this imbalance is to make *every* country a core American interest, so that any time we want something done the parties involved know we’re willing to start WW3. I think this is actually the kind of role for the US that folks like Krauthammer and Kristol envision.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to trizzlor says:

            That’s an ad hoc, post hoc rationalization, not a doctrine (even though probably correct). Taiwan and the Spratleys are core PRC interests, but we’ve escalated when PRC looks funny at Taiwan and pushed back with freedom of the seas drills as they build up Woody Island.Report

            • greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

              Does he have to have a rigid doctrine? Each place has it’s own unique uniqueness, so maybe there isn’t one specific doctrine to explain everything.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to greginak says:

                In the context of discussing an umpteenth thousand word article on how awesomsauce the Obama Doctrine is?

                It doesn’t have to be rigid, but it shouldn’t be an amoeba either.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Kolohe says:

                Kolohe: umpteenth thousand word article on how awesomsauce the Obama Doctrine is

                Didn’t get that impression. It seemed oriented more to letting O speak for himself – and O, is, unsurprisingly, somewhat sympathetic to himself – then ends on a heavily “eye of the beholder” note. The response has been, as Goldberg has noted, quite “Rohrschach-y.” My own Rohrschach response is to see the fact that O is so Rohrschach-y as typical of his diffidence, which I view as both typical of O and typical of this period in US policy, and not coincidentally why O was elected and re-elected by a diffident to the point of schizoid electorate.Report

              • greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

                O’s most clearly stated doctrine is “don’t do stupid shit.” That is hard to disagree with but of course isn’t that specific. There are plenty of specifics about what he thinks about certain countries or how much we should risk and what are our key interests though.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to greginak says:

                He’s extremely malleable and contigent of what those interests are. Persistence in Afghanistan is vital, persistence in Iraq is not – until he did send several hundred troops back to Iraq. A massive air campaign against Gaddafi was vital, one against Assad was not. Airstrikes that kill 150 people in Somalia are vital, because???

                Remember when the liberal intelligentsia was busy promoting Enough’s line on the Islamic Courts Union? Good times.Report

              • greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

                Well he should choose different actions contingent on the situation. Good and more good. I don’t’ really see the sense in a criticism that he treats each situation differently. I can see and agree with issues of how he had dealt with individual situations. Libya was bad but he has been pretty good on Syria/Iraq/ISIS/Hellmouth.

                He simply isn’t the ideologue those on the left or right want. He has been aggressive and willing to use force in some cases and kept us out, wisely in some cases, of some places.Report

            • Francis in reply to Kolohe says:

              And one key difference is that Russia has troops in Ukraine while China doesn’t have its troops in Taiwan. And Ukraine is much less closely linked to the US than Taiwan is. And putting troops in Taiwan would require a cross-ocean invasion while Russia’s action in Ukraine can far more easily be plausibly denied. So no, its not really ad hoc rationalization so much as a recognition that the differences between the two situations are greater than the similarities.

              What US interest is served by responding aggressively towards Russia’s conduct in Ukraine, and how does that confrontation play out if Russia doesn’t immediately fold? As someone who lives near a likely nuclear target (the Ports of LA/Long Beach), I’d personally rather not get crisped up in a fireball.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Francis says:

                The Nuke calculus for the US west coast is every bit as dire wrt to China as it is for Russia – more since that’s where the tail for the military tooth. (The tail for military front against Russia is still mainly on the US east coast)

                Unless you think Obama has abandoned the standardsand implicit promises of the Taiwan relations act?Report

            • North in reply to Kolohe says:

              It probably bears noting that China is so different from Russia that they’re almost opposites. For that matter Taiwan is so different from Ukraine that they’re almost opposites as well.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to North says:

                A P5 country with nukes, looming demographic crisis, restive ethnic minorities within its official borders, disputes with most of its neighbors on what those borders are, and an economy that’s still trying to get over Communism.

                But one has better food, and the other has less fake democratic elections.Report

              • North in reply to Kolohe says:

                Russia is basically an autocracy with a primarily resource extraction based economy highly resistant to sanctions that is generally in decline internationally; China is a weird post-communist state with a manufacturing focused economy who’s would implode spectacularly under sanctions and who’s ascending international position is deeply linked to keeping international trade open. Nearly opposites; damn near night and day.

                Ukraine is a continental, impoverished with a barely functioning government, a barely functioning military, a barely functioning economy and with ties to the US that go back about what? Ten years max? Taiwan is an island state, wealthy and growing wealthier with a fully developed and functioning government, a modern and formidable military, a strong economy and with ties to the US that predate entire lifespan of the current Chinese mainland government. Again, nearly opposites.Report

        • CK MacLeod in reply to Francis says:

          Francis: There are no good options whatsoever in Syria and never were. Now what?

          “No good options” at some point becomes a rule of moral abdication – a declaration of incapacity to distinguish between worse and better, or of paralysis. Obama himself seems to oscillate between the two views: On the one hand, since there is no good option, judgment has to be suspended, but on the other hand he wants to view or wants us to accept inaction or maximal distance as the better option, so “as good as we can get if not perfect.” “No good options” means “for all intents and purposes refusing to act or resisting action is the only good option.” We’ll leave aside “good for whom and in what ways” for now. If he and his supporters were really throwing up their hands at the lack of any good options, then they wouldn’t be offering resistance at all: We might as well intervene up to our necks with a commitment to transform Syria into Middle East Switzerland, since, after all, there are no good options anyway. If all you mean is that there are no options that do not entail risks and uncertain consequences, we all already knew that. An alternative to piling up a list of sub-optimal outcomes and declaring ourselves powerless to have altered them or powerless to repair them, while seeking the right enemies to blame, is to attempt to compare alternatives for all their betters and worses, not giving yourself – or the President – an easy out.Report

          • greginak in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            So what are the best options in Syria and what are the risks? If there are no good options, since the chance of success is low and the chance of terrible outcomes is high, then no action might be the option with the likely best outcome. This is the same question that gets asked every time people criticize O about ISIS/Syria and i’ve never really seen the answer. What are the best options and detail the likelihood of success and failure.Report

          • North in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            But Obama didn’t abdicate his decision; he chose inaction coupled with some jawjaw to conceal the inaction. In that his critics have failed, utterly, to present any argument that any of the vile alternatives are less foul than the option Obama chose it looks to me like he already has done what you proscribe and has chosen the least worst option. Good for him too.Report

            • Kolohe in reply to North says:

              The problem is that’s a rather participation trophy way of looking at things.

              The other problem is, by Goldberg’s article, both Goldberg and Obama believe that America is still the essential nation, and Jack squat gets done w/o America doing stuff.

              There’s also the question of how much Obama’s muddled messages and Libyan precendent set up the good Assad opposition for failure and and allowed the bad Assad opposition to fill the vacuum.Report

              • North in reply to Kolohe says:

                Yes, and Jack Squat beats the hell out of a shitload of “Stupid Stuff” so if American inaction causes Jack Squat to happen instead of a shitload of Stupid Stuff that’s a pretty good thing. I’d think you’d agree? It’s basically the libertarian view on gridlock applied to foreign policy.

                I think you might have to show your homework on there being a “good” Assad opposition before one can start blaming Obama for Syria.Report

              • greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

                Clearly it was Reagan’s high tailing it out of Lebanon after the marine deaths that led to bad actors in the ME seeing us as weak. How could it not be?

                Or maybe everything that happens doesn’t’ revolve around our actions. And/or our enemies will always think us weak willed or evil or cowardly because they don’t’ like us. Or that there aren’t plenty of examples of O using military force in Afghanistan or on OBL in Pakistan or throughout the ME with drones etc. It’s almost like picking out Libya as proof of weakness and ignoring everything else is cherry picking one incident to prove just what you want.Report

              • Clearly it was Reagan’s high tailing it out of Lebanon after the marine deaths that led to bad actors in the ME seeing us as weak.

                Or would have been had he not beaten the shit out of Grenada two days later, proving that the US was not afraid to unleash its military, at least in situations where immediate victory was a slam dunk.Report

          • Francis in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            I reject the dichotomy. Since there is no good option at present, judgment can remain suspended and therefore inaction can be preferred until a better course of action presents itself (like awaiting a decision by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to form a coalition ground force).

            Of course, that’s not what the US is doing. The US is following a two-pronged course of action, tactical airstrikes in support of Kurdish fighters and more strategic airstrikes intended to prevent the ISIS leadership from getting rooted. The US also says a lot about the need for local ground forces and a regional coalition, but that largely appears to be posturing for both domestic and international consumption.

            Now, that may be a good, bad or so-so course of action. But the US is, in fact, doing something. You are welcome to comment on the US is both doing and failing to do, and if you have some brilliant solution to this incredibly challenging situation I will take the time to submit your name to the Nobel Committee for the Peace Prize.

            And the idea that we might as well intervene up to our necks faute de mieux was tried, just next door. You know, it turns out that invasion is really expensive and can even be counter-productive if not handled well.Report

          • Stillwater in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            “No good options” means “for all intents and purposes refusing to act or resisting action is the only good option.”

            No, in normal English it means the opposite in fact: that all of the available options are worse than doing nothing.

            If he and his supporters were really throwing up their hands at the lack of any good options, then they wouldn’t be offering resistance at all: We might as well intervene up to our necks with a commitment to transform Syria into Middle East Switzerland, since, after all, there are no good options anyway. If all you mean is that there are no options that do not entail risks and uncertain consequences, we all already knew that.

            Well, that contradicts your first interpretation* of the state of affairs: that refusing to act is the only good option. If doing nothing is the only good option, doesn’t it sorta trivially follow that trying to make Syria into ME Switzerland is bad?

            *which I disagree with anyway.Report

            • CK MacLeod in reply to Stillwater says:

              I wrote, emphasis added, “‘No good options’ at some point becomes a rule of moral abdication – a declaration of incapacity to distinguish between worse and better, or of paralysis.” The Syrian civil war began just about exactly five years ago as a set of peaceful protests to which the regime responded with violence, and things deteriorated, escalated, and fell apart from there. At every stage there were “betters” and “worses,” and doing nothing has been among them. Five years later it represents a clear choice just like any other choice. “No good options” includes the current option of doing nothing – or doing very little, or doing, as many will argue, worse than nothing.

              No one proposing a different course of action, or criticizing the way that a particular decision was handled, is pretending that the option would produce some never-to-exist-on-Earth absolutely “good” situation. The common criticism of the Obama policy is that it has been feckless; that the administration’s rhetoric, from the top down, has frequently failed to match its action; that its various initiatives have been embarrassingly poorly handled, and in ways possibly deleterious to American interests well beyond the Syrian situation.

              We’ve already discussed the embarrassing spectacle of the East Ghouta decision, with which Goldberg’s piece begins. Here are two fairly brief critical responses to the interview and what it says about Obama’ s approach to his office.


              I found the first half of the following comment from Shadi Hamid easier to interpret than the second:


              If at the end of some careful examination of the real options for the U.S., either now or at any previous point, we might still come to the conclusion that we simply could not have done any better than we did in relation to Syria specifically – that active intervention was off the table for us for whatever reasons. The same could conceivably be said for some of the other areas that have been brought up on this thread, although critics will argue that the Obama approach produced a vicious spiral that better leadership might have avoided.

              Either way, we could still take account of the Obama Administration’s errors without blowing them out of proportion, or straw-manning the whatever criticisms (see the Hamid piece on that subject). I tend to think that many of Obama’s mistakes originated in over-corrections for Bush 43, and in some ways mirrored Bush’s failings.I think the larger problem is that Obama’s admitted over-rationalism produces a hunger for yet another round of corrections in the opposite direction.Report

              • greginak in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                And we are still waiting for what the better options were then and now. Deploying more feck sounds good but what does it mean. Tossing some cruise missiles at Assad might have been punishment but wasn’t’ going to get rid of him. Assad has always been an ally of Russia. They were never going to let him fall w/o their own replacement. If they supported him, which they do, he wasn’t going to fall easy.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to greginak says:

                Well, obviously, if we had a strong Leader, a masculine man on horseback, who could sweep aside the pettifoggery and enfeebled ditherers, and who would, by sheer Triumph of The Will, assert our natural and heroic dominance over the lesser nations, then we could create our own reality, and let others stand by and study it.

                But we don’t- Really Sad!Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to greginak says:

                Five years into the Syrian Civil War, no one’s going to come up on a comment thread with some brand new plan.

                Everyone who’s been following the story knows what the main options have been, though their shape changes as circumstances do. Supporting the opposition looks a lot different now than it did in 2011, well before the rise of IS, or before then during the rise of an armed opposition and the general destruction of its non-Islamist elements other than the Kurds.

                All along the Administration produced various half-hearted and in a few instances humiliatingly ridiculous initiatives, often accompanied by false promises – like investing in the training and vetting of “good” rebels who were not even allowed to oppose Assad, sending a paltry number into the field, and watching them disappear.

                After five years, production of false promises and diplomatic and military tragicomedy is no longer dismissable as an unfortunate byproduct of your general inability to distinguish between “bad options”: It’s who you are.

                The crystallizing moment occurred at the mid-point of the five-year Operation Syrian Catastrophe, when we learned something important. We now know, among other things, that embattled leaders can commit acts of genocide, using weapons of mass destruction, against civilian populations, in direct defiance of the American superpower acting as leader of the international community, and get away with it – because, it turns out, we have other priorities or just aren’t interested enough.

                Before the events transpired as they did, even the President didn’t know that that was the case. In fact, he assumed the opposite was true, and, even after he canceled his own decision to act, and was rebuffed by the political class and an apathetic and fearful citizenry, he was still saying that we should act or have acted. So, in his own telling, he was right, but too feeble, and we were wrong, and won.

                For those who need it spelled out, the alternative was to strike a hard blow against Assad’s regime, and to be prepared to help pick up the pieces. Yes, it would have meant entanglement in the Syrian Civil War. No one knows what else would have necessarily followed. Getting positively involved, identifying the stakes and committing to a goal, is hazardous and unpredictable. The President perhaps rightly determined that we didn’t have the stomach for it. We’ll never know.

                That’s the problem with his presidency in a nutshell, in my view. I don’t blame him for it personally. He may have done as well with the situation as anyone could have. It’s not easy to be “caught in the changes.” The result still reminds me of an old description of Nazi politics, to the effect that the fanfare announces Wagnerian opera, and then the curtain parts, revealing a Punch & Judy show. For the people on the ground, it’s not theater of any type, of course.

                It’s likewise almost funny, but not really, to observe the constant re-pivoting to Asia by a President who, by his own testimony, is congenitally ill-suited to understand the Middle East on its own terms, and is therefore continually dragged back into it against his will. The condition is quite common among the other members of the virtual neo-isolationist coalition.

                …and none of that means that the US can’t still do some things quite well, or that it’s all the Left’s fault, or that Ronald Reagan was perfect, or whatever other straw man someone’s in a mood to snipe at.Report

              • greginak in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                This is , indeed, the problem in a nutshell. The best answer to what we should have done was “strike hard” and then see what happened. That isn’t a plan or even a start of an assessment of what the likely positive or negative consequences of an action would be. It’s a notion about exerting Force as something good in itself.

                Syria is a Russian client state. We weren’t, arent’ and couldnt’ just topple Assad. The Russians waited as long as they could to prop him up because they didn’t want to spend blood their either. Even the proposed missile strikes weren’t meant to get rid of Assad, just punish him for genocide. They weren’t never intended or going to remove him.

                Of course no one has a good plan now because there never was one. Finding noble freedom fighter rebels who are also strong enough to do something in damn hard. Even more so in a place like the ME where there are typically multiple factions each with different goals and varied and shirting alliances.

                Striking hard and figuring out after that sounds very feckfull, but not feckless. But how well did toppling the leader of Libya go?Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to greginak says:

                The best answer to what we should have done was “strike hard” and then see what happened.

                Sorry, but the world, particularly a fight, isn’t completely predictable. I didn’t say “and then see what happened.” I said “be prepared to pick up the pieces.” That involves some “seeing what happened.” Doing nothing also involves “seeing what happened.” We did nothing, and now we can see what happened: 100s of thousands of additional casualties, active Russian intervention, stabilization of the criminal regime, apparent normalization of the use of chemical weapons.

                If you determine that something is truly intolerable – mass annihilation of civilian populations, for example – then that means you have signed up for uncertainty, for doing things and then “seeing what happens,” and then doing more things if necessary, without guarantees, of course. If you are unwilling to sign up for that degree of uncertainty, then your saying that something is intolerable is an empty statement. It turns out that “it” is perfectly tolerable for you after all. And now we can see what happens.Report

              • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                When was the last use of chemical weapons. Also, what is your argument that Syria would be better off with our intervention against Assad? Are Iraq and Afghanistan data points in that argument? Aside from harsh words, aadd a little Godwining, you haven’t said anything here.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Chris says:

                Obama used Afghanistan, a war he always supported and expanded while in office, to make decisions as to what to do about Syria from 2011 to 2013? Why didn’t he use this same data point to forgo action in Libya during the same 2011-2013 time frame? (A war he did support and now doesn’t)Report

              • Chris in reply to Kolohe says:

                I wish he had.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                When was the last use of chemical weapons.

                They are being used by at least three sides now, according to David Gartenstein-Ross, a close observer of the conflict.

                Also, what is your argument that Syria would be better off with our intervention against Assad?

                I guess I have to repeat myself: I’m not going to attempt a comment-thread comparative analysis of Syrian intervention plans, whose shape would have changed at every major point in the developing war since 2011. (We possess the material power to turn Syria into the 51st state if that’s what we wanted to do. We consider it too costly.) There are plenty of people with expert knowledge of Syria who have, at every point over the last 5 years, recommended alternatives, and some urgently warned at every stage (some from within the Obama Administration, or after having resigned in disgust) what the the results would be if the US turned “no good options” into policy.

                Also, I don’t know that Syria’s being better or worse off is or can be the main question. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be a leading consideration even for a policy that put US self-interest first, but no US policy is likely sustainable on the basis of whether someone else is better or worse off. If you believe the US and the world are better off with US in its post-WW2 security role, leading an international community defined by support for the international legal regime including the Genocide Convention, then that may be the primary consideration, and one happy effect of re-affirming or strengthening that role might have been some far better fate for the Syrians. (The idea of Responsibility to Protect was to repair the flaws in the regime that made “problems from Hell” impossible to prevent or stop, but let’s not get started on Samantha Power…)

                Are Iraq and Afghanistan data points in that argument?

                Iraq figures prominently in Shadi Hamid’s argument, which is summarized in the post of his I linked above. He argues that Obama and others have over-learned the lessons (or supposed lessons) of Iraq. I’m not sure what aspects of the long engagements with Afghanistan and Iraq you think I should be treating as “data points.”Report

              • I feel this discussion has stayed in the parameters of Goldberg’s fourth of putative O’s conclusion (“Resolved: the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power” ) but only by debating various specific examples without explicating a thesis.

                So for example we might assert the world need’s US power to enforce WMD non-use and non-proliferation regimes because the rest of the world and its bodies are unwilling or unable to do so.

                Or we might assert that the US is in fact unable or inappropriate to do so and that the only way to reveal this is for the US, at least some of the time to not accept the burden.

                And of course, both can be true at the same time.

                But I don’t think discussion of Syria by itself, or references to other places really gets at this, except in a background, implied way. Indeed CK as you suggest, it’s a large complex subject.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Atomic Geography says:

                It IS a large and complex issue with lots of dimensions: what’s the role of the US as a unilateral actor on the world stage; what’s the role of US as a leader of multilateral-action on the world stage; what’s the role of the US in (uni/multi) humanitarian interventionism; what’s the US role in the quagmire that is ME politics; how does the self-interest of various nations, gummints, peoples, economies align with US interests in those regions/nations; etc etc.

                And in advance of that – or perhaps distinct from it – several of Obama decisions can be evaluated wrt consistency, pragmatics, efficacy, underlying purpose, projection of power, and so on, which can form the basis of an administrative critique irrespective of how the above questions are answered.

                Syria in isolation can be, of course, informative of a certain mindset engaged by Obama, one which can, when plugged into an already determined conception of the US’ role in international affairs, lead to harsh judgments. So the question is whether defining Obama’s choices in Syria in terms of a foreign policy framework he rejects, and perhaps has good reasons to reject, has any validity as an evaluative tool given that there were and continue to be no good options for the use of force in Syria.

                (I mean, I obviously agree with Obama on that point, but the continued absence of a viable, articulated, way forward that doesn’t lead to worse outcomes strikes me as compelling evidence that his decision to not militarily engage was right all along.)Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Stillwater says:


                I appreciate your appreciation of the complexity of the various questions, but your parenthetical statement at the end contradicts it. You refer to a supposed “continued absence of a viable, articulated, way forward that doesn’t lead to worse outcomes,” but to what “absence” are you referring? To an absence on this thread, in some notional public policy discussion space, in the whole wide world? Do you mean a “way forward” from today, or are you referring to alternative ways forward at or from prior decision points? Do you mean a worse outcome for the Syrians from a short-term humanitarian perspective, or a worse outcome for the region from a humanitarian perspective, or a worse outcome for the US politically or morally or strategically or what?

                And how do we judge those way forwards in such a way as to conclude, with you, that what we did (or didn’t do) was better? Those, for instance, who backed support for the Syrian popular opposition at an early point thought it would be the best and only way to prevent its capture by Islamists. They predicted that rebels whose first priority was the overthrow of Assad – or effective defense against Assad forces – would gravitate toward the best-equipped and best-organized groups. When the US and the West failed to move in – or to follow up on diplomatic groundwork and public pronouncements – a range of other actors, including the Gulf Arabs especially, filled the gap. I won’t try to review all of the other questions and shifting decision frameworks: The point is that people who know much more about the region than you or I believed that concentrated and predictable commitment and effort by the US and allies would have produced a better “outcome” both for the Syrians and for us.

                The ideas were very “articulated.” They were “present” for anyone who cared to look. Most of them are quite obsolete by now, so I’m not sure what purpose would be served by examining them in detail here. (I’ll also admit that in the relevant period, 2011-3 especially, I spent at least as much time arguing against them, or trying to explain to proponents why they wouldn’t be accepted, as trying to persuade skeptics to look at them. I did so because I was wondering if proponents could do a more effective job of proving that the Syrians’ fight was “our” fight, too – something that wouldn’t have been as difficult in earlier years, or perhaps even a few months earlier…)

                Possible ways forward for the U.S., or ways for the U.S. to have a positive influence, are much different now. Way up there, when I suggested that alternatives deserve to be compared, I was responding to Francis’ compact summary of foreign policy failures: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine. First, do we agree that those all haven’t gone very well for the people directly involved? Do we further agree that they don’t represent triumphs for US policy? Do we agree that we would prefer different outcomes? At what point do we begin to re-write history “as if” – either with the benefit of hindsight or under the assumption that the US under Obama might have been more willing to take on additional risk or invest resources or lead from somewhere other than behind?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to CK MacLeod says:


                Here’s how I approach the issue: For any particular foreign policy frame of reference P there is (more or less) a trivially true answer regarding what we should have done in Syria: for humanitarian interventionists, we should have used military force to prevent the murder of other Syrians; for neocons, we should have used the opportunity presented to continue (and conclude!) the projection of power over eurasia begun during the Iraq invasion; for a certain type of moderate, we should have backed the “moderate rebels”; for cold-war logic reactionaries, we should have pried Syria from Russia’s sphere of influence; for War on Terrorists, we should have maintained significant ground troops in Iraq and amassed a presence within Syria to destroy ISIS; for ISIS is an Existential Threat-ists, we should carpet bomb Syria till the sand glows; for Parenting 101 adherents, we should have bombed Syria because we said we would; and on and on and on.

                Everyone one of those options is and has been articulated. Hell, I just articulated them! So the issue isn’t articulating some option or other – those are a dime a dozen. The issue is articulating an option that leads to better outcomes for the US, Syria, and the other stakeholders involved which is better than doing nothing given the myriad factors in play. One that doesn’t entail obvious and predictable downside cost that isn’t worth the price.

                Look, Bush and the neocons (and Hillary!) opened a pandora’s box of nastiness when chose they invaded Iraq, reducing subsequent decision-making in large parts of the region to no-win scenarios. Whether a person calls rejecting such a choice an abnegation of responsibility will depend on how deeply that person is committed to ideological foreign policy framework P mentioned above, since for any P, action R is logically – albeit very narrowly! – entailed. To the exclusion of other evaluative metrics, of course. And that’s the problem: too many collectively inconsistent Ps determining US foreign policy.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Stillwater says:

                Look, Bush and the neocons (and Hillary!) opened a pandora’s box of nastiness when [they chose to invade (?)] Iraq, reducing subsequent decision-making in large parts of the region to no-win scenarios.

                The above represents a rendering not just of conventional wisdom, but something like the combined lodestar, zero stone, and magnetic north of the Obama Doctrine, especially those elements of it that appeal to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Obama, or who may even believe he betrayed the possibilities of his moment. The notion also happens to have guided the political ascent of Barack Obama, especially since his timely opposition to the war was so crucial in elevating him above Clinton in the Democratic primaries of 2008 – on the question of “JUDGMENT TO LEAD,” as the signs on his lecterns used to remind us during the later phases of that campaign.

                That conventional wisdom rests on presumptions and connected fallacies that also turn up in your prior paragraph:

                The issue is articulating an option that leads to better outcomes for the US, Syria, and the other stakeholders involved which is better than doing nothing given the myriad factors in play. One that doesn’t entail obvious and predictable downside cost that isn’t worth the price.

                The main fallacy here is, I think, the assumption of managerial competence, especially as applied to politico-military conflict: I mean, for instance, confidence in the ability to predict a “downside cost” and a future “price.” The fallacy underlies the conventional wisdom on Iraq especially where it relies on an implicit presumption of adequate knowledge, or “pricing,” of alternatives or scenarios that obviously never were and that could not ever have been. We do not and cannot know that the “outcomes” would have been any better for Iraq, the region, the U.S., or the world. Same goes for Syria, the anti-Iraq as far as U.S. policy goes.

                That’s not how war works, though it’s how policy-rationalists wish it worked. We don’t know that any articulated option will lead or not to “obvious and predictable” costs. We cannot know now what the “price” will or would be. War is dynamic and unpredictable. Its price also won’t be the same price for everyone. Some will “pay the ultimate price.” Others will enjoy the TV show, then switch channels when they get too bored or nauseated. It’s not even clear that such presumptions work very well, or as predictably as those acting on them or soliciting action advertise, in other realms of life – from social policy to next quarter’s sales projections.

                We may earnestly wish that we could possess such knowledge. Pretending that we do, or could, serves too many seemingly useful purposes for us to let go of the wish, but it can’t be the basis for a non-prejudicial or truly objective or actually rational inquiry – assuming such is even possible for us. More specifically, no attempt to understand and assess a supposed Obama Doctrine – a set of precepts meant to explain and govern the relationship of the U.S. with the rest of the world – is going to make sense if we arbitrarily assign a start date to world history on or around 2003, or start by putting an artificial border around the question of Syria or any other question without taking account of having done so.

                There’s nearly a straight line from the managerial hubris of a McNamara to “articulating an option that leads to better outcomes for the US, Syria, and the other stakeholders involved which is better than doing nothing given the myriad factors in play.” The fallacy would apply equally when when we evade decision as when we embrace some particular policy – or equally when choose to sit tight rather than to stand up. Dis-involvement cannot provide an escape from unintended consequences. Pursued perfectly, it would produce a world in which all consequences are unintended – a world without feedback or means of orientation, a chaotic, unintelligible, and meaningless world, just the world we see opening up now before us, a prospect already leading some substantial number of us to prefer the worst direction over no direction at all.Report

              • If foreign policy (in particular, though the principle would apply elsewhere) cannot be evaluated because there is no way of knowing what the consequences of alternative policies might have been, all discussion stops. Would realizing than a long-term occupation of Iraq might become necessary and taking the extraordinary step of planning for it have improved things there? Damned if I know.

                So, everybody, shut the hell up.Report

              • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                I’ve read pretty much everything you’ve linked on the subject, and it is all remarkably vapid. “It is not courageous because it was popular among his constituents” is a conclusion, with no premises offered. “Obama has changed the incentive structure by catering to Iran” is a conclusion, and in this context a very myopic one, with no premises offered. And that is typical of what you link and what you say here.

                Given the seriousness of these issues, it’s remarkable how unserious you and your co-ideologues are about it, with an almost exclusively “because I’m smart and credentialed so you should listen to me” (an argument you seem to buy in.virtually every domain).Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                Not interested in your testimony about your conclusions or in your usual insistence on personalizing these discussions.Report

              • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Fine with me, of course. Just making sure that you unargued assertions and inveterate appeals to authority don’t go unmentioned. If you had an argument for the position that non-intervention is a moral failure, I’d happily address that, but since it’s so far mere assertion (even in your endorsed links), there’s little to address buy you and your co-ideologues personally.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                I’m with greg’s response above in this respect: unless you can articulate a better response to the Syrian problem than what was presented to Obama – that is, something which was considered at the time – then your argument effectively reduces to a hypothetical: given that out there in conceptual space there is an identifiable and articulable option which is categorically better than doing nothing, Obama failed by not acting on it (even tho it’s unidentifiable and inarticulable.).

                But look, if you want to talk about his drawing a line in the sand and not following thru on the commitments he made by doing so, then I’m a perfectly attentive discussant. For my part, tho, I’ll concede that I sorta reflexively support any leader who doesn’t, as part of their decision-calculus, reflexively opt for military force to solve geo-political problems. It’s a failing of mine I have to learn to live with, I guess.Report

    • Damon in reply to Francis says:


      Aron’s right on his response regarding his and my opinions. I have no idea where you get the idea that 1) I’m a conservative, or 2) that ” the US has both the interest and the capabilities to take on everyone everywhere.” If anything I tend towards isolationism rather than adventurism.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Damon says:

        When you complain about all the things Obama has allowed to happen overseas, you imply that the US has both the power and the duty to prevent them.Report

        • Damon in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          I’ve never said Obama “allowed” things to happen. I’ve criticized the action he’s taken. “Meddling” is not “allowing things to happen”. It’s doing stuff that causes blowback.Report

          • Autolukos in reply to Damon says:

            Might want to look into whoever posted this, then:

            Obama pulled out of iraq and allowed isis a foothold, destabilized syria (again with isis) is funding isis, destabilized libya, ukraine, allowed SA to attack yemen.

            Emphasis mine, obviously.Report

          • Stillwater in reply to Damon says:

            Well, you’re less than half-right regarding what you wrote, Damon, the way I read it anyway:

            Bush invaded iraq and afganistan. Obama pulled out of iraq and allowed isis a foothold, destabilized syria (again with isis) is funding isis, destabilized libya, ukraine, allowed SA to attack yemen.

            On your view, Obama’s “pulling out of Iraq” apparently constitutes “meddling” (which is weird), but you also criticize him for other non-action-meddlings, eg, destablizing Syria (by his non-action, apparently) and Ukraine (non-action again) as well as “allowing” (by non-action) SA to attack Yemen.

            Am I not reading that right?Report

            • Damon in reply to Stillwater says:

              No you’re not. Let me break it down for you and @mike-schilling and @autolukos

              Meddling: Syria, Libya, Ukraine. Destabilizing those countries, supporting groups that are associated with, if not de facto, aligned with ISIS. (The only positive thing O did in Syria was contribute to getting the chemical weapons out, although Russia did all the heavy lifting.) Supporting the SA’s arming of those militias (if we’re not doing it ourselves), supporting SA’s actions in Yemen. Having a proxy doing the heavy lifting is the same as us doing it. You’re not keeping your hands clean.

              Iraq: So, if we’re pulling out of iraq, we either “won” or “we’re taking our marbles home” (that would be a loss). Which was it? The US’s actions directly lead to the collapse of a country and the chaos that resulted. Obama inherited Bush’s stupid foreign policy mistake, and just like economic results, the guy in charge at the time takes the blame or the credit. I’d have more respect for the guy if he went on national tv and said, “iraq was a mistake and we’re leaving”. As far as I can tell, none of the iraq objectives were met.

              In my previous posts I should not have said “allowed”. That suggested tacit agreement or endorsement. What I meant was that his actions, directly or indirectly, made the situation worse. That help ya?Report