The Obama Doctrine
March 19, 2016 4:48 PM   Subscribe

In the Atlantic's April cover story, Jeffrey Goldberg interviews President Obama about his foreign policy philosophy and ultimately, its lasting legacy.

There is a sidebar of highlights at the top of the piece, including "Why he’s proud of not striking Assad in 2013":
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
"The necessity of pivoting from the Middle East to Asia and other regions":
He then made an observation that I came to realize was representative of his bleakest, most visceral understanding of the Middle East today—not the sort of understanding that a White House still oriented around themes of hope and change might choose to advertise. “If we’re not talking to them,” he said, referring to young Asians and Africans and Latin Americans, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”
"Why ISIS isn’t an existential threat, but climate change is":
“ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told me in one of these conversations. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Obama explained that climate change worries him in particular because “it is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, and it is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.”
Alongside the original longform piece, the Atlantic has published ten responses from writers including David Frum, Shadi Hamid, Niall Ferguson, and Julia Ioffe.
posted by Ouverture (63 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Related:

Yes, he tried: what will Barack Obama's legacy be? by Gary Younge [The Guardian]
When it comes to Obama, people have to own their disappointment. That doesn’t mean it’s not valid, just that it often says as much about them as it does about him. No individual can solve America’s problems. Most radical change in the US, like elsewhere, comes from huge social movements from below. Poor people cannot simply elect a better life for themselves and expect that vested interests won’t resist them at every turn: that’s not how western democracy works.

I supported Obama against Hillary Clinton because he had opposed the war in Iraq at a time when that could have damaged his political career; she had supported it in order to sustain her own. I thought he was the most progressive candidate that could be elected, and while even his agenda was inadequate for the needs of the people I most care about – the poor and the marginalised – it could still make a difference. I got my disappointment in early, to avoid the rush.

I appreciated the racially symbolic importance of Obama’s victory, and celebrated it. But I didn’t fetishise it, because I never expected much that was substantial to emerge from it. He leveraged his racial identity for electoral gain, without promising much in return. As a candidate, race was central to his meaning, but absent from his message. When I read the transcript of the nomination speech I saw with my mother-in-law on the south side that night in 2008, I realised he had quoted Martin Luther King but declined to mention him by name, referring to him instead as the “old preacher”. “If a black candidate can’t quote Martin Luther King by name,” I thought, “who can they quote?” I jokingly referred to him as the “incognegro”.
posted by Fizz at 4:58 PM on March 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


You can say a lot of bad things about Barack Obama's foreign policy, but most of them boil down to: it was pretty much the same as Clinton's, Bush I's, and Reagan's.
posted by koeselitz at 5:01 PM on March 19, 2016 [6 favorites]


Sure, but there's a dangling follow-up: who is "the foreign policy establishment?" Because I'd like to know how many are unelected.
posted by rhizome at 5:05 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


Given the secretive nature of much of foreign policy, I've always found it difficult to judge a president's priorities. Would I have made the same calls? I don't even know the what the questions are. It seems like the best I can hope for is to hear the president explain their line of thinking and say, "Well, I hope that's what I would have done if I knew what there was to know."
posted by GameDesignerBen at 5:06 PM on March 19, 2016 [8 favorites]


The U.S. foreign policy establishment — that is, professionals who trained in international affairs and make careers in government, think tanks, and higher education, with revolving doors among the three — plays an outsized role in U.S. foreign policy. But they fail to deliver the multilateral approach that the American public wants. They’re stuck in old schools of thought and groupthink
posted by adamvasco at 5:30 PM on March 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


You can say a lot of bad things about Barack Obama's foreign policy, but most of them boil down to: it was pretty much the same as Clinton's, Bush I's, and Reagan's.

That's pretty damning.
posted by el io at 5:46 PM on March 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


While climate change is going to end us all one day, ISIS and other actual problems with guns will do so in a much faster pace.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 5:59 PM on March 19, 2016


ISIS is a bigger existential threat than climate change? Really?
posted by indubitable at 6:02 PM on March 19, 2016 [23 favorites]


[If you would like to discuss the upcoming elections, please use one of the many fine threads found here. Let's keep this thread to the article's main topic.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 6:10 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


That Gary Younge essay is really good, thanks for posting it Fizz
posted by Auden at 6:41 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


rhizome: dangling follow-up: who is "the foreign policy establishment?" Because I'd like to know how many are unelected.

There was an interesting story on NPR about the Hay Initiative a "Influencer group" focused on Republican presidential candidates. Other, references.
HOOK: Well, we believe that, you know, starting around the time of World War II emerges what has become a bipartisan tradition of American leadership in world affairs. And that tradition has served not only the United States but, you know, the world in a number of ways. The benefits of this sort of global leadership - the guarantor of the international system - has produced a lot of benefits.

And we try to educate candidates on a range of issues, whether it's on foreign policy, national security, intelligence, defense, human rights, democracy, intel, cyber. I mean, it's - it's a - and we published a book late last year, which is a comprehensive governing agenda for the next president, regardless of party.
posted by spbmp at 7:07 PM on March 19, 2016


I like W. Patrick Lang's nickname for (and conceptualization of) the American foreign policy establishment: The Borg
posted by Auden at 7:16 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


From Foreign Policy: Is Barak Obama More of a Realist Than I am?
posted by sandking at 7:50 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


That's pretty damning.

Only if it's true.

Bush's Iraq War: 100K to 1 million (plus maybe another million any day now)
Obama's Drone War: 2500
Obama's Libya War: 2500 - 25,000

Look, I agree that morally Libya was just as wrong as Iraq. Still, fewer people died. Obama is only the same as Bush if you don't count the bodies.
posted by great_radio at 8:04 PM on March 19, 2016 [9 favorites]


War is never the answer.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 8:08 PM on March 19, 2016


great_radio: the "damning" comparison was to Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton. Bush I, in other words, George H.W. Bush, and not Bush II, George W. Bush. Bush I's Iraq War also had casualties not appreciated in the U.S., but not as long-term a disaster as Bush II's.
posted by Schmucko at 8:55 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


I found the idea that "big nations shouldn't bluff" really interesting, since my personal best-world view of politics is that big nations should deal primarily (not exclusively) in the currency of bluffing (plus the core concept of "don't do stupid shit", though that's epistemically hazy). Bluffing is what leads to the theory of MAD! There's a fine history of veiled threat and long leashes in political history that sometimes leads to war (and usually the worst type of war) but also, if carefully applied, leads to mutual grudging respect, of the "compromise means everyone's grumpy" sort.
posted by zinful at 9:04 PM on March 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Reading an interview of this type does make me wish I could know more, in the sense that GameDesignerBen brings up. Like, why is Israel suuuuuuch a primary consideration to the US? There's probably reams of documentation and subtle political games that lead to making as strong of a claim as Obama made in this interview, and the real weight behind what that documentation even means will be forever lost once it's "unclassified" (with redactions, obv)
posted by zinful at 9:11 PM on March 19, 2016


Uh, war was absolutely the answer 1939-1945. Any other answer would have condoned genocide.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:33 PM on March 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


There was an articulation of a foreign policy thinking I once read that I can recall only vaguely now. I'm going to assume that it was attributed to either Kissinger or Cheney, or perhaps something Kissinger once told Cheney.

Security secrets are a massive mindfuck, because as soon as you get clearance, any time you have a conversation with someone, you'll have a voice in the back of your mind asking "Do you know what I know?" And there will be times when somebody who you know doesn't have clearance will come to you, swearing up and down what the right course of action is, and you'll just have to sit there and smile and nod while thinking "You poor bastard, you have no idea." But the worst is when you're talking to somebody you don't know very well. You have no idea if they know more or less than you do, if you actually disagree, or just aren't working with the same facts. And you can't check, of course.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 10:06 PM on March 19, 2016 [9 favorites]


The Hay Group, unelected shadow government endorsed by Mitt. Oh doodley doodley doo, we read what they did, we fret over what they could do, we have a new car for you, and a missile you can strap on a Cessna, this all comes at a price, right, Ms. Rice? Careful now, they'll be at the door looking for a meal plan. We can't stretch the grid that far, let them live in the dark and die by mosquito, we need the room for the grow operation, coke, cola, coffee, get that water over there not a buck to spare, clean up this ebola, got a mine to dig, got a diamond to discover, clear out these farmers, talk to the whitest types you can find, the balaclava fashion statement accompanying the war with no apparent manager, scattered teenagers, white arms under wraps talk from a tower in Dubai makes you feel like the powers that would be have significant spare change to spend on some shell game election. Why be just depressed, why not screaming? Is that cashmere? Put those foreign policy degrees in a pile, see how they go down with some five year old UNICEF peanut butter, maybe some cobalt treated, shrink wrapped, never browning apples? February the hottest month of all recorded time. The Libyan body count an affront but not like a global, six foot, sea rise. I am glad Obama is not Bush, Bush, puppet, puppet, puppet. I bet you a tube of fifty dollar gel, they have some big thunder up their sleeves to roll out well, before November. Herd of irrelevant, prancing elephants, all waiting in the wings for their strings. I love whites only think tanks, must be some awesome schwag.
posted by Oyéah at 10:15 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


Which is an excellent argument for security clearances being mostly bullshit.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:17 PM on March 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Uh, war was absolutely the answer 1939-1945. Any other answer would have condoned genocide.

See World War 1. Without that, there'd be no WW2
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 10:32 PM on March 19, 2016


Yup, ww1 was stupid. And it happened. Meaning that the sequel had to happen. Fighting Hitler was necessary, and blanket statements are foolish.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:52 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


Actually no. War is never the answer. Think on it.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 10:53 PM on March 19, 2016


aaaaah
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 10:56 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


GameDesignerBen, that quote was Daniel Ellsberg talking to Kissinger. (Ellsberg mentions it in his memoir, which I highly recommend.)

Here's the full quote:
"Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

"I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

"First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn't know about and didn't know they had, and you'll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

"You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools.

"Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn't tell you, it's often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

"In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues....and with myself.

"You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours."

....Kissinger hadn't interrupted this long warning. As I've said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn't take it as patronizing, as I'd feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn't have the clearances yet.
posted by asterix at 10:58 PM on March 19, 2016 [39 favorites]


I can't remember the number of times I read people claiming that Obama's foreign policy wasn't inchoate. It wasn't a mess; it was just so very, very subtle that it was inscrutable; it was eleven-dimensional chess or whatever the expression is. He was carefully balancing interests and building bridges to former enemies, &c &c.

Well, that's an Emperor's New Clothes argument. It's ostensibly impossible to disprove; even attempting to do so demonstrates that you're crude and unrefined. None the less, at some point you've really got to ask whether all the apparently feckless,1 dithering,,2 paranoid,3 vindictive,4 behavior was part of a plan - or whether it simply reflects the personality of the Commander in Chief.

1 E.g., Syria, Iran
2 E.g., Egypt, Libya
3 E.g., NSA, FOI
4 Snowden, Netanyahu
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:59 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is maybe the most terrifying thing about Trump. There's an entire shadow government of people who have spent careers and lifetimes engaged in building the entire framework of United States foreign policy, for better or worse, through Rep and Dem administrations, who have vast expertise and a deep understanding of the actual issues at stake. Bush I was the only remotely recent president to come up through that world, Reagan, Bush II and Obama had only a tangential understanding at best, but at least acted within the confines of the established security framework, if Bush II only barely.

Trump could upend the whole thing. John Bolton in charge of State, Lindsey Graham at Defense, anything is possible. Foreign policy requires boring, delicate, incremental measures and intense negotiation to avoid a shooting war with your allies, much less enemies. Trump, or Cruz, or even Kasich, or really anyone the least bit beholden to the unhinged right wing doomsday cult that is the Republican party in 2016 is apocalyptic.
posted by T.D. Strange at 11:02 PM on March 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


Think about what? The alternative to fighting Hitler was allowing him to annex Europe and exterminate all living Jewish people. Sitting back was a better choice? Fuck no.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:05 PM on March 19, 2016 [7 favorites]


I mean, I lost (distant) relatives in the Shoah. I have spent a lot of time with elderly people with tattoos on their arms.

Go tell them that war is always wrong.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:17 PM on March 19, 2016


Think about what? The alternative to fighting Hitler was allowing him to annex Europe and exterminate all living Jewish people. Sitting back was a better choice? Fuck no.

FFF: Are you suggesting that the US entered WWII because of the genocide that was happening in Europe? Because that's not my understanding of the motivations of the US entering. If the US gave a shit about the Jews in WWII, they would have let them into the country as refugees.
posted by el io at 11:18 PM on March 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


Was sitting back a better choice?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:25 PM on March 19, 2016


I'm talking about WW1. That's the bilk of what's wrong with the world today. Secret deals to help this and that. When a bit of diplomacy would have saved us all.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 11:30 PM on March 19, 2016


This is a bit of a thread derail, but the idea of WWI being easy to avert with diplomacy is dubious thinking. The German high command was dead-set on dealing a military defeat to France and Russia while they still had the capacity to win a two-front war (according to their math).

Now you could theoretically intimidate Austria-Hungary out of the war with a united front, but they had a good casus belli. And a more sensible foreign ministry could have kept the Ottomans and the Bulgarians out of the Central Powers as well.

So there was a very narrow scope of time for peace-seekers to defuse the crisis. After August 1914, it was all you could do to minimize the scope of the war.

Now of course, there's plenty of fault to find with the Wilson administration for getting roped into the fight on dubious evidence, and then being a half-assed internationalist who rolled over to the French and British desires for vengeance and empire.

Actually, I think there are some strong parallels to be found between Wilson and Obama. Both seeing themselves as intellectuals, dispassionate and calm. Both trying to manage and form international consensus. Both dealing with an explosive and atrocious new ideology (Communism for Wilson, ISIS for Obama) that gained new scope and power from the aftermath of a useless war. Both having really significant problems with racial strife (The Red Summer, Ferguson).

And both are really American imperialists despite their rhetoric. Barry's got his drones; Wilson, his invasion of Haiti and Mexico.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 11:45 PM on March 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


No President wants to be the one that says, "No thanks, I don't want to have more power than my predecessors." Hence the ever-escalating use of power by the office, and I'm not sure who would ever stop it.

There have been some weird moves by the administration (useless ultimatums to Assad, for example), but I think other moves like opening up relations with Cuba will have some great long-term effects down the line.

In conclusion: Obama is a land of contrasts.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:27 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


The interviewer here is Jeffrey Goldberg, former prison guard for the 'Israeli Defense Force' and highly placed agent of the Israeli government or, more specifically, Likud. Goldberg was the point-man for the story that Saddam Hussein had strong links to Al-Qaeda. Yeah, you know, one of those people. The equanimity of the article reflects the generally positive feelings Israel has towards the disaster unfolding in Syria as well as Israel's strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia based on their shared fears of Iran.

The context for this article is how narrowly the Obama administration avoided going to war with Iran and how many foreign policy players within the US government are, in effect, pushing towards that war.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:41 AM on March 20, 2016 [5 favorites]


Can we not have conspiracy theories here please, especially stupid ones?

Goldberg was in the IDF, and wrote a book about his experiences. It's vanishingly unlikely that he's any sort of agent for the Israeli government, particularly Likud: his articles basically crap all over Netanyahu while sucking up to Obama. The article you link shows him equivocating all over the place, but to the extent that he takes any side, he does what he usually does: repeats White House talking points.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:09 AM on March 20, 2016


I have often wondered if modern American presidents can be not-imperialist, or if simply being held responsible for keeping the ship from sinking makes you a de facto imperialist.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 5:27 AM on March 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


War may never be the answer, but sometimes the real world doesn't give you the chance to play at questions.
posted by Celsius1414 at 5:30 AM on March 20, 2016


Will We Miss President Obama? (Robert Parry, March 19 2016, Consortium News)

"From a “realist” perspective, there are plenty of reasons to criticize President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, particularly his timidity in facing down Official Washington’s dominant neoconservatives and liberal interventionists on Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine and even Syria – but he also has done more to steer the country away from additional military disasters than other establishment politicians would have."
posted by Auden at 6:10 AM on March 20, 2016


I can't remember the number of times I read people claiming that Obama's foreign policy wasn't inchoate. It wasn't a mess; it was just so very, very subtle that it was inscrutable; it was eleven-dimensional chess or whatever the expression is. He was carefully balancing interests and building bridges to former enemies, &c &c.

Well, that's an Emperor's New Clothes argument. It's ostensibly impossible to disprove; even attempting to do so demonstrates that you're crude and unrefined. None the less, at some point you've really got to ask whether all the apparently feckless,1 dithering,,2 paranoid,3 vindictive,4 behavior was part of a plan - or whether it simply reflects the personality of the Commander in Chief.

1 E.g., Syria, Iran
2 E.g., Egypt, Libya
3 E.g., NSA, FOI
4 Snowden, Netanyahu


Yeah, just think: with someone else in that office, we could have had wars in all those places!

what a missed opportunity, to keep doing Stupid Shit
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 6:35 AM on March 20, 2016 [9 favorites]


Security secrets are a massive mindfuck, because as soon as you get clearance, any time you have a conversation with someone, you'll have a voice in the back of your mind asking "Do you know what I know?"

The perspective of someone who's only eaten sausage, not made it.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:29 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Out of the mouths of rubes: A neighbor of mine, a Swedish/American, no less. Is aurally inhaling some way right radio and telling me people are sick of Obama calling himself The Commander In Chief. I looked at her and asked if she knew anything about how our government works? I explained that Obama is The Commander In Chief, for which I am grateful, every moment of every day. She said she was going to vote for Troomp, I asked then if it were OK with her for an ill tempered concierge to run our military as long as he was not black? After that she decided it was easier to be angry with me than ever speak to me again.

Remember sometime in the Clinton 1, administration, someone asked the POTUS about extra terrestrials and he replied that he didn't have the security clearance to know. You might have thought he was kidding.

The Ellsberg quote makes me realize, no one that served as POTUS has been more obstructed than Obama. But the vindictiveness with regard to Snowden? Snowden is alive and working for The pOTUS still, and that is all of us anywhere. Obamas failure there is our huge gain. Ignoring Netanyahu, didn't anyone ever tell you, don't stare or attempt to communicate with psychopaths. The article didn't cover this.

IMHO Obama has resisted armageddon to the best of his singular ability.
posted by Oyéah at 8:33 AM on March 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


Reading this between errands has taken me all day, but it's fantastic. What it really gives me an appreciation for is how hard it must be to not act when people are constantly begging "help us!" or insisting "they must be stopped" and telling you you're the only one who can help. Like being US president is leaving the church after the sermon about the good Samaritan only to find your route home lined with hundreds of beggars. Of course there are also opportunities to intervene now for the sake of preserving and increasing American power and influence long term, the classic "imperialist" aims, so maybe imagine some start up guys asking for venture capital among all the beggars. And then, of course, the peace activities and isolationists insisting those resources are better spent at home (so, like, your spouse standing next to you talking about bills?)

I mean, I can understand why all American presidents seem to end up being interventionists to some extent. Even if you resist 99% of the pleas and "opportunities" there are just so many of them...
posted by OnceUponATime at 12:33 PM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


Once: not only that, but the aforementioned "foreign policy establishment" transcends presidential administrations and have been working their game and alliances for decades, if not centuries.
posted by rhizome at 12:57 PM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


The thing about "deterrent credibility" -- if you make a threat you have follow through -- also boggles me. As a parent, this logic is exactly what leads to ridiculous battles of will with my three year old, escalating conflicts as I keep making threats of punishment if they don't stop the bad behavior,a nd the bad behavior escalates in response to the perceived injustice of my punishments. I generally feel like when I've gotten to the point of telling myself "I have to follow through or they won't take me seriously next time," it's a sign that I've already badly mishandled a situation. It's like, these people are grown ups?

But what do I know of this kind of strategy. Maybe it's like how "tit for tat" is a winning strategy in the iterated prisoner's dilemma? Maybe you really do have to follow through on your threats most of the time Or Else?
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:53 PM on March 20, 2016


I would like to see a President whose foreign policy is: Fuck the Middle East and fuck Israel. America has enough natural gas and can invest in non-fossil fuel technology and get to the point of never needing to give a crap what kind of 19th century bullshit goes on over there and Israel can man up and be fully responsible for its own defense and existence. Let the cultural and political morass of the entire region just fight its own battles, we're done. We want to fix a place? Let's try to fix Africa. The Middle East can fuck itself.

This is the neanderthal part of my brain speaking - I know things are way too complex for that - but God I'd love to see it. I'd love to see us free of this gordian knot forever.
posted by spicynuts at 1:56 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


There's always money in the gordian knot.
posted by rhizome at 2:26 PM on March 20, 2016


Ray Walston, Luck Dragon: "Yeah, just think: with someone else in that office, we could have had wars in all those places!"

The thing is that we kind of did.
posted by koeselitz at 4:08 PM on March 20, 2016


Israel can man up and be fully responsible for its own defense and existence.

Number of times Israel has been attacked: many.
Number of times the US has gone to war to protect Israel: zero.
Number of times the US has forced Israel to surrender territory, refrain from retaliation, comply with US demands on foreign arm purchases, or otherwise act in the USA's interests and against its own: too many to count.

So yes, I think Israel would be best served by a more independent posture, and I suppose it was wrong of me to criticise Obama's valiant efforts to encourage this.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:10 PM on March 20, 2016


spicynuts: "The Middle East can fuck itself."

In what sense has that not been our general foreign policy for decades? It's certainly what got us into the current mess. "Take care of ourselves, and contain the nasty people abroad who happen to speak different languages and have non-white skin - pretend to want to protect Israel and the people there and make it an ally, but effectively just empower whatever warmongers come to power in Israel in order to gain proxy weapons to contain the infidels - er, 'bad guys' - that we're fighting." That's how we do things.

It seems to be a plan that's failing disastrously. "Contain the bad guys to Iraq" became "contain the bad guys to the Levant" became "contain the bad guys to Syria," and the trouble just grows and grows. Apparently we can't ignore the welfare of people in faraway nations and continue to fund conflicts there in the expectation that they'll stay busy with each other and leave us alone.

The foreign policy of the United States has been morally bankrupt for at least four decades. Obama didn't change much, but as others here have said, it's questionable whether he could have. Containment is the religion of our foreign policy establishment, and it will take more than reality to convince them otherwise. Meanwhile, at least Obama's general caution has helped us in some places, even if I don't agree with the overall tenor of our foreign policy under his and several previous administrations.
posted by koeselitz at 4:19 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


To put it another way, with regard to Israel: the whole point here, I think, is that despite all the evangelical handwringing about our kinship with Israel, that's all just a sham PR campaign for the real purpose of the foreign policy establishment in the U.S. Their actual idea is this: it is in the best interest of the United States that Israel and Palestine remain locked in a simmering conflict where thousands die every year, so long as that conflict doesn't spill over toward us. Every suicide bomber that blows up a bus on a street in Jerusalem is a suicide bomber that doesn't hop on a plane to New York or Los Angeles. We encourage the election of Israeli PMs who are on the most belligerent end of the spectrum, and that way we can keep our symbiotic relationship whereby those PMs and their parties give us campaign contributions and we support their relatively dangerous escalations of violence. The people of Israel, who have a democracy that is (as so many are) relatively precarious, watch it slowly slipping away; and our foreign policy hacks keep it all going by using every flare-up of violence as an excuse to talk about how we need to support Israel, which really just means supporting certain Israeli politicians but otherwise leave them to fend for themselves.

This situation ought to be offensive to everybody. It certainly doesn't help the general public in Israel, regardless of their ethnicity or religious affiliation. The US leadership wants the simmering conflict in Israel to continue - they've wanted that for a long time. That's just one facet of what containment actually means. What we're (very, very slowly) figuring out is that encouraging conflict abroad to try to keep ourselves safe at home turns out to be a terrible idea when the world is ever more connected and communicative. This is really the major lesson in the rise of DAESH.
posted by koeselitz at 4:35 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm sure some states want perpetual conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians but I don't think the USA is one of them. My reading of the USA's Middle East policy is that the USA formerly considered the Middle East's oil reserves and Suez passage to be vital to its interests, but that the value of these is a lot less than it once was.

Historically, US policy was to encourage economic and military dependence on the part of oil producers. This is a large part of the reason the Saudis spent their money on 747s and cognac instead of anything more sensible, and why the US was so quick to respond to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Iran, which was less susceptible to this sort of control, was locked down by US sanctions almost from its 1979 revolution. To the extent that Israel is relevant to this calculation it was a handy bogeyman for both Middle Eastern rulers and the USA. Otherwise, it's a hypothetically-useful aircraft carrier and arms depot parked on the side of the Mediterranean.

Things have changed now. The Suez canal is still strategically important, but its post-Cold War value to the USA has probably diminished. More importantly, alternative energy sources mean that Middle-Eastern oil is a lot less strategically and financially valuable. There's simply not much reason for the USA to keep a bunch of sybaritic sheikhs in a state of perpetual alarm while promising to defend them against all enemies. Hence: less interest in Israel, less commitment to Saudi Arabia's safety, the removal of sanctions from Iran.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:16 PM on March 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


"...The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours."

An obsession with secrecy warps perception. In the espionage realm, data acquired by covert methods is more seductive and exotic than generic data available through conventional research, and is often given a higher value than it really merits.
posted by ovvl at 7:44 PM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sure, but there's a dangling follow-up: who is "the foreign policy establishment?" Because I'd like to know how many are unelected.

Don't forget cheerleaders like Chait, Goldberg and Walsh, etc.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:35 PM on March 20, 2016



Sure, but there's a dangling follow-up: who is "the foreign policy establishment?" Because I'd like to know how many are unelected.


I'm not done working my way through those ten responses yet, but based on what I've read so far I'm going to guess that David Frum and Josef Joffe are spokespersons for that establishment... It's breathtaking how different their "conventional wisdom" is from the conventional wisdom among people in my circles...
posted by OnceUponATime at 8:45 AM on March 21, 2016


We can speculate all day as to journalistic representatives, but Obama specifically said, "there's a playbook." I'm not so naive to think that he's referring to an actual physical book, but he's the one who objectified it, and hey can we get some questions about what the "chapters" contain?
posted by rhizome at 1:42 PM on March 21, 2016


Yeah, "what's in the playbook" is a good question, but I'm saying there really are some good indications in those responses as to what that playbook is (and I admit I'm not very familiar with conventional foreign policy wisdom since I am used to reading sources that are much less interventionist than these... I did note that Goldberg actually refers to it as the "cruise missile playbook" at one point in the article...)

But here are some hints about what he meant by "the playbook":
"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.

And also from that same Niall Ferguson response
"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.”"

Or this...
"Realism is more complicated. A realist knows that distant threats, if ignored, can turn into direct ones. Hence, the “precautionary principle”—better to act than wait in the face of risks not fully known [...]
Or from the same essay:

To recruit and sustain the coalition, Mr. Big will always have to invest more [...] No. 1, a.k.a. the “indispensable nation,” cannot go on vacation if it wants to keep the top-floor corner office—that is the moral of this tale."
Or this...
"The president is so locked into an angry debate with Washington conventional wisdom that he may not understand how unthoughtful some of his explanations sound. Take his comments about credibility—what he ridicules as “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone.” It’s a good line, but Obama’s reason for treating credibility as an empty concept is not so good."
Or this:
"he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex that many in the White House see as “doing the bidding of ... Arab and pro-Israel funders.” Obama has had “not much patience for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and other Middle Eastern leaders who question his understanding of the region.”" [I think this means questioning the importance of the region to US interests...]


So here are some of the chapters in the playbook (the rules that Obama has violated): 1) Keep the Russians out of the Middle East 2)Israel and Saudi Arabia are in, Iran is out. China is in, Vietnam is out. Britain is in, Cuba is out 3) Better to act than wait in the face of risks not fully known. 4) The US is the “indispensable nation,” cannot "go on vacation" 5) Credibility means that if you threaten to drop bombs on someone (or even hint at it) you have to then drop the bombs 6) What happens in the Middle East is vitally important to the US.

And I think this stuff is a consensus that has emerged, as hinted here, from think thanks (which, yes, are funded by someone), but also professors writing in academic publications, and from journalists and columnists like the ones quoted here, and from state department and other government workers who have devoted their lives to understanding these issues, and who have specific experiences (Vietnam, Iraq II, but also Rwanda, or the Balkans, or the Gulf War) that inform their thinking.

I don't think there is a shadowy cabal or that it's all dictated by Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers (though they surely have some influence, especially over the think thanks and journalists.)

But still this is so far from the conventional wisdom of the sources I read and the people I know that I'm kind of shocked to discover how orthodox this kind of thinking is, even among Democrats, in the government itself.
posted by OnceUponATime at 3:30 PM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yes, there's definitely a sort of floating group of people who get government policy jobs when the political climate is right, and who sit out unfavorable administrations with positions in reactionary think tanks and political journals. Some of those think tanks are pretty opaque, by the way, and I suspect that they're really payoffs for favours received or a public message that future favours will be repaid.

A lot of the received wisdom made sense and I think much of it still does. For instance, your rule #5 is basically a truism: if you aren't going to drop bombs, don't make the threat. In contrast, the Middle East's importance is merely contingent and (as I said above) is presently diminished. None the less, I suspect Obama's use of the Pacific as a place that is now "really" important is mostly because he can't use Europe, Asia, the Americas, or Africa as places where he has enjoyed any foreign policy success. Where does that leave? The Pacific ... and Antarctica. Look for US-brokered penguin/sea lion peace talks real soon now.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:00 PM on March 21, 2016


He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. I'm willing to believe he genuinely thinks that the importance of Asia and the Pacific has been under appreciated.
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:06 PM on March 22, 2016






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