Barack Obama Checks Out
By Bret Stephens
Wall Street Journal
March 14, 2016
Obama—do you remember him?—will remain in office for another 311 days.
But not really. The president has left the presidency. The commander in chief is
on sabbatical. He spends his time hanging out at a festival in Austin. And with
the cast of “Hamilton,” the musical. And with Justin, the tween sensation
In his place, an exact look-alike
of Mr. Obama is giving interviews to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic,
interviews that are so gratuitously damaging to long-standing U.S. alliances,
international security and Mr. Obama’s reputation as a serious steward of the
American interest that the words could not possibly have sprung from the lips of
the president himself.
I was a bit late in reading Mr.
Goldberg’s long article, “The
Obama Doctrine,” which appeared last week and is based on hours of
conversation with the president, along with ancillary interviews with John
Panetta, Manuel Valls of France, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and other
boldface names. Kudos to Mr. Goldberg for his level of access, the breadth of
his reporting, the sheer volume of juicy quotes and revealing details.
Still, it’s a deep dive into a
shallow mind. Mr. Obama’s recipe for Sunni-Shiite harmony in the Middle East?
The two sides, says Mr. Obama, “need to find an effective way to share the
neighborhood,” sounding like Mr. Rogers. The explanation for the “sh—
show” (the president’s words) in Libya? “I had more faith in the
Europeans,” he says, sounding like my 12-year-old blaming her 6-year-old
sister for chores not done. The recipe for better global governance? “If only
everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy,” he says,
sounding like—Barack Obama.
Then there’s Mr. Obama the
political theorist. “Real power means you can get what you want without having
to exert violence,” the president says in connection to Vladimir
Putin’s gambles in Ukraine and Syria. That’s true, in a Yoda sort of
way. But isn’t seizing foreign territory without anyone doing much to stop you
also a form of “real power”? Is dictatorial power fake because it depends on
the threat of force?
Elsewhere, Mr. Obama airily
dismisses the concept of “credibility” in U.S. foreign policy, noting that
Ronald Reagan’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Lebanon after the 1983
Marine barracks bombing didn’t affect U.S. credibility with China or Russia.
That’s debatable. But the withdrawal affected our credibility with Iran, which
was behind the bombing, and with a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.
“Where was this false courage of
yours when the explosion in Beirut took place in 1983?” bin Laden asked in his
1996 declaration of war on the U.S., which also cited Bill Clinton’s abrupt
withdrawal from Somalia after the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident. “You left the
area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you.”
As for current threats, Mr.
Goldberg asks Mr. Obama what he would do if Mr. Putin made a move against
Moldova, “another vulnerable post-Soviet state.” Mr. Obama’s
answer—“if it’s really important to somebody, and it’s not that
important to us, they know that, and we know that”—is of the April Glaspie
school of diplomacy. So long, Moldova.
Mr. Goldberg also discloses that
Mr. Kerry has begged the president to launch cruise missile strikes against the
Assad regime in Syria, for the sake of a little leverage in negotiations. Mr.
Obama has brushed the requests away. Mr. Assad can at last rest easy, if he
U.S. allies fare less well under
Mr. Obama’s gaze. David
Cameron comes in for a scolding on U.K. military spending, as well as for
getting “distracted” on Libya. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former and possibly
future president of France, is dismissed by Mr. Obama as a posturing braggart.
Regarding the president’s commitment to Israel’s security, Mr. Goldberg
reports, citing Mr.
Panetta, that the president “has questioned why the U.S. should maintain
Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more
sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies.”
As for those allies, Mr. Obama
treats the Saudis with such naked contempt that it prompted former intelligence
minister Turki al-Faisal to denounce the president in an op-ed:
“Could it be,” the prince asked, “that you are petulant about the
Kingdom’s efforts to support the Egyptian people when they rose against the
Muslim Brothers’ government and you supported it?”
Summing up the president’s
worldview, Mr. Goldberg describes him as a “Hobbesian optimist”—which
philosophically must be the equivalent of a Jew for Jesus. But Mr. Obama has
shown that he lacks Hobbes’s understanding that Leviathan must fill the
vacuums that will otherwise be filled by an ISIS or a Putin, or an optimist’s
belief that American power can shape the world for the better.
The French diplomat Charles de
Talleyrand once said of the (restored) Bourbon dynasty that “they had learned
nothing and forgotten nothing.” Given the mix of score-settling and delusion
on display in this interview, that may well be the president’s foreign-policy