Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic

Even before he became president, Obama worried greatly about slippery slopes in the Middle East. In Syria, he understood that Assad would most likely survive an American missile strike on his airbases; the day after such strikes ended, Assad, Obama believed, would have emerged from his hiding place, and declared victory: The greatest power in the world tried to destroy him, and failed. Obama was acutely aware that a one-off strike (a theoretical strike described as “unbelievably small” by his secretary of state, John Kerry), could possibly have served as a convincing brush-back pitch, but he was also aware that such a limited strike could have been wholly ineffectual, and even counterproductive. Assad and his allies, understanding that the appetite of average Americans for yet another Middle Eastern war was limited, could have tried to provoke Obama into escalation. An all-out war against the Syrian regime would have been, in many ways, Obama’s Iraq. And Obama wasn’t interested in having his own Iraq.

The curious thing is that Donald Trump is also not interested in having his own Iraq. And yet here he is. Obama was known for an overly cerebral commitment to the notion of strategic patience. Trump seems more committed to a policy of glandular, non-strategic impatience. Obama may have been paralyzed by a phobic reaction to the threat posed by the slippery slope. Donald Trump now finds himself dancing at the edge of the slippery slope his predecessor so assiduously avoided.

8 comments on “Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic

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  1. As usual, JG writes a well written thoughtful piece that helps one to better understand events. Since Trump incomprehensively provided Assad with a atta boy fireworks display, (military strike you say?????) I been reading and seeing/hearing all kinds of thoughtful, well presented perspectives about this event.

    I do think it’s time for these well informed, articulate commentators to just say in plain language what seems obvious to me.

    That fellow doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    For example, JG’s dry, “President Trump’s governing foreign policy doctrine is not easily discernible, of course.” will not do.

    He doesn’t know what he’s doing and that should be alarming to everyone no matter what your political orientation. The people around him who do know what they’re doing cannot save the day because he’s the Pres and they are not.

    Of course we can observe that no one can “know what they doing” in that job. But the present situation far surpasses this baseline meaning, and it cries out for the explicit, alarming observation that “He doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!”

    • I’been in a state of alarm ever since he started winning R primaries, for a time allayed (mis-allayed?) by my mistaken trust in the remnant good sense of enough of the electorate, so in a heightened state of alarm ever since 11/9…

      …but you can get used to anything, at least until it kills you.

      As for not knowing what he’s doing, that’s been clear for a while. It also seems that he does not care and never has cared very much about the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, assuming he even knows that much. Or he doesn’t care or care very much, or for very long, until and unless some problem his ignorance and carelessness have created has walked up and hit him in the nose while shouting out its identity.

      We might as well have a Magic 8-Ball as president – a malevolent Magic 8-Ball. It does seem that his defense people are capable of imposing greater consistency and responsibility to some significant extent, but our government is not designed to be run from the DoD

      • Yes you and many of us have been alarmed for some time, and said so many times, and with considerable force and insight. What I’m advocating, tilting away at windmills, spitting and pissing into the wind, is to make at least a gesture away from the insight, understatement, hope, sincere and pro forma both, that somehow it’s not as bad as it seems, or maybe things will get better, of maybe somebody will be able to influence that fellow to follow a better, more informed, considered path, a gesture away from all of that and say something as clear and bald as, “He doesn’t know what he’s doing!”

        Imagine the effect of mass marches at which the slogan shouted and signed was “He doesn’t know what he doing!” Or of panel after panel of pundits saying, one after the other, not clever insightful wisdom, but simply, “He doesn’t know what he doing!” Or of Chuck and Nancy not saying well honed political stilettos, but only “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

  2. President Obama articulated a doctrine of sorts regarding U.S. policy vis a vis the Syrian civil war, which more or less stated that the U.S. would not concern itself overmuch with the Syrian conflict unless chemical weapons were used. In that event, President Obama clearly suggested that an American military response would be in order.

    When chemical weapons were subsequently deployed in the Ghouta incident, President Obama hesitated to carry out his implied threat–a hesitation that was widely construed by establishment commentators and politicians at the time to have been a blunder. Even so, the Obama administration managed to secure an agreement from the Syrian regime to surrender its remaining chemical weapon stockpiles.

    The most recent episode of chemical weapons use in Syria–which U.S. intelligence is apparently certain was carried out by the Assad regime–suggests either that the Syrian government cheated on the previous agreement or has since produced fresh stock–clearly an unacceptable development for ongoing U.S. policy.

    If President Obama were still occupying that office at this point in time, it seems probable that he himself would have carried out a strike not at all dissimilar from the one President Trump ordered. In any case, the strike–admittedly more symbolic than practical–is a logical step relative to a U.S. policy enunciated by the Obama administration and obviously embraced by the Trump administration as well–namely, expressing severe disapproval over the use of chemical weapons in contemporary conflicts.

    Despite the fact that political establishments in both North America and Europe aren’t inclined to laud President Trump, the missile strike has garnered widespread support from those same establishments, with the recent G-7 summit of foreign ministers being a good example. If “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!”, at least in this particular instance, then it is evidently the case that the same political establishments so beloved of C.K. MacLeod don’t know what they’re doing either.

    • The depiction of Obama’s actions and omissions in 2013, and of the criticisms made, is far more complicated than the notion that his decision against military action was a blunder. Nor is it at all clear that if Obama – or Hillary – were in office today, they would have reacted in quite the same way. It seems more likely that, if they were intent upon launching a punishment strike, they would have sought to assemble allies internationally and in Congress first, and in relation to clearly enunciated or re-enunciated goals. If f they had ended up ordering unilateral action, and so without Congressional authorization, they not only would have been following an already enunciated logic, they would be following a logic that they themselves had openly embraced and repeatedly re-stated. In the case of Trump, we have someone who in 2013 was arguing against any involvement in the Syrian Civil War, and who throughout 2015-6 and since winning the election had maintained that line, instead insisting on an ISIS-only focus.

      The claim that bob is making, beginning from that offhand remark of Goldberg’s is not about any particular action, for or against. The question amounts to whether Trump can be said to have any policy at all, since no one has any assurance that what he forcefully declares one week, or day, or hour will still be his position next week, or day, or hour, or that he even conceives of the possibility of beining held accountable for his declations – whether in relation to Assad or with Assad’s conduct or to China or North Korea or health insurance or his tax returns or Janet Yellen anything else.

      • The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike on Syria and little to do with the specifics of Goldberg’s piece, and it was to that conversation I was responding.

        The idea that Obama’s (hypothetical) response to the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria would have been superior to Trump’s must be balanced against the univocal support given by the political establishments of the G7 countries to President Trump’s action.

        In addition, the strike has garnered widespread support from the U.S. political establishment–even Chuck Schumer gave his whole-hearted blessing to President Trump’s deed. So I don’t see how President Obama’s ostensible premeditated consensus-building could be imagined to supersede President Trump’s existing Congressional and foreign consensus after the fact.

        In your original comment, you claimed that “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!”–a line that you subsequently removed before you published my comment. With or without its explicit presence in the documentary record, the expression of that sentiment itself was about the only thing really going on in your virtue-signaling exchange with bob (on both your parts) and I wanted to make the obvious point that, given the broad consensus on the part of political establishments both at home and abroad in favor of the missile strike–to say nothing of its seamless consonance with President Obama’s policy–those same establishments must not know what they are doing either. (Right, my friend?)

        I also want to make clear that I myself do not think that President Obama’s refraining from striking Syria was a “blunder”–I only said “that [it] was widely construed by establishment commentators and politicians at the time [or better, afterwards] to have been a blunder.” Again, I sought to make the point that Trump’s action was fully in accord with political establishments here in North America and Western Europe.

        You’re certainly correct, though, that the missile strike represents an about-face from Trump’s tweets at the time Obama was contemplating his own response to the Ghouta incident, as well as Trump’s rhetoric throughout the 2016 campaign. I can only refer us all to the common-sense apothegm that runs, “Meet the new boss,…”

        As it turns out, pace Donald Trump himself, the president does appear to have a foreign policy–more or less the same foreign policy as his predecessor. And that would seem to be due to the fact that said policy is not and never has been the product of individual intention or inclination but is rather the consequence of permanent and constraining geopolitical interests that transcend and outlast any given administration. Appearances to the contrary tend to be cosmetic, as no one should know better than you.

        • Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!” – bob’s idea for a possible rallying cry – but I don’t see why it matters.

          To the extent that various politicians worldwide may have voiced degrees and types of support for the Khan Sheikhoun retaliation strike – e.g., referring to justification for it without ever specifically endorsing it, voicing reservations about its legality while keeping the onus on Assad, suggesting that it would be supportable if part of a larger strategy, suggesting that its status as, apparently, a one-off, meant that problems with it need not be emphasized, etc. – then, indeed, they, too, in multiple senses, may not know what they’re doing. They may not know what they’re doing because they cannot know what they are doing in present circumstances. They may not know what they’re doing in part because international law itself is a bit of a mess on the underlying questions, and because the value of international law seems uncertain to them, and because they are incompetent in other ways, and perhaps not least because what the notional Leader of the Free World intends to do and what he is doing are not really knowable, in other words because the specific problem of President Trump is that, even if he were to decide firmly in his own mind what he is doing and intends to do, and were to articulate one or both clearly, there is nothing in his conduct and record that suggests he would understand himself to be bound by his word, however clearly stated. To me it seems doubtful even that the words “firmly in his own mind,” which presume the existence of sound mental faculties, are to be applied to him at all.

          Whether or how much the last problem
          – the empty head of government and state problem – matters defines the natural experiment that we have set up for ourselves, with ourselves as natural experimental subjects. That in that experiment a kind of policy inertia in line with a kind of strategic inertia or strategic necessity may already be trumping Trump, or trumping Trumpian political and intellectual inconsistency, may be for us a good thing or at least better than certain worse things. There are names for the various schools of political science that predicted something like this. I’ve never denied such hopes, and I wouldn’t deny them.

          It does not follow, however, that an openly admitted distaste for Trump and associated alarm at the reality of President Trump must equate with particular “love” and support for whatever “establishments” or for agreement with whatever whichever of their representatives happen to have said whenever. I’ve long been of the opinion – as I have, I believe, expressed with non-Trumpian consistency – that the Trump presidency represents a system failure, and that a system failure is our failure. Put plainly: I think and have said that I think he’s our fault, as I think and have said that Obama’s Syria fiasco was also our fault as much as it was Obama’s fault in particular, and I also happen to find the degree of moral, political, and also legal confusion at work and shirk in the world today to be downright spectacular. We – from the best and the brightest to just plain folks like you and me – did these embarrassing things, or failed to come up with anything better, together. That’s what I think, and I can’t see why anyone should think anything else.

        • Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country’s foreign policy, and to an extent any leader of that country, but not entirely. GWB rather easily evaded that weight and embarked on a pre-emptive policy in Iraq.

          Obama evaded that weight by taking no kinetic action in Syria.

          Whatever the weight of a country’s foreign policy, individual leaders mostly do, and should have their own ideas based on their understanding of their country’s interests and place in the world. These ideas rise to knowing what you’re doing, only when they rise to a level of detail, logic and sophistication. There is no evidence that fellow has this, not only in foreign policy, but man other areas as well (who knew it could be so complicated?)

          Knowing what you’re doing increases the chances of success in the aggregate but not necessarily in the particular. Once when my wife was facing a difficult surgery, I asked the surgeon how many of his patients died from the procedure. He gave me a number and said it was because he took the difficult cases. That was the correct and reassuring answer.

          That fellow merits the charge that he doesn’t know what he’s doing because he has no track record of success and failure in the matters of State, and has been disinclined to educate himself.

          Were it only the case that people praise actions because they think the actor knows what he’s doing. On second thought, such a state may have messy consequences for households with small children and pets.

          That fellow is notorious for his need for praise and attention. What better way to try to influence him than to praise him when he happens to do something of which you approve?

          He expresses respect for his military advisors, as do most others. As I said in my first comment here, “people around him who do know what they’re doing cannot save the day because he’s the Pres and they are not.”

          That this strike fits into the general past weight of US foreign policy means little in the current situation. A “one off-er” was a common description of it.

          Until he shows otherwise, I will regard him as the Pres leading from no where, who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

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