Donald Trump, sure to be a mystery to future historians, is heading for his preordained crackup, tripping over a tongue bigger even than his hands. To some, his performance has been appalling, not to mention frightening. To others, though, it has been downright fortunate. Among other things, Trump has averted our eyes from Barack Obama.
It was during the recent Trump circus that The Atlantic magazine published a comprehensive and remarkable series of interviews with the president conducted by Jeffrey Goldberg. The article was titled “The Obama Doctrine,” and such it was. The doctrine, as we all know, comes down — in its bowdlerized version — to not doing “stupid stuff.” Trouble is, the doctrine itself falls into that category.
This was an article to challenge the capacity of my highlighter. Revealed is the not-very-cozy relationship between Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who proposed that Syria would be more amenable to negotiations if the US sent some missiles its way — and did not acknowledge where they came from. Obama reportedly got so vexed by this suggestion that he forbade anyone but the secretary of defense from proposing military plans. In other words, Kerry, shut up!
It’s a rule that Obama himself should have followed. He speaks the unspeakable, conceding that eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Crimea are Russia’s for the taking. “Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it,” he told Goldberg.
Ambiguity is not Obama’s forte. Rather than keeping Putin guessing — and maybe restrained — he signals the Russian president not to worry. Putin already has Crimea. He’s got eastern Ukraine. Will Moldova be next? Just a matter of time, it seems to me.
More important than any single item in the article is the overall impression it gives. To me, it read as an unwelcome vindication of what Obama’s right-wing critics said of him from the get-go: He’s a caricature of a Hyde Park (Chicago) liberal — tougher on America than he is on its enemies. Like Trump, he has a bogeyman. In Obama’s case, it is not the establishment in general, but the foreign policy establishment in particular. Obama and his aides mention it several times to Goldberg. It is forever urging the president into wars that, somehow, only he realizes are stupid.
Such was the case with Syria, which Obama reimagines as a triumph. He did just about everything right, down to insisting that Bashar Assad had to go, refraining early on from intervening and avoiding what no one, in fact, had proposed: boots on the ground.
But the Syrian civil war has produced a humanitarian calamity, at least 250,000 dead and an almost unprecedented refugee crisis that is destabilizing Europe. Obama acts as if this is a minor matter, just another Middle Eastern dustup, but the Syrian mess is an example of the slippery slope he does not mention when he mentions the one he wants to avoid. Like, possibly, Moldova, it is the consequence of inaction that may matter more than any action itself.
To what has to be the virtually erotic glee of his critics, Obama extols multilateralism not as a way of sharing the burden and legitimizing whatever the effort might be — NATO’s intervention in Bosnia, for instance, or George H.W. Bush’s grand coalition to free Kuwait — but as a brake on American arrogance. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he told Goldberg.
No doubt whatever GOP presidential candidate emerges from the primordial muck of this campaign will demand that Hillary Clinton defend that remark. It can be done in a classroom, I suppose. Hubris oozed from every pore of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but the Iraq War was the failure upon which Obama had based his entire foreign policy and the justification for doing so little in Syria. The success in the Balkans never gets mentioned, nor, for that matter, does he seem to notice that Putin got in and out of Syria, apparently accomplishing what he wanted without getting too involved on the ground.
In an odd way, Obama’s failure to intervene in Syria or to enforce his stated “red line” there has become the rationale for an entire foreign policy doctrine — one based more on hubris than success. Where are the allies to restrain him?
© 2016, WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP