Even when President Obama gets it right, he manages to get it wrong. In a lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, Obama voices a frustration Americans have had ever since the end of the Cold War, if not earlier — that the US has had to shoulder most of the cost and burden of enforcing international law while our allies ride along on the cheap. The sense that our allies have spent their capital on their own internal issues while we provide the military umbrella at our cost rankles both Democrats and Republicans, and both interventionists and non-interventionists. Obama tells Goldberg that he warned British prime minister David Cameron that the “special relationship” would be over if the UK didn’t up its spending on defense to 2% of GDP, a reasonable standard for an effective partnership.
However, when it comes to Obama’s selection of successes in ending “free riders” on American-provided security, he picks a doozy:
Jeffrey Goldberg, who conducted the interview, said the president was especially perturbed when The New Yorker reported, citing an anonymous administration official, that the White House was “leading from behind” amid the Libya crisis of 2011.
“We don’t have to always be the ones who are up front,” Obama told Goldberg, the magazine’s national correspondent. “Sometimes we’re going to get what we want precisely because we are sharing in the agenda. The irony is that it was precisely in order to prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting that we, by design, insisted” they lead during the mission to oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. “It was part of the anti-free rider campaign.”
Yes — and look how well that turned out. The 30,000-foot decapitation of the Qaddafi regime left a vacuum on the ground that quickly transformed Libya into a failed state. The recognized government in Tripoli can’t even claim full control of its capital over the terrorist militias that now run various parts of the former state, and its writ doesn’t run at all outside of that city. At the time, both Obama and Hillary Clinton bragged that they had provided a new model of American and Western intervention, but the rise of ISIS in Libya had quashed that arrogance — at least until now.
When Goldberg challenges Obama on his refusal to follow through on his “red line” comments about Syria, Obama insists that it’s one of his proudest moments:
“I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the “Washington playbook.”
“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.”
Perhaps the decision to refrain from bombing Assad’s forces after the use of chemical weapons was the correct one if all you consider is that decision alone. The problem with Obama’s statement here is that it ignores the actual issue — Obama’s declaration of a “red line” in the first place. Goldberg does a good job of walking through the timeline of this process in the beginning of the article, and it’s clear that Obama hadn’t thought it through strategically or considered the consequences of that declaration. When it came time to follow through on that declaration, Obama once again didn’t think through the strategic implications of backing down. Having extended US credibility on enforcing chemical-weapons bans, Obama made it clear that the US wouldn’t make good on its threats — leaving our allies slack-jawed, as Goldberg recounts, and American credibility in tatters.
That’s been Obama’s problem all along: a focus on tactical thinking to the exclusion of strategic thinking. He wanted to depose Qaddafi, which perhaps would be a defensible position, but never prepared for anything but the tactical implications of that action. Obama left a failed state on the Mediterranean in his wake. Obama wanted out of Iraq to satisfy his political promises and his own sense of propriety, and refused to seriously negotiate for a longer commitment. That decision led to Iraq’s near-collapse. He considered ISIS to be the “jayvees” and not worthy of serious attention even after they captured Fallujah in late 2013; to this day, Obama insists on taking a more tactical and less strategic approach to defeating ISIS.
In fact, Obama has a new analogy about ISIS:
But by late spring of 2014, after isis took the northern-Iraq city of Mosul, he came to believe that U.S. intelligence had failed to appreciate the severity of the threat and the inadequacies of the Iraqi army, and his view shifted. After isis beheaded three American civilians in Syria, it became obvious to Obama that defeating the group was of more immediate urgency to the U.S. than overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.
Advisers recall that Obama would cite a pivotal moment in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman movie, to help explain not only how he understood the role of isis, but how he understood the larger ecosystem in which it grew. “There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had his turf. And then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. isil is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”
Well, it beats jayvees. But ISIS isn’t interested in burning down the world; they want to set up their own terrorist state, complete with oil revenues and a Caliph at the head to unite the Muslim world. Obama’s insistence on taking comic-book approaches to threats with little grasp of strategic consequences has contributed in large measure to the region being set on fire.