L’Occident tenté par les despotes
Face à une instabilité grandissante, les Occidentaux semblent prêts à soutenir n’importe quel autocrate au nom de la sécurité. Une stratégie à courte vue, estime l’ancienne responsable de la diplomatie espagnole.
Autrefois interrogé sur le soutien de l’Amérique au dictateur nicaraguayen Anastasio Somoza, le président Franklin D. Roosevelt aurait dit-on répondu :“Somoza est peut-être un salopard, mais c’est notre salopard.” Qu’il soit authentique ou non, ce trait d’esprit résume l’approche adoptée depuis bien longtemps par l’Occident dans une grande partie du monde – et qui a sous-tendu la politique étrangère américaine tout au long de la guerre froide.
Mais plus récemment, une approche encore plus troublante semble avoir émergé, consistant pour les dirigeants occidentaux à se contenter non pas de leur “propre salopard”, mais tout simplement de n’importe quel salopard en mesure d’imposer une stabilité, quel qu’en soit le prix.
On se serait attendu à ce que l’expérience oriente les dirigeants occidentaux vers une direction opposée. Après tout, les années passant, le clientélisme de la guerre froide s’est révélé loin d’être idéal. En effet, dans bien des situations – chah d’Iran, Lon Nol au Cambodge, Augusto Pinochet au Chili, ou encore Mobutu Sese Seko en république démocratique du Congo, pour ne citer que quelques exemples –, ce choix n’a engendré à long terme qu’insécurité et désordre.
Seulement voilà, nous vivons une époque de désespoir. Incapables de contenir les violences, les souffrances et le chaos qui engloutissent le Moyen-Orient et une partie de l’Afrique du Nord – et dont les conséquences se font de plus en plus ressentir en Europe –, les dirigeants occidentaux retombent aujourd’hui dans le piège de la guerre froide. Ils ne souhaitent plus qu’une seule chose : pouvoir compter sur la présence d’un acteur – et désormais quasiment n’importe qui – capable de faire respecter l’ordre.
C’est sans doute dans le cas de la Syrie que ce désespoir apparaît le plus clairement. Après avoir insisté pendant des années sur le problème que représentait le président syrien Bachar El-Assad, de plus en plus de responsables et stratèges occidentaux estiment finalement qu’il pourrait bien faire partie de la solution – ou du moins participer à une transition.
Le mois dernier, la chancelière allemande Angela Merkel a souligné la nécessité d’intégrer Assad aux discussions sur l’avenir de la Syrie. De même, le secrétaire d’Etat John Kerry et le Premier ministre britannique David Cameron attribuent tous deux un rôle à Assad dans le cadre d’une éventuelle transition. Le Premier ministre espagnol Mariano Rajoy est allé jusqu’à déclarer que le monde devrait“compter sur” Assad dans la lutte contre l’Etat islamique.
Qu’il découle du réalisme ou de la résignation, ce changement d’approche illustre un profond désir de stabilité – désir accentué, notamment en Europe, par l’existence d’un nouveau vide de gouvernance en Libye. Ce même désir a d’ores et déjà conduit l’Occident à soutenir le régime d’Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi en Egypte, sans exercer de véritable pression en direction de réformes de la part du régime.
Face à un contexte d’anarchie, cet empressement visant l’instauration d’une stabilité par tous les moyens nécessaires est compréhensible. Il s’agit néanmoins d’une pente glissante. Et cette tentation se fonde en réalité sur une fausse dichotomie entre autocratie et instabilité.Bien entendu, les personnalités autoritaires telles que le président russe Vladimir Poutine ont profondément intérêt à promouvoir cette dichotomie. Comme l’a récemment expliqué l’analyste politique bulgare Ivan Krastev, le président Poutine – depuis longtemps allié d’Assad – fait activement valoir l’idée selon laquelle les efforts occidentaux de promotion d’une bonne gouvernance n’auraient conduit qu’à l’instabilité.
Mais la tyrannie n’est jamais véritablement stable, et certainement pas à long terme. Le désir de respect et de dignité humaine – pierre angulaire d’une bonne gouvernance – ne peut être étouffé, et encore moins à l’heure où les populations bénéficient d’un accès sans précédent à l’information via Internet et les technologies mobiles.
Ainsi la bonne gouvernance constitue-t-elle la clé d’une stabilité à long terme.
Cultiver une société civile dynamique
Néanmoins, tout comme la stabilité, la bonne gouvernance ne peut être imposée depuis l’extérieur ; il lui faut se développer de manière organique, et reposer sur les racines solides d’une société.
Cela ne signifie pas que les gouvernements occidentaux ne peuvent agir en la matière. Au contraire, en contribuant à cultiver une société civile dynamique au niveau local et national, les forces externes peuvent jouer un rôle important dans la construction de solides fondations sous-tendant une bonne gouvernance dans les pays en crise.
Le Quartet du dialogue national en Tunisie – groupement d’organisations de la société civile, récompensé cette année par un prix Nobel de la paix – démontre toute l’efficacité que peut produire une société civile énergique dans le soutien à la stabilité. Si elle entend faire réellement la différence dans la stabilisation des régions les plus troublées du monde actuel, la communauté aurait tout intérêt à prendre pour modèle la Tunisie (et à demeurer engagée dans le maintien du cap entrepris par le pays en direction d’une démocratie stable) plutôt que tomber dans le piège des mises en garde formulées par Poutine autour de la Syrie et de la Libye.
Ana Palacio a été ministre des Affaires étrangères de l’Espagne de 2002 à 2004 et première vice-présidente de la Banque mondiale. La tribune ci-dessus a été publiée par la plateforme Project Syndicate, traduite de l’anglais par Martin Morel.
Photos – Obama à Cuba : une visite historique et des vacances familiales
23 mars 2016
Le président américain Barack Obama s’est rendu à Cuba, accompagné de sa femme, Michelle et de ses deux filles, Sasha et Malia, 14 et 17 ans, pour officialiser la normalisation des relations entre les deux pays. Au cours de ce déplacement symbolique et historique, la famille Obama est apparue plus complice que jamais.
Dès la descente de l’avion présidentiel, ce dimanche 20 mars, les quatre membres de la famille Obama étaient détendus et souriant. Leur visite de trois jours à Cuba, censée officialiser le réchauffement des relations entre l’île et les Etats-Unis, montre une nouvelle fois leur capacité à rester spontanés au milieu des rigueurs protocolaires. Les robes fleuries de Michelle, l’enthousiasme de Barack au match de baseball, les talents de traductrice de Malia, l’aînée de leurs filles… Chacun de leurs gestes étaient scrutés, mais ils ont sans conteste réussi l’exercice de séduction, toujours avec leur décontraction légendaire.
Barack Obama est ainsi devenu le premier président américain en exercice à se rendre à Cuba depuis près de 90 ans. C’était l’occasion pour lui, à 10 mois de la fin de son mandat, de confirmer le dégel avec La Havane, engagé fin 2014, mais aussi pour le président cubain, Raul Castro, de plaider une nouvelle fois pour la suppression de l’embargo économique qui pénalise son île depuis 1962. A côté de ce contexte diplomatique solennel, la famille Obama s’est également adonnée avec une joie non dissimulée à la découverte de l’île ; de la vieille ville de La Havane, avec ses monuments historiques et ses jardins, à l’équipe de baseball nationale cubaine.
Malia Obama, 17 ans, s’est même amusée à servir de traductrice à son père, qui n’était visiblement pas aussi à l’aise qu’elle en espagnol. Le photographe officiel de la Maison-Blanche, Pete Souza, a immortalisé l’un de ces moments de complicité dans un restaurant de la Havane, avant de le poster sur son compte Instagram. « Le président et sa fille Malia partagent un fou rire, alors que Malia traduit l’espagnol pour son père dans un restaurant de la vieille ville » a-t-il indiqué en légende.
En voyant les photos de la famille Obama à Cuba, on croirait presque assister aux vacances d’une famille comme les autres, si ce n’est les journalistes et les officiels cubains que l’on aperçoit parfois à leurs côtés. Malia et Sasha profitaient de quelques jours de Spring break (vacances de printemps), avant de retourner en cours. C’était d’ailleurs peut être les dernières vacances en famille pour Malia, qui devrait quitter les siens pour entrer à l’université, à l’automne prochain.
The biggest problem with U.S. foreign policy? Obama’s own preening self-regard
March 14, 2016
The Barack Obama show is in town again. The president likes nothing so much as to demonstrate how profound and thoughtful he is, and he recently decided to do it by granting an interview to one of his favorite journalists, The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, to whom he explained his thinking and legacy on foreign policy. The long interview is full of great nuggets and quotes and has been the talk of DC. One cannot help but read it and feel that the biggest problem with U.S. foreign policy in the Obama era has been what can only be called Obama’s preening self-regard.
Let’s get some things out of the way first. I’ve always tried to shy away from the character attacks that so many of my fellow conservatives engage in when it comes to Obama. Although I disagree with him on many, many issues of policy, he has always seemed like a smart, likeable, well-intentioned guy, which is already saying a lot for a politician. And it’s certainly the case that some conservatives haven’t had a very good critique of the Obama era, seeing everything through the lens of a worldview that sees force and confrontation as the answer to every problem.
But it really is the case that the character of presidents shape their policy. And when you read the interview a second time, you realize that the driving force isn’t Obama’s worldview on foreign policy. It’s Obama himself. And in particular, there’s one consistent theme, whatever issue or trouble spot you’re talking about: It’s somebody else’s fault.
Why has Libya been such a disaster? Because the Europeans didn’t pull their weight.
Why are America’s Sunni allies so discontented with the Obama administration? Because they’re free riders who want to use American military might to solve their sectarian gripes. (Another way to phrase it might be: « Expect their main ally to help them in their struggle with their adversaries. » Have they no shame?)
Why are Sunni and Shia at each other’s throats all over the Middle East? Did the United States embolden Iran by negotiating the nuclear deal or by failing to sign a new status of forces agreement with Iraq? Surely you jest! No, the Middle East is on fire because of « tribalism. » The president can’t do anything about that, can he?
Why didn’t the reset with Russia work? Well, Putin is too dumb to realize that it’s in his own self-interest to play nice with America. (Although Obama generously grants that « he’s not completely stupid. »)
Why was the West wrong-footed in Ukraine? Well, Ukraine is always going to be vulnerable to Russia anyway.
Any regrets over calling ISIS a « JV team »? Well, intelligence analysts said ISIS was « marginal. »
Why isn’t there peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Because Netanyahu is too scared to reach out to the Palestinians. Forget the fact that Fatah has rejected every serious peace overture by the Israelis, and that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is quite intent on genocide against Jews.
None of these viewpoints are indefensible on their own merits, and all of them have at least a grain of truth in them (except for the last one). But together, they paint quite the picture — of someone disconnected from reality and sure of his own perfection.
To be sure, all presidents have very large egos — it’s a requirement of aspiring to the job. And politicians will never admit to a mistake unless they have a metaphorical gun to their head. But there’s always been something grating and, at the end of the day, unseemly, about Obama’s performance of himself as The Most Thoughtful Man in Washington.
Obama came to national prominence vowing to heal our partisan divide. He did it through a rhetorical style that can be summed up as « I have understood you. » He was so good at making speeches where he could restate opponents’ views that they thought he really could see things from their own perspective; only later did people catch on that the whole sentence is « I have understood you, but I’m not going to budge. » (Which isn’t to say that Obama is wholly to blame for the partisan rancor of his years.) In a similar way, Obama’s performance of his own thoughtfulness and rumination becomes unbearable once you realize that he will turn around thoughts in his head, but never end up changing them. There’s an almost dizzying feeling when you realize something you thought was profound turns out to be incredibly shallow.
The cake is taken by the part of the piece that drove the most headlines: Obama’s statement that he was « very proud » of one of the most indefensible moments in his presidency, the moment when he refused to enforce his « red line » in Syria and stood by while Assad gassed his own people. His rationale is worth quoting in full:
« 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. » [The Atlantic]
Nevermind the merits of the action. Why is Obama proud of his decision? Because it had the best outcome? No, because of the way he thought through the decision. Obama thinks his decision was good because of the way he reached it. The most salient aspect of the decision is not how it affected millions of Syrians, or the international norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction in warfare (and the credibility of the United States as the lone superpower and guarantor of international norms writ large), with incalculable potential ripple effects, it is how the whole thing played out in the theater that is the mind of Barack Obama.
Ultimately, Obama’s legacy will be written by history, and we will not be able to appreciate it until many years hence, if then. But we can at least be certain of one thing: For as long as he lives, Barack Obama will feel good about it. And that doesn’t make me feel good at all.
Voir par ailleurs:
The Syrian Civil War
Kurds to Declare “Federal Region” in Syria Syria’s dominant Kurdish party, the PYD, declared that it will announce plans for a federal, autonomous region as early as Thursday. Reuters has more:
The announcement had been expected on Wednesday but was postponed for “logistical reasons” and because of demands from local Arab and Assyrian communities for reassurances that the federal arrangement will not mean separation from Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict.[..]
Syrian Kurdish groups and their allies have already carved out three autonomous zones, or cantons, known as Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin. Their capture of the town of Tel Abyad from Islamic State last year created territorial contiguity between the Jazeera and Kobani areas.
Afrin is separated from the other two cantons by roughly 100 km of territory, much of it still held by Islamic State.
So there’s more fighting ahead. And while they’re not (yet) talking about secession, there is a fair bit of autonomy envisaged:
Nassan said a federal arrangement would widen “the framework of self-administration which the Kurds and others have formed”, and the political system would represent all ethnic groups living in the area of its authority.
The system envisions “areas of democratic self-administration” that will manage their own economic, security and defense affairs, according to a document drafted by a committee in preparation for the meeting and seen by Reuters.
But how pluralistic and how democratic an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan is will have a lot to do with who shepherds it into being. On that front, some bad news: as TAI Editor Adam Garfinkle recently noted, the PYD has ties to the KGB going back to the Cold War, and of late the Russians have in many ways been the best friends of the Syrian Kurds, who already have a “mission” in Moscow. The Kremlin reportedly welcomed the recent news.
The U.S. has been relatively supportive of the Syrian Kurds as well, but that support has basically boiled down to “please would you fight ISIS for us? Thanks.” Our eroded credibility in the region, and Russia’s elevated profile, will make dealing with this news tricky. So too will our essentially ambivalent attitude toward Kurdish independence aspirations, and our official support for the fantastic goal of seeing united, peaceful, democratic Syria and Iraq restored to their ante bellum borders.
Our relationship with the Syrian Kurds is, of course, complicated by our NATO ally Turkey. Ankara is not at all pleased with the Syrian Kurdish announcement:
Turkey, whose conflict with the Kurdish PKK has escalated in recent months, said such moves were not acceptable. “Syria’s national unity and territorial integrity is fundamental for us. Outside of this, unilateral decisions cannot have validity,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Reuters.
The PYD has been left out of the Geneva peace talks, in line with the wishes of Turkey, which sees it as an extension of the PKK group that is waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
This Turkish hostility could take many forms; few of them are likely to be conducive to regional harmony. Even worse: in the course of a recent speech speech in which he compared the Kurds to the Armenians in 1915, Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu pointedly conflated the Syrian Kurdish cooperation with Moscow with internal disloyalty by Turkish Kurds. The spectre of worsened internal ethnic violence in Turkey haunts this announcement.
Then there’s the Syrian regime’s reaction (so far negative, but deals may be possible). Iraq and Iran also have Kurdish minorities and will have an interest in the precedent set by the newest attempt at a Kurdish semi-state. And the Kurdish move will complicate the calculations of the Sunni Gulf Arabs, ISIS, and the other Syrian rebels in ways that can’t yet fully be foreseen.
So anyone who thought that the Russians pulling out of Syria, combined with the Geneva peace talks getting under way, meant that we could finally forget about the bloody mess that is the Syrian Civil War probably doesn’t appreciate just what a complicated mess the conflict has left in its wake. This thing is far from over, and lasting peace is anything but assured.
Voir de même:
Et les Kurdes créèrent les Hauts-de-Syrie
La Turquie voit son cauchemar prendre forme
est historien et directeur de la publication de Causeur
Moscou a donné le coup d’envoi du démantèlement de la Syrie, dont les premiers bénéficiaires seront les Kurdes. Et les Turcs risquent de payer la facture plein pot.
Il y a quelques jours, une source que la presse a qualifiée de « diplomate du Conseil de sécurité des Nations-Unies » a fait cette déclaration : « Tout en insistant sur la préservation de l’intégrité territoriale de la Syrie, en la maintenant ainsi comme un seul pays, il y a naturellement toutes sortes de modèles différents de structure fédérale qui pourraient, dans certains cas, reposer sur un centre très, très faible et beaucoup d’autonomie pour différentes régions ».
Puisque cette source anonyme est très probablement membre de la délégation russe auprès de l’ONU, cette phrase dessine les possibles contours de la solution politique de la guerre civile syrienne. Et, comme pour le prouver, quelques jours après la publication de cette indiscrétion, Poutine a annoncé le début du retrait de ses troupes déployées en Syrie : un message clair adressé à Assad lui signifiant que son rêve d’un retour à la Syrie d’avant ne faisait pas partie des objectifs russes. Et voilà qu’aujourd’hui nous apprenons – quelle coïncidence ! – l’existence d’un projet de fédéralisation des trois zones contrôlées par les Kurdes au nord-est de la Syrie. Cette région que les Arabes nomment Jezireh et les Kurdes Rojava sera dirigée par un gouvernement ayant charge la gestion de l’économie et la sécurité, mais aussi une fonction plus régalienne : la défense.
Un responsable kurde a également indiqué qu’une conférence se tenait actuellement à Rmeilanv (dans la région de Hassaké, nord-est de la Syrie, à 700 kilomètres de Damas), pour approuver ce système d’autonomie officiellement baptisé « Fédération démocratique du Rojava ». Cerise sur le baklawa, l’initiative – qui n’est pas pour déplaire à Moscou – s’est immédiatement attiré les foudres d’Ankara. Pour la Turquie, le PYD (Parti de l’union démocratique), parti des Kurdes syriens à la manœuvre, ne diffère guerre du PKK (Parti des travailleurs du Kurdistan), qu’Ankara considère comme une organisation terroriste. Dans le même temps, une grande partie de l’Est turc, à dominante kurde, vit sous état de siège depuis la crispation des rapports entre Erdogan et le PKK.
Sur le front diplomatique syrien, si Ankara a pu empêcher la participation du PYD aux négociations de Genève, les Turcs voient se réaliser leur pire cauchemar sur le terrain : la constitution d’un Kurdistan syrien autonome. Déjà, à l’été 2014, lorsqu’elles tergiversaient pendant l’assaut de l’Etat islamique contre la ville kurde syrienne de Kobané, les autorités turques avaient préféré choisir un moindre mal : plutôt Daech qu’un Kurdistan quasi-indépendant de Damas qui donneraient des idées aux Kurdes de Turquie !
Aujourd’hui, presque la moitié de la frontière syro-turque se trouve sous contrôle kurde, mais, ce qui est encore plus important, le coup d’envoi quasi officiel du démantèlement de la Syrie vient d’être donné. Reste à trouver les Sykes-Picot du XXe siècle : Lavrov et Kerry ? En tout cas, la Turquie d’Erdogan n’a aucune envie de jouer le rôle autrefois dévolu aux Kurdes : le dindon de la farce diplomatique
The Obama Doctrine
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Obama on …
Why he’s proud of not striking Assad in 2013
The necessity of pivoting from the Middle East to Asia and other regions
Why Ukraine will always be vulnerable to Russian domination
Resisting John Kerry’s requests to attack Syrian-regime targets
Why Saudi Arabia should share the Middle East with Iran
How ISIS is like the Joker
Why Putin is “not completely stupid”
How France and Great Britain contributed to the mess in Libya
Why ISIS isn’t an existential threat, but climate change is
Why he resents Netanyahu’s lectures
Obama, in whose Cabinet Kerry serves faithfully, but with some exasperation, is himself given to vaulting oratory, but not usually of the martial sort associated with Churchill. Obama believes that the Manichaeanism, and eloquently rendered bellicosity, commonly associated with Churchill were justified by Hitler’s rise, and were at times defensible in the struggle against the Soviet Union. But he also thinks rhetoric should be weaponized sparingly, if at all, in today’s more ambiguous and complicated international arena. The president believes that Churchillian rhetoric and, more to the point, Churchillian habits of thought, helped bring his predecessor, George W. Bush, to ruinous war in Iraq. Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he was not seeking new dragons to slay. And he was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable. “If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, and his foreign-policy amanuensis, told me not long ago.
But Kerry’s rousing remarks on that August day, which had been drafted in part by Rhodes, were threaded with righteous anger and bold promises, including the barely concealed threat of imminent attack. Kerry, like Obama himself, was horrified by the sins committed by the Syrian regime in its attempt to put down a two-year-old rebellion. In the Damascus suburb of Ghouta nine days earlier, Assad’s army had murdered more than 1,400 civilians with sarin gas. The strong sentiment inside the Obama administration was that Assad had earned dire punishment. In Situation Room meetings that followed the attack on Ghouta, only the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, cautioned explicitly about the perils of intervention. John Kerry argued vociferously for action.
“As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way,” Kerry said in his speech. “History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most.”
From Our April 2016 Issue
Try 2 FREE issues of The Atlantic
Kerry counted President Obama among those leaders. A year earlier, when the administration suspected that the Assad regime was contemplating the use of chemical weapons, Obama had declared: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Despite this threat, Obama seemed to many critics to be coldly detached from the suffering of innocent Syrians. Late in the summer of 2011, he had called for Assad’s departure. “For the sake of the Syrian people,” Obama said, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” But Obama initially did little to bring about Assad’s end.
He resisted demands to act in part because he assumed, based on the analysis of U.S. intelligence, that Assad would fall without his help. “He thought Assad would go the way Mubarak went,” Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to Obama, told me, referring to the quick departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, a moment that represented the acme of the Arab Spring. But as Assad clung to power, Obama’s resistance to direct intervention only grew. After several months of deliberation, he authorized the CIA to train and fund Syrian rebels, but he also shared the outlook of his former defense secretary, Robert Gates, who had routinely asked in meetings, “Shouldn’t we finish up the two wars we have before we look for another?”
Portrait of a Presidential Mind
The current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who is the most dispositionally interventionist among Obama’s senior advisers, had argued early for arming Syria’s rebels. Power, who during this period served on the National Security Council staff, is the author of a celebrated book excoriating a succession of U.S. presidents for their failures to prevent genocide. The book, A Problem From Hell, published in 2002, drew Obama to Power while he was in the U.S. Senate, though the two were not an obvious ideological match. Power is a partisan of the doctrine known as “responsibility to protect,” which holds that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens. She lobbied him to endorse this doctrine in the speech he delivered when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but he declined. Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.
Power sometimes argued with Obama in front of other National Security Council officials, to the point where he could no longer conceal his frustration. “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book,” he once snapped.
Obama in the Oval Office, where, two and a half years ago, he shocked national-security aides by calling off air strikes on Syria (Ruven Afanador)
Obama, unlike liberal interventionists, is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,” Obama once told me). Bush and Scowcroft removed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991, and they deftly managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Scowcroft also, on Bush’s behalf, toasted the leaders of China shortly after the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. As Obama was writing his campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, in 2006, Susan Rice, then an informal adviser, felt it necessary to remind him to include at least one line of praise for the foreign policy of President Bill Clinton, to partially balance the praise he showered on Bush and Scowcroft.
At the outset of the Syrian uprising, in early 2011, Power argued that the rebels, drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens, deserved America’s enthusiastic support. Others noted that the rebels were farmers and doctors and carpenters, comparing these revolutionaries to the men who won America’s war for independence.
Obama on the World
Obama flipped this plea on its head. “When you have a professional army,” he once told me, “that is well armed and sponsored by two large states”—Iran and Russia—“who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict …” He paused. “The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.” The message Obama telegraphed in speeches and interviews was clear: He would not end up like the second President Bush—a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East, whose decisions filled the wards of Walter Reed with grievously wounded soldiers, who was helpless to stop the obliteration of his reputation, even when he recalibrated his policies in his second term. Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit.”
Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.)
Video: Obama’s “Red Line” That Wasn’t
Inside the president’s last-minute decision not to bomb Syria in 2013
Syria, for Obama, represented a slope potentially as slippery as Iraq. In his first term, he came to believe that only a handful of threats in the Middle East conceivably warranted direct U.S. military intervention. These included the threat posed by al‑Qaeda; threats to the continued existence of Israel (“It would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States” not to defend Israel, he once told me); and, not unrelated to Israel’s security, the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. The danger to the United States posed by the Assad regime did not rise to the level of these challenges.
Given Obama’s reticence about intervention, the bright-red line he drew for Assad in the summer of 2012 was striking. Even his own advisers were surprised. “I didn’t know it was coming,” his secretary of defense at the time, Leon Panetta, told me. I was told that Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly warned Obama against drawing a red line on chemical weapons, fearing that it would one day have to be enforced.
Debating the Obama Doctrine
Analysts respond to our April cover story and assess the president’s foreign policy
Kerry, in his remarks on August 30, 2013, suggested that Assad should be punished in part because the “credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies” were at stake. “It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”
Ninety minutes later, at the White House, Obama reinforced Kerry’s message in a public statement: “It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal that that international norm doesn’t mean much. And that is a danger to our national security.”
It appeared as though Obama had drawn the conclusion that damage to American credibility in one region of the world would bleed into others, and that U.S. deterrent credibility was indeed at stake in Syria. Assad, it seemed, had succeeded in pushing the president to a place he never thought he would have to go. Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of “credibility”—particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam. Within the White House, Obama would argue that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
American national-security credibility, as it is conventionally understood in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the cluster of think tanks headquartered within walking distance of the White House, is an intangible yet potent force—one that, when properly nurtured, keeps America’s friends feeling secure and keeps the international order stable.
In White House meetings that crucial week in August, Biden, who ordinarily shared Obama’s worries about American overreach, argued passionately that “big nations don’t bluff.” America’s closest allies in Europe and across the Middle East believed Obama was threatening military action, and his own advisers did as well. At a joint press conference with Obama at the White House the previous May, David Cameron, the British prime minister, had said, “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.” Cameron’s statement, one of his advisers told me, was meant to encourage Obama toward more-decisive action. “The prime minister was certainly under the impression that the president would enforce the red line,” the adviser told me. The Saudi ambassador in Washington at the time, Adel al-Jubeir, told friends, and his superiors in Riyadh, that the president was finally ready to strike. Obama “figured out how important this is,” Jubeir, who is now the Saudi foreign minister, told one interlocutor. “He will definitely strike.”
Obama had already ordered the Pentagon to develop target lists. Five Arleigh Burke–class destroyers were in the Mediterranean, ready to fire cruise missiles at regime targets. French President François Hollande, the most enthusiastically pro-intervention among Europe’s leaders, was preparing to strike as well. All week, White House officials had publicly built the case that Assad had committed a crime against humanity. Kerry’s speech would mark the culmination of this campaign.
But the president had grown queasy. In the days after the gassing of Ghouta, Obama would later tell me, he found himself recoiling from the idea of an attack unsanctioned by international law or by Congress. The American people seemed unenthusiastic about a Syria intervention; so too did one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She told him that her country would not participate in a Syria campaign. And in a stunning development, on Thursday, August 29, the British Parliament denied David Cameron its blessing for an attack. John Kerry later told me that when he heard that, “internally, I went, Oops.”
Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with members of the National Security Council, including Susan Rice and John Kerry (second and third from left), in December 2014. (Pete Souza / White House)
While the Pentagon and the White House’s national-security apparatuses were still moving toward war (John Kerry told me he was expecting a strike the day after his speech), the president had come to believe that he was walking into a trap—one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do.
Many of his advisers did not grasp the depth of the president’s misgivings; his Cabinet and his allies were certainly unaware of them. But his doubts were growing. Late on Friday afternoon, Obama determined that he was simply not prepared to authorize a strike. He asked McDonough, his chief of staff, to take a walk with him on the South Lawn of the White House. Obama did not choose McDonough randomly: He is the Obama aide most averse to U.S. military intervention, and someone who, in the words of one of his colleagues, “thinks in terms of traps.” Obama, ordinarily a preternaturally confident man, was looking for validation, and trying to devise ways to explain his change of heart, both to his own aides and to the public. He and McDonough stayed outside for an hour. Obama told him he was worried that Assad would place civilians as “human shields” around obvious targets. He also pointed out an underlying flaw in the proposed strike: U.S. missiles would not be fired at chemical-weapons depots, for fear of sending plumes of poison into the air. A strike would target military units that had delivered these weapons, but not the weapons themselves.
Obama also shared with McDonough a long-standing resentment: He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries. Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.
When the two men came back to the Oval Office, the president told his national-security aides that he planned to stand down. There would be no attack the next day; he wanted to refer the matter to Congress for a vote. Aides in the room were shocked. Susan Rice, now Obama’s national-security adviser, argued that the damage to America’s credibility would be serious and lasting. Others had difficulty fathoming how the president could reverse himself the day before a planned strike. Obama, however, was completely calm. “If you’ve been around him, you know when he’s ambivalent about something, when it’s a 51–49 decision,” Ben Rhodes told me. “But he was completely at ease.”
Not long ago, I asked Obama to describe his thinking on that day. He listed the practical worries that had preoccupied him. “We had UN inspectors on the ground who were completing their work, and we could not risk taking a shot while they were there. A second major factor was the failure of Cameron to obtain the consent of his parliament.”
The third, and most important, factor, he told me, was “our assessment that while we could inflict some damage on Assad, we could not, through a missile strike, eliminate the chemical weapons themselves, and what I would then face was the prospect of Assad having survived the strike and claiming he had successfully defied the United States, that the United States had acted unlawfully in the absence of a UN mandate, and that that would have potentially strengthened his hand rather than weakened it.”
The fourth factor, he said, was of deeper philosophical importance. “This falls in the category of something that I had been brooding on for some time,” he said. “I had come into office with the strong belief that the scope of executive power in national-security issues is very broad, but not limitless.”
Obama knew his decision not to bomb Syria would likely upset America’s allies. It did. The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, told me that his government was already worried about the consequences of earlier inaction in Syria when word came of the stand-down. “By not intervening early, we have created a monster,” Valls told me. “We were absolutely certain that the U.S. administration would say yes. Working with the Americans, we had already seen the targets. It was a great surprise. If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.” The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was already upset with Obama for “abandoning” Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, fumed to American visitors that the U.S. was led by an “untrustworthy” president. The king of Jordan, Abdullah II—already dismayed by what he saw as Obama’s illogical desire to distance the U.S. from its traditional Sunni Arab allies and create a new alliance with Iran, Assad’s Shia sponsor—complained privately, “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.” The Saudis, too, were infuriated. They had never trusted Obama—he had, long before he became president, referred to them as a “so-called ally” of the U.S. “Iran is the new great power of the Middle East, and the U.S. is the old,” Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, told his superiors in Riyadh.
Obama’s decision caused tremors across Washington as well. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the two leading Republican hawks in the Senate, had met with Obama in the White House earlier in the week and had been promised an attack. They were angered by the about-face. Damage was done even inside the administration. Neither Chuck Hagel, then the secretary of defense, nor John Kerry was in the Oval Office when the president informed his team of his thinking. Kerry would not learn about the change until later that evening. “I just got fucked over,” he told a friend shortly after talking to the president that night. (When I asked Kerry recently about that tumultuous night, he said, “I didn’t stop to analyze it. I figured the president had a reason to make a decision and, honestly, I understood his notion.”)
The next few days were chaotic. The president asked Congress to authorize the use of force—the irrepressible Kerry served as chief lobbyist—and it quickly became apparent in the White House that Congress had little interest in a strike. When I spoke with Biden recently about the red-line decision, he made special note of this fact. “It matters to have Congress with you, in terms of your ability to sustain what you set out to do,” he said. Obama “didn’t go to Congress to get himself off the hook. He had his doubts at that point, but he knew that if he was going to do anything, he better damn well have the public with him, or it would be a very short ride.” Congress’s clear ambivalence convinced Biden that Obama was correct to fear the slippery slope. “What happens when we get a plane shot down? Do we not go in and rescue?,” Biden asked. “You need the support of the American people.”
Amid the confusion, a deus ex machina appeared in the form of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, which was held the week after the Syria reversal, Obama pulled Putin aside, he recalled to me, and told the Russian president “that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike.” Within weeks, Kerry, working with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would engineer the removal of most of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal—a program whose existence Assad until then had refused to even acknowledge.
The moment Obama decided not to enforce his red line and bomb Syria, he broke with what he calls, derisively, “the Washington playbook.” This was his liberation day.
The arrangement won the president praise from, of all people, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, with whom he has had a consistently contentious relationship. The removal of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles represented “the one ray of light in a very dark region,” Netanyahu told me not long after the deal was announced.
John Kerry today expresses no patience for those who argue, as he himself once did, that Obama should have bombed Assad-regime sites in order to buttress America’s deterrent capability. “You’d still have the weapons there, and you’d probably be fighting isil” for control of the weapons, he said, referring to the Islamic State, the terror group also known as isis. “It just doesn’t make sense. But I can’t deny to you that this notion about the red line being crossed and [Obama’s] not doing anything gained a life of its own.”
Obama understands that the decision he made to step back from air strikes, and to allow the violation of a red line he himself had drawn to go unpunished, will be interrogated mercilessly by historians. But today that decision is a source of deep satisfaction for him.
“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.”
I have come to believe that, in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East—countries, he complains privately to friends and advisers, that seek to exploit American “muscle” for their own narrow and sectarian ends. By 2013, Obama’s resentments were well developed. He resented military leaders who believed they could fix any problem if the commander in chief would simply give them what they wanted, and he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex. A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”
Obama talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the opening session of the G20 in Antalya in November of 2015. (Cem Oksuz / Reuters)
For some foreign-policy experts, even within his own administration, Obama’s about-face on enforcing the red line was a dispiriting moment in which he displayed irresolution and naïveté, and did lasting damage to America’s standing in the world. “Once the commander in chief draws that red line,” Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and then as secretary of defense in Obama’s first term, told me recently, “then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.” Right after Obama’s reversal, Hillary Clinton said privately, “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.”
“Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than ‘punished’ as originally planned.” Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, wrote for The Atlantic at the time. “He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return.”
Even commentators who have been broadly sympathetic to Obama’s policies saw this episode as calamitous. Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently that Obama’s handling of this crisis—“first casually announcing a major commitment, then dithering about living up to it, then frantically tossing the ball to Congress for a decision—was a case study in embarrassingly amateurish improvisation.”
Obama’s defenders, however, argue that he did no damage to U.S. credibility, citing Assad’s subsequent agreement to have his chemical weapons removed. “The threat of force was credible enough for them to give up their chemical weapons,” Tim Kaine, a Democratic senator from Virginia, told me. “We threatened military action and they responded. That’s deterrent credibility.”
History may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war, and the day he removed the threat of a chemical attack on Israel, Turkey, or Jordan. Or it could be remembered as the day he let the Middle East slip from America’s grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran, and isis.
I first spoke with obama about foreign policy when he was a U.S. senator, in 2006. At the time, I was familiar mainly with the text of a speech he had delivered four years earlier, at a Chicago antiwar rally. It was an unusual speech for an antiwar rally in that it was not antiwar; Obama, who was then an Illinois state senator, argued only against one specific and, at the time, still theoretical, war. “I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein,” he said. “He is a brutal man. A ruthless man … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors.” He added, “I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
This speech had made me curious about its author. I wanted to learn how an Illinois state senator, a part-time law professor who spent his days traveling between Chicago and Springfield, had come to a more prescient understanding of the coming quagmire than the most experienced foreign-policy thinkers of his party, including such figures as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry, not to mention, of course, most Republicans and many foreign-policy analysts and writers, including me.
Since that first meeting in 2006, I’ve interviewed Obama periodically, mainly on matters related to the Middle East. But over the past few months, I’ve spent several hours talking with him about the broadest themes of his “long game” foreign policy, including the themes he is most eager to discuss—namely, the ones that have nothing to do with the Middle East.
“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.”
At the moment, of course, the most urgent of the “seemingly more urgent” issues is Syria. But at any given moment, Obama’s entire presidency could be upended by North Korean aggression, or an assault by Russia on a member of nato, or an isis-planned attack on U.S. soil. Few presidents have faced such diverse tests on the international stage as Obama has, and the challenge for him, as for all presidents, has been to distinguish the merely urgent from the truly important, and to focus on the important.
My goal in our recent conversations was to see the world through Obama’s eyes, and to understand what he believes America’s role in the world should be. This article is informed by our recent series of conversations, which took place in the Oval Office; over lunch in his dining room; aboard Air Force One; and in Kuala Lumpur during his most recent visit to Asia, in November. It is also informed by my previous interviews with him and by his speeches and prolific public ruminations, as well as by conversations with his top foreign-policy and national-security advisers, foreign leaders and their ambassadors in Washington, friends of the president and others who have spoken with him about his policies and decisions, and his adversaries and critics.
Leon Panetta (left) attends a press briefing on military strategy in January 2012. Panetta, then Obama’s secretary of defense, has criticized the president’s failure to enforce the Syrian red line. (Aharaz N. Ghanbari / AP)
Over the course of our conversations, I came to see Obama as a president who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events, even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements—controversial, provisional achievements, to be sure, but achievements nonetheless: the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate-change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal. These he accomplished despite his growing sense that larger forces—the riptide of tribal feeling in a world that should have already shed its atavism; the resilience of small men who rule large countries in ways contrary to their own best interests; the persistence of fear as a governing human emotion—frequently conspire against the best of America’s intentions. But he also has come to learn, he told me, that very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership.
Obama talked me through this apparent contradiction. “I want a president who has the sense that you can’t fix everything,” he said. But on the other hand, “if we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen.” He explained what he meant. “The fact is, there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results,” he said. “That’s true whether you’re talking about nuclear security, whether you’re talking about saving the world financial system, whether you’re talking about climate.”
One day, over lunch in the Oval Office dining room, I asked the president how he thought his foreign policy might be understood by historians. He started by describing for me a four-box grid representing the main schools of American foreign-policy thought. One box he called isolationism, which he dismissed out of hand. “The world is ever-shrinking,” he said. “Withdrawal is untenable.” The other boxes he labeled realism, liberal interventionism, and internationalism. “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery,” he said. “We have to choose where we can make a real impact.” He also noted that he was quite obviously an internationalist, devoted as he is to strengthening multilateral organizations and international norms.
I told him my impression was that the various traumas of the past seven years have, if anything, intensified his commitment to realist-driven restraint. Had nearly two full terms in the White House soured him on interventionism?
“For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world,” he said. “If you compare us to previous superpowers, we act less on the basis of naked self-interest, and have been interested in establishing norms that benefit everyone. If it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it.”
If a crisis, or a humanitarian catastrophe, does not meet his stringent standard for what constitutes a direct national-security threat, Obama said, he doesn’t believe that he should be forced into silence. He is not so much the realist, he suggested, that he won’t pass judgment on other leaders. Though he has so far ruled out the use of direct American power to depose Assad, he was not wrong, he argued, to call on Assad to go. “Oftentimes when you get critics of our Syria policy, one of the things that they’ll point out is ‘You called for Assad to go, but you didn’t force him to go. You did not invade.’ And the notion is that if you weren’t going to overthrow the regime, you shouldn’t have said anything. That’s a weird argument to me, the notion that if we use our moral authority to say ‘This is a brutal regime, and this is not how a leader should treat his people,’ once you do that, you are obliged to invade the country and install a government you prefer.”
“I am very much the internationalist,” Obama said in a later conversation. “And I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values, because not only do they serve our interests the more people adopt values that we share—in the same way that, economically, if people adopt rule of law and property rights and so forth, that is to our advantage—but because it makes the world a better place. And I’m willing to say that in a very corny way, and in a way that probably Brent Scowcroft would not say.
“Having said that,” he continued, “I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”
If Obama ever questioned whether America really is the world’s one indispensable nation, he no longer does so. But he is the rare president who seems at times to resent indispensability, rather than embrace it. “Free riders aggravate me,” he told me. Recently, Obama warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who subsequently met the 2 percent threshold.
Part of his mission as president, Obama explained, is to spur other countries to take action for themselves, rather than wait for the U.S. to lead. The defense of the liberal international order against jihadist terror, Russian adventurism, and Chinese bullying depends in part, he believes, on the willingness of other nations to share the burden with the U.S. This is why the controversy surrounding the assertion—made by an anonymous administration official to The New Yorker during the Libya crisis of 2011—that his policy consisted of “leading from behind” perturbed him. “We don’t have to always be the ones who are up front,” he told me. “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” that they lead during the mission to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power in Libya. “It was part of the anti–free rider campaign.”
The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “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 explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”
Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas last spring (Pete Souza / White House)
In his efforts to off-load some of America’s foreign-policy responsibilities to its allies, Obama appears to be a classic retrenchment president in the manner of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Retrenchment, in this context, is defined as “pulling back, spending less, cutting risk, and shifting burdens to allies,” Stephen Sestanovich, an expert on presidential foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained to me. “If John McCain had been elected in 2008, you would still have seen some degree of retrenchment,” Sestanovich said. “It’s what the country wanted. If you come into office in the middle of a war that is not going well, you’re convinced that the American people have hired you to do less.” One difference between Eisenhower and Nixon, on the one hand, and Obama, on the other, Sestanovich said, is that Obama “appears to have had a personal, ideological commitment to the idea that foreign policy had consumed too much of the nation’s attention and resources.”
I asked Obama about retrenchment. “Almost every great world power has succumbed” to overextension, he said. “What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that.”
But once he decides that a particular challenge represents a direct national-security threat, he has shown a willingness to act unilaterally. This is one of the larger ironies of the Obama presidency: He has relentlessly questioned the efficacy of force, but he has also become the most successful terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency, one who will hand to his successor a set of tools an accomplished assassin would envy. “He applies different standards to direct threats to the U.S.,” Ben Rhodes says. “For instance, despite his misgivings about Syria, he has not had a second thought about drones.” Some critics argue he should have had a few second thoughts about what they see as the overuse of drones. But John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, told me recently that he and the president “have similar views. One of them is that sometimes you have to take a life to save even more lives. We have a similar view of just-war theory. The president requires near-certainty of no collateral damage. But if he believes it is necessary to act, he doesn’t hesitate.”
Those who speak with Obama about jihadist thought say that he possesses a no-illusions understanding of the forces that drive apocalyptic violence among radical Muslims, but he has been careful about articulating that publicly, out of concern that he will exacerbate anti-Muslim xenophobia. He has a tragic realist’s understanding of sin, cowardice, and corruption, and a Hobbesian appreciation of how fear shapes human behavior. And yet he consistently, and with apparent sincerity, professes optimism that the world is bending toward justice. He is, in a way, a Hobbesian optimist.
Video: Jeffrey Goldberg speaks with Ben Rhodes
Jeffrey Goldberg speaks to Deputy National-Security Adviser Ben Rhodes about the United States’ new ties with Cuba and its impact on American foreign policy at large. Watch the full-length conversation with Ben Rhodes here.
The contradictions do not end there. Though he has a reputation for prudence, he has also been eager to question some of the long-standing assumptions undergirding traditional U.S. foreign-policy thinking. To a remarkable degree, he is willing to question why America’s enemies are its enemies, or why some of its friends are its friends. He overthrew half a century of bipartisan consensus in order to reestablish ties with Cuba. He questioned why the U.S. should avoid sending its forces into Pakistan to kill al-Qaeda leaders, and he privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a disastrously dysfunctional country, should be considered an ally of the U.S. at all. According to Leon Panetta, he 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 receive; but he has also questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism. He is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally. And of course he decided early on, in the face of great criticism, that he wanted to reach out to America’s most ardent Middle Eastern foe, Iran. The nuclear deal he struck with Iran proves, if nothing else, that Obama is not risk-averse. He has bet global security and his own legacy that one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism will adhere to an agreement to curtail its nuclear program.
“Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
It is assumed, at least among his critics, that Obama sought the Iran deal because he has a vision of a historic American-Persian rapprochement. But his desire for the nuclear agreement was born of pessimism as much as it was of optimism. “The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran,” Susan Rice told me. “It was far more pragmatic and minimalist. The aim was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.”
I once mentioned to obama a scene from The Godfather: Part III, in which Michael Corleone complains angrily about his failure to escape the grasp of organized crime. I told Obama that the Middle East is to his presidency what the Mob is to Corleone, and I started to quote the Al Pacino line: “Just when I thought I was out—”
“It pulls you back in,” Obama said, completing the thought.
The story of Obama’s encounter with the Middle East follows an arc of disenchantment. In his first extended spree of fame, as a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama often spoke with hope about the region. In Berlin that summer, in a speech to 200,000 adoring Germans, he said, “This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.”
The next year, as president, he gave a speech in Cairo meant to reset U.S. relations with the world’s Muslims. He spoke about Muslims in his own family, and his childhood years in Indonesia, and confessed America’s sins even as he criticized those in the Muslim world who demonized the U.S. What drew the most attention, though, was his promise to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was then thought to be the central animating concern of Arab Muslims. His sympathy for the Palestinians moved the audience, but complicated his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister—especially because Obama had also decided to bypass Jerusalem on his first presidential visit to the Middle East.
When I asked Obama recently what he had hoped to accomplish with his Cairo reset speech, he said that he had been trying—unsuccessfully, he acknowledged—to persuade Muslims to more closely examine the roots of their unhappiness.
“My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel,” he told me. “We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity. My thought was, I would communicate that the U.S. is not standing in the way of this progress, that we would help, in whatever way possible, to advance the goals of a practical, successful Arab agenda that provided a better life for ordinary people.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, flanked by U.K. officials, attends dinner at the White House in January 2015. (Pete Souza / White House)
Through the first flush of the Arab Spring, in 2011, Obama continued to speak optimistically about the Middle East’s future, coming as close as he ever would to embracing the so-called freedom agenda of George W. Bush, which was characterized in part by the belief that democratic values could be implanted in the Middle East. He equated protesters in Tunisia and Tahrir Square with Rosa Parks and the “patriots of Boston.”
“After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” he said in a speech at the time. “The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders … Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.”
But over the next three years, as the Arab Spring gave up its early promise, and brutality and dysfunction overwhelmed the Middle East, the president grew disillusioned. Some of his deepest disappointments concern Middle Eastern leaders themselves. Benjamin Netanyahu is in his own category: Obama has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so. Obama has also not had much patience for Netanyahu and other Middle Eastern leaders who question his understanding of the region. In one of Netanyahu’s meetings with the president, the Israeli prime minister launched into something of a lecture about the dangers of the brutal region in which he lives, and Obama felt that Netanyahu was behaving in a condescending fashion, and was also avoiding the subject at hand: peace negotiations. Finally, the president interrupted the prime minister: “Bibi, you have to understand something,” he said. “I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.” Other leaders also frustrate him immensely. Early on, Obama saw Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, as the sort of moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West—but Obama now considers him a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria. And on the sidelines of a nato summit in Wales in 2014, Obama pulled aside King Abdullah II of Jordan. Obama said he had heard that Abdullah had complained to friends in the U.S. Congress about his leadership, and told the king that if he had complaints, he should raise them directly. The king denied that he had spoken ill of him.
In recent days, the president has taken to joking privately, “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.” Obama has always had a fondness for pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats, telling aides, “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.”
The unraveling of the Arab Spring darkened the president’s view of what the U.S. could achieve in the Middle East, and made him realize how much the chaos there was distracting from other priorities. “The president recognized during the course of the Arab Spring that the Middle East was consuming us,” John Brennan, who served in Obama’s first term as his chief counterterrorism adviser, told me recently.
But what sealed Obama’s fatalistic view was the failure of his administration’s intervention in Libya, in 2011. That intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do. Obama did not want to join the fight; he was counseled by Joe Biden and his first-term secretary of defense Robert Gates, among others, to steer clear. But a strong faction within the national-security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, along with Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national-security adviser—lobbied hard to protect Benghazi, and prevailed. (Biden, who is acerbic about Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, has said privately, “Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.”) American bombs fell, the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre, and Qaddafi was captured and executed.
But Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.
Why, given what seems to be the president’s natural reticence toward getting militarily ensnarled where American national security is not directly at stake, did he accept the recommendation of his more activist advisers to intervene?
“The social order in Libya has broken down,” Obama said, explaining his thinking at the time. “You have massive protests against Qaddafi. You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya. Benghazi is a focal point for the opposition regime. And Qaddafi is marching his army toward Benghazi, and he has said, ‘We will kill them like rats.’
“Now, option one would be to do nothing, and there were some in my administration who said, as tragic as the Libyan situation may be, it’s not our problem. The way I looked at it was that it would be our problem if, in fact, complete chaos and civil war broke out in Libya. But this is not so at the core of U.S. interests that it makes sense for us to unilaterally strike against the Qaddafi regime. At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
“Free riders?,” I interjected.
“Free riders,” he said, and continued. “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight. And we worked with our defense teams to ensure that we could execute a strategy without putting boots on the ground and without a long-term military commitment in Libya.
“So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”
Mess is the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a “shit show,” in part because it’s subsequently become an isis haven—one that he has already targeted with air strikes. It became a shit show, Obama believes, for reasons that had less to do with American incompetence than with the passivity of America’s allies and with the obdurate power of tribalism.
“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said. He noted that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, lost his job the following year. And he said that British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things.” Of France, he said, “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention. This sort of bragging was fine, Obama said, because it allowed the U.S. to “purchase France’s involvement in a way that made it less expensive for us and less risky for us.” In other words, giving France extra credit in exchange for less risk and cost to the United States was a useful trade-off—except that “from the perspective of a lot of the folks in the foreign-policy establishment, well, that was terrible. If we’re going to do something, obviously we’ve got to be up front, and nobody else is sharing in the spotlight.”
Obama also blamed internal Libyan dynamics. “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected. And our ability to have any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources broke down very quickly.”
Libya proved to him that the Middle East was best avoided. “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,” he recently told a former colleague from the Senate. “That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.”
President Obama did not come into office preoccupied by the Middle East. He is the first child of the Pacific to become president—born in Hawaii, raised there and, for four years, in Indonesia—and he is fixated on turning America’s attention to Asia. For Obama, Asia represents the future. Africa and Latin America, in his view, deserve far more U.S. attention than they receive. Europe, about which he is unromantic, is a source of global stability that requires, to his occasional annoyance, American hand-holding. And the Middle East is a region to be avoided—one that, thanks to America’s energy revolution, will soon be of negligible relevance to the U.S. economy.
It is not oil but another of the Middle East’s exports, terrorism, that shapes Obama’s understanding of his responsibilities there. Early in 2014, Obama’s intelligence advisers told him that isis was of marginal importance. According to administration officials, General Lloyd Austin, then the commander of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the White House that the Islamic State was “a flash in the pan.” This analysis led Obama, in an interview with The New Yorker, to describe the constellation of jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria as terrorism’s “jayvee team.” (A spokesman for Austin told me, “At no time has General Austin ever considered isil a ‘flash in the pan’ phenomenon.”)
Mess is the president’s diplomatic term for what U.S. intervention left behind in Libya; privately, he calls it a “shit show.”
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.”
The rise of the Islamic State deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.
On a rainy Wednesday in mid-November, President Obama appeared on a stage at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (apec) summit in Manila with Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, and a 31-year-old Filipina inventor named Aisa Mijeno. The ballroom was crowded with Asian CEOs, American business leaders, and government officials from across the region. Obama, who was greeted warmly, first delivered informal remarks from behind a podium, mainly about the threat of climate change.
Obama made no mention of the subject preoccupying much of the rest of the world—the isis attacks in Paris five days earlier, which had killed 130 people. Obama had arrived in Manila the day before from a G20 summit held in Antalya, Turkey. The Paris attacks had been a main topic of conversation in Antalya, where Obama held a particularly contentious press conference on the subject.
The traveling White House press corps was unrelenting: “Isn’t it time for your strategy to change?” one reporter asked. This was followed by “Could I ask you to address your critics who say that your reluctance to enter another Middle East war, and your preference of diplomacy over using the military, makes the United States weaker and emboldens our enemies?” And then came this imperishable question, from a CNN reporter: “If you’ll forgive the language—why can’t we take out these bastards?” Which was followed by “Do you think you really understand this enemy well enough to defeat them and to protect the homeland?”
As the questions unspooled, Obama became progressively more irritated. He described his isis strategy at length, but the only time he exhibited an emotion other than disdain was when he addressed an emerging controversy about America’s refugee policy. Republican governors and presidential candidates had suddenly taken to demanding that the United States block Syrian refugees from coming to America. Ted Cruz had proposed accepting only Christian Syrians. Chris Christie had said that all refugees, including “orphans under 5,” should be banned from entry until proper vetting procedures had been put in place.
This rhetoric appeared to frustrate Obama immensely. “When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted,” Obama told the assembled reporters, “that’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” the prime minister asked. Obama smiled. “It’s complicated.”
Air Force One departed Antalya and arrived 10 hours later in Manila. That’s when the president’s advisers came to understand, in the words of one official, that “everyone back home had lost their minds.” Susan Rice, trying to comprehend the rising anxiety, searched her hotel television in vain for CNN, finding only the BBC and Fox News. She toggled between the two, looking for the mean, she told people on the trip.
Later, the president would say that he had failed to fully appreciate the fear many Americans were experiencing about the possibility of a Paris-style attack in the U.S. Great distance, a frantic schedule, and the jet-lag haze that envelops a globe-spanning presidential trip were working against him. But he has never believed that terrorism poses a threat to America commensurate with the fear it generates. Even during the period in 2014 when isis was executing its American captives in Syria, his emotions were in check. Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s closest adviser, told him people were worried that the group would soon take its beheading campaign to the U.S. “They’re not coming here to chop our heads off,” he reassured her. Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do. Several years ago, he expressed to me his admiration for Israelis’ “resilience” in the face of constant terrorism, and it is clear that he would like to see resilience replace panic in American society. Nevertheless, his advisers are fighting a constant rearguard action to keep Obama from placing terrorism in what he considers its “proper” perspective, out of concern that he will seem insensitive to the fears of the American people.
Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry look on during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Paris in December. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
The frustration among Obama’s advisers spills over into the Pentagon and the State Department. John Kerry, for one, seems more alarmed about isis than the president does. Recently, when I asked the secretary of state a general question—is the Middle East still important to the U.S.?—he answered by talking exclusively about isis. “This is a threat to everybody in the world,” he said, a group “overtly committed to destroying people in the West and in the Middle East. Imagine what would happen if we don’t stand and fight them, if we don’t lead a coalition—as we are doing, by the way. If we didn’t do that, you could have allies and friends of ours fall. You could have a massive migration into Europe that destroys Europe, leads to the pure destruction of Europe, ends the European project, and everyone runs for cover and you’ve got the 1930s all over again, with nationalism and fascism and other things breaking out. Of course we have an interest in this, a huge interest in this.”
When I noted to Kerry that the president’s rhetoric doesn’t match his, he said, “President Obama sees all of this, but he doesn’t gin it up into this kind of—he thinks we are on track. He has escalated his efforts. But he’s not trying to create hysteria … I think the president is always inclined to try to keep things on an appropriate equilibrium. I respect that.”
Obama modulates his discussion of terrorism for several reasons: He is, by nature, Spockian. And he believes that a misplaced word, or a frightened look, or an ill-considered hyperbolic claim, could tip the country into panic. The sort of panic he worries about most is the type that would manifest itself in anti-Muslim xenophobia or in a challenge to American openness and to the constitutional order.
The president also gets frustrated that terrorism keeps swamping his larger agenda, particularly as it relates to rebalancing America’s global priorities. For years, the “pivot to Asia” has been a paramount priority of his. America’s economic future lies in Asia, he believes, and the challenge posed by China’s rise requires constant attention. From his earliest days in office, Obama has been focused on rebuilding the sometimes-threadbare ties between the U.S. and its Asian treaty partners, and he is perpetually on the hunt for opportunities to draw other Asian nations into the U.S. orbit. His dramatic opening to Burma was one such opportunity; Vietnam and the entire constellation of Southeast Asian countries fearful of Chinese domination presented others.
In Manila, at apec, Obama was determined to keep the conversation focused on this agenda, and not on what he viewed as the containable challenge presented by isis. Obama’s secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, told me not long ago that Obama has maintained his focus on Asia even as Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts continue to flare. Obama believes, Carter said, that Asia “is the part of the world of greatest consequence to the American future, and that no president can take his eye off of this.” He added, “He consistently asks, even in the midst of everything else that’s going on, ‘Where are we in the Asia-Pacific rebalance? Where are we in terms of resources?’ He’s been extremely consistent about that, even in times of Middle East tension.”
After Obama finished his presentation on climate change, he joined Ma and Mijeno, who had seated themselves on nearby armchairs, where Obama was preparing to interview them in the manner of a daytime talk-show host—an approach that seemed to induce a momentary bout of status-inversion vertigo in an audience not accustomed to such behavior in their own leaders. Obama began by asking Ma a question about climate change. Ma, unsurprisingly, agreed with Obama that it was a very important issue. Then Obama turned to Mijeno. A laboratory operating in the hidden recesses of the West Wing could not have fashioned a person more expertly designed to appeal to Obama’s wonkish enthusiasms than Mijeno, a young engineer who, with her brother, had invented a lamp that is somehow powered by salt water.
“Just to be clear, Aisa, so with some salt water, the device that you’ve set up can provide—am I right?—about eight hours of lighting?,” Obama asked.
“Eight hours of lighting,” she responded.
Obama: “And the lamp is $20—”
Mijeno: “Around $20.”
“I think Aisa is a perfect example of what we’re seeing in a lot of countries—young entrepreneurs coming up with leapfrog technologies, in the same ways that in large portions of Asia and Africa, the old landline phones never got set up,” Obama said, because those areas jumped straight to mobile phones. Obama encouraged Jack Ma to fund her work. “She’s won, by the way, a lot of prizes and gotten a lot of attention, so this is not like one of those infomercials where you order it, and you can’t make the thing work,” he said, to laughter.
The next day, aboard Air Force One en route to Kuala Lumpur, I mentioned to Obama that he seemed genuinely happy to be onstage with Ma and Mijeno, and then I pivoted away from Asia, asking him if anything about the Middle East makes him happy.
“Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East,” he said. “You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You’ve got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”
He went on, “Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems—enormous poverty, corruption—but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark.”
In Asia, as well as in Latin America and Africa, Obama says, he sees young people yearning for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth.
“They are not thinking about how to kill Americans,” he says. “What they’re thinking about is How do I get a better education? How do I create something of value?”
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.”
Obama’s critics argue that he is ineffective in cordoning off the violent nihilists of radical Islam because he doesn’t understand the threat. He does resist refracting radical Islam through the “clash of civilizations” prism popularized by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington. But this is because, he and his advisers argue, he does not want to enlarge the ranks of the enemy. “The goal is not to force a Huntington template onto this conflict,” said John Brennan, the CIA director.
Both François Hollande and David Cameron have spoken about the threat of radical Islam in more Huntingtonesque terms, and I’ve heard that both men wish Obama would use more-direct language in discussing the threat. When I mentioned this to Obama he said, “Hollande and Cameron have used phrases, like radical Islam, that we have not used on a regular basis as our way of targeting terrorism. But I’ve never had a conversation when they said, ‘Man, how come you’re not using this phrase the way you hear Republicans say it?’ ” Obama says he has demanded that Muslim leaders do more to eliminate the threat of violent fundamentalism. “It is very clear what I mean,” he told me, “which is that there is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction—a tiny faction—within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.”
He then offered a critique that sounded more in line with the rhetoric of Cameron and Hollande. “There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society,” he said. But he added, “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.”
Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington, D.C., April 2015 (Pete Souza / White House)
In private encounters with other world leaders, Obama has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity.
Though he has argued, controversially, that the Middle East’s conflicts “date back millennia,” he also believes that the intensified Muslim fury of recent years was encouraged by countries considered friends of the U.S. In a meeting during apec with Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering.
Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening?
Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family, Obama told Turnbull. Today, Islam in Indonesia is much more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there, he said.
“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?,” Turnbull asked.
Obama smiled. “It’s complicated,” he said.
Obama’s patience with Saudi Arabia has always been limited. In his first foreign-policy commentary of note, that 2002 speech at the antiwar rally in Chicago, he said, “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East—the Saudis and the Egyptians—stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality.” In the White House these days, one occasionally hears Obama’s National Security Council officials pointedly reminding visitors that the large majority of 9/11 hijackers were not Iranian, but Saudi—and Obama himself rails against Saudi Arabia’s state-sanctioned misogyny, arguing in private that “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.” In meetings with foreign leaders, Obama has said, “You can gauge the success of a society by how it treats its women.”
His frustration with the Saudis informs his analysis of Middle Eastern power politics. At one point I observed to him that he is less likely than previous presidents to axiomatically side with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with its archrival, Iran. He didn’t disagree.
“Iran, since 1979, has been an enemy of the United States, and has engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, is a genuine threat to Israel and many of our allies, and engages in all kinds of destructive behavior,” the president said. “And my view has never been that we should throw our traditional allies”—the Saudis—“overboard in favor of Iran.”
But he went on to say that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he said. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”
One of the most destructive forces in the Middle East, Obama believes, is tribalism—a force no president can neutralize. Tribalism, made manifest in the reversion to sect, creed, clan, and village by the desperate citizens of failing states, is the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems, and it is another source of his fatalism. Obama has deep respect for the destructive resilience of tribalism—part of his memoir, Dreams From My Father, concerns the way in which tribalism in post-colonial Kenya helped ruin his father’s life—which goes some distance in explaining why he is so fastidious about avoiding entanglements in tribal conflicts.
“It is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism,” he told me. “I understand the tribal impulse, and acknowledge the power of tribal division. I’ve been navigating tribal divisions my whole life. In the end, it’s the source of a lot of destructive acts.”
While flying to Kuala Lumpur with the president, I recalled a passing reference he had once made to me about the Hobbesian argument for strong government as an antidote to the unforgiving state of nature. When Obama looks at swathes of the Middle East, Hobbes’s “war of all against all” is what he sees. “I have a recognition that us serving as the Leviathan clamps down and tames some of these impulses,” Obama had said. So I tried to reopen this conversation with an unfortunately prolix question about, among other things, “the Hobbesian notion that people organize themselves into collectives to stave off their supreme fear, which is death.”
Ben Rhodes and Joshua Earnest, the White House spokesman, who were seated on a couch to the side of Obama’s desk on Air Force One, could barely suppress their amusement at my discursiveness. I paused and said, “I bet if I asked that in a press conference my colleagues would just throw me out of the room.”
“I would be really into it,” Obama said, “but everybody else would be rolling their eyes.”
Rhodes interjected: “Why can’t we get the bastards?” That question, the one put to the president by the CNN reporter at the press conference in Turkey, had become a topic of sardonic conversation during the trip.
I turned to the president: “Well, yeah, and also, why can’t we get the bastards?”
He took the first question.
“Look, I am not of the view that human beings are inherently evil,” he said. “I believe that there’s more good than bad in humanity. And if you look at the trajectory of history, I am optimistic.
“I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference. But it’s hugely uneven. And what has been clear throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is that the progress we make in social order and taming our baser impulses and steadying our fears can be reversed very quickly. Social order starts breaking down if people are under profound stress. Then the default position is tribe—us/them, a hostility toward the unfamiliar or the unknown.”
He continued, “Right now, across the globe, you’re seeing places that are undergoing severe stress because of globalization, because of the collision of cultures brought about by the Internet and social media, because of scarcities—some of which will be attributable to climate change over the next several decades—because of population growth. And in those places, the Middle East being Exhibit A, the default position for a lot of folks is to organize tightly in the tribe and to push back or strike out against those who are different.
“A group like isil is the distillation of every worst impulse along these lines. The notion that we are a small group that defines ourselves primarily by the degree to which we can kill others who are not like us, and attempting to impose a rigid orthodoxy that produces nothing, that celebrates nothing, that really is contrary to every bit of human progress—it indicates the degree to which that kind of mentality can still take root and gain adherents in the 21st century.”
So your appreciation for tribalism’s power makes you want to stay away?, I asked. “In other words, when people say ‘Why don’t you just go get the bastards?,’ you step back?”
“We have to determine the best tools to roll back those kinds of attitudes,” he said. “There are going to be times where either because it’s not a direct threat to us or because we just don’t have the tools in our toolkit to have a huge impact that, tragically, we have to refrain from jumping in with both feet.”
I asked Obama whether he would have sent the Marines to Rwanda in 1994 to stop the genocide as it was happening, had he been president at the time. “Given the speed with which the killing took place, and how long it takes to crank up the machinery of the U.S. government, I understand why we did not act fast enough,” he said. “Now, we should learn from that. I actually think that Rwanda is an interesting test case because it’s possible—not guaranteed, but it’s possible—that this was a situation where the quick application of force might have been enough.”
He related this to Syria: “Ironically, it’s probably easier to make an argument that a relatively small force inserted quickly with international support would have resulted in averting genocide [more successfully in Rwanda] than in Syria right now, where the degree to which the various groups are armed and hardened fighters and are supported by a whole host of external actors with a lot of resources requires a much larger commitment of forces.”
Obama-administration officials argue that he has a comprehensible approach to fighting terrorism: a drone air force, Special Forces raids, a clandestine CIA-aided army of 10,000 rebels battling in Syria. So why does Obama stumble when explaining to the American people that he, too, cares about terrorism? The Turkey press conference, I told him, “was a moment for you as a politician to say, ‘Yeah, I hate the bastards too, and by the way, I am taking out the bastards.’ ” The easy thing to do would have been to reassure Americans in visceral terms that he will kill the people who want to kill them. Does he fear a knee-jerk reaction in the direction of another Middle East invasion? Or is he just inalterably Spockian?
“Every president has strengths and weaknesses,” he answered. “And there is no doubt that there are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
But for America to be successful in leading the world, he continued, “I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”
Obama with Jack Ma, the chairman of Alibaba, at the APEC summit in the Phillippines last November—days after ISIS killed 130 people in Paris (Aaron Favila / AP)
As Air Force One began its descent toward Kuala Lumpur, the president mentioned the successful U.S.-led effort to stop the Ebola epidemic in West Africa as a positive example of steady, nonhysterical management of a terrifying crisis.
“During the couple of months in which everybody was sure Ebola was going to destroy the Earth and there was 24/7 coverage of Ebola, if I had fed the panic or in any way strayed from ‘Here are the facts, here’s what needs to be done, here’s how we’re handling it, the likelihood of you getting Ebola is very slim, and here’s what we need to do both domestically and overseas to stamp out this epidemic,’ ” then “maybe people would have said ‘Obama is taking this as seriously as he needs to be.’ ” But feeding the panic by overreacting could have shut down travel to and from three African countries that were already cripplingly poor, in ways that might have destroyed their economies—which would likely have meant, among other things, a recurrence of Ebola. He added, “It would have also meant that we might have wasted a huge amount of resources in our public-health systems that need to be devoted to flu vaccinations and other things that actually kill people” in large numbers in America.
The plane landed. The president, leaning back in his office chair with his jacket off and his tie askew, did not seem to notice. Outside, on the tarmac, I could see that what appeared to be a large portion of the Malaysian Armed Forces had assembled to welcome him. As he continued talking, I began to worry that the waiting soldiers and dignitaries would get hot. “I think we’re in Malaysia,” I said. “It seems to be outside this plane.”
He conceded that this was true, but seemed to be in no rush, so I pressed him about his public reaction to terrorism: If he showed more emotion, wouldn’t that calm people down rather than rile them up?
“I have friends who have kids in Paris right now,” he said. “And you and I and a whole bunch of people who are writing about what happened in Paris have strolled along the same streets where people were gunned down. And it’s right to feel fearful. And it’s important for us not to ever get complacent. There’s a difference between resilience and complacency.” He went on to describe another difference—between making considered decisions and making rash, emotional ones. “What it means, actually, is that you care so much that you want to get it right and you’re not going to indulge in either impetuous or, in some cases, manufactured responses that make good sound bites but don’t produce results. The stakes are too high to play those games.”
“ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.”
With that, Obama stood up and said, “Okay, gotta go.” He headed out of his office and down the stairs, to the red carpet and the honor guard and the cluster of Malaysian officials waiting to greet him, and then to his armored limousine, flown to Kuala Lumpur ahead of him. (Early in his first term, still unaccustomed to the massive military operation it takes to move a president from one place to another, he noted ruefully to aides, “I have the world’s largest carbon footprint.”)
The president’s first stop was another event designed to highlight his turn to Asia, this one a town-hall meeting with students and entrepreneurs participating in the administration’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. Obama entered the lecture hall at Taylor’s University to huge applause. He made some opening remarks, then charmed his audience in an extended Q&A session.
But those of us watching from the press section became distracted by news coming across our phones about a new jihadist attack, this one in Mali. Obama, busily mesmerizing adoring Asian entrepreneurs, had no idea. Only when he got into his limousine with Susan Rice did he get the news.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (left) and Secretary of State John Kerry (center) listen as Obama speaks about the Ebola epidemic in September 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
Later that evening, I visited the president in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The streets around the hotel had been sealed. Armored vehicles ringed the building; the lobby was filled with swat teams. I took the elevator to a floor crowded with Secret Service agents, who pointed me to a staircase; the elevator to Obama’s floor was disabled for security reasons. Up two flights, to a hallway with more agents. A moment’s wait, and then Obama opened the door. His two-story suite was outlandish: Tara-like drapes, overstuffed couches. It was enormous and lonely and claustrophobic all at once.
“It’s like the Hearst Castle,” I observed.
“Well, it’s a long way from the Hampton Inn in Des Moines,” Obama said.
ESPN was playing in the background.
When we sat down, I pointed out to the president a central challenge of his pivot to Asia. Earlier in the day, at the moment he was trying to inspire a group of gifted and eager hijab-wearing Indonesian entrepreneurs and Burmese innovators, attention was diverted by the latest Islamist terror attack.
A writer at heart, he had a suggestion: “It’s probably a pretty easy way to start the story,” he said, referring to this article.
Possibly, I said, but it’s kind of a cheap trick.
“It’s cheap, but it works,” Obama said. “We’re talking to these kids, and then there’s this attack going on.”
The split-screen quality of the day prompted a conversation about two recent meetings he’d held, one that generated major international controversy and headlines, and one that did not. The one that drew so much attention, I suggested, would ultimately be judged less consequential. This was the Gulf summit in May of 2015 at Camp David, meant to mollify a crowd of visiting sheikhs and princes who feared the impending Iran deal. The other meeting took place two months later, in the Oval Office, between Obama and the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong. This meeting took place only because John Kerry had pushed the White House to violate protocol, since the general secretary was not a head of state. But the goals trumped decorum: Obama wanted to lobby the Vietnamese on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—his negotiators soon extracted a promise from the Vietnamese that they would legalize independent labor unions—and he wanted to deepen cooperation on strategic issues. Administration officials have repeatedly hinted to me that Vietnam may one day soon host a permanent U.S. military presence, to check the ambitions of the country it now fears most, China. The U.S. Navy’s return to Cam Ranh Bay would count as one of the more improbable developments in recent American history. “We just moved the Vietnamese Communist Party to recognize labor rights in a way that we could never do by bullying them or scaring them,” Obama told me, calling this a key victory in his campaign to replace stick-waving with diplomatic persuasion.
I noted that the 200 or so young Southeast Asians in the room earlier that day—including citizens of Communist-ruled countries—seemed to love America. “They do,” Obama said. “In Vietnam right now, America polls at 80 percent.”
Obama visits a refugee center in Kuala Lumpur on a tour through Southeast Asia last fall. He sees the region as more integral to America’s future than the Middle East. (Susan Walsh / AP)
The resurgent popularity of America throughout Southeast Asia means that “we can do really big, important stuff—which, by the way, then has ramifications across the board,” he said, “because when Malaysia joins the anti-isil campaign, that helps us leverage resources and credibility in our fight against terrorism. When we have strong relations with Indonesia, that helps us when we are going to Paris and trying to negotiate a climate treaty, where the temptation of a Russia or some of these other countries may be to skew the deal in a way that is unhelpful.”
Obama then cited America’s increased influence in Latin America—increased, he said, in part by his removal of a region-wide stumbling block when he reestablished ties with Cuba—as proof that his deliberate, nonthreatening, diplomacy-centered approach to foreign relations is working. The alba movement, a group of Latin American governments oriented around anti-Americanism, has significantly weakened during his time as president. “When I came into office, at the first Summit of the Americas that I attended, Hugo Chávez”—the late anti-American Venezuelan dictator—“was still the dominant figure in the conversation,” he said. “We made a very strategic decision early on, which was, rather than blow him up as this 10-foot giant adversary, to right-size the problem and say, ‘We don’t like what’s going on in Venezuela, but it’s not a threat to the United States.’ ”
Obama said that to achieve this rebalancing, the U.S. had to absorb the diatribes and insults of superannuated Castro manqués. “When I saw Chávez, I shook his hand and he handed me a Marxist critique of the U.S.–Latin America relationship,” Obama recalled. “And I had to sit there and listen to Ortega”—Daniel Ortega, the radical leftist president of Nicaragua—“make an hour-long rant against the United States. But us being there, not taking all that stuff seriously—because it really wasn’t a threat to us”—helped neutralize the region’s anti-Americanism.
The president’s unwillingness to counter the baiting by American adversaries can feel emotionally unsatisfying, I said, and I told him that every so often, I’d like to see him give Vladimir Putin the finger. It’s atavistic, I said, understanding my audience.
“It is,” the president responded coolly. “This is what they’re looking for.”
He described a relationship with Putin that doesn’t quite conform to common perceptions. I had been under the impression that Obama viewed Putin as nasty, brutish, and short. But, Obama told me, Putin is not particularly nasty.
“The truth is, actually, Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank. Our meetings are very businesslike. He never keeps me waiting two hours like he does a bunch of these other folks.” Obama said that Putin believes his relationship with the U.S. is more important than Americans tend to think. “He’s constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”
Russia’s invasion of Crimea in early 2014, and its decision to use force to buttress the rule of its client Bashar al-Assad, have been cited by Obama’s critics as proof that the post-red-line world no longer fears America.
So when I talked with the president in the Oval Office in late January, I again raised this question of deterrent credibility. “The argument is made,” I said, “that Vladimir Putin watched you in Syria and thought, He’s too logical, he’s too rational, he’s too into retrenchment. I’m going to push him a little bit further in Ukraine.”
Obama didn’t much like my line of inquiry. “Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument. I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.” Obama was referring to Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, which was undertaken for many of the same reasons Putin later invaded Ukraine—to keep an ex–Soviet republic in Russia’s sphere of influence.
“Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there,” he said. “He’s done the exact same thing in Syria, at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country. And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.”
Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he said.
I asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.
“It’s realistic,” he said. “But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.” He then offered up a critique he had heard directed against him, in order to knock it down. “I think that the best argument you can make on the side of those who are critics of my foreign policy is that the president doesn’t exploit ambiguity enough. He doesn’t maybe react in ways that might cause people to think, Wow, this guy might be a little crazy.”
“The ‘crazy Nixon’ approach,” I said: Confuse and frighten your enemies by making them think you’re capable of committing irrational acts.
“But let’s examine the Nixon theory,” he said. “So we dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II, and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell. When I go to visit those countries, I’m going to be trying to figure out how we can, today, help them remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids. In what way did that strategy promote our interests?”
But what if Putin were threatening to move against, say, Moldova—another vulnerable post-Soviet state? Wouldn’t it be helpful for Putin to believe that Obama might get angry and irrational about that?
Video: Jeffrey Goldberg speaks with James Bennet about “The Obama Doctrine.”
Jeffrey Goldberg speaks with James Bennet about the process of collecting interviews and writing “The Obama Doctrine.”
“There is no evidence in modern American foreign policy that that’s how people respond. People respond based on what their imperatives are, and if it’s really important to somebody, and it’s not that important to us, they know that, and we know that,” he said. “There are ways to deter, but it requires you to be very clear ahead of time about what is worth going to war for and what is not. 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. The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action that is tangential to that particular area is somehow going to influence the decision making of Russia or China is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years.”
Obama went on to say that the belief in the possibilities of projected toughness is rooted in “mythologies” about Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.
“If you think about, let’s say, the Iran hostage crisis, there is a narrative that has been promoted today by some of the Republican candidates that the day Reagan was elected, because he looked tough, the Iranians decided, ‘We better turn over these hostages,’ ” he said. “In fact what had happened was that there was a long negotiation with the Iranians and because they so disliked Carter—even though the negotiations had been completed—they held those hostages until the day Reagan got elected. Reagan’s posture, his rhetoric, etc., had nothing to do with their release. When you think of the military actions that Reagan took, you have Grenada—which is hard to argue helped our ability to shape world events, although it was good politics for him back home. You have the Iran-Contra affair, in which we supported right-wing paramilitaries and did nothing to enhance our image in Central America, and it wasn’t successful at all.” He reminded me that Reagan’s great foe, Daniel Ortega, is today the unrepentant president of Nicaragua.
Obama also cited Reagan’s decision to almost immediately pull U.S. forces from Lebanon after 241 servicemen were killed in a Hezbollah attack in 1983. “Apparently all these things really helped us gain credibility with the Russians and the Chinese,” because “that’s the narrative that is told,” he said sarcastically. “Now, I actually think that Ronald Reagan had a great success in foreign policy, which was to recognize the opportunity that Gorbachev presented and to engage in extensive diplomacy—which was roundly criticized by some of the same people who now use Ronald Reagan to promote the notion that we should go around bombing people.”
In a conversation at the end of January, I asked the president to describe for me the threats he worries about most as he prepares, in the coming months, to hand off power to his successor.
“As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face,” he said. “If you start seeing more severe drought; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse. That’s above and beyond just the existential issues of a planet that starts getting into a bad feedback loop.”
Terrorism, he said, is also a long-term problem “when combined with the problem of failed states.”
What country does he consider the greatest challenge to America in the coming decades? “In terms of traditional great-state relations, I do believe that the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the most critical,” he said. “If we get that right and China continues on a peaceful rise, then we have a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order. If China fails; if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population and has to resort to nationalism as an organizing principle; if it feels so overwhelmed that it never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order; if it views the world only in terms of regional spheres of influence—then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, but we will find ourselves having more difficulty dealing with these other challenges that are going to come.”
Many people, I noted, want the president to be more forceful in confronting China, especially in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton, for one, has been heard to say in private settings, “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.”
“I’ve been very explicit in saying that we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China,” Obama said. “I think we have to be firm where China’s actions are undermining international interests, and if you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea, we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances.”
A weak, flailing Russia constitutes a threat as well, though not quite a top-tier threat. “Unlike China, they have demographic problems, economic structural problems, that would require not only vision but a generation to overcome,” Obama said. “The path that Putin is taking is not going to help them overcome those challenges. But in that environment, the temptation to project military force to show greatness is strong, and that’s what Putin’s inclination is. So I don’t underestimate the dangers there.”
Obama returned to a point he had made repeatedly to me, one that he hopes the country, and the next president, absorbs: “You know, the notion that diplomacy and technocrats and bureaucrats somehow are helping to keep America safe and secure, most people think, Eh, that’s nonsense. But it’s true. And by the way, it’s the element of American power that the rest of the world appreciates unambiguously. When we deploy troops, there’s always a sense on the part of other countries that, even where necessary, sovereignty is being violated.”
Over the past year, John Kerry has visited the White House regularly to ask Obama to violate Syria’s sovereignty. On several occasions, Kerry has asked Obama to launch missiles at specific regime targets, under cover of night, to “send a message” to the regime. The goal, Kerry has said, is not to overthrow Assad but to encourage him, and Iran and Russia, to negotiate peace. When the Assad alliance has had the upper hand on the battlefield, as it has these past several months, it has shown no inclination to take seriously Kerry’s entreaties to negotiate in good faith. A few cruise missiles, Kerry has argued, might concentrate the attention of Assad and his backers. “Kerry’s looking like a chump with the Russians, because he has no leverage,” a senior administration official told me.
The U.S. wouldn’t have to claim credit for the attacks, Kerry has told Obama—but Assad would surely know the missiles’ return address.
Obama has steadfastly resisted Kerry’s requests, and seems to have grown impatient with his lobbying. Recently, when Kerry handed Obama a written outline of new steps to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, Obama said, “Oh, another proposal?” Administration officials have told me that Vice President Biden, too, has become frustrated with Kerry’s demands for action. He has said privately to the secretary of state, “John, remember Vietnam? Remember how that started?” At a National Security Council meeting held at the Pentagon in December, Obama announced that no one except the secretary of defense should bring him proposals for military action. Pentagon officials understood Obama’s announcement to be a brushback pitch directed at Kerry.
Obama has bet that the price of direct U.S. action in Syria would be higher than the price of inaction.
One day in January, in Kerry’s office at the State Department, I expressed the obvious: He has more of a bias toward action than the president does.
“I do, probably,” Kerry acknowledged. “Look, the final say on these things is in his hands … I’d say that I think we’ve had a very symbiotic, synergistic, whatever you call it, relationship, which works very effectively. Because I’ll come in with the bias toward ‘Let’s try to do this, let’s try to do that, let’s get this done.’ ”
Obama’s caution on Syria has vexed those in the administration who have seen opportunities, at different moments over the past four years, to tilt the battlefield against Assad. Some thought that Putin’s decision to fight on behalf of Assad would prompt Obama to intensify American efforts to help anti-regime rebels. But Obama, at least as of this writing, would not be moved, in part because he believed that it was not his business to stop Russia from making what he thought was a terrible mistake. “They are overextended. They’re bleeding,” he told me. “And their economy has contracted for three years in a row, drastically.”
Obama meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the White House in February of 2015. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
In recent National Security Council meetings, Obama’s strategy was occasionally referred to as the “Tom Sawyer approach.” Obama’s view was that if Putin wanted to expend his regime’s resources by painting the fence in Syria, the U.S. should let him. By late winter, though, when it appeared that Russia was making advances in its campaign to solidify Assad’s rule, the White House began discussing ways to deepen support for the rebels, though the president’s ambivalence about more-extensive engagement remained. In conversations I had with National Security Council officials over the past couple of months, I sensed a foreboding that an event—another San Bernardino–style attack, for instance—would compel the United States to take new and direct action in Syria. For Obama, this would be a nightmare.
If there had been no Iraq, no Afghanistan, and no Libya, Obama told me, he might be more apt to take risks in Syria. “A president does not make decisions in a vacuum. He does not have a blank slate. Any president who was thoughtful, I believe, would recognize that after over a decade of war, with obligations that are still to this day requiring great amounts of resources and attention in Afghanistan, with the experience of Iraq, with the strains that it’s placed on our military—any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.”
Are you too cautious?, I asked.
“No,” he said. “Do I think that had we not invaded Iraq and were we not still involved in sending billions of dollars and a number of military trainers and advisers into Afghanistan, would I potentially have thought about taking on some additional risk to help try to shape the Syria situation? I don’t know.”
What has struck me is that, even as his secretary of state warns about a dire, Syria-fueled European apocalypse, Obama has not recategorized the country’s civil war as a top-tier security threat.
Obama’s hesitation to join the battle for Syria is held out as proof by his critics that he is too naive; his decision in 2013 not to fire missiles is proof, they argue, that he is a bluffer.
This critique frustrates the president. “Nobody remembers bin Laden anymore,” he says. “Nobody talks about me ordering 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan.” The red-line crisis, he said, “is the point of the inverted pyramid upon which all other theories rest.”
One afternoon in late January, as I was leaving the Oval Office, I mentioned to Obama a moment from an interview in 2012 when he told me that he would not allow Iran to gain possession of a nuclear weapon. “You said, ‘I’m the president of the United States, I don’t bluff.’ ”
He said, “I don’t.”
Shortly after that interview four years ago, Ehud Barak, who was then the defense minister of Israel, asked me whether I thought Obama’s no-bluff promise was itself a bluff. I answered that I found it difficult to imagine that the leader of the United States would bluff about something so consequential. But Barak’s question had stayed with me. So as I stood in the doorway with the president, I asked: “Was it a bluff?” I told him that few people now believe he actually would have attacked Iran to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon.
“That’s interesting,” he said, noncommittally.
I started to talk: “Do you—”
He interrupted. “I actually would have,” he said, meaning that he would have struck Iran’s nuclear facilities. “If I saw them break out.”
He added, “Now, the argument that can’t be resolved, because it’s entirely situational, was what constitutes them getting” the bomb. “This was the argument I was having with Bibi Netanyahu.” Netanyahu wanted Obama to prevent Iran from being capable of building a bomb, not merely from possessing a bomb.
“You were right to believe it,” the president said. And then he made his key point. “This was in the category of an American interest.”
I was reminded then of something Derek Chollet, a former National Security Council official, told me: “Obama is a gambler, not a bluffer.”
The president has placed some huge bets. Last May, as he was trying to move the Iran nuclear deal through Congress, I told him that the agreement was making me nervous. His response was telling. “Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
In the matter of the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian sponsors, Obama has bet, and seems prepared to continue betting, that the price of direct U.S. action would be higher than the price of inaction. And he is sanguine enough to live with the perilous ambiguities of his decisions. Though in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009, Obama said, “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later,” today the opinions of humanitarian interventionists do not seem to move him, at least not publicly. He undoubtedly knows that a next-generation Samantha Power will write critically of his unwillingness to do more to prevent the continuing slaughter in Syria. (For that matter, Samantha Power will also be the subject of criticism from the next Samantha Power.) As he comes to the end of his presidency, Obama believes he has done his country a large favor by keeping it out of the maelstrom—and he believes, I suspect, that historians will one day judge him wise for having done so.
Inside the West Wing, officials say that Obama, as a president who inherited a financial crisis and two active wars from his predecessor, is keen to leave “a clean barn” to whoever succeeds him. This is why the fight against isis, a group he considers to be a direct, though not existential, threat to the U.S., is his most urgent priority for the remainder of his presidency; killing the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is one of the top goals of the American national-security apparatus in Obama’s last year.
Of course, isis was midwifed into existence, in part, by the Assad regime. Yet by Obama’s stringent standards, Assad’s continued rule for the moment still doesn’t rise to the level of direct challenge to America’s national security.
This is what is so controversial about the president’s approach, and what will be controversial for years to come—the standard he has used to define what, exactly, constitutes a direct threat.
Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power. Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. Obama believes that history has sides, and that America’s adversaries—and some of its putative allies—have situated themselves on the wrong one, a place where tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism still flourish. What they don’t understand is that history is bending in his direction.
“The central argument is that by keeping America from immersing itself in the crises of the Middle East, the foreign-policy establishment believes that the president is precipitating our decline,” Ben Rhodes told me. “But the president himself takes the opposite view, which is that overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.”
If you are a supporter of the president, his strategy makes eminent sense: Double down in those parts of the world where success is plausible, and limit America’s exposure to the rest. His critics believe, however, that problems like those presented by the Middle East don’t solve themselves—that, without American intervention, they metastasize.
At the moment, Syria, where history appears to be bending toward greater chaos, poses the most direct challenge to the president’s worldview.
George W. Bush was also a gambler, not a bluffer. He will be remembered harshly for the things he did in the Middle East. Barack Obama is gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.
Voir de plus:
The Carter Syndrome
Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
Neither a cold-blooded realist nor a bleeding-heart idealist, Barack Obama has a split personality when it comes to foreign policy. So do most U.S. presidents, of course, and the ideas that inspire this one have a long history at the core of the American political tradition. In the past, such ideas have served the country well. But the conflicting impulses influencing how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart — and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter.
Obama’s long deliberation over the war in Afghanistan is a case study in presidential schizophrenia: After 94 days of internal discussion and debate, he ended up splitting the difference — rushing in more troops as his generals wanted, while calling for their departure to begin in July 2011 as his liberal base demanded. It was a sober compromise that suggests a man struggling to reconcile his worldview with the weight of inherited problems. Like many of his predecessors, Obama is not only buffeted by strong political headwinds, but also pulled in opposing directions by two of the major schools of thought that have guided American foreign-policy debates since colonial times.
In general, U.S. presidents see the world through the eyes of four giants: Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Hamiltonians share the first Treasury secretary’s belief that a strong national government and a strong military should pursue a realist global policy and that the government can and should promote economic development and the interests of American business at home and abroad. Wilsonians agree with Hamiltonians on the need for a global foreign policy, but see the promotion of democracy and human rights as the core elements of American grand strategy. Jeffersonians dissent from this globalist consensus; they want the United States to minimize its commitments and, as much as possible, dismantle the national-security state. Jacksonians are today’s Fox News watchers. They are populists suspicious of Hamiltonian business links, Wilsonian do-gooding, and Jeffersonian weakness.
Moderate Republicans tend to be Hamiltonians. Move right toward the Sarah Palin range of the party and the Jacksonian influence grows. Centrist Democrats tend to be interventionist-minded Wilsonians, while on the left and the dovish side they are increasingly Jeffersonian, more interested in improving American democracy at home than exporting it abroad.
Some presidents build coalitions; others stay close to one favorite school. As the Cold War ended, George H.W. Bush’s administration steered a largely Hamiltonian course, and many of those Hamiltonians later dissented from his son’s war in Iraq. Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s mixed Hamiltonian and Wilsonian tendencies. This dichotomy resulted in bitter administration infighting when those ideologies came into conflict — over humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and Rwanda, for example, and again over the relative weight to be given to human rights and trade in U.S. relations with China.
More recently, George W. Bush’s presidency was defined by an effort to bring Jacksonians and Wilsonians into a coalition; the political failure of Bush’s ambitious approach created the context that made the Obama presidency possible.
Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those rare and electrifying moments that waken Jacksonian America and focus its attention on the international arena. The U.S. homeland was not only under attack, it was under attack by an international conspiracy of terrorists who engaged in what Jacksonians consider dishonorable warfare: targeting civilians. Jacksonian attitudes toward war were shaped by generations of conflict with Native American peoples across the United States and before that by centuries of border conflict in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Against « honorable » enemies who observe the laws of war, one is obliged to fight fair; those who disregard the rules must be hunted down and killed, regardless of technical niceties.
When the United States is attacked, Jacksonians demand action; they leave strategy to the national leadership. But Bush’s tough-minded Jacksonian response to 9/11 — invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban government that gave safe haven to the plotters — gave way to what appeared to be Wilsonian meddling in Iraq. Originally, Bush’s argument for overthrowing Saddam Hussein rested on two charges that resonated powerfully with Jacksonians: Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction, and he had close links with al Qaeda. But the war dragged on, and as Hussein’s fabled hoards of WMD failed to appear and the links between Iraq and al Qaeda failed to emerge, Bush shifted to a Wilsonian rationale. This was no longer a war of defense against a pending threat or a war of retaliation; it was a war to establish democracy, first in Iraq and then throughout the region. Nation-building and democracy-spreading became the cornerstones of the administration’s Middle East policy.
Bush could not have developed a strategy better calculated to dissolve his political support at home. Jacksonians historically have little sympathy for expensive and risky democracy-promoting ventures abroad. They generally opposed the humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti during the Clinton years; they did not and do not think American young people should die and American treasure should be scattered to spread democracy or protect human rights overseas. Paradoxically, Jacksonians also opposed « cut and run » options to end the war in Iraq even as they lost faith in both Bush and the Republican Party; they don’t like wars for democracy, but they also don’t want to see the United States lose once troops and the national honor have been committed. In Bush’s last year in office, a standoff ensued: The Democratic congressional majorities were powerless to force change in his Iraq strategy and Bush remained free to increase U.S. troop levels, yet the war itself and Bush’s rationale for it remained deeply unpopular.
Enter Obama. An early and consistent opponent of the Iraq war, Obama was able to bring together the elements of the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy base who were most profoundly opposed to (and horrified by) Bush’s policy. Obama made opposition to the Iraq war a centerpiece of his eloquent campaign, drawing on arguments that echoed U.S. anti-war movements all the way back to Henry David Thoreau’s opposition to the Mexican-American War.
Like Carter in the 1970s, Obama comes from the old-fashioned Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic Party, and the strategic goal of his foreign policy is to reduce America’s costs and risks overseas by limiting U.S. commitments wherever possible. He’s a believer in the notion that the United States can best spread democracy and support peace by becoming an example of democracy at home and moderation abroad. More than this, Jeffersonians such as Obama think oversize commitments abroad undermine American democracy at home. Large military budgets divert resources from pressing domestic needs; close association with corrupt and tyrannical foreign regimes involves the United States in dirty and cynical alliances; the swelling national-security state threatens civil liberties and leads to powerful pro-war, pro-engagement lobbies among corporations nourished on grossly swollen federal defense budgets.
While Bush argued that the only possible response to the 9/11 attacks was to deepen America’s military and political commitments in the Middle East, Obama initially sought to enhance America’s security by reducing those commitments and toning down aspects of U.S. Middle East policy, such as support for Israel, that foment hostility and suspicion in the region. He seeks to pull U.S. power back from the borderlands of Russia, reducing the risk of conflict with Moscow. In Latin America, he has so far behaved with scrupulous caution and, clearly, is hoping to normalize relations with Cuba while avoiding collisions with the « Bolivarian » states of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Obama seeks a quiet world in order to focus his efforts on domestic reform — and to create conditions that would allow him to dismantle some of the national-security state inherited from the Cold War and given new life and vigor after 9/11. Preferring disarmament agreements to military buildups and hoping to substitute regional balance-of-power arrangements for massive unilateral U.S. force commitments all over the globe, the president wishes ultimately for an orderly world in which burdens are shared and the military power of the United States is a less prominent feature on the international scene.
While Wilsonians believe that no lasting stability is possible in a world filled with dictatorships, Jeffersonians like Obama argue that even bad regimes can be orderly international citizens if the incentives are properly aligned. Syria and Iran don’t need to become democratic states for the United States to reach long-term, mutually beneficial arrangements with them. And it is North Korea’s policies, not the character of its regime, that pose a threat to the Pacific region.
At this strategic level, Obama’s foreign policy looks a little bit like that of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In Afghanistan and Iraq, he hopes to extract U.S. forces from costly wars by the contemporary equivalent of the « Vietnamization » policy of the Nixon years. He looks to achieve an opening with Iran comparable to Nixon’s rapprochement with communist China. Just as Nixon established a constructive relationship with China despite the radical « Red Guard » domestic policies Chinese leader Mao Zedong was pursuing at the time, Obama does not see ideological conflict as necessarily leading to poor strategic relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Just as Nixon and Kissinger sought to divert international attention from their retreat in Indochina by razzle-dazzle global diplomacy that placed Washington at the center of world politics even as it reduced its force posture, so too the Obama administration hopes to use the president’s global popularity to cover a strategic withdrawal from the exposed position in the Middle East that it inherited from the Bush administration.
This is both an ambitious and an attractive vision. Success would reduce the level of international tension even as the United States scales back its commitments. The United States would remain, by far, the dominant military power in the world, but it would sustain this role with significantly fewer demands on its resources and less danger of war.
Yet as Obama is already discovering, any president attempting such a Jeffersonian grand strategy in the 21st century faces many challenges. In the 19th-century heyday of Jeffersonian foreign policy in American politics, it was easier for U.S. presidents to limit the country’s commitments. Britain played a global role similar to that of the United States today, providing a stable security environment and promoting international trade and investment. Cruising as a free rider in the British world system allowed Americans to reap the benefits of Britain’s world order without paying its costs.
As British power waned in the 20th century, Americans faced starker choices. With the British Empire no longer able to provide political and economic security worldwide, the United States had to choose between replacing Britain as the linchpin of world order with all the headaches that entailed or going about its business in a disorderly world. In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans gave this latter course a try; the rapid-fire series of catastrophes — the Great Depression, World War II, Stalin’s bid for Eurasian hegemony — convinced virtually all policymakers that the first course, risky and expensive as it proved, was the lesser of the two evils.
Indeed, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first two terms, the United States pursued essentially Jeffersonian policies in Europe and Asia, avoiding confrontations with Germany and Japan. The result was the bloodiest war in world history, not a stable condominium of satisfied powers. Since that time, Jeffersonians have had to come to terms with the vast set of interlocking political, economic, and military commitments that bind the United States to its role in the postwar era. Jeffersonian instincts call for pruning these commitments back, but it is not always easy to know where to cut.
The other schools are generally skeptical about reducing American commitments. Wilsonians interpret Jeffersonian restraint as moral cowardice. Why, they ask, did Obama refuse to meet the sainted Dalai Lama on his way to kowtow to the dictators in Beijing? Jacksonians think it is cowardice pure and simple. And why not stand up to Iran? Hamiltonians may agree with Jeffersonian restraint in particular cases — they don’t want to occupy Darfur either — but sooner or later they attack Jeffersonians for failing to develop and project sufficient American power in a dangerous world. Moreover, Hamiltonians generally favor free trade and a strong dollar policy; in current circumstances Hamiltonians are also pushing fiscal restraint. Obama will not willingly move far or fast enough to keep them happy.
The widespread criticism of Obama’s extended Afghanistan deliberations is a case in point. To a Jeffersonian president, war is a grave matter and such an undesirable course that it should only be entered into with the greatest deliberation and caution; war is truly a last resort, and the costs of rash commitments are more troubling than the costs of debate and delay. Hamiltonians would be more concerned with executing the decision swiftly and with hiding from other powers any impression of division among American counsels. But Obama found harsh critics on all sides: Wilsonians recoiled from the evident willingness of the president to abandon human rights or political objectives to settle the war. Jacksonians did not understand what, other than cowardice or « dithering, » could account for his reluctance to support the professional military recommendation. And the most purist of the Jeffersonians — neoisolationists on both left and right — turned on Obama as a sellout. Jeffersonian foreign policy is no bed of roses.
In recent history, Jeffersonian foreign policy has often faced attacks from all the other schools of thought. Kissinger’s policy of détente was blasted on the right by conservative Republicans who wanted a stronger stand against communism and on the left by human rights Democrats who hated the cynical regional alliances the Nixon Doctrine involved (with the shah of Iran, for example). Carter faced many of the same problems, and the image of weakness and indecision that helped doom his 1980 run for re-election is a perennial problem for Jeffersonian presidents. Obama will have to leap over these hurdles now, too.
It is not only Americans who will challenge the new American foreign policy. Will Russia and Iran respond to Obama’s conciliatory approach with reciprocal concessions — or, emboldened by what they interpret as American weakness and faltering willpower, will they keep pushing forward? Will the president’s outreach to the moderate majority of Muslims around the world open an era of better understanding, or will the violent minority launch new attacks that undercut the president’s standing at home? Will the president’s inability to deliver all the Israeli concessions Arabs would like erode his credibility and contribute to even deeper levels of cynicism and alienation across the Middle East? Can the president execute an orderly reduction in the U.S. military stake in Iraq and Afghanistan without having hostile forces fill the power vacuum? Will Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez be so impressed with American restraint under Obama that he moderates his own course and ceases to make anti Yanquismo a pillar of his domestic and international policy? Will other countries heed the president’s call to assume more international responsibility as the United States reduces its commitments — or will they fail to fulfill their obligations as stakeholders in the international system?
A Jeffersonian policy of restraint and withdrawal requires cooperation from many other countries, but the prospect of a lower American profile may make others less, rather than more, willing to help the United States.
There is an additional political problem for this president, one that he shares with Carter. In both cases, their basic Jeffersonian approach was balanced in part by a strong attraction to idealistic Wilsonian values and their position at the head of a Democratic Party with a distinct Wilsonian streak. A pure Jeffersonian wants to conserve the shining exceptionalism of the American democratic experience and believes that American values are rooted in U.S. history and culture and are therefore not easily exportable.
For this president, that is too narrow a view. Like Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama doesn’t just love the United States for what it is. He loves what it should — and can — be. Leadership is not the art of preserving a largely achieved democratic project; governing is the art of pushing the United States farther down the road toward the still-distant goal of fulfilling its mission and destiny.
Obama may well believe what he said in his inaugural speech — « we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals » — but as any president must he is already making exactly those tradeoffs. Why else refuse to meet the Dalai Lama? Why else pledge support to the corrupt regime of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan or aid Pakistan despite the dismal track record of both the civil and military arms of the Pakistani government when it comes to transparent use of U.S. resources? Did the administration not renew its efforts to build a relationship with the regime in Tehran even as peaceful democratic protesters were being tortured and raped in its jails? Is Obama not taking « incentives » to Khartoum, a regime that has for more than a decade pursued a policy in Darfur that the U.S. government has labeled genocidal?
It is hard to reconcile the transcendent Wilsonian vision of America’s future with a foreign policy based on dirty compromises with nasty regimes. If the government should use its power and resources to help the poor and the victims of injustice at home, shouldn’t it do something when people overseas face extreme injustice and extreme peril? The Obama administration cannot easily abandon a human rights agenda abroad. The contradiction between the sober and limited realism of the Jeffersonian worldview and the expansive, transformative Wilsonian agenda is likely to haunt this administration as it haunted Carter’s, most fatefully when he rejected calls to let the shah of Iran launch a brutal crackdown to remain in power. Already the Wilsonians in Obama’s camp are muttering darkly about his failure to swiftly close the Guantánamo prison camp, his fondness for government secrecy, his halfhearted support for investigating abuses of the past administration, and his failure to push harder for a cap-and-trade bill before the Copenhagen summit.
Over time, these rumblings of discontent will grow, and history will continue to throw curveballs at him. Can this president live with himself if he fails to prevent a new round of genocide in the Great Lakes region of Africa? Can he wage humanitarian war if all else fails? Can he make these tough decisions quickly and confidently when his closest advisors and his political base are deeply and hopelessly at odds?
The Jeffersonian concern with managing America’s foreign policy at the lowest possible level of risk has in the past helped presidents develop effective grand strategies, such as George Kennan’s early Cold War idea of containment and the early 19th-century Monroe Doctrine. If successful, Obama’s restructuring of American foreign policy would be as influential as these classic strategic designs.
Recent decades, however, have seen diminishing Jeffersonian influence in U.S. foreign policy. Americans today perceive problems all over the world; the Jeffersonian response often strikes people as too passive. Kennan’s modest form of containment quickly lost ground to Dean Acheson’s more muscular and militarized approach of responding to Soviet pressure by building up U.S. and allied forces in Europe and Asia. The Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente was repudiated by both the Republican and Democratic parties. Carter came into the White House hoping to end the Cold War, but by the end of his tenure he was supporting the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, increasing the defense budget, and laying the groundwork for an expanded U.S. presence in the Middle East.
In the 21st century, American presidents have a new set of questions to consider. The nature of the international system and the place of the United States in it will have to be rethought as new powers rise, old ones continue to fade, and attention shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The rapid technological development that is the hallmark of our era will reshape global society at a pace that challenges the ability of every country in the world to manage cascading, accelerating change.
With great dignity and courage, Obama has embarked on a difficult and uncertain journey. The odds, I fear, are not in his favor, and it is not yet clear that his intuitions and instincts amount to the kind of grand design that statesmen like John Quincy Adams and Henry Kissinger produced in the past. But there can be no doubt that American foreign policy requires major rethinking.
At their best, Jeffersonians provide a necessary element of caution and restraint in U.S. foreign policy, preventing what historian Paul Kennedy calls « imperial overstretch » by ensuring that America’s ends are proportionate to its means. We need this vision today more than ever: If Obama’s foreign policy collapses — whether sunk by Afghanistan or conflicts not yet foreseen — into the incoherence and reversals that ultimately marked Carter’s well-meaning but flawed approach, it will be even more difficult for future presidents to chart a prudent and cautious course through the rough seas ahead.
The Passionless Presidency
The trouble with Jimmy Carter’s Administration
The Atlantic Monthly
In the spring of 1978, as the primary election season drew near, Jimmy Carter began a long march across the country, ready to help off-year Democratic candidates who might later reciprocate by helping him. This was a tiring trip, which caught the President at a tired time.
Within the previous month, he had traveled halfway around the world and across the country many times. More of the same lay immediately ahead. On the first leg of this trip, in Chicago, Carter made an interminable appearance at a Cook County Democratic banquet speaking briefly to party members in six separate ballrooms, then launching into an hour-long address in the main hall.
Of the many things being demanded of him, Carter was tired most of all of giving speeches. He told Jody Powell, who passed the word to me as the presidential speechwriter, to change the plans for his appearance next day before the Illinois state legislature in Springfield. We should release the text of the speech that we had prepared—a sobersided discussion of the « iron triangle » of bureaucratic interests, congressional committees, and outside lobbying groups that kept things in the government from ever being reformed—but, Carter said, he did not intend to deliver it. Instead, he would stand before the legislators, endorse the sentiments expressed in the advance text, and then take questions from the floor.
In the Springfield capitol building the next morning, I sat among the reporters and watched the revised plan unfold. Carter announced his intentions and read introductory comments from his note cards—and then, unexpectedly, he began talking in a deeper register, a more heartfelt style; a graceful natural cadence replaced his familiar singsong. Carter was speaking once more as he had spoken during the campaign, not about a specific policy or the rationale behind his acts, but about himself, his values, the emotions he felt day by day. He had once referred to his job as « one big multiple choice exam, » and he told the rapt crowd about the tests he would soon face. He told them of his difficulties— »It is not easy to negotiate with the Russians on a SALT agreement…. A Panama Canal treaty was not a popular thing. » The Mideast arms sales were « almost impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of the American people. It took a lot of courage to make those decisions. »
Carter told them of his faith in the American people, whose goodness he had seen in the small towns. Our people, he said, are « basically decent, basically honest, basically have great common sense. » And he was determined to reflect those virtues. He had been a businessman, a farmer, in touch with the cells and organs of American life. As the American people would respond to hard questions, so would he. As they were hardworking and honest and brave, so too must he be.
Carter then began taking questions, but I stopped listening; so much that had puzzled me was becoming clear. Sixteen months into his Administration, there was a mystery to be explained about Jimmy Carter: the contrast between the promise and popularity of his first months in office and the disappointment so widely felt later on. Part of this had to do with the inevitable end of the presidential honeymoon, with the unenviable circumstances Carter inherited, with the fickleness of the press. But much more of it grew directly from the quality Carter displayed that morning in Illinois. He was speaking with gusto because he was speaking about the subject that most inspired him: not what he proposed to do, but who he was. Where Lyndon Johnson boasted of schools built and children fed, where Edward Kennedy holds out the promise of the energies he might mobilize and the ideas he might enact, Jimmy Carter tells us that he is a good man. His positions are correct, his values sound. Like Marshal Petain after the fall of France, he has offered his person to the nation. This is not an inconsiderable gift; his performance in office shows us why it’s not enough.
After two and a half years in Carter’s service, I fully believe him to be a good man. With his moral virtues and his intellectual skills, he is perhaps as admirable a human being as has ever held the job. He is probably smarter, in the College Board sense, than any other President in this century. He grasps issues quickly. He made me feel confident that, except in economics, he would resolve technical questions lucidly, without distortions imposed by cant or imperfect comprehension.
He is a stable, personally confident man, whose quirks are few. He told the several Rhodes scholars on his staff that he had not won one of the scholarships, that this had been a great disappointment to him, but that he’d made out all right, heh, heh, hadn’t he? He tends to exaggerate his background (« I am a nuclear physicist »; « I directed the Head Start program in Georgia ») and to tamper with truth on small matters. As character flaws go, these are small change. Apart from occasional profanity, I saw him form no argument and strike no pose that would make him look a hypocrite if publicly revealed. I was not one of his confidants, and my intention to return to journalism was widely known; certain things were shielded from my view. But some things cannot be hidden, and in other administrations I know I would have seen more subterfuge and deception than I detected here.
Carter is usually patient, less vindictive than the political norm, blessed with a sense of perspective about the chanciness of life and the transience of its glories and pursuits. I left his service feeling that if moral choices faced him, he would resolve them fairly, that when questions of life and death, of nuclear war and human destruction were laid upon his desk, he would act on them calmly, with self-knowledge, free of interior demons that might tempt him to act rashly or to prove at terrible cost that he was a man. One factor in our choice of Presidents is their soundness in the ultimate moments of decision, when the finger is poised over the button and the future of the race is stake. Of all contenders on the horizon, none would be saner or surer than Carter in those moments. In his ability to do justice case by case, he would be the ideal non-lawyer for the Supreme Court; if I had to choose one politician to sit at the Pearly Gates and pass judgment on my soul, Jimmy Carter would be the one.
But if he has the gift of virtue, there are other gifts he lacks.
One is sophistication. It soon became clear, in ways I shall explain, that Carter and those closest to him to him took office in profound ignorance of their jobs. They were ignorant of the possibilities and the most likely pitfalls. They fell prey to predictable dangers and squandered precious time.
The second is the ability to explain his goals and thereby to offer an object for loyalty larger than himself.
The third, and most important, is the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job. Carter often seemed more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results. He seethed with frustration when plans were rejected, but felt no compulsion to do better next time. He did not devour history for its lessons, surround himself with people who could do what he could not, or learn from others that fire was painful before he plunged his hand into the flame.
I make these observations with sadness but without rancor, for I have no reason to feel bitter. Other politicians are notorious for browbeating or humiliating their speechwriters; Jimmy Carter was always decent to me. I wish that more of the impressions I took away were bright. My interest as a journalist is to report what I saw, and to explain why I think it happened.
became involved with Carter in the summer of 1976, when (so it seemed) the hardest electoral battles were behind him and the opportunists were climbing aboard. I had voted for him in the Texas primary, written with measured sympathy about his cause, and found myself rounded up in the general massing of troops once he clinched the nomination.
I worked for him enthusiastically and was proud to join his Administration, for I felt that he, alone among candidates, might look past the tired formulas of left and right and offer something new. These early hopes impose a special burden of explanation on people like me; before we find fault, we must explain why we thought things would be different. Carter had no experience in Washington or in foreign affairs; to blame him for that now seems somehow unfair. He had been unpopular as governor of Georgia; why should it be different in the White House? On paper, as a provincial businessman and one-term governor, Carter promised to perform just about the way he has.
But there were two factors that made many of us ignore these paper limitations. One was Carter’s remarkable charm in face-to-face encounters. All politicians must be charming to some degree, but Carter’s performance on first intimate meeting was something special. His intelligence and magnetism soon banished thoughts of the limits of his background. When working at the White House, I often felt persuaded by Carter’s argument—and, even more, of his personal merit—while talking with him, although I knew, on reflection, that his argument was wrong. This was not simply the malleability of a young employee; I met very few people who, having sat and talked with Carter by themselves or in groups of two or three, did not come away feeling they had dealt with a formidable man.
He was fully aware of this power and used it whenever he could. Early in the campaign, when trying to convince people that his candidacy was not a joke, he placed high hopes on his meetings with newspaper editorial boards. After Gerald Rafshoon’s arrival in the White House, Carter invited editors and publishers to dinner, usually to good effect. He always felt in foreign affairs that if he could only get his adversaries into the room with him, he could win them over. This he demonstrated most spectacularly with Sadat and Begin at Camp David and in his dramatic and courageous resuscitation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations this year. Lyndon Johnson had the same faith in his famous « treatment, » but it was based on his intimate knowledge of the other party, which told him how to flatter, threaten, and cajole. Carter’s faith was in himself, and in the impression he would create.
The other factor was a subtler thing, though clearly visible in retrospect. I always thought Carter awkward at the deliberate manipulation of symbols, but he was a genius at using a phrase, a gesture, a code word that his listeners assumed to be of greater significance than it was. He led call-and-response like a preacher in a black church; he talked with environmentalists about the sins of the Corps of Engineers; he told the American legion about his family’s three centuries of military service; and he told everyone in back-room meetings that, while he could not promise a single appointment to a single person, « I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the choices I make, » and « I think you’ll agree with what I do 95 percent of the time. » Espying these chunks in the water, each onlooker viewed them as tips of icebergs, indicating vast, hidden extensions below.
I realize now how people were led on by these hints; I was led on myself by the hope that Carter might make sense of the swirl of liberal and conservative sentiment then muddying the political orthodoxy. Never did I feel it more strongly than after my first meeting with Carter, in August 1976, when he was receiving petitioners in Plains. Shortly after I joined the campaign staff, I accompanied a friend and former employer, Ralph Nader, when he went to call on Carter. From 9 P.M. until long past midnight on a steamy summer night, I sat in the back of Carter’s study while Nader delivered a lecture on the way the government works. What Boswell must have felt when Burke and Johnson had their fine moments I thought I was feeling then, as Nader distilled into three hours the lessons of a dozen years. They were not programmatic, or even « liberal, » points, but practical warnings about the way administrations went wrong. Carter must do everything possible to eliminate third-party payment systems, Nader said; they always bust the budget. He must find ways around the unions’ guild mentality if he wanted to put poor teenagers to work and to rebuild the cities. He must control, from his first moment on the job, the way he spent his time, so that when the crises came, as they inevitably would, his other efforts would go on. He must avoid the ancient seductions of foreign affairs, and must constantly search for ways to make the people in government feel that he was looking over their shoulders day after day, encouraging, inspecting, reproving, an ever-present focus for loyalty and healthy fear.
Nader did most of the talking that evening, but when Carter spoke it was to show that he understood. With his complementary examples, his nodded assents, Carter hinted that he might come to office not only with the usual freight of campaign promises but also with the kind of practical sophistication most people acquire only when it is time to retire and write their memoirs. That is the difference with state governors, I remember telling myself in my exhilaration that night. While senators are prancing about with new ideas and noble intentions, governors see what happens when the payroll is met, the program administered, the intention converted to result. The last governor to become President was Franklin Roosevelt, and I told my friends that summer that Carter had at least the same potential to leave the government forever changed by his presence: not by expanding federal responsibilities, as Roosevelt had done, or by continuing the trend of the Great Society, but by transforming the government, as in the 1930s, to reflect the needs of these different times. Franklin Roosevelt radiated confidence, or the illusion of confidence, to a nation ready and eager to be reassured. Jimmy Carter—so I thought—might be able to point out a new political direction to a nation all too ready to be led.
here were other promising signs. When Carter stressed that he had made this work in Georgia, I thought he had learned from hard experience about the perils of organizational life. I thought that, like his mentor Hyman Rickover, or Northrup Parkinson, he would stay one step ahead of staff jealousies, information blockages, monopolization of his time. When I heard him recommend, early in the campaign, junking the mortgage tax deductions I assumed that Carter must have thought deeply about the tax system, deeply enough to understand that the average man lost far more than he gained through this deduction, that he would come out far ahead if it and similar exemptions were removed and the general tax rates lowered. For what other reason would a candidate bring up this subject, knowing how difficult the point is to explain and the uproar it was sure to provoke, unless he envisioned a basic change in the tax system and was ready to teach the public about it?
When I read his famous Law Day speech of 1974 the upbraiding of lawyers that led Hunter S. Thompson to canonize Carter in Rolling Stone, I thought he must understand the excesses of a legal system that siphons off so much of the nation’s talent. I thought he must be aware of the burdens that privilege bring that the nation’s most comfortable and professionalized groups must look beyond their Mercedes and their Perrier.
When Hamilton Jordan was quoted as saying that « this government is going to be run by people you’ve never heard of, » and that if Cyrus Vance should become secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski the national security adviser, the Administration could be considered a failure and he would quit, I thought those close to Carter had reflected on the permanence of the governing groups in Washington, the similarity of their backgrounds, and the success of their self-protection. I thought they understood the importance of bringing in other talented people—other Jimmy Carters, and other Jody Powells.
When Carter spoke about a strong defense, but promised to cut five billion dollars or more from the defense budget, I took it not as campaign hyperbole but as proof that he recognized the danger of setting military budgets by ideology or platitude and the need to base them on case-by-case judgments about threats to our security and ways to respond.
And when I heard Jimmy Carter reflect on his aims and ideas as he did with such refreshing intelligence during the TV interview with Bill Moyers in May 1976 in the less-publicized portions of the notorious Playboy interview, I thought he understood that people recognized frankness, that they would respond to a leader who respected their intelligence and did not talk down to them.
Perhaps this list is a testament to nothing more than my own naivete; but here and there among the items the reader may recognize a signal that he also picked up from listening to Carter, a feeling that he shared. Those memories may be refreshed by looking back to Carter’s first « town meeting » in Clinton, Massachusetts where he demonstrated not only his poise under fire but his ability to make contact, to communicate, to lead. « In his first two months as President, Jimmy Carter has achieved a triumph of communications in the arena of public opinion, » David Broder wrote in the Washington Post after that town meeting. « He has transformed himself from the very shaky winner of a campaign into a very popular President whose mastery of the mass media has given him real leverage with which to govern. »
But by the time Bert Lance resigned as budget director in September 1977, most of the original hopes had departed as well. These weren’t the tips of icebergs we seeing; they were pieces of ice.
he first jarring note was struck after two months in office, when large pay increases were allotted to the White House staff. Many people got a raise just by joining; Carter could have hired everyone for half the starting pay; except for a few lawyers such as Robert Lipshutz and Jack Watson, those entering public service were making no financial sacrifices. I was twenty-seven years old when I started working at the White House. The year before, I had made about $20,000 as a magazine writer. On Inauguration Day, my pay rose by 87.5 percent, to $37,500. Two months later, with the general pay increase, it went up another $5000, to $42,500. After two more unpublicized, automatic, « cost of living » raises, I was earning $47,500 when I resigned at the end of November 1978.
Of all complaints about Carter, overpayment is the most ironic, for he was the most notorious tightwad in town. But it was a sadly typical complaint, for it showed that Carter’s inner values mattered less than his naivete about organizations and the effect of symbolic acts. By going along with the pay increases, Carter gave the clearest possible sign that it would be business as usual in his Administration. His later talk about inflation would be forever undermined by this demonstration that restraint did not start at home. When I traveled around the country speaking on the Administration’s behalf, I knew what one of the first, and most venomous, questions would be: Why should the citizen making $20,000 be taxed to provide a raise for someone making $47,500?
The scene was set for the first raise by a pay increase the Congress had voted for itself and upper-level civil servants. Carter had the choice of accepting it for the White House, deferring or reducing it, or turning it down flat. For advice Carter looked to an « executive committee » made up of the nine top-ranking and highest-paid assistants (Jordan, Powell, Brzezinski, Lipshutz, Watson, Stuart Eizenstat, James Schlesinger, Midge Costanza, and Frank Moore). All nine were making $44,600 and were authorized by the bill to advance to $57,500. Their deliberations were awkward (or so we heard in office gossip), no one eager to be the first to ask for the raise, until Midge Costanza said that she, for one, could use the money. The committee first provided for its own, each member offering to sacrifice $1500 of the authorized $12,900 raise (bringing their salaries to $56,000), and then agreed that those further down the ladder should demonstrate greater restraint. The lower the pay to begin with, the more of the raise would be kicked back. Those who made $37,500, like me, gave up half of a $10,000 raise—and those who made less than $37,500 got no raise at all.
Carter could easily have bullied the executive committee and the rest of the staff into forgoing all the raises. During the primary campaign, when each day’s spending depended on the previous day’s take, Carter had made frugality seem stylish. Staff members boasted about staying in friends’ houses rather than in hotels, and prided themselves on fueling fund-raising parties with peanuts and wine for a fraction of the usual cost. In the more luxurious setting of the White House, the task would be harder, but Carter could have argued the need for symbolic restraint, his own preference for moderation—or simply his discomfort at seeing those who make policy for the nation go from the 98th percentile of income to the 99th. Then he would have demonstrated that economy in government was more than talk; instead, he bred skepticism outside the government and greed within. I charged into Jody Powell’s office when I found out about my $5000 kickback, outraged by this « gyp, » until I realized just what I was saying. From that point on, people making $40,000 and $50,000 succumbed to self-pity because others were making more.
There came other signs that Carter was not alert to bureaucratic perils. If there is any constant in the literature of presidential performance, it is that the President must husband his time. If he is distracted from the big choices by the torrent of petty details, the big choices will not get made—or will be resolved by their own internal logic, not by the wishes of those who have been elected to lead. Carter came into office determined to set a rational plan for his time, but soon showed in practice that he was still the detail-man used to running his own warehouse, the perfectionist accustomed to thinking that to do a job right you must do it yourself. He would leave for a weekend at Camp David laden with thick briefing books, would pore over budget tables to check the arithmetic, and, during his first six months in office, would personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court. (Although he flatly denied to Bill Moyers in his November 1978 interview that he had ever stooped to such labors, the in-house tennis enthusiasts, of whom I was perhaps the most shameless, dispatched brief notes through his secretary asking to use the court on Tuesday afternoons while he was at a congressional briefing, or a Saturday morning, while he was away. I always provided spaces where he could check Yes or No; Carter would make his decision and send the note back, initialed J.)
After six months had passed, Carter learned that this was ridiculous, as he learned about other details he would have to pass by if he was to use his time well. But his preference was still to try to do it all—to complain that he was receiving too many memos and that they were too long, but to act nonetheless on everything that reached his desk. He believed in the clean-desk philosophy. During his first month, he said, « Unless there’s a holocaust, I’ll take care of everything the same day it comes in. » When he moved toward the more usual presidential course—letting his aides worry about the details, and acting on their advice—he neglected the usual corollary, which is that the aide should live or die on the quality of his judgment. His counsel, Robert Lipshutz, examined the comptroller’s report on Bert Lance in August 1977 and told Carter it presented a clean bill of health. At that, Carter flew down from Camp David to say, « Bert, I’m proud of you. » In the lower reaches of the staff, the dismay at Lipshutz’s interpretation was exceeded only by the incredulity that he suffered no visible sanction or remonstrance for his poor advice. Indeed, the criticism Lipshutz received in the press made Powell and Jordan all the more dogged in their defense of him. Lipshutz was one of THEM, one of the southern boys, being persecuted by a hostile northern press.
It often seemed to me that « history, » for Carter and those closest to him, consisted of Vietnam and Watergate; if they could avoid the errors, as commonly understood, of those two episodes, they would score well. No military intervention, no dirty tricks, no tape recorders on the premises, and no « isolation » of the President. When it came to setting up the House, this meant avoiding a recreation of the « Berlin Wall, » the Haldeman-Ehrlichman bulkhead that had blocked out Nixon’s other assistants. Carter stressed that his nine main aides had equal access to him, and that another two dozen people (of whom I was one) had free access in memos, if not in the flesh.
This arrangement reflected not only Carter’s reading of recent history but also his personal style. His affections were constant toward his retinue of loyal helpers: he did not scramble to hire someone with a talent that Powell, Eizenstadt, Jordan, or Rafshoon did not happen to possess. None of them would have made a good chief of staff, so that function simply did not enter into the organization chart. Carter would do it himself, as he would everything else, whether it be the Administration’s long-range planning or improving the grammar in the proclamations we wrote for him. By the end of first year, this system had become more or less workable; everyone had learned whom to call to get a telegram sent, which congressmen to notify when news of a home-town project was released, what speeches were required when Carter took a trip. But a year was wasted as we blindly groped for answers and did for ourselves what a staff coordinator could have done.
The huzzahs that attended Gerald Rafshoon’s arrival in mid-1978 as the man who was going to bring order into the process only highlighted the primitive state of affairs that had prevailed. I had no objections to Rafshoon’s projects, because—contrary perhaps to public impression—they were so elementary and so dearly needed. Soon after Rafshoon arrived, for example, Carter decided to veto a defense bill because of its provision for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Rafshoon made sure that the speechwriters wrote up brief « tallking points » about the veto, and that these were distributed to every official who had a speech to make. Six months earlier, no one would have taken the responsibility for that obviously useful step.
A far graver managerial error was that of « Cabinet government, » another outgrowth of Carter’s truncated historical view. Like no other President since Eisenhower, Carter seemed to think that organizations would run in practice as they did on paper: people would perform their assigned functions and seek no orders; orders, once given, would be carried out; when people were asked to direct specific bureaus or departments their loyalties would still lie with the larger interests of the Administration. Recent history was taken by Carter to prove his point: one of Nixon’s worst sins was his abuse of Cabinet departments—he stacked them with political flunkies and destroyed the secretaries’ control over their own shops. With Watergate over and Nixon deposed, « Cabinet government » became a good-government rallying cry. Carter took up the cry, eagerly accepting a naive book by Stephen Hess which proposed that the secret of efficient government was to give Cabinet secretaries free rein.
The book—and the policy—were wrong because they omitted the necessary caveat: if a President wants to allow Cabinet secretaries full day-to-day control, he must make special, almost daily efforts to find out how that control is being used. Otherwise, when a President declares « hands off the departments, » a depressingly predictable sequence will begin. The White House staff will defer to the departments—until the first big calamity happens. A secretary might play to the department’s constituents rather than the President’s—as Patricia Harris of Housing and Urban Development was suspected of doing with her truculent demands for more money for housing programs. A big scandal might arise—at the General Services Administration, for example, or at Labor or Health, Education and Welfare, where they seem to crop up regularly. A secretary might appear to be building his own empire—as Joseph Califano was suspected of doing at HEW, with his LBJ-like determination that everyone in his department work only for him. Deception, inefficiency, a dozen other ills infecting the various government departments, whatever the origin, will make a President angry. He will feel frustrated, as John Kennedy has been portrayed as feeling when he discovered, during the Cuban missile crisis, that his orders to remove our missiles from Turkey had been ignored. [See note below]. He will feel especially frustrated if, like Carter, he has put extra stress on governmental performance and results. If he cares about his policies and his political future, he will feel compelled to act. He will send in his own people, good loyal people, to « get the job done right. » That is what Richard Nixon did, even after making claims more fulsome than Carter’s about his Cabinet « with the extra dimension, » and it is what Jimmy Carter began doing in 1978. At Camp David he held a session with Cabinet officers and told them to stop freewheeling and start following the White House lead. Hamilton Jordan began holding weekly meetings with Cabinet representatives, and took to dressing down those who had most offended against the company line. Tim Kraft, an old campaign hand, started controlling appointments to the second- and third-level jobs in the departments—appointments which, the first time around, had been left entirely in the secretaries’ hands. The pendulum swung the White House way, as it had so often before.
Note from previous paragraph: This has become a piece of Kennedy-era mythology without solid basis in fact. President Kennedy may have suggested at some time well before the missile crisis that thought be given to removing the missiles from Turkey. It is almost certain, however, that no presidential order was given, and there is no available evidence that a plan for such removal was drawn up before those Six Days in October 1962. More than mere time was wasted; all the relationships were poisoned by the clumsy experiment of the first several months. Department officials began to think of the White House as the enemy, not as a source of patronage. In turn, those in the White House blamed their problems on evil people in the departments, not on foreseeable, preventable bureaucratic trends. Cabinet secretaries were judged more and more on their personal styles. The hot dogs, the show-offs—Califano, Harris, Blumenthal—came to be detested for those qualities. When preparing for a bill-signing ceremony involving HEW, I asked whether Califano would attend. « He never does anything for us, » Rafshoon said. « Why should we do something for him? » The warmth was reserved for such men as Cyrus Vance and Harold Brown, whose departments were so inherently strong that they could afford to be modest, self-effacing gentlemen, tugging deferentially at their forelocks and seeming embarrassed when the spotlight fell on them.
here was one other indication that Carter had missed a familiar lesson about the management of his time. No matter what his original intentions, foreign problems were sure to preoccupy him deeply. Like every other President who has served since the United States became a world power, he would inevitably be drawn into the whirlpool of foreign affairs. Already on his desk when he arrived were the SALT negotiations, the Middle East tensions, accommodation with China, eruptions in Africa, and the chronic economic pressures imposed by the oil-producing nations and our ever-richer allies. Additional crises would make these more, not less, demanding as his term wore on.
There were also the familiar allurements of foreign affairs: the trips on fabulous Air Force One, the flourishes, twenty-one-gun salutes, and cheering multitudes along the motorcade routes. More important was the freedom to negotiate with foreign leaders without constant interference or nit-picking from congressmen and senators, the heady dips into worldly secrets in rooms lined with lead to protect against eavesdroppers—all the excitement and trappings that go with dealing in momentous global matters that can mean life or death for all mankind.
But Carter was not only preoccupied by the serious international problems that lay before him; he—and those around him—became virtually transfixed by them. The President seemed to foresee neither the temptations nor the demands of foreign policy, nor the ways to prevent them from stealing his concentration away from other pressing business of his office. As he grew more deeply involved in his international human rights campaign, the Panama Canal negotiations, the delicacy of detente with Russia, and especially his quest for peace in the Middle East, his efforts on the domestic front suffered from his inattention. Returning from a triumphal journey to Nigeria or Germany, his eyes would noticeably glaze as he forced himself to discuss such a matter as reorganization of the Commerce Department. The exhilaration that followed the Camp David agreement seemed to dull even further his appetite for home affairs. Next on his plate after Camp David was the most pressing domestic issue of all—inflation—but he appeared bored and impatient through high-level deliberations over what to do about it, unhappy with the half steps his advisers served up, and plainly eager to return to shaping international history.
uring the first year came other indications that Carter did not really know what he wanted to do in such crucial areas as taxes, welfare, energy, and the reorganization of the government. In each of these areas, Carter’s passionate campaign commitments turned out to be commitments to generalities, not to specific programs or policies. After taking office, he commissioned panels of experts to tell him what to do, usually giving them instructions no more detailed than his repeated exhortation to « Be bold! »
Carter had said during the campaign that he would develop a national energy plan, and in his first fireside chat he said that James Schlesinger would come up with one within ninety days. Later, Carter came to understand that strict deadlines, while occasionally useful for prodding the bureaucracy, could also be destructive, in that they might force him to go ahead with half-baked ideas. He learned that through the example of the energy plan. Pleading urgency, Schlesinger obtained Carter’s permission to work in total secrecy. Neither anyone else on the White House staff nor members of the Congress could pry information from him. For some matters, this approach made sense; there were technical answers to such questions as how much solar energy could be produced. But the major decisions about energy were political, not technical: who would bear what part of the burden, where the balance would be set between producer and consumer, the environment and fuel production. If Carter himself had no clear predisposition on questions, then any rush project should have been directed not by technicians but by politicians, who could balance the different interests, argue over deals, see just where the compromises must be made. Instead, Schlesinger developed his technically plausible energy plan in a political vacuum, submitting it to the scrutiny of Carter’s other advisers and the members of Congress only after all the basic choices had been made. To Carter and Schlesinger, solving the energy problem must originally have seemed like solving a cube root. Once they had the right answer, they thought their work would be done.
I reserved my highest hopes for tax reform; in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Carter said that all his life he had heard about tax reform, but somehow it never happened. This time it was going to happen—and we could depend on it.
As the plan took shape, Carter gave firm instructions to the Treasury; he had learned his lesson about dangers of deadlines and the need for political consultation. The deadline was delayed time and again as Carter sent the Treasury back to the drawing board. Secretary Blumenthal sent out feelers to the tax committees in Congress as Carter prepared to make final choices. But when the plan was unveiled and suffered immediate shelling from the likes of Senator Russell Long and Representative Al Ullman, Carter reacted as if this were an inexplicable development, rather than one that could have been foreseen, and prepared for, from the very start. In his talk with Nader, Carter had said that he could never sell a tax reform or a governmental reorganization if he tried to do it piecemeal, since the 5 percent of the people who would suffer from each change would be more dogged in their opposition than the 95 percent who might benefit. He seemed to forget all that when the time came to explain his tax plan to the public or sell it on Capitol Hill.
Carter, who was able to learn from experience in a once-burned, twice-shy way, showed no inclination to prevent the burns by seeking associates who had been there before. Nowhere was he surer to need help than in his dealings with the Congress. His experience there was minimal, his campaign tone had been hostile, his skin crawled at the thought of the time-consuming consultations and persuasion that might be required to bring a legislator around. He did not know how congressmen talked, worked, and thought, how to pressure them without being a bully or flatter them without seeming a fool. He needed help from someone who knew all those things, who had spent time absorbing that culture. But for his congressional liaison, he chose a Georgian named Frank Moore, a man whose general aptitude was difficult for anyone outside the first circle to detect, and who had barely laid eyes upon the Capitol before Inauguration Day.
lthough Carter himself wakes up each morning popping with ideas, very few others in the Administration have been induced by him or by themselves to feel any passion to do. Most of the « Georgians, » those who have been with Carter long enough to feel a personal commitment to his success, owe their first loyalty to the welfare and advancement of Jimmy Carter. In that they are little different from JFK’s Irish Mafia, or LBJ’s Texas Rangers, or any other group that has ever served a President. What makes them different is that they seem to have nothing in second place, no axes they are particularly eager to grind in their years in government. If there has been little abuse of power, it may be because they have so little sense of what power is and how it might be exercised. For at least two years, there was virtually no interest in using the power of patronage to create a network of loyalty toward or service to the President throughout the executive branch. On the contrary, the intimate Carter hands looked on such networks as the DAR might look, less eager to make new friends than to enjoy the honor of having been there at the start.
In other administrations, there have been assistants whose interest in policy was faint—Dave Powers for Kennedy, Pa Watson for Roosevelt, Marvin Watson for LBJ—but this time there is almost no one at the upper level (apart from Eizenstat and Brzezinski, the designated hitters for policy) with a serious interest in how the public’s business is performed. It is as if the entire staff consisted of Pa or Marvin Watsons, devoted to nothing more than what their boss has decided to do. In the White House mess, on the airplane rides, around the halls, there might be desultory talk about the importance of the Panama Canal vote or how much The Boss wanted welfare reform, but it was mainly talk about personalities, gossip, items of substance that were interesting only because Carter had said they interested him. In two years in the government, I had not one serious or impassioned discussion with a member of the senior staff about what all those countless government programs meant, which of them, if any, really worked, how the government might be changed. I think it must have been different in other days.
I do not particularly admire people who can say, as Jack Valenti did in his silly book A Very Human President, that « working on the White House staff is the ultimate seduction, » but I came to think that emotion of that sort might be a necessary ingredient for getting the job done. There was so little of that glimmer and drive in this White House that I began to realize that the absence of passion was as serious a weakness as the lack of sophistication.
I started to wonder about the difference between a good man and an inspiring one; about why Jimmy Carter, who would surely outshine most other leaders in the judgment of the Lord, had such trouble generating excitement, not only in the nation but even among the members of his own staff. One explanation is that Carter has not given us an idea to follow. The central idea of the Carter Administration is Jimmy Carter himself, his own mixture of traits, since the only thing that finally gives coherence to the items of his creed is that he happens to believe them all. Hubert Humphrey might have carried out Lyndon Johnson’s domestic policies; Gerald Ford, the foreign policies of Richard Nixon. But no one could carry out the Carter program, because Carter has resisted providing the overall guidelines that might explain what his program is.
I came to think that Carter believes fifty things, but no one thing. He holds explicit, thorough positions on every issue under the sun, but he has no large view of the relations between them, no line indicating which goals (reducing unemployment? human rights?) will take precedence over which (inflation control? a SALT treaty?) when the goals conflict. Spelling out these choices makes the difference between a position and a philosophy, but it is an act foreign to Carter’s mind. He is a smart man but not an intellectual in the sense of liking the play of ideas, of pushing concepts to their limits to examine their implications. Values that others would find contradictory complement one another in his mind. During the campaign, he used to say that our nation was the first to provide « complete compatability » between liberty and equality. This pained me more than anything else he said. I sent him notes and told him in person that these two terms were like city and country, heaven and hell: the tensions between them shape much of American society. But Carter continued to make the same statement, and I realized it was not because he was vulgarizing his ideas for the crowd, but because he genuinely believed what he said.
Carter thinks in lists, not arguments; as long as items are there, their order does not matter, nor does the hierarchy among them. Whenever he gave us an outline for a speech, it would consist of six or seven subjects (« inflation, » « need to fight waste ») rather than a theme or tone. His Inaugural address, which he wrote almost entirely by himself, is an illustration of this approach and a prime example of his style. Whenever he edited a speech, he did so to cut out the explanatory portions and add « meat » in the form of a list of topics. One speech, before a hostile crowd in Houston was first conceived as a defense of his energy policy. At the last moment, Carter sent in two lists, from which we were to restructure the speech. The first was entitled « What We Will Do, » and included: « 1) defense capability second to none: 2) cut down govern regulation—write in plain English—make authors sign. 3) fight inflation—protect budget from waste spending—working with Congress but veto if necessary! 4) balance budget 5) cut taxes 6) reform welfare system 7) civil service reform—veterans preference 8) Turkey arms embargo, NATO southern flank 9) SALT-CTB-NATO 10) improve cities, education, agriculture (exports). »
The second list was entitled « What We’ve Done » « 1) cut unemployment— +5 1/2 million jobs since 1/77 2) Dept. of Energy 3) begun reorganization 4) NATO strengthened 5) human rights 6) agriculture bill. »
or certain aspects of his job—the analyst and manager parts—Carter’s method serve him well. He makes decisions about solar power installations and the B-1 on the basis of output, payload, facts, not abstract considerations. But for the part of his job that involves leadership, Carter’s style of thought cripples him. He thinks he « leads » by choosing the correct policy; but he fails to project a vision larger than the problem he is tackling at the moment.
In domestic policy, this caused frustration, since it thwarted all attempts to explain a domestic philosophy. In foreign policy, it opened the door to genuine tragedy, for it left Carter unable to defend the course he had taken. Carter did not choose the circumstances in which he operates: our dependence on foreign oil, our economic vulnerability to our allies, the resistance to military intervention left over from Vietnam. Under these difficult circumstances, he has tried to set a steady, prudent policy, keeping his eye on our real national interest, not acting out of bluff or bravado, steadfastly pursuing the things that we need and ignoring those that we don’t or that we can’t control. The policy should win him respect: but because Carter cannot explain what he is doing, he is an easy mark for a Moynihan or a Reagan or a Connally who can speak with passion about the decline of American power. Jimmy Carter’s oratorical failures could come to discredit a « restrained » foreign policy as thoroughly as (and more tragically than) George McGovern’s « demogrant » proposal discredited further inquiry into the guaranteed annual income.
The clearest example of this difficulty was Carter’s speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1978. The speech was intended to set the record straight on U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, which was then very muddied because of the varied comments coming from Brzezinski and Vance. It was widely, and correctly, assumed that there were two different outlooks within Government, Vance’s emphasis on a SALT treaty and Brzezinsky’s habitual pugnaciousness in the face of the Soviet Union. Vance had sent a memo to Carter arguing the need for a presidential speech to explain Policy; Carter agreed and asked Brzezinski, Vance, Andrew Young, Stansfield Turner, and several other advisers to submit memos suggesting the tone and content of the speech.
Carter then assembled the speech essentially by stapling Vance’s memo to Brzezinski’s, without examining the tensions between them. When he finished rewording the memos, the speech was done. It had an obvious break in the middle, like the splice in a film; as one newsman who had read the advance text said, after hearing Carter come to the end of the conciliatory material and move into the Brzezinski section, « And now—War! » The Washington Post’s story the next morning was titled « Two Different Speeches, » an accurate and obvious interpretation, but one that galled Carter and those around him. Hadn’t he laid it all out for them, all the elements of his thought, all his views? What more could they want?
Carter’s problems as an explainer were compounded by his tendency to talk down to his audience. He didn’t do this when speaking extemporaneously—at those times he used words from the engineering books and Brzezinski’s fanciest theories—but he couldn’t avoid it in his prepared speeches. While working on the first fireside chat, I received a lecture from the President. I should not use words such as « cynical, » because average people wouldn’t understand them. Carter said that whenever he worked on a speech he thought of a man at a certain gas station in Georgia (not his brother). If that man couldn’t understand it, it should be changed. Instead of « cynical, » I should use the word « callous. » « Working people understand callouses. They see their hands get hard. »
The sentiment was admirable but too broad. When simplifying words Carter too often simplified ideas as well. I always thought the public could tell the difference between a clear, simple image—such as Franklin Roosevelt’s garden hose to symbolize Lend-Lease—and a deceptively simple thought. When they heard Carter’s constant talk of harmony, respect among nations, happy times at home, the men at the gas stations knew they were hearing less than the full truth.
Nor did he distinguish among the audiences he had to address. For some—but only a few—of his televised appeals, it was important that a speech be understood by every hearer. In most other cases, that was a false goal. In a television interview in 1960, Walter Lippmann said that an effective President « must be articulate. He must be able to talk in language which is not the lowest common denominator, but the best. What you must lead in the country are the best of the country and they will carry it on down. There’s no use of the President trying to talk down to a fellow who can just about read and write. Let somebody else do that. He must talk to the people who teach the man to read and write. » I came to believe very deeply in a hierarchy of information and attitudes. Once an idea took hold in the serious magazines and the editorial pages, it would make its way down through the news columns, the reports in Time and Newsweek, and eventually to the television commentators, who shape most people’s view of public affairs. In many cases, the real audience for a speech should be not the 5000 people who are present for the occasion but the editors, academics, politicians, and columnists who will read the text and adjust their view of the President accordingly. Such speeches are the best, sometimes the only, way a President can show that he understands the complications in his policies, the problems ahead, the hard questions that have been raised about his course. Except for one or two speeches on foreign policy—where he was more willing in general to buy the conventional wisdom than he was in domestic affairs—Carter never consented to such speeches.
ll these oratorical problems were made worse by his refusal to learn how to speak. By his natural gifts, Carter is a good off-the-cuff speaker and a poor formal orator, and he never bestirred himself to improve in either way. It seemed to me the height of arrogance that Carter refused oral practice before his campaign debates against Gerald Ford.
To the day I left the White House, he never really practiced a speech—not in the sense of subjecting his performance to the scrutiny of others and letting them say plainly how he must change. Before a big speech, Carter would read through the text once or twice—once into a little cassette tape recorder he could play back to himself, once with the TV lights on, after which Jerry Rafshoon would say, « That was good, » or « Go a little slower. » One of Carter’s excuses for not practicing more was that his voice wore out, and three or four rehearsals would have left him unable to deliver the speech. The first lesson in any speech class is that hoarseness indicates a strained speaking style; barring illness, it is a sign all by itself that the style should be changed. The correction is easy, but not until you admit you might be doing it wrong. John Kennedy’s hour of practice to get Ich bin ein Berliner down straight was embarrassing to him, revealing too clearly the limits of his linguistic gift. But Kennedy spent that hour, and while the practice is forgotten, the phrase lives on. When we prepared a German couplet (« Alle Menschen werden Brüder wo dein sanffter Flügel weilt, » from Schiller’s « Ode to Joy » ) for Carter’s speech in Bonn, he had the interpreter, Harry Obst, read it into a cassette, which Carter could listen to by himself, in his cabin at the front of the plane, and practice without Obst there to tell him he was doing it wrong. As a result, the couplet, perhaps the most famous in all of German letters left the crowd looking around in puzzlement about what the American President was trying to say.
hrough most of my last year at the White House, I kept asking myself, Why should a man as well-meaning and intelligent as Carter blithely forgo the lessons of experience and insist on rediscovering fire, the lever, the wheel? Why not temper the fresh view he brought with the practiced knowledge of those who had passed this way before? Why, in a man whose language was peppered with « bold » and « competent » and « superb, » was there so little passion to learn how to do the job?
The first clue to the solution of these questions was Carter’s cast of mind: his view of problems as technical, not historical, his lack of curiosity about how the story turned out before. He wanted to analyze the « correct » answer, not to understand the intangible irrational forces that had skewed all previous answers. When he spoke of cleaning up the bureaucracy, he spoke like a Peace Corps volunteer explaining hygiene in Malaysia, imagining that such scientific insights had never occurred to the listeners before. When he said that, this time, tax reform was going to happen, it was not because he had carefully studied the tales of past failures and learned how to surmount them, but because he had ignored them so totally as to thinks his approach had never been tried. In two years the only historical allusions I heard Carter use with frequency were Harry Truman’s rise from the depths of the polls and the effect of Roosevelt’s New Deal on the southern farm. The rest of Roosevelt’s record, especially his style of educating the public and getting the most out of his employees, was uncharted territory to the leaders of the Administration. Once, at dinner, Jody Powell was drawn into bitter argument with of my historically minded friends. As Powell fulminated against the sins and arrogance of reporters, my friend warned him that people would think of him as another Spiro Agnew if he went on that way. « We weren’t here then, » Powell replied—and Powell, who was a graduate student in history and who prides himself on his Civil War scholarship, is the most sensitive to history of all those around the President.
Carter occasionally read history—he loved David McCullough’s book on the Panama Canal—but history had not become a part of him. Shortly before I left, I was startled to see, in Carter’s private study, shelves crammed with books on American history. Later I read that he had decided history was important, and that he needed a better background for his job. This realization came at the same time as did many others—about Cabinet government, the need for staff coordination, the value of Washington’s old hands. Half of one term had been wasted before Carter absorbed what I had thought he knew on the first day.
There was a second clue, more obvious during the first year, when Carter’s southernness was still novel. Beneath the jokes about peanuts and grits lurked the notion of the southerner as moron; Carter was determined to prove that he and his associates had not stepped straight out of Dogpatch. During the campaign, he had enjoyed receiving the busloads of eastern experts, wrinkled and cranky after the three-hour ride from Atlanta to Plains—knowing that they’d tell their friends at Brookings and Harvard about the brilliance of the simple country boy, knowing also that they’d call him a dumb southern redneck when he made his first mistake.
The Georgians saw this prejudice behind every fight—in the use of the phrase « the Georgians, » brother Billy’s rise as the stereotypical idiot from the south, and, most of all, in the savagery visited upon Bert Lance. Between the two levels of the Administration, there was very little discussion of Lance. Those on the lower tier—non-southerners, mainly, careerists who would be in Washington when Carter was long gone—gossiped among themselves about how many days Lance had left. Those on the upper tier—Georgians, Lance’s friends—grumbled among themselves about how unfair it all was. Bert was being destroyed, they knew, because he was an outsider who had not changed his southern ways. Jody Powell immediately, and intelligently, apologized for his attempt to discredit Lance’s accuser, Charles Percy, but he privately felt that he, like Lance, had been a victim of the insiders’ game. His story about Percy accepting rides on a corporate aircraft was wrong, but just a little wrong, Powell felt; he had only missed a few of the details. But because Percy was an insider while Powell and Lance were not as yet, the press ate the southerners alive. Frank Moore’s problems, too, were written off to anti-southern snobbery. Although it was hard to deny the evidence of Moore’s repeated missteps, this was an officially unmentionable topic at the White House, like Hamilton Jordan’s early comments about Vance and Brzezinski, and Carter’s promise to cut the defense budget. Powell and Jordan defended him with angry, knee-jerk loyalty, for Moore, unlike his critics, and unlike the sneering members of the junior staff, was one of them. His survival was part of the South’s survival; together, all who had come from Georgia would prove they could do it their way.
Like this southern defensiveness, Carter’s notion of populism and privilege gave him a reason to resist learning things in the usual way. His « populism » was no straightforward sentiment. He was more comfortable with businessmen and bankers than with the community organizers who protested against them; when he vacationed on St. Simons Island at the home of Smith Bagley, the Reynolds tobacco heir, he felt completely at ease. His « populism » was reflected in his pride, even arrogance, about having seen all sides of life close-up in his small town, and in his disdain for the elite, « socially prominent » (a favorite phrase) professionals whose privilege shielded them from such knowledge. At one meeting on welfare reform, he dressed down a team of experts from HEW who were lecturing him about the unemployability of the underclass. These were the people he had lived with, Carter said; they may not have been educated, some may have been lazy and drunk, but most of them understood the meaning of dignity, self-sufficiency, and work. No one could miss Carter’s real message: unlike anyone else in the room, he was talking about people he had seen.
o group better exemplified what Carter despised than the Washington mandarins—the Cliffords, Califanos, Valentis, and Kissingers—who had come to do good and stayed to do well. Before joining Carter’s Cabinet, Califano was making half a million dollars yearly as a lawyer, Valenti, nearly that much at the Motion Picture Association. They had their names in the society columns and their children in private schools; they protected each other with networks of mutual support. Joseph Alsop might be discredited in journalism, but not in Washington, because he was a charming guest at Katharine Graham’s. The Iranian ambassador lost his job and his country, but he would never lack for friends in Washington because of the years of caviar and champagne.
These were the people Carter was talking about when he told the Democratic convention that « too many have had to suffer at the hands of a political and economic elite who have shaped decisions and never had to account for mistakes or suffer from injustice. » They happened also to be the people who knew how Washington worked.
Carter was right in railing against their insularity; I attributed much of his success in the primaries to the voters’ suspicion that there was a conspiracy of self-protection at work in the capital. But the insiders were right to scoff at him, for they understood how much he did not know. His problem as he took office was like China’s on the eve of modernization: how to get the technical know-how without accepting the cultural detritus, how to get the steel mills without the discos, the computers without Larry Flynt. Carter needed the insiders’ wisdom about the power game if he was to succeed in office—but he needed to remember why he, instead of one of them, had been elected. maintaining this balance required a keen awareness of how much he needed to acquire, and an even keener sense of what he needed to avoid. The tragedy of Jimmy Carter was that he knew neither.
At the start of the Administration, as in the general election campaign, Carter and his captains felt omniscient; they had done what no one else had know how to do. Why should they take pains to listen to those who had designed the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society? The town was theirs for the taking; it would have required nothing more than allowing the old warriors a chance to help. But Powell and Jordan and Carter let these people know that they could go to hell. Where had they been, with all their sage advice, when the campaign was out of money and no one knew who Jimmy Carter was? What were they doing when Carter was drawing crowds of ten and twenty in tiny Iowa towns? Spite is an expensive luxury in government, but Carter thought he could afford it, not realizing then how badly his operating account would soon be overdrawn.
Carter paid the price for this arrogance with the blunders of the first year; then, burned enough, he began reaching out. Clark Clifford became Lance’s champion; Anne Wexler and Robert Strauss joined the White House staff. There were informal brainstorming sessions with those who had been though all the cycles before. But Carter’s people made the second mistake, forgetting what made them different at the start.
Ten days after I left the White House, I went to a Redskins game in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Across the field, in the box of Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams, sat a casual sampling of Washington’s permanent ruling groups—the Post’s editor, Benjamin Bradlee, Joe Califano, Senator Muskie, Art Buchwald, other friends. Next to Williams sat someone new to the scene: Hamilton Jordan, wearing a suit. If he had been there two years earlier, it would have been a cheering sign that the outsiders knew how to get what they needed. Coming when it did, it made me think that the earlier hostility had been more defensive reverse snobbery. Now that Carter’s people were sure they’d be accepted, they were glad to join the club.
That same week, President Carter granted a second television interview to Bill Moyers. In the first, in May 1976, everything that was new and original in Carter’s intelligence had come across like a fresh breeze. This time, Carter sounded like all the grizzled veterans he had defeated in 1976. Moyers asked him about inflation, and whether the fight against it wouldn’t throw people out of work—the poor, the black, those most recently employed. The Carter of the first interview would have said, of course, that was true, that the agony of the job lay in choosing between such evils. This time, after two years in office, Carter answered « no »—fighting inflation would not cost people their jobs, the question was simply wrong. It was the sort of answer other politicians might have given, because, having now seen what they saw before, Carter had grown like them in basic ways. never again would he preach sweeping tax reform, scorn incrementalism, pretend that the government could be changed. Like Hamilton Jordan, he was ill prepared to maintain what was best in him while learning what he needed to know.
hese clues told me part of the answer, but there was one part missing, the most fundamental of them all. Carter’s willful ignorance, his blissful tabula rasa, could—to me—be explained only by a combination of arrogance, complacency, and—dread thought—insecurity at the core of his mind and soul.
For a while, I thought the arrogance was the unfortunate by-product of life in a small town. If his secure position and effortless supremacy in Plains had made Carter calmer than Nixon or Kennedy, it seemed also to have given him too high an estimation of his own gifts. It would have helped him to have spent a little while in a law firm in Boston, or with a movie company in Los Angeles, or as a broker in New York, to acquire that edge of neurosis and compulsion to get the best ideas out of the people on his staff. That Jimmy Carter would have been a less pleasant person; a different background might have denied him the very traits that are now his greatest strength. But it might also have made new ideas seem crucial to him; it would not have left him satisfied, as the real Jimmy Carter too often is, with what burbles up in the usual bureaucratic fashion and with the people who happen to come to hand. In Plains, he had run the business himself, relied entirely upon himself. He did not need to search constantly for people to push and test him, because his unpushed abilities were good enough.
This characteristic could be called complacency—the last word one associates with the Jimmy Carter of the speed-reading lessons, the carefully timed jogs around the South Lawn, the typed-up list of the classical music he will be listening to during the day. But while Carter accepts challenges to his ideas and is pleased to improve his mind, he stubbornly, complacently resists attempts to challenge his natural style.
t some stage in our lives, we learn to depend on others for the challenges that will make us do our best—or we manage to resist those challenges while privately correcting our defects. I shrink before the prospect of pop psychology from a journalist, but it seemed to me that things were so ordered in Jimmy Carter’s universe that he never faced such challenges.
Carter has virtually no one in the White House with the right combination of age, experience, and personal standing to challenge him seriously. Robert Lipshutz is gentle and unassertive; Robert Strauss knows the sources of his power and the limits of his role; Walter Mondale assents to Carter’s preference for harmony above all other virtues; Zbigniew Brzezinski marvels to the President about his fresh and powerful insight into complicated foreign issues. That is why I thought it a tragedy that Bert Lance had to leave; in my one brush with footnote-history, playing tennis with Lance, Carter, and Jordan the day that Lance resigned, I could see that Lance behaved with Carter in a way that no one else could. They were friends, who jabbed and teased with as much equality as is possible when one of the friends is President. Carter’s only peers now are his wife, Rosalynn, who has given no sign of thinking that anything her husband might do could be wrong, and Charles Kirbo, who stops by for a visit every few weeks.
Those who are close enough to Carter to speak to him frankly—Powell, Jordan, Rafshoon, perhaps Moore—either believe so totally in the rightness of his style, or are so convinced that it will never change, that they never bother to suggest that he spend his time differently, deal with people differently, think of his job in a different way. Even that handful speaks to him in tones more sincerely deferential than those the underlings use. No one outside this handful ever has an opportunity to shoot the breeze with Carter, to talk with no specific purpose and no firm limit on time.
If he persists in walling himself off from challenge and disorder, Jimmy Carter will ensure that great potential is all he’ll ever have. Teaching himself by trial and error, refusing to look ahead, Carter stumbles toward achievements that might match his abilities and asks us to respect him because his intentions be been good. I grant him that respect, but know the root of my disappointment. I thought we were getting a finished work, not a handsome block of marble that the chisel never touched.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
James Fallows, chief White House speechwriter for President Carter’s first two years in office, is Washington editor of The Atlantic. Copyright © 1979 by James Fallows. All rights reserved. The Atlantic Monthly; May 1979; Vol. 243, No. 5; pp. 33-48.