Obama’s Plea for Validation

President Obama’s lengthy interviews with a neocon journalist from an establishment magazine suggest Obama is still searching futilely for Official Washington’s blessings on his somewhat “realist” foreign policy, writes Michael Brenner.

By Michael Brenner

The Atlantic has just published a long essay, The Obama Doctrine, by their Washington national correspondent, Jeffrey Goldberg. Based in most part on wide-ranging reflective interviews with President Barack Obama, the article makes extensive use of direct quotes from that interview. Considerable space is devoted to the various American engagements in the Middle East along with Obama’s views on prospects for the region.

It is a remarkable journalistic event insofar as it represents a preemptive attempt by a sitting president to shape the discourse about his record and his legacy. What he says is revealing – less as analysis and interpretation of actions taken, though, than as an “exhibit” of all that is peculiar about Obama’s policy-making  style – and what the implications for American diplomacy have been.

Near the ceasefire line between North and South Korea, President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Camp Bonifas, March 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Near the ceasefire line between North and South Korea, President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Camp Bonifas, March 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama’s overall stance is one of dissociation from his own administration and its conduct. Throughout, he appears to be referring to himself in the third person. This can be seen as the soon-to-be-memoir writer’s attempt to cast himself as detached statesman while distancing himself from errors made.

However, this degree of dissociation by a still incumbent president is odd. It suggests that he has been playing the role of participant-observer while in the Oval Office. Moreover, it conveys his sense that somehow the words he utters are equivalent to actions. Indeed, a feature of his presidency has been a frequent mismatch of words and deeds which never get reconciled. Nor do they in this seemingly candid interview. That raises a cardinal question: is this honest reflection or a characteristic flight from accountability?

Two, this strange attitude is most pronounced in his remarks about the Middle East. For example, he inveighs against allowing the United States to be placed in a position of picking sides in Islam’s Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. He is especially adamant about the dangers of American power being used as a tool of the Saudis to advance their cause.

Yet, this is exactly what he has been doing in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Bahrain. Moreover, he never has confronted the Saudi leaders about the promotion of wahabbism or their concrete support for the Islamic State and Al Qaeda (in Syria and Yemen – where they fight side-by-side with Saudi troops) – either in private or in public.

Let’s step back and reflect on this. Barack Obama, President of the United States, in telling a journalist that his most important “ally” in the Middle East has been aiding and abetting America’s mortal enemies – and that they should stop. Yet, three years after those hostile actions began he has yet to voice his displeasure directly in numerous meetings.

Instead, he gets an interview published in a magazine that the Saudi leaders might pick up in the waiting room at the Mayo Clinic on their next medical visit. If there is any sense or logic to this, it must conform to a mental process never before encountered.

Obama urges that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran learn to co-exist, “to share space,” in the region. Yet, in the wake of the nuclear accord, he’s gone overboard in denouncing the Islamic Republic of Iran as the primary source of instability in the Middle East and insists that until they cease and desist, no normalization is possible.

As Goldberg quotes Susan Rice in seconding the President: “The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran.” In other words, if the U.S. refuses adamantly to “share space” – as in Iraq – on what grounds does he here encourage the Saudis to do so? On Turkey, Obama is similarly mealy-mouthed as regards their tangible contributions to both the Islamic State and Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front – although he refrains from the same direct criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Finally, Obama strongly criticizes Washington’s foreign policy Establishment as being overly rigid in their thinking and imposing their views on American leaders. This is baffling – is not the President the head of the Establishment? Has Obama not stocked his two administrations – to a man and to a woman – with members of the Establishment? Robert Gates, David Petraeus and John Brennan were his appointees.

Gates boasts in his memoir of the scheme he orchestrated to force Obama’s hand in escalating in Afghanistan in 2009. With his allies Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gates planned to expand it further and to make its duration indefinite. Only Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s inopportune public insults of the President prevented its success.

Does he not invite Robert Kagan and Thomas Friedman to intimate Camp David deep think sessions? Did Obama not put Victoria Nuland, Dick Cheney’s principal deputy foreign policy adviser (and Kagan’s wife), in charge of European policy where she helped foment the Ukrainian coup – and from which post she aggressively runs a belligerent policy toward Russia?

Hasn’t he bowed the knee before the Israeli lobby – going so far as to allow himself to be humiliated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress without any rejoinder? Does he not have the authority to address the country directly and to instruct them about world realities?

Yet, he whines to Goldberg that he is somehow caught in a web spun by “the Establishment.” What is a reasonable interpretation of this illogic? Election politics? – but nothing has changed since his 2012 re-election. (Anyway, is starting a new war in the Middle East a sure-fire vote-getter?) Was the President fantasizing for seven years, was he blackmailed, did he lack the conviction to take different paths, or was he simply weak and feckless?

Here is the Obama view of where he fits in Washington’s power map of foreign policy-makers/thinkers: “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.”

The deference and passivity accorded the upholders of the conventional wisdom exposes the critical flaw in Obama’s interpretation of his authority as Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief. He is not a constrained Doge of Venice under strict surveillance by the Great Council of aristocrats. He is not just the custodian of some Holy Grail in the sacred custody of a vestal priesthood. He is not the prize student being tested in a simulation exercise by masters of the guild.

The Washington Consensus embodied by the head-nodders of the think tanks and op-ed pages is nothing more than the calcified corpus of failed ideas which have brought the United States nothing but wrack and ruin for (at least) the past 15 years. The Iraq debacle cut the ground from under it – thereby helping to clear the way for Obama’s entry into the White House. His historic task was reformation. Instead, he decided that acceptance into the ranks of the Establishment was worth a ritualized surrender.

All of this is baffling. Part of the explanation lies in the President’s singular personality. Despite his high intelligence, he seems to live with a great number of unreconciled contradictions. Some have to do with his background and upbringing. Some are intellectual. The title of The Atlantic article is misleading. There is no “Obama Doctrine.”  Incoherence is the hallmark of American actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. The interview with Goldberg confirms that.

Seeking Validation

Barack Obama gave Goldberg many, many hours of his time. The President allowed the writer to accompany him on international jaunts, and accorded him entry to his inner circle. Goldberg has thanked the President by concentrating on the supposed historic error of not bombing Syria when Assad allegedly (if factually mistakenly) was accused of crossing the notorious “red line” by using sarin gas.

That is the pivot of the article; it is returned to time after time in positing the hard-line critique of the Obama foreign policy as the one authoritative perspective. That was predictable. Goldberg is an Israeli who started his career at the Likud megaphone The Jerusalem Post. Why does a President afford such liberties to a tendentious journalist?

European monarchs of old had court portraitists. American presidencies have Boswells like Bob Woodward and now Jeff Goldberg. Boswells who are not friends but on assignment. The purpose seems similar: to immortalize the ruler at the height of his powers. To show a forceful leader mastering a daunting problem with resolve, sobriety and dedication to the interests of his fellow citizens.

This being America, the subject matter has to be one of action and suspense. Bush the Younger seeking retribution for 9/11. Now Barack Obama in a titanic struggle to escape the coils of stifling dogma.

A narrative account that covers a long span of time, though, does have a few drawbacks. It cannot fix the image at a single moment that will last for eternity. However laudatory, the written account is liable to be viewed differently as time goes by. And Goldberg’s portrait is not very becoming.

A picture wings the flying hour; a story is part of the flow of events. There is the further drawback that the chronicler may depict persons and things in ways that are not entirely complimentary to the main protagonist in the drama.

Journalistic talents may be available for lease but they do not come with a money back guarantee. For the exchange currency is not hard cash but access. The White House gets surefire blockbuster publicity – and, in this case, the chance to set in place the first sketch of his Presidential record.

A  complication is that while the President is the patron, the commission is loosely written to allow the artist unmonitored access to other members of the court. Their vanities and ambitions are not identical with his. See the quoted remarks of John Kerry and Pentagon officials.

In the light of the ensuing risks, why does Barack Obama enter into such a pact? Our celebrity culture provides part of the answer. Publicity is what it is all about. A public figure whose meteoric rise is a testament to star power must be acutely sensitive to the imperative of how vital to success is mythic imagery and turns in the limelight. The stage lights have the special glow when energized by a graphic account of star performance.

Then there is the simple truth that presidents want to celebrate themselves. They are the ultimate celebrity in a celebrity culture. They in fact feel proud of what they do and how they do it. Reality is clay in my hands. A successful leader must never allow the future to be hostage to history – even yesterday’s history. Except where history can be bent better to serve fresh exigencies – or a post-presidency career of 30-35 years.

The selection of a hawk like Goldberg to be his interlocutor demonstrates another truth that also can be inferred from the Obama discourse. Authority on matters of foreign policy is understood to rest with the guardians of the very Establishment that constrains him.

It is the neocons and their hard-line companions in arms who, he believes, are the cynosure of core American beliefs about the world and our place in it. So it ultimately is from them that he must seek validation. This conviction of Obama’s, of course, becomes self-confirming – as we have observed for seven years.

Obama is a man of reflection, at least as concerns his own identity and self-image. Maybe, the serial interviews with Goldberg were the first try at coming to terms with himself as director of American foreign policy. So he invited Goldberg to join him in an excursion through the presidential mind  – a Virgil exploring his own psyche.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]

17 comments for “Obama’s Plea for Validation

  1. Jim Hannan
    March 20, 2016 at 23:54

    I thought that President Obama came off quite well in the Atlantic article. He has consistently refused to become entrapped in the Syrian civil war, and he knows that our so called allies like Saudi Arabia are fueling the conflict.
    His handling of the chemical weapons issue in Syria has turned out very well. The weapons are gone, and we did not go to war. It turns out that all the neo-cons couldn’t get the Republicans in Congress to agree to a military action by this particular president.
    The Iran nuclear deal is the most substantive foreign policy in decades.
    I really liked his take on the Massachusetts Avenue crowd, Brookings, Council on Foreign Relations, and the rest who constantly beat the drums for war. Obama has done very well by keeping them, and his own folks like Samantha Powers, Susan Rice and John Kerry, well leashed.
    As for Russia, it is now the G-7, not G-8. Enough said.

  2. akech
    March 19, 2016 at 18:15

    Barack Obama, like Hillary Clinton, was not picked by the American people as the best candidate who could better tackle their issues and concerns.

    This guy was unknown, even to the African American Community, until he was introduced during 2004 Democratic Convention! Prior to his introduction there must have been some preparation and packaging of the man to make him appealing to the targeted voting population. This preparation and packaging must have been done by some entity/entities other than American voters. The policies that drive these entities to pick a person, educate him/her, package and present the person to the American public may/may not be palatable to all Americans.

    Additionally, the selected and packaged candidate must toe the lines demanded of him due to the massive financial capital invested in him! Logically speaking, packaged merchandise does not owe voters anything!
    I have tried, carefully, to listen to Hillary in order to establish exactly what she is promising do to improve conditions of the African Americans or women or American voters; I AM STILL WAITING!

    Apparently, Barack Obama must h accomplished something to some group of people out there! May be it was the bailouts for the Wall Street! May be it was the windfall for insurance companies who wrote the OBAMACARE!

  3. BlueTruth
    March 19, 2016 at 17:25

    The worm implanted in his nervous system after his first inauguration isn’t awake all the time. The interview was conducted over several periods when it was sleeping or eating, or otherwise preoccupied.

  4. Hersch
    March 19, 2016 at 13:19

    I think that most of what Obama says is a smokescreen. By mouthing “progressive” sentiments, he has been very adroit in manipulating liberals to defend and even support him, even as he carries out the most ghastly neo-con policies.

  5. Taras77
    March 19, 2016 at 12:26

    How anyone, even someone as detached and isolated as obama is, could believe that his policies are reality based, is beyond comprehension, particularly with nuland, power, and rice calling the shots.

  6. Christene
    March 19, 2016 at 06:50

    Never in recent history has anyone, man or woman, filled and personified the role of “empty suit” more perfectly than Barack Hussein Obama. I don’t know what “they” were smoking in that back room when “they” decided to thrust him on the American people, but it must have been some pretty good stuff.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which side of the tracks you are on) “they” unwittingly sealed their doom when they did, as we are now witnessing with the unprecedented pushback by they American people against all things “Establishment”. Which explains the Obama’s interview. For a man whose only real talent was convincing people he knew what he was talking about when he actually didn’t have a clue and feeding off of the adulation his “charisma” produced, this presidential election season must be devastating. In true narcissist form, he sees it being all about him. As his foreign, economic, and domestic policies are being shown for the unmitigated disasters they are, his fragile little ego is getting shredded daily. Where does the man,with the famously thin skin, run to in order to rewrite history as it is unfolding when there a few friendly faces to be found?

    Apparently, to The Atlantic.

  7. Joe Tedesky
    March 19, 2016 at 01:18

    There were times while I read the Goldberg-Obama piece I heard the Obama smart voice, that many of us had voted for in the beginning of this Obama experience. I will need to go back and read over Goldberg’s story one more time to be able to honestly process it, but….Obama sounds like a leader who tends to lead from behind. It’s not so much what he does, it’s what he doesn’t. There is plenty of places where Obama the voice doesn’t match Obama’s actions. ISIS is the Joker in Batman meeting a roomful of gangsters, and to show all that he the Joker is the baddest of the bad. The President sees such things as tribalism as having lived it, as a youth. He is the outsider. He shuns doctrine by calling off the Syrian red line bombing attack. This type of bio that Goldberg has created while tagging along with the President, says more about a day in a life just being all things Obama. I would recommend everyone read the interview, and you decide if you agree with this President’s methodology of leading. I’m just wondering if an Obama out of office might somehow expose just how rigged in the dark forces really are. So I look forward to Obama 3.0. To be continued….

  8. Brent
    March 18, 2016 at 23:51

    Netanyahu’s reference to “the grassy Knoll” comes to mind

  9. akech
    March 18, 2016 at 23:45

    The serious question Americans must ask themselves is: When we elect the POTUS and the Congress, do these men and women have the power over (a) the appointed cabinet members (b) lobbyists (c) the privately operating think-tanks in shaping the US policies on which ALL American citizens must be governed or are the unelected cabinet members, lobbyists, think-tanks and other ideologues have unfettered powers over the elected POTUS, Congress and the third branch of the government, SCOTUS?


    When the one-term Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, ascended to the presidency, what guiding principles did he have for governing the country? Similarly, how would Marco Rubio have governed if he had won the election? What about Sarah Palin who could have been a heart-beat away?? In case these people are like blank slates, why do we allow unelected forces to fill in their blankss?? Do not get me wrong, I am sure these are very intelligent people. I am just wondering whether they may be biting more they can chew in these powerful positions in which millions of lives are at stake!

  10. Ash
    March 18, 2016 at 23:39

    “Was the President fantasizing for seven years, was he blackmailed, did he lack the conviction to take different paths, or was he simply weak and feckless?”

    Or he’s on board with this agenda and the good stuff he says is just PR. Why does this website continue to bend over backwards to avoid contemplating this possibility?

  11. David Smith
    March 18, 2016 at 23:08

    I’m still waiting to hear how a mere two years into his first term, Senator Obama wakes up one morning and decides to run for President Of The United States, and two years later he IS the President Of The United States.

    • There's a lot of that going around
      March 19, 2016 at 00:32

      Rubio and Cruz suffer from the same malady. Personally, I wouldn’t validate parking for any of them.

    • dahoit
      March 19, 2016 at 13:09

      Amazing huh?The accidental POTUS,only because the other choices were terrible,twice.And one of those choices is being foisted on US again.If you think this idiots admin is bad,wait till HRCs.
      Imagine if he had actually been born in Indonesia?
      Cruz was actually born in Canada,funny dat,not a word.Today the anchor baby announced his foreign policy advisers;You couldn’t believe the absolute bunch of serial liars and screwups.Ted is the one!For Zion.
      Trump,save US!Please?

  12. J'hon Doe II
    March 18, 2016 at 18:48

    Mr Obama has served admirably and faithfully as Brzezinski’s hand picked emissary.

    May he live in celebration of and recovery from a job well done
    as the very compliant employee of Rockefeller Foundation brainwashing.

  13. rosemerry
    March 18, 2016 at 17:32

    Thank you for this excellent article. Obama is an enigma, but I find his choices for nearly every position he has filled to be a damning indictment of anyone with any pretensions to fairness or improving the world. Brenner shows us the “inner workings” of such a person are very hard to fathom!

    I find Mr Obama’s anti-Russian stand inexplicable and for a man of any perception, “he’s gone overboard in denouncing the Islamic Republic of Iran as the primary source of instability in the Middle East “.

  14. ltr
    March 18, 2016 at 17:01

    What a superb analysis, now for another careful reading.

  15. Zachary Smith
    March 18, 2016 at 14:12

    Goldberg is an Israeli who started his career at the Likud megaphone The Jerusalem Post. Why does a President afford such liberties to a tendentious journalist?

    Excellent question embedded within a really great essay.


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