Obama’s Curious Interview

Exclusive: President Obama’s out-of-school interview with The Atlantic has provided more questions than answers, including why Obama publicly unloaded on erstwhile U.S. allies – and why to a clueless neocon, asks Daniel Lazare.

By Daniel Lazare

Jeffrey Goldberg’s 20,000-word interview-cum-profile of Barack Obama in The Atlantic has been out for more than a week, yet the controversy continues to build and build. With half of Official Washington wondering how Obama could be so frank, the big questions now seem to be:

–Why did he choose to unload now about America’s nearest and dearest allies instead of saving it for his memoirs?

–Why did he choose Goldberg to unload it to?

Saudi King Salman bids farewell to President Barack Obama at Erga Palace after a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi King Salman bids farewell to President Barack Obama at Erga Palace after a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

With regard to the first, there’s always the possibility that it’s all a big mistake, that the President forgot what he had said to Goldberg over the course of numerous interviews, and that he therefore failed to anticipate the impact his statements would have. But that’s hard to believe in the case of someone so savvy.

More likely is that he knew exactly what the impact would be and, with less than ten months to go in office, figured that now was the time to let it rip. His aim was not only to defend himself against right-wing charges that he choked at a crucial moment by failing to bomb Syria following the August 2013 Ghouta poison gas attack, but to hit back at any number of people who have gotten under his skin over the years.

Here he is, for example, on Washington’s legions of foreign-policy experts:

“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 foreign-policy establishment, in other words, is like a stopped clock – occasionally right but mostly dead wrong.

Obama regards Pakistan as “disastrously dysfunctional” – Goldberg’s paraphrase rather the President’s actual words – and wonders why it “should be considered an ally of the U.S. at all.” He views Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “a failure and an authoritarian” and regards Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu as both “condescending” and “too fearful and politically paralyzed” to move toward a two-state solution.

His comments about Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf oil autocracies are no less cutting. Goldberg recounts a conversation that Obama had with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at an Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in which the President expressed dismay at seeing Indonesia, where he had spent part of his childhood, “gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation.”

The reason, he went on, is the Gulf States, which have used their oil wealth to flood the country with imams, teachers, and madrasas promoting the harsh Wahhabist line favored by the Saudi elite.

“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” Turnbull asked. To which Obama replied sarcastically: “It’s complicated.”

Goldberg says that Obama “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.’”

But Goldberg adds that the President is now engaged in a delicate balancing act between Iran, which Obama says “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,” and the Saudis who have a penchant for entering into sectarian conflicts that they cannot “decisively win on their own.”

So while not wishing to “throw our traditional allies overboard in favor of Iran,” his goal is to persuade them “to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”

Incendiary Comments

What makes these comments so incendiary is the suggestion that, rather than America’s oldest ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has been demoted to a regional power on par with its arch-enemy across the gulf. In response, Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s longtime chief of intelligence and former ambassador to the U.S., fired off an open letter in the Saudi daily Arab News that was so fiery one could all but smell the smoke. Why, he wondered, has Obama changed his tune?

“Is it because you have pivoted to Iran so much that you equate the kingdom’s eighty years of constant friendship with America to an Iranian leadership that continues to describe America as the biggest enemy, that continues to arm, fund and support sectarian militias in the Arab and Muslim world, that continues to harbor and host Al-Qaeda leaders, that continues to prevent the election of a Lebanese president through Hezbollah, which is identified by your government as a terrorist organization, that continues to kill the Syrian Arab people in league with Bashar Assad?”

Al-Faisal’s letter was a farrago of misstatements and falsehoods. The complaint that Iran funds sectarian militias, for instance, is ridiculous since the sectarian militias that the Saudis fund are far more powerful and vicious. Ditto the charge that Iran is in cahoots with Al Qaeda since Saudi Arabia’s own relations with the group are the subject of a massive cover-up in both Washington and Riyadh. As for Hezbollah killing Syrian Arabs, all one can say is that the Sunni fundamentalist hordes benefitting from billions of dollars in Saudi aid have killed far more.

Not that that makes Al-Faisal’s feelings of betrayal any less genuine. Obama may not think he’s throwing old allies overboard, but the Saudis see it differently.

Nonetheless, after seven-plus years in office, it looks like Obama has had enough. After putting up with the likes of Netanyahu, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Al Saud, not to mention Nicolas Sarkozy (who Obama says bragged about France’s role in the air war against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya without mentioning that “we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure”) or David Cameron (who he says lost interest in Libya because he was “distracted by a range of other things”), Obama has decided to push back.

Apparently, he thinks it’s time for the empire to strike a better bargain with its clients and that a good tongue-lashing is the best way to begin. But Obama is also out to burnish his reputation as he heads into the home stretch, which brings us to the second question: why Goldberg?

The answer is simple. Goldberg is a dunderhead even by neocon standards. As a New Yorker staff writer during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, his reporting was so over the top that it made Judith Miller seem like a model of restraint.

After laboring to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, Goldberg then accused Hezbollah of attempting to set up a terror cell in Paraguay of all strange places. In an article in Slate in October 2002, he wrote off opponents of the impending invasion as innocent souls whose “limited experience in the Middle East … causes them to reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.”

Goldberg concluded with a resounding prediction: “In five years … I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.”

Those words should be tattooed on Goldberg’s forehead like the mark of Cain. Since then, he has “failed steadily upward,” to quote the journalist Ken Silverstein, moving from The New Yorker to The Atlantic where he has used his skills to interview Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and others of that ilk.

This is undoubtedly what drew the President’s notice. Obama, who is very smart, knows that Goldberg is not and that he therefore can be trusted to overlook the glaring contradictions in whatever he has to say. As a result, any number of self-serving statements fly by unchallenged.

Obama, for instance, told Goldberg that America should avoid entering into sectarian conflicts on the side of “our gulf partners, our traditional friends.” But Goldberg apparently didn’t think to ask about Yemen, where the administration is now backing the Saudis and other Sunni states in a year-long air war against Shi‘ite Houthis for precisely the same sectarian reasons.

Ignoring US Interference

Neither did Goldberg think to mention Syria where the U.S. is a full partner in a Sunni fundamentalist campaign aimed at toppling Bashar al-Assad – not because he is a dictator, as the White House likes to claim, but because he also falls on the wrong side of the Sunni-Shi‘ite divide.

Goldberg remained mum when Obama blamed “a tiny faction” for steering Islam in a “violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic” direction while lambasting Saudi Arabia for spreading Wahhabist bigotry. How the average reader might wonder can Obama blame a small faction and an entire country at the same time, Goldberg is oblivious – which suits Obama just fine.

So Goldberg’s general obtuseness makes him a good choice. But his hawkishness makes him even better. He’s agog that Obama dares defend his decision not to bomb Syrian military forces in August 2013, which makes the President look all the nobler as he sounds off against the foreign-policy experts.

At one point, Goldberg confesses: “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 makes Obama look civilized as well, which, as far as he is concerned, is undoubtedly another point in favor of choosing Goldberg.

But if Obama had chosen a different journalist, one who is not beholden to the Washington consensus, he might have had to deal with questions that were more difficult. In Syria, Goldberg says, Obama “resisted demands to act in part because he assumed, based on the analysis of U.S. intelligence, that Assad would fall without his help.”

But “as Assad clung to power,” Goldberg adds, “Obama’s resistance to direct intervention only grew.” But what does this mean other than that Obama thought Assad would go easily but then dithered when he put up a fight?

“After several months of deliberation,” Goldberg continues, “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?’”

But what does this mean other than the fact that, instead of putting American lives on the line, Obama preferred the usual imperialist gambit of hiring one set of semi-colonial subjects to slit the throats of another? As pressure grew for a military assault, Obama may indeed have “come to believe that he was walking into a trap,” as Goldberg puts it, “one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do.”

Obama, in fact, is proud of himself for escaping before the trap was sprung. But that still begs the question why he has surrounded himself with hawks from the earliest, people like Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and John Kerry, all of whom pushed for direct military intervention. Could it be that he feels he needs such people to give him credibility with the same foreign-policy establishment he pretends to criticize?

Goldberg portrays Obama as a skeptic determined to avoid the slippery slope in Syria. “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,” he quotes Obama as saying. But if that’s the case, why send the CIA to train Syrian rebels at all?

Finally, he lets Obama get away with a misleading account of how the Russian leadership was able to step in during the Ghouta crisis and avert the threat of military intervention. According to Goldberg:

“Amid the confusion [of whether the U.S. government should bomb or not], 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.”

Not Making Sense

This is not the first time Obama has said something along these lines. But it doesn’t make sense. When, shortly after the G20 meeting, a reporter asked Kerry if there was anything the Assad government could do to avert an attack, he seemed taken aback.

“Sure,” he said, “he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it]. But he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”

This doesn’t sound like someone whose boss thought up just such a scheme three or four days earlier. It’s possible, of course, that Obama mentioned the idea to Putin but forgot to tell his Secretary of State (an indication that Obama doesn’t trust his hawkish underlings). But if that’s the case, it suggests a remarkable breakdown in high-level communications.

In fact, Kerry gave every appearance of being caught flat-footed when Lavrov seized on his words to propose a deal to remove Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal in toto. The administration, consequently, had no choice but to go along. Indeed, this is what infuriated the foreign-policy establishment most of all, i.e. the fact that the administration had allowed an opportunity for another round of “shock and awe” to slip from its grasp, all because of interference by those perfidious Russians.

None of this intrigue and confusion shows up in The Atlantic’s account. Instead, what we get is a version designed to make Obama look good and, in the process, make Goldberg seem like a serious and weighty journalist.

Obama may think of himself as a critic of the foreign-policy establishment. But his role has really been to shore it up.

Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).

11 comments for “Obama’s Curious Interview

  1. Jim Hannan
    March 26, 2016 at 16:07

    I think that Obama has done a masterful job in foreign affairs. The author wonders why Obama has surrounded himself with hawks. I would posit that he has surrounded himself with a good spectrum. For example, Vice President Biden has generally taken more dovish positions, and Obama has listened to Biden. Dennis McDonough has also been less hawkish. Bob Gates comment about finishing up our two existing wars also takes a more nuanced position. Samantha Power is a strange hawk, she believes in a moral imperialism, intervening to prevent genocide, such as occurred in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990’s. She is convinced that Assad is evil, and that we should intervene to overthrow him. To Obama’s credit, he has not gone down that route.
    He is also frustrated that the Syrian civil war has been greatly expanded by three of our so-called allies, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. He knows that he cannot directly call them out, so he uses this opportunity with Goldberg.
    I find it amusing that Obama is accused of being weak on foreign policy. This is the same president who has taken drone warfare against foreign fighters to the apex of our abilities. He focused laser like on taking out Osama Bin Laden, giving the call when many in his Cabinet were reticent. He brought in Ernesto Muniz, the physicist, to hammer out the inspection details of the Iranian nuclear deal, and pushed it through over the objections of the entire Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. He dealt a severe blow to Putin and Russia, with the coup in Ukraine. Although Putin took back Crimea, Russia continues to be ostracized on the world stage, and we now have the G-7, instead of the G-8. In Latin America, Obama took a measured approach to Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and other leftist governments. He has now opened the door to rapprochement with Cuba. He has tried to pivot to Asia, though the Middle East continued to take up valuable time and resources. Isis, for example, is a direct result of the failed invasion of Iraq by Bush, and the destruction of the Baathist army, leaving hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs unemployed and ready to take up arms.
    My sense is that Obama will get high marks from historians in the future for his foreign policy achievements. There will be pushback against the current narrative of folks like Richard Haase, Brookings, even so called allies like Leon Pannetta. Unfortunately, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have become true believers in neo-con fantasies, so it will take awhile for recognition of Obama’s savvy.

    • TheTruth
      March 28, 2016 at 19:54

      This post is sarcasm I hope. I really, REALLY hope it is.

    • Stuart M.
      March 29, 2016 at 23:42

      I like your comment very much. It is a necessary counterpoint to a very one-sided view of Obama’s legacy. However, I did a double-take when you suggested Obama had some influence on the “coup” in Ukraine. This is a staple of Russian propaganda and I am surprised you would think Obama had any role in it. The Maidan uprising was an entirely internal movement that succeeded against immense odds. Obama did nothing to encourage it and he has done little to help the new government. You didn’t do this, but I am also amused at the widespread belief that America somehow fomented the Arab Spring uprising. Again, Obama was at most a pleasantly surprised bystander. My main criticism of Obama is that he was unable to foresee the avalanche of Syrian refugees that has now overwhelmed Europe as a result of his failure to act more forcefully against Assad. A much shorter war like that in Libya might have kept the Syrians at home. Notice how few of the refugees come from Libya.

  2. Anthony Shaker
    March 25, 2016 at 11:21

    Excellent summary and analysis of this strange controversy. There is really nothing one can add…just a feeling of dumfoundedness at the apparent blindness with which US and EU foreign policies are being carried out, as if they still owned the world. But it is not really blindness. These retrograde powers are in precipitous decline, to be sure, though they still imagine they can make a glorious comeback at everyone else’s expense, as usual. Those days are over, thank God.

    This Obama interview has given us a glimpse of the depth of bankruptcy and hypocrisy our elected leaders exude in the face of the run of events, which are rarely being accurately reported or properly interpreted in the media.

    A century and a half of Western domination (US, UK and France) has brought nothing but disaster upon a world that had, for centuries, been steadily civilizing itself. This handful of upstart, ambitious empire-builders from western Europe has caused great, but I hope not irreparable, damage to humanity.

    I am not waxing messianic, all of a sudden, but perhaps (let us pray that) a new world is being born through this mess, and that the human race could get back on track.

    • March 25, 2016 at 13:15

      Thanks Anthony Shaker for introducing some positive note to the foreign policy mess we face today. Thanks to Dan Lazare for his obviously truthful and thoughtful examination of the confusing interview of our obviously inept president..

  3. Cal
    March 24, 2016 at 14:36

    I don’t care what Obama’s personal feeling and foreign policy views are ‘now’—-and I am not at all sure that his refusal to bomb Syria was ‘his’ decision, I think it had more to do with his meeting with Putin and what Putin told him, as well as what US military command told him. Putin pulled Obama’s nuts of the fire by assuring him he could get Syria to give up it chemical weapons.
    I could give him some credit for the Iran agreement, but there too I suspect that had more to do with concerns about crashing the global economy and that was what overrode the neocons—-Its one thing to bomb a country to satisfy his I-Firster and Neocon friends–its quiet another to cause a world oil supply meltdown with more ME chaos. He didn’t hand out of those ‘exceptions’ on the Iran sanctions to a bunch of countries that depended Iran oil for no reason. He played the ‘chicken lite’ game between Iran and the Isr and neo groups.
    Obama always struck me as ‘insecure’…..not having the self confidence to follow his own instincts. That’s why he surrounded himself with the same old revolving door and faux FP experts and let them lead him by the nose.


  4. Brad Owen
    March 24, 2016 at 11:54

    Obama’s Presidency is a stunning failure. In 2008 we needed an FDR to come in, re-instate Glass-Steagal, bust Wall Street in the chops, break them up (and their Deep State shenanigans too, which dates back to the time of LINCOLN for chrissakes) examine their fraudulent books and declare bankruptcy reorganization, seize the Fed, MAKE it bail out Main Street. We got Herbert Hoover instead, or worse (perhaps J. Edgar Hoover), and the Andrew Mellon playbook (liquidate everything…apparently including the people..save the Money-Changers). Mr. O admired the “savvy businessmen” of Wall Street…I guess he knows WHO butters his bread after eight years in “Public Service”. Now he’s trying to eat his cake and have it too. This “eight-year pause” in desperately-needed Relief may just have killed the Republic. It is entirely possible that Obama may go down as the LAST President of a Nation once called “USA”. We’re on track for The Collapse & The Long Emergency, like what happened to the USSR…and there goes the Butter AND the Bread for Mr. O (they can’t pay you if they no longer exist).

    • Oleg
      March 25, 2016 at 23:28

      It is interesting that you mentioned what happened to the USSR… In fact, after reading the article above, I find a shocking similarity between Obama and Gorbachev. They both meant well… and were both too weak to control the powers that a president of a great country MUST control. Just wrong men for the jobs… perhaps good, decent men, but – wrong. Obama is perhaps smarter in that he did manage to drag his heels in several crucial moments. Gorbachev on the contrary hit every single branch on his way down the tree.

      • Brad Owen
        March 28, 2016 at 06:00

        I believe World peace hinges on stalwart friendship and alliance between the Russian Federation and the American Republic, in joint-cooperation with the Peoples Republic of China; the three Great Republics (FDR’s conception for the Post-WWII U.N.World). The World LandBridge between Alaska and Siberia will tie the World together, and in peaceful development. America and Russia are targeted for take-down, via respectively, the RoundTable Group (British Empire, renamed The CommonWealth) and the Synarchist Movement for Empire (SME: Hatched by Napoleon’s Generals and extreme reactionaries in Catholic Church; eventual creator of the fascist/NAZI Movements).

      • Tsigantes
        March 31, 2016 at 02:28

        Oleg, given the outcomes, in retrospect it seems that far from being ‘weak’ and ‘decent’ men, it is far more more likely that both Gorbachev and Obama were placements of Wall Street and the interlinked Mil-Ind complex / neocons. In both case their aims and actions were -throughout – whitewashed by corporate media.

        In Obama’s case he simply lied his way into the presidency.

        In USSR’s case it is more of a mystery to outsiders (despite public knowledge of US infiltration, colour revolutions etc) and can only be answered by their historians and whistleblowers. Consider this: why – given USSR’s seventy year history of intelligent, cautious, self-protective treaties, contracts and pacts – would Gorbachev abandon such normal international and historical USSR practise and thus “hit every single branch on his way down the tree”?

  5. WG
    March 24, 2016 at 11:04

    At best one can view Obama’s presidency as a failure because of his desire to always each consensus through compromise. At worst one can view his presidency as a duplicitous fraud on the American people, where in everything but name it was like Bush term 3 & 4.

    Naive or manipulative: Either way his legacy sucks.

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