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?
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.”
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).