The Establishment Strikes Back at Obama

Since President Obama went public with his objections to U.S. foreign policy orthodoxy and its many wars, the Establishment has been striking back with a fury, notes ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman.

By Melvin A. Goodman

The most fascinating aspect of President Barack Obama’s unusual interview with The Atlantic was his self-declared liberation from Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Now the establishment is striking back.

The president of the Council of Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, led the charge with the startling observation that Obama’s refusal to use force in Syria was comparable to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The latest broadside came from a former career diplomat, Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a likely secretary of state or national security adviser in a Hillary Clinton administration. Burns’s old thinking on national security policy is exactly what President Obama had in mind in breaking with the traditionalists among the so-called foreign policy mandarins.

Burns, like so many members of the orthodox establishment, is particularly critical of the President’s failure to use military force against Syria after drawing a “red line” on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In fact, without using military force, the United States and Russia were able to get Assad to admit to having chemical weapons, to give up the weapons, and to join international organizations responsible for monitoring such weapons.

Burns fails to mention that President Obama had parked five cruise-missile destroyers off the Syrian coast, which points to an important success for coercive diplomacy. Nor does Burns mention that even Israeli President Netanyahu praised the efforts of the Obama administration. Burns also ignores the observation that the intelligence regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons was not a “slam dunk.” [For more on the question of whether Assad actually was responsible for the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack, see’s “Neocons Red-Faced Over Red Line.”]

Defending ‘Allies’

Burns also castigates President Obama for his criticism of Britain and France for performing as “free riders” in the Libyan campaign of 2011. Unlike Burns and Hillary Clinton, who defend the use of force in Libya, the President understands that the Libyan operation was a “shit show” and that the incompetence of Washington’s European allies has made Libya one more haven for ISIS. Obama understands that the Middle East must be deemphasized, and that it would be a “basic, fundamental mistake” to try to “govern the Middle East and North Africa.”

Burns believes that the President’s major failing in Libya was allowing the United States to take a secondary role in an important NATO mission for the first time in its history. No, the President’s failing was in acceding to then-Secretary of State Clinton’s push for regime change in Tripoli. The U.S. policy of regime change, which began in Iran in 1953, has never worked. See the Congo, Chile, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. etc. etc.

Burns is critical of the President for his criticism of the Saudi royal family, arguing that it “never works to embarrass a friend publicly.” Unlike Burns, President Obama understands that for too long Saudi Arabia (and Pakistan) have sponsored an intolerant variant of political Islam that has poisoned countless Muslim minds with virulent propaganda and recidivist violence. Obama understands that the Middle East is far less important to the security interests of the United States, and that it is time to stop treating Saudi Arabia (and Israel) with kid gloves.

In arguing that President Obama has “ceded too much ground to Russia, Iran, and others” in the Middle East, Burns displays his ignorance of the limits that Moscow and Tehran face in gaining leverage in the region. Iran, a non-Arab Muslim nation, will have difficulty gaining influence over the long term. Russia, a nation in political and economic decline, cannot afford to invest heavily in the backwardness of the Middle East.

The notion that President Vladimir Putin has enhanced Russia’s credibility and influence with his moves in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria could not be more wrong. [For a contrasting view, see’s “Putin Shuns Syrian ‘Quagmire’.”]

Mideast Realism

President Obama can be credited with understanding that the Middle East is “no longer terribly important” to U.S. interests and that, even if the region were surpassingly important, there would be “little an American president could do to make it a better place.”

The United States has lost credibility and power with its misuse of military force in the region, but Burns and the foreign policy establishment rely on the old shibboleths of credibility and force to make a case for the use of military power. Obama’s attack on these shibboleths is critical.

Finally, the President understands that the long-term goal of U.S. diplomacy in the region is to increase the number of diplomatic stakeholders in the Middle East and to nudge Iran and Saudi Arabia toward a less confrontational approach.

There will be no stability in the region until and Sunnis and their Saudi backers and the Shia and their Persian benefactors come to their senses and seek conciliation. Burns and Haass believe that more military force is necessary in the Middle East; the President understands that our overextension in the region has harmed our economy, compromised our ability to seek opportunities elsewhere (particularly in the Pacific), and unnecessarily endangering the lives of Americans in a region where there is less American national security interest.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author ofFailure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA,” “National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism,” and the forthcoming “The Path to Dissent: A Whistleblower at CIA” (City Lights Publishers, 2015).  Goodman is the national security columnist for, where this story originally appeared.

15 comments for “The Establishment Strikes Back at Obama

  1. Chadzamira
    April 3, 2016 at 19:41

    There is a false presumption in the American establishment that military force, and that alone, is the answer to feeding naked capitalism to eternity. Its a shame that not many Americans , who should, and know better, are not voicing their concerns enough about the potency of such ill-advised, ill-thought-out blind allegiance to means in propelling the American empire towards its final demise.

  2. David G
    April 2, 2016 at 19:45

    Was this piece an April Fools? Besides the points made in earlier comments, I’d point out that “coercive diplomacy” by means of “five cruise-missile destroyers off the Syrian coast” is itself a violation by the U.S. of the U.N. charter.

  3. April 2, 2016 at 18:48


    Gostei muito do seu post no seu blog.


    Lice Nunes do Intelimax

  4. ltr
    April 2, 2016 at 13:30

    The disdain for Russia expressed here is blinding to the writer, which is unfortunate in terms of the analysis. Oh well.

  5. J'hon Doe II
    April 2, 2016 at 09:11

    “Mideast Realism”???

    here’s the proverbial Bottom Line on mideast realism… .

    AMY GOODMAN: One of the issues you emphasize in your Los Angeles Times piece is that Saudi Arabia has been on what you call a “global arms shopping spree” and is now the world’s largest purchaser of weapons.

    SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It’s true. It’s a petrodollar-funded acquisition campaign, and it has been going on for a long time. The figures I cited of their purchases from the United States just last year of $20 billion is just a piece of it. They are a shopper from many, many European countries. And if you look at the arms that they’ve been buying for the past two decades, the figures are just staggering. What I think is even more surprising is that UAE, with a population of less than a million people, a fighting-age population of, you know, a couple of 20,000 or 30,000 men, is the fourth largest purchaser of weapons and is fighting, actively fighting, in five wars. It’s just—it’s very hard to comprehend the purpose of these weapons, but it’s very clear that the narrative of a Sunni-Shia war, of this enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is very, very lucrative for defense companies.

    AMY GOODMAN: And how much are U.S. companies profiting?

    SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, just last year, $20 billion. If you look a five-year ratio—and the figures are not always easy to come by, because they’re hidden sort of as contracts and when they’re going to be fulfilled and when they’re not going to be fulfilled—the figure just from the United States is well over $50 billion.

    • dahoit
      April 2, 2016 at 13:49

      The new triangle trade.Americans as the slaves.

  6. Oz
    April 2, 2016 at 08:33

    I, too, agree with Brad Benson. Why is Consortium News apologizing for Obama? Obama’s consistent tactic has been to publicly criticize neo-con belligerence, while implementing it behind the scenes.

  7. Secret Agent
    April 2, 2016 at 05:17

    I don’t see how feckless dithering on important issues qualifies as a stand on anything.

  8. Brad Benson
    April 1, 2016 at 11:22

    It is silly to state that Putin’s moves in regard to The Ukraine and Syria were not successes. He had two warm water naval bases to protect and he wasn’t going to let our little games get in his way. He secured the Crimea and it is his. He got into Syria and got out in five months–exactly as he had said he would do in the beginning.

    In doing so, he took out most of the Chechens that would have eventually returned home to spread more chaos. He also ended the little game we were playing in Syria, in which we were pretending to fight ISIS, when in fact we were arming them to help undermine Assad.

    Putin has made all of our leaders look like idiots and personally I’m glad. He seems to be working toward solutions. We are not. Obama is a War Criminal. Richard Haass and Nicholas Burns are idiots. There’s a difference.

    • Joseph
      April 1, 2016 at 12:09

      Well put. There are always right wing warmongers, and the admin is not much to be credited with not jumping into their endless stupid wars and bully-boy rhetoric. Obama is not coerced, or he could say so, and he has done nothing to get money out of elections and mass media, the terminal disease of democracy. We need executive action there, not in secret wars and right wing provocations of non-enemies like Russia.

      • Jill
        April 9, 2016 at 23:29

        Yes, by all means, never give Obama credit for anything good.

        Every site has its biases. This one is Libertarian: that is, non-interventionist and anti-neocon– but, as is usually the case with Libertarians, totally Republican biased in every other way. Which means Obama could raise the dead, cure cancer, and cause permanent world peace, and the Libertarians, like all their fellow Republicans, would feel obligated to find something wrong with that.

        Russia is certainly no friend of the U.S. Putin props up Assad while Assad slaughters large numbers of Syrians, causing 1/5 of his country’s population to flee for their lives to Europe and the U.S. But that’s part of the Republican bias: to worship Putin as the ultimate tough guy leader. Fox News does this all the time, except for Bill O’Reilly who, for some reason has decided not to do it.

    • Bart
      April 1, 2016 at 13:13

      It is disappointing to contemplate Nick Burns being more of the same Rice and Power in the next administration.

    • rosemerry
      April 1, 2016 at 16:11

      Exactly correct!!!

      I am replying to Brad Benson.

    • dahoit
      April 2, 2016 at 13:47

      Goodman is supposed to be an intelligence asset?sheesh.

  9. J'hon Doe II
    April 1, 2016 at 11:14


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