With the Obama presidency coming to its end, the reviews are beginning to pour in, especially in regards to the administration’s role in international affairs over the last seven years and change. Two recent articles, one in the Atlantic Monthly and one in the New York Times Magazine, take long form looks at his administration’s foreign policy using very different filters.
The earlier Atlantic piece, “The Obama Doctrine”, was based on a series of interviews the President did with writer Jeffrey Goldberg. Accompanying it were a series of short assessments of other world leaders that are quite interesting in and of themselves. One take away from Goldberg’s understanding of Obama’s appraisals of such figures as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is that some of the US’s closest allies on paper are anything but on the ground.
The author establishes his seriousness in the opening paragraph, drawing a portrait of Secretary of State John Kerry delivering a “Churchillian” speech on Syria in late August of 2013. Like most hawks, whether liberal or conservative, Goldberg is a perennial Churchill worshiper and uses this now almost mythical frame of reference to judge the style of the current president. Naturally, we will find him wanting.
The New York Times Magazine story by David Samuels, who usually writes about music, is somewhat more original than Goldberg’s boilerplate and actually caused a little more of a stir in the mainstream press. It offers a behind the scenes look at the administration that doesn’t cover the President specifically, but rather Ben Rhodes, his “deputy national security advisor for strategic communications”. Titled “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru”, Samuels’ article also has a more playful tone, making the widely publicized claim that President Obama and Rhodes have achieved a kind of “mind meld”.
Perhaps unintentionally, and with multiple references to novelist Don DeLillo, Samuels’ popstar take reveals a lot about how the smart set around this administration sees itself. A good example of this is the snapshot we’re given of UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who literally wrote the book on “humanitarian intervention” (or, R2P, the “Right to Protect” Doctrine), the blueprint for liberal hawks like Hillary Clinton, “Her attire suggests a disingenuous ambivalence about her role in government that appears to be common among her cohort in the Obama administration, with a cardigan made of thick, expensive-looking cashmere worn over a simple frock, along with silver spray-painted rock n’ roll sneakers. See, I’m sympatico, the sneakers proclaim.”
Aside from seeming like a weird kind of outreach to New York Times readers who think they’re hip, Power is an inveterate hawk who has pushed conflicts in Libya, Syria and even Ukraine. This is something an approving Goldberg makes clear when writing about her but Samuels somehow ignores altogether.
While it may be interesting to some readers that Power thinks Ben Rhodes is very much like the fictional Holden Caulfield in his dislike of “phonies”, to others this reference (also made by the author earlier in the same article) makes it obvious to those who have read “The Catcher in the Rye” that this same character would have felt this way about just about every person talked about or quoted in the story.
This isn’t to say that the New York Times Magazine article doesn’t reveal some interesting things, and, from Samuels’ reporting, it does seem like Ben Rhodes has played a mostly positive role in helping to shape Obama’s foreign policy. At least, unlike Goldberg, Samuels takes the time to examine some of the administration’s successes, including the Iranian nuclear deal and the much overdue opening to Cuba.
A Realist Presidency
As Goldberg tells us in “The Obama Doctrine”, the current President has called himself a foreign policy realist, a school of thought usually associated with older establishment Republicans like Brent Scowcroft, who called for a more cautious approach in world affairs. Ben Rhodes, who was also interviewed for the Atlantic piece, does seem to be cut from this same realist cloth.
Oddly, Rhodes and Barack Obama himself seem to be in the philosophical minority in his administration, which been pulled in an interventionist direction by hawks like Power, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Victoria Nuland and disgraced former General David Petraeus. The rosy view of the use of force propagated by many of these people helped lead to the disaster still unfolding in Libya.
Goldberg’s Atlantic story comes back to the Middle East by way of Syria again and again, even as the President tries to talk about other, less covered aspects of his foreign policy vital to US interests. There is some discussion of his “Pivot to Asia”, which is certainly directed in part at containing Chinese power but also, in the US President’s own words, stems from his understanding that the global economy has shifted to the region. Events over the last several years in Europe have shown that the President was right on this, even if the neo-liberal solutions he offered, like the TPP, are disappointing to his supporters on the American left.
In fairness, Goldberg does attempt to engage with what he calls the President’s dislike of “tribalism” because , as the author tells us, “part of his memoir, Dreams From My Father, concerns the way in which tribalism in post-colonial Kenya helped ruin his father’s life”. Barack Obama’s understanding of these traditions, which often predominate in places where the US is engaged militarily, gives us insight into a President who, unlike his predecessor, understood from the beginning that realities like these add layers of complexity to the pursuit of his administration’s goals.
On a side note, many of the customs we criticize as “Islamic” are actually tribal in origin. As explained by William Polk, who taught Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, traditionally, “veiling of women was probably not practiced in the time of Muhammad, it is nowhere specifically ordered in the Quran… It is not practiced in a number of Islamic societies, including the Kazak, Tajiks and Kirghiz of Central Asia, the Malays and Javanese of Southeast Asia and the Kurds and Iranians of the Middle East and the Berbers of North Africa.”
Simplicity, a quality that is positively Churchillian if I can pilfer the metaphor, is what is demanded by pundits like Jeffrey Goldberg and the Obama administration has found new ways to use this disdain for nuance in its messaging. Sometimes, as in the way the opening to Cuba was sold, this has allowed for a more positive approach amid the din of drums constantly beating for more conflict with America’s official enemies.
Samuels’ New York Times Magazine piece offers an interesting, sometimes troubling, window into how this administration has learned to “control the narrative” over the last seven plus years. Patrick L. Smith, writing in Salon shortly after the story was published, made the point that this PR based approach dovetails with Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s idea of “ The Manufacture of Consent”, re-tooled for the internet age.
Ben Rhodes and his assistant Ned Price have relied on social media and complacent Washington based reporters to get their spin out, “He starts with a barrage of Twitter messages and then works the telephone to those he calls variously “our compadres’ and ’force multipliers’ These are the journalists and pundits who listen to the line’ and then – it is absolutely clear in Price’s account – ’put this message out as their own.’”
Rhodes’ job title suggests that he is selling policy but Samuels’ story shows that he has had a role in shaping it larger than anyone probably expected. It caused a small firestorm in the right-wing media because it revealed that the administration, and Rhodes in particular, pretended that the negotiations that led to the Iranian nuclear deal began on the eve of the election of the reformist President, Hassan Rouhani, but really started earlier, when Obama’s people reached out to those already in power in Tehran.
On the O’Reilly Factor, reporter James Rosen seemed very upset that Victoria Nuland, “of whom he is very fond”, deceived him about the timing, going so far as to imply that this lie was equivalent to those told by the Bush administration about WMDs in the lead up to the Iraq War. In my opinion, this is a terrible comparison that demonstrates the wilful ignorance of most of these professional talkers masquerading as journalists. It’s all a game to them and repeatedly lying to scare people into war is, in their minds, the same as stretching the truth once to promote peace.
Common sense leads most of us to the conclusion that, in international affairs, it’s almost always a good idea to talk to those you see as rivals or enemies. It isn’t like this kind of back channel communication is unknown in the history of diplomacy but don’t tell this to the mainstream media who always stand at the ready to demonize countries like Iran, making it effectively impossible to engage with them publicly. Besides, improving relations with the Islamic Republic, if the next president stays the course, will likely be seen as one of the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievements .
Of course, this idea of controlling the narrative can also have negative implications. When veteran reporter Seymour Hersh put together a long article about the killing of Osama Bin Laden that disputed the official story (which itself changed multiple times in the telling) not only was he relentlessly attacked in the mainstream press, he had to go to the London Review of Books to get it published.
One of the main lines of attack against this reporter, whose first major story revealed the My Lai Massacre, was his use of anonymous sources, including Pakistani officials whose families would be put in danger if their identities were revealed. This criticism is ridiculous to anyone who has read countless stories in mainstream publications like the Washington Post that rely on “official unnamed sources” who always manage to put a positive spin on the actions of the powerful in Washington.
And it isn’t just government insiders who engage in this kind of information warfare. One problem with “The Obama Doctrine” is that Goldberg often seems to, not exactly lie, but more report one side of a dispute half a world away with absolute certainty that he knows the truth. He spends a lot of time on Obama’s “red line” for President Bashar Al-Assad in terms of chemical weapons use and proceeds as if there is no question that Syrian government forces were responsible for a sarin gas attack in Damascus on August 21st, 2013.
This was a horrible crime, among many perpetrated by all sides in the ongoing war, but it hasn’t been proven that the Syrian government was behind it. In fact, what we do know seems to suggest insurgent groups, possibly supported by the US or NATO ally Turkey, were responsible for the attack in an attempt to force an intervention in the form of a no fly zone that would have crippled the government’s ability to defend the many civilian lives in the areas of the country it controlled at the time.
He also makes the spurious claim that Assad somehow “midwifed” Daesh (ISIS), an interesting choice of words. While I guess this argument could be made, it skirts the obvious truth that the group grew out of the Iraq War that he so dutifully cheered on in 2003. It isn’t a coincidence that one of the first heavily populated areas the group captured was the broken Iraqi city of Fallujah.
One of the main criticisms of the Obama administration that neither of these stories give much attention to is directly related to Samuel’s investigation of the administration’s attempts to control the news cycle. This is its reliance on covert methods to project force, including in places where the United States hasn’t declared war. If 90% of the casualties from drone attacks are innocent, it stands to reason that this tactic is creating more potential violence than it is preventing.
While it’s been refreshing to see a US President (and Vice President!) relying less on bluster and outright intervention in other countries in violation of international laws, the Obama administration’s reliance on covert ops and prosecutions of whistle-blowers will be big black marks on its record and the effects of both will be felt long after this President leaves office. They may have proved that you can control the narrative in the moment but they won’t be able to control the judgement of history.