Reading Between the Teleprompter Lines

What Obama was really thinking during his Iraq remarks.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

There are times when I listen to U.S. presidents that I imagine giant bubbles appearing over their heads connected by tiny dots — just like in cartoons. But these bubbles contain their real thoughts.

I see these bubbles every time U.S. President Barack Obama appears publicly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Russian President Vladimir Putin. They say things like: "I really can’t stand these guys. Shimon Peres and Mikhail Gorbachev, where are you?"

As I listened to Obama’s carefully constructed update on Iraq on Thursday, I couldn’t help but imagine what the president was thinking and, perhaps more importantly, feeling. The president’s five points were an effort to find a balance for the next steps in Iraq that was not too risk averse and not too risk ready. Call it the Goldilocks speech — rational and logical, not too hot and not too cold.

But that logic and rationality masked a fierce determination and commitment to certain assumptions. Let’s call it the Bubble Conversation. Forget the words you heard. Here’s what Obama was probably thinking — and these are the thoughts certain to drive his policy toward Iraq in the 1,000 or so days that remain in his presidency.

What he said: "American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq."

What he was really thinking: "If you think I’m getting involved in another trillion-dollar social science experiment to intercede in Iraq, you’re crazy. I’m the extricator in chief. I get America out of unwinnable wars, not into them. If you wanted one of those, you should have voted for John McCain."

What he said: "But what’s clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action. The most important question we should all be asking, the issue that we have to keep front and center, the issue that I keep front and center, is, what is in the national security interest of the United States of America?"

What he was really thinking: "The world isn’t coming to an end. Don’t try to convince me that it is. We just went through this with Ukraine. This town lost its collective mind: a new Cold War, a Russian takeover of Ukraine, a new Hitler on the march, a complete collapse of the post- Cold War 1991 arrangements in Europe. And guess what? None of it took place. I kept my head, though, and responded effectively. And we’ll do it this time too. ISIS isn’t taking over the world. And I’m not going to respond as if it were."

What he said: nothing on Syria.

What he was really thinking: "Don’t get your hopes up for a more muscular response from me on Syria. It was no coincidence that I didn’t mention it in my formal remarks. The fact is, I don’t know what to do. Syria is a mess. And having willfully avoided direct U.S. military intervention there, I’m not interested in doing it now. I’ll ramp up support to carefully vetted opposition groups and have military assets in place for air and missile strikes if warranted and necessary. But I won’t be guilted or pressured into serious intervention, let alone saving Syria because I’m worried about losing Iraq."

What he said: "Now, it’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders. It is clear, though, that only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis."

What he was really thinking: "Mr. Maliki, get the hell out of here. I can’t say it because if I do and he doesn’t leave, I’ll end up repeating the mistake I made with Assad. But this guy’s got to go. He’s damaged goods. I’m hoping that Sunnis and other Shiites will start to make noise and build pressure and we’ll make it clear too that any serious support will depend on his departure. We now have some time to let the pressure build on him, rather than on us. I’ll also see where Iran is on this. They may be prepared to press Maliki, but I’m no fool. I know their vision for Iraq isn’t ours."

What he said: "The United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq. At my direction, Secretary Kerry will depart this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he’ll be able to consult with our allies and partners."

What he was really thinking: "I really hate all this Middle East stuff. This is a broken, angry, dysfunctional region. And the United States is stuck in the middle of it. I care much more about the middle class than the Middle East. But I know I need to pretend. There’s oil, nukes, terrorists. But these Middle Eastern leaders are worse than the Republicans, Israelis, and Palestinians: all yours, Mr. Secretary. My main goal is to reach a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue to prevent an Israeli strike, make an American one unnecessary, and see if I can’t work with Iran to cool Iraq down too, and then get the hell out of town. This region won’t produce solutions to anything, just outcomes. You know what? I just had a terrific thought that makes me want to smile. In less than a thousand days, all of this will be Hillary’s problem."

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola