Shadow Government

A Dispatch from a Train Wreck: Obama’s National Security Legacy

On the failings of "we don’t do stupid s---."


One of the more lamentable consequences of the Republican party train-wreck-that-may-come, Donald Trump, is that it distracts attention from the train-wreck-that-already-came, President Obama’s national security legacy. For whoever wins this year’s presidential election, cleaning up his mess will be the urgent priority in 2017. And as this unintentionally revealing self-portrait in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg demonstrates, the one thing we can be certain of is that Obama will not clean up his mess between now and Inauguration Day because, as far as he is concerned, he will have left everything neat and tidy — or as neat and tidy as any one could have.

As Goldberg documents, Obama is still stuck in 2008 (earlier than that, even — 2002, maybe), strangely unreflective about what he has wrought. The dragon Obama seeks to slay is the dragon of Churchillian clarity and bellicosity, a beast not seen in these parts in quite some time. He seems not to notice the very real and close menaces of indecision, half-measures, and failures to act.

Over the past seven years, we have come to learn that the most reliable indicator of how bad things are is the flimsiness of the strawman Obama concocts to defend his policies — the flimsier the strawman, the worse the actual policy.

In the interview, he blasts past his own record for flimsiness and claims that the alternative to his policies is “believing we [can], at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery.” We all knew Obama had a bad policy, but did we know it was so bad that it needed such a toweringly absurd strawman to defend it?

The key reporting breakthrough in Goldberg’s piece is his discovery that such strawmen are not merely rhetorical devices conjured up to serve a particular spin of the day. They exist not in the reality of the real world, of course, but evidently in the reality of the minds of Obama and his key advisers. Goldberg relates how angry and confused Obama and his advisers were at the negative reaction to the infamous “we don’t do stupid s—” bumper sticker that he tried to give to his doctrine. When even former cabinet officers dismissed this as a false binary, Goldberg writes, the president “became ‘rip-s— angry,'” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “don’t do stupid s—” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-s— caucus? Who is pro–stupid s—?’ ”

To be fair, Goldberg does clearly document that Obama took one of his most consequential sets of decisions — the decision to issue a red line on Syrian chemical weapons, the decision to set in motion the enforcement of that red line, and then the decision to suddenly shut down enforcement at the last possible minute, well before there was any knowledge of the Russian diplomatic gambit — all against the advice of most of his senior national security team. This episode cannot be blamed on a weak interagency process, the familiar bugaboo that has haunted this administration. Instead, according to Goldberg, President Obama wrote the script from start to finish; his own advisers were as wrong-footed and dismayed as our international allies, partners, and other outside experts.

Yet, like his predecessors, Obama has bolstered himself to the point where he sees no problem whatsoever with what he did. He is proud of it, and, according to Goldberg, views it as one of his shining moments.

It takes a certain cast of mind to look at today’s Middle East and be proud of one’s record. But, according to Goldberg, Obama has that cast of mind. What helps preserve it is another key Obama ideological tenet: that the United States is just powerful enough to do the things Obama would like to do, but not powerful enough to do any of the things he would not like to do. Thus, if Obama does not act, he cannot be blamed for the negative consequences that ensue because he “knows” that American power could not have produced a different result. The outcome, whatever it is, is the absolute best outcome possible, given the limits on American power.

This same tautological measure of success keeps showing up in every national security episode. The Cuba deal was the best that could be achieved. The Iran deal was the best that could be achieved. Whatever progress there is in Afghanistan is the best that could be achieved. Staying committed and engaged in Iraq in 2012 could not have produced any different outcome. Acting faster might have helped in Rwanda (not on Obama’s watch) but it would not have helped in Syria (on Obama’s watch). And on and on.

To be fair in another way, Obama has not accomplished all of this on his own. He has had some help, for instance from fawning amanuenses in the press. Goldberg has done his part in this remarkably generous interview. As has the hapless editor at The New York Times who gave the paper version of a recent article on Obama’s latest Middle East gambit this howler of a headline: “Obama Seeks Way to Save Mideast Gains.”

What such kids-glove treatments have in common is their failure to confront the realities of the legacy. It is a kind of reporting that relates without further comment, as Goldberg does, that Obama’s awareness of his own limitations consists of this: the belief that he is too rational, informed, and reasonable in his approach to foreign policy and thus not as effective at communicating the brilliance of his choices to a public (including, apparently, experts and his own former advisers) who apparently only connect to these issues at the level of “feelings and emotions and politics.” Somehow, Obama tells Goldberg, he must figure out a way to connect with others without being “simplistic.”

A much more candid treatment can be found in Blind Spot: America’s Response to Radicalism in the Middle East, a new book by the Aspen Strategy Group. It is an edited volume with contributions from Democrats and Republicans alike, including a sizable number who were directly involved in forging Obama’s legacy. I have a chapter that analyzes Obama’s counter-Islamic State strategy that holds up reasonably well even though it went to press well before Obama ramped up operations in the fall of 2015. Blind Spot and other evaluations by former Obama officials (see here, here, here, here, and here) all are more honest about Obama’s legacy than he is himself.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to ask any president to fairly and reasonably assign his own final grade. This president seems especially challenged by the assignment. But in a few short months, another president will take over. Shortly after that, President Obama will pen his own memoirs to do just that. You might say Goldberg’s piece is Obama’s first draft.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong / Staff

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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