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Obama, Uncensored: National Security Edition

Heading out the door, Obama lets loose to the <i>Atlantic</i>. Below, FP’s top five takeaways.

President Barack Obama May 1, 2011. 
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama May 1, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama bluntly acknowledged that the U.S.-led intervention into Libya “didn’t work” in part because of shortcomings on behalf of key American allies, a revelation that came as part of a rare window into Obama’s thinking on his foreign-policy successes and failures as he prepares to leave office.

In a wide-ranging series of interviews with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama accused American allies of trying to drag Washington into sectarian and ethnic conflicts that do not seriously threaten core U.S. interests. He expressed weariness with future U.S. involvement in the Middle East, disdain for Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, and hope that the United States can turn more of its attention to faster-growing parts of the world such as Asia and Latin America.

The interviews reveal a president that is leaving office confident that his cautious instincts on foreign policy have served him well in the face of what he derided as a foreign-policy establishment that prizes soaring rhetoric and quick military solutions over calm, dispassionate decision-making. His remarks criticizing allies such as Saudi Arabia, Britain, and France show a president more willing to settle scores on his way out the door and less worried about angering foreign counterparts.

Here are five notable takeaways from the president’s extensive set of interviews with Goldberg, who also spoke to the president’s deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, and Secretary of State John Kerry:

Saudi Arabia — and other Arab allies — is the problem

In the article, the president criticized Saudi Arabia for funding Wahhabi madrassas throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia that teach a strict and fundamentalist version of Islam. In one revealing discussion, recounted by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a separate interview with Goldberg, Obama noted despairingly how Saudi- and Gulf-funded seminaries gradually influenced Indonesia toward a more “unforgiving” version of Islam, noting the growing number of Indonesian women who wear hijab.

“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” Turnbull said he asked.

“It’s complicated,” Obama responded, according to Turnbull’s recollection of the conversation.

The president also said Riyadh needs to do a better job of finding an “effective way to share the neighborhood” with its archrival Iran. He rejected the idea that the United States could simply militarily back Saudi Arabia against Iran, saying such a policy “would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

When asked for comment, a spokesman with the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., had a blunt response: “No.”

Libya didn’t work

In a significant shift, Obama acknowledged that the U.S-led military intervention to overthrow Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi was a failure, a concession he has resisted making in interviews as recently as the summer of 2014. Part of the reason the intervention was a mistake, Obama said, is that America’s European allies, including France and Britain, didn’t do more to stabilize Libya following Qaddafi’s ouster.

“There’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” Obama said.

He specifically calls out British Prime Minister David Cameron for becoming “distracted by a range of other things” after the conflict ended and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy for taking undue credit for the military campaign. “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the invasion, Obama said.

The embassies of Britain and France did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Obama hearts Scowcroft

Much of Goldberg’s article focuses on defining the president’s foreign-policy doctrine, which vacillates between the principles of realism, restraint, liberalism, and internationalism. Interestingly, Obama comes off as a major admirer of George H. W. Bush’s brand of realism, as conveyed by his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, who is often credited with managing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the repulsion of Saddam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait in 1991. “I love that guy,” Obama told Goldberg. That admiration was apparently so fervent, Obama’s longtime advisor Susan Rice had to remind him to include at least one line praising Bill Clinton’s foreign policy in his book The Audacity of Hope to offer a Democratic counterweight.

Obama and Putin’s secret Syria deal

Goldberg’s interview with the president also offers a slightly different narrative on the last-minute deal between the United States and Russia that staved off a U.S. military attack against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013. By many accounts, the deal was struck after a chance moment at a press conference in which Kerry mused aloud that Assad could prevent a U.S. strike if he agreed to give up all his chemical weapons. However, as the president described it, the deal was actually laid out during the 2013 G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Obama said he spoke to Putin privately and said that “if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike.” Goldberg writes that weeks later, Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, put together the deal that eventually resulted in the removal and destruction of most of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Rage against the think tanks

A common theme throughout the article is the president’s frustration with Washington’s pundit class, which Obama said seeks to enforce a “playbook” to world events that often involves “militarized responses.” Much of that frustration pertains to criticisms the president received for not launching punitive airstrikes against Assad in 2013 after the Syrian president used chemical weapons against his own people.

“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,” he said.

The frustration is apparently shared by the president’s top advisors, who told Goldberg that U.S. think tanks are overly influenced by Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries that funnel millions of dollars into their programs.

“A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders,” writes Goldberg. “I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as ‘Arab-occupied territory.’”

Photo credit: The White House/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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