Monday, March 14, 2016

Presidential Arrogance and Presidential Cowardice

Looking into the mind of Barack Obama economic historian Niall Ferguson has found a confused and arrogant muddle. He was incited by the appearance of Jeffrey Goldberg’s just-published interview with President Obama. It’s Obama’s farewell to his presidency, an explanation and a rationalization for his handling of foreign policy. The essay is called, "The Obama Doctrine," but Ferguson sees no doctrine at all. Only an arrogant man in over his head and incapable of seeing it.

Ferguson emphasizes Obama’s arrogance, but his basic cowardice is also on full display.

In a way, it transcends arrogance. Ferguson has heard from many people that Obama considers himself the smartest person in the room. It is not quite right, Ferguson adds, because Obama seems to think that he is the smartest person in the world. Don’t say that he does not have high self-esteem.

When your mind and your whims are the sole standard for your actions, you become unpredictable, even erratic. When you think so highly of yourself that you ignore everyone’s advice, you are so full of yourself that you are oblivious to reality.

True enough, Obama likes to think of himself as a realist, but that is patent nonsense. He believes in ideals and in the minds that think them. If he is afraid to listen to anyone else’s advice, that means that he is afraid to debate his own ideas. He is more concerned to ensure that the policy is totally his. He does not care that whether it is effective. Since he believes that he is always right, Obama does not have to change course or to evaluate his policy against the evidence. He knows that it will all come out right in the end.

Ferguson offers evidence of Obama’s arrogance:

As described in Goldberg’s story, he is impatient to the point of rudeness with members of his own administration. His response to Secretary of State John Kerry when he hands him a paper on Syria is: “Oh, another proposal?” “Samantha, enough,” he snaps at the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “I’ve already read your book.” We learn, too, that he “secretly disdains … the Washington foreign-policy establishment.”

The president is also bluntly critical of traditional American allies. He is said to have told Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain “would no longer be able to claim a ‘special relationship’ with the United States” if it did not “pay [its] fair share” by increasing defense spending. The Pakistanis and the Saudis get especially short shrift here, as—predictably—does Israel.

“Bibi, you have to understand something,” he tells the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.” Netanyahu may have wondered what exactly in Obama’s biography gives him such insight into the present-day predicament of Israel.

Obama’s sense of absolute superiority, his belief that he is better than everyone else met its Waterloo in Syria. Like Roger Cohen of the New York Times, Ferguson sees clearly that Obama’s handling of the war in Syria was a catastrophe of world historical dimensions.

He explains it:

Which brings us to Syria, the central foreign-policy failure of the Obama presidency. The grim details of what has happened as the Syrian Civil War has escalated are all too familiar: a death toll of 470,000 according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, nearly 4.8 million refugees according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and a flood of displaced persons and migrants arriving in Europe by sea at a rate of roughly 100,000 a month. Aside from the human suffering, the escalation of the conflict has had grave strategic consequences, not least of which has been the return of Russia to the region as a major player for the first time since the early 1970s.

The consequences of American non-intervention in Syria have, in some ways, been as bad as the consequences of American intervention in Iraq, though fewer American lives and dollars have been expended. Yet the realist in Obama has no regrets. Goldberg does future historians a valuable service by setting out in detail the president’s reasoning.

Barack has no regrets. He is proud of his inaction, of his failure of his manifest cowardice. He gives new meaning to Woodrow Wilson’s famous dictum: too proud to fight. We have no sense that Obama recognizes the cost in human suffering. He does not accept or admit, even to himself, that his policy has failed catastrophically. Obama is so arrogant that he floats above it all.

Goldberg did well, Ferguson says, to show us Obama’s thinking. In short form, here it is:

The president dragged his feet on Syria for three reasons. First, having been elected partly on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War, he was and remains in principle reluctant to deploy U.S. troops (though not U.S. drones). In 2009, he felt the Pentagon had “jammed” him into approving a troop surge in Afghanistan; four years later, he felt he was being jammed again. Second, he misread the Arab Spring, initially equating protesters in Tunisia and Tahrir Square with Rosa Parks and the “patriots of Boston.”

Third, Obama regretted succumbing to pressure from his own advisers as well as from European allies to intervene in Libya in 2011. When similar pressures were brought to bear on him over the red line he himself had drawn regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Obama revolted. On August 30, 2013—after consulting only Denis McDonough, his chief of staff—he decided to call off planned air strikes against the Syrian government, telling McDonough of his “long-standing resentment: He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries.”

To which Ferguson adds:

The point is that if those arguments had been any good, there would have been no need to circumvent his own cabinet and advisers.

The smartest guy in the world does not need advisors. He does as he pleases and rationalizes after the fact.

Obama gave definition to his presidency when he went back on his word to bomb Bashar Assad’s forces. He is proud of his dereliction, of his manifest character flaw. The smartest guy in the room does not function according to anyone else’s morality. Or, should I say, amorality. People who are not good to their word are fundamentally ignoble and cannot be trusted.

Ferguson describes the moment:

This, then, was The Moment: Obama’s decision not to carry out his threat against Bashar al-Assad was, we are told, the defining moment of his presidency. “I’m very proud of this moment,” he tells Goldberg. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest … was as tough a decision as I’ve made.”

An American president going back on his word… that was in America’s best interests. Those are the words of a reprobate coward. Unfortunately, his inaction redefined America’s role in the world.

In truth, Obama inhabits a fictional world that has very little to do with reality. He sees things that no one else does, a higher truth:

In Obama’s mind, Syria’s civil war is just a senseless deviation from what he likes to call “the arc of history.” He believes (following my Harvard colleague Steve Pinker) “that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference.” The big exception is the Middle East, because of the persistence of tribalism, which he sees as an atavistic reaction to the stresses of global­ization, “the collision of cultures brought about by the Internet and social media,” and “scarcities—some of which will be attributable to climate change over the next several decades.”

The Islamic State is not an “existential threat” to America, but climate change is. One notes with some chagrin the manifest cowardice. To beat ISIS you need to engage in a real fight. To “fight” climate change you need but shut down industry. You can fight climate change passively and Obama is fundamentally a passive and cowardly president.

If you think you are smarter than every foreign-policy expert in the room, any room, then it is tempting to make up your own grand strategy. That is what Obama has done, to an extent that even his critics underestimate. There is no “Obama doctrine”; rather, we see here a full-blown revolution in American foreign policy. And this revolution can be summed up as follows: The foes shall become friends, and the friends foes.

In the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia are out, Iran is in. Similarly, in the Far East, China is out, Vietnam is in. As for a special relationship, the president would rather have one with Cuba than Britain. Nothing could better illustrate the extent of Barack Obama’s repudiation of the “foreign-policy establishment.”

Yet grand strategies are judged by their consequences, not by their intentions, and in the Middle East—not to mention North Africa and parts of South Asia—the consequences are not looking pretty.

If the arc of history is in fact bending toward Islamic extremism, sectarian conflict, networks of terrorism, and regional nuclear-arms races, then the 44th president will turn out to have been rather less smart than the foreign-policy establishment he so loftily disdains.



Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Obama lives in a bizarre theoretical universe where his will and good intentions are his currency on the world stage. That's the arrogance. The confusion comes when they don't work, because they're supposed to. This is to be expected from a man with no real experience... who has been told his whole life how special he is, yet never earned anything he's received. That creates a lot of arrogance, and yet great confusion. Add in condescension and consternation, and you have the fullness of Barack Hussein Obama's emotional range, sans TelePrompTer. What a disaster this presidency has been.

I'm always impressed when Obam's biggest supporters can't name his accomplishments, and have suffered so much under his leadership... they're so arrogant in their assumptions, yet confused that their life has not
improved during their messiah's tenure.

Maybe it's because Mr. Obama is not the messiah, but a mere charlatan. The emperor has no clothes, but does have a Nobel Peace Prize to his credit for............ well, we don't honestly know, but he has one. Pretty cool, huh?

Ares Olympus said...

Somehow the harsh opinions of neocons like Jeffrey Goldberg and Niall Ferguson doesn't impress me, at least I'm sure I could never satisfy their blood lust, so why try?

I must be arrogant like Obama, although I'm proibably more arrogant to dare think he's been too willing to use military force.

I guess drone strike assassinations in countries that we've not declared war against can be considered cowardly, if that's what we're talking about.

I'm thinking the Nobel Peace prize committee members feel like they made a mistake.

Scullman said...

Thankfully, the arc of history is bending his sorry ass out of here in less than eleven months.

JP said...

I've been pointing out that Obama is basically inert for some time now.

Sam L. said...

I agree with Ares on half his statements. Personally I blame Michelle for not pulling Valerie Jarrett's arm out of Barry's back. (Or did she put it there?)

sestamibi said...

And yet, Obama's approval rating is in positive territory for the first time in three years. Let's face it: if he could run for a third term he would still win.

We have Obama because this country wants him and approves of his so-called foreign policy. He believes that America must withdraw from the world, and that the values of the Third World are far superior to those of the West. And at least 20-30% of the population that currently inhabits the territory we still refer to as "The United States of America" agrees with him and absolutely hates this country. That share is growing as we welcome yet more Third World vermin and native white American women refuse to breed.

I don't see how this will be resolved peacefully, but I won't be around when it is resolved violently.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

A few thoughts to summarize my sentiments, in reflection of the last three Had Enough Therapy posts, whether it's about Obama, Trump, Bernie, or whoever...

Here's where we are: the U.S. Federal government is too big, and spends far too much money… including money it does not have. Deficit spending is stealing from future generations, rationalized by “needs” that are really wants. Our country is on the wrong track, largely because of increasing government intrusion in our lives, and this intrusion is perpetrated by an arrogant Ruling Class that believes it knows best how people should/must/ought lead their lives. This intrusion is economic, physical, mental and emotional, and it is becoming intolerable. The beliefs of this Ruling Class follow an un/ill-considered philosophy of decadent self-congratulation that is completely phony. This Ruling Class (our “betters") have rationalized a way of stealing from the futures of people they claim to represent or care about. They pander, promise and bloviate, but they never deliver. If they cannot deliver, I would like for them to have less influence on my life so I can get on with the things that are important to me without interference... so I don’t have to consider their next moves as much as I do. This is true for Demoblicans and Republicrats. It’s hogwash, it’s a mirage, it is a grand lie. So yes, there is a political bubble, and it is based on a fraudulent world that does not exist, and cannot exist. This worldview is driven by the idea that you can have something for nothing… that there are no consequences, and you can do what is selfish/expedient and still be a great person, so long as you say the right things and tithe others’ money to the right causes. It’s bogus.

I know that Trump is an egomaniac. However, there is no one in the political class who will do anything about any of these issues. They are trapped in the thinking of Washington, D.C. They think they are providing “public service,” while instead they are consolidating power and enriching themselves. Whether this is because of blindness or willfulness does not matter to me. I think what is happening is much bigger than Trump or feeling the Bern. But Hillary, Kasich, Cruz and Rubio will do nothing about what ails our nation. I guess I’d like to see a matchup of Trump vs. Sanders just to see what voters tell us… are we an American nation with unique, enduring American values, or are we a socialist nation full of takers? That’s the question I’d like answered in November. We shall see.

And to honor Stuart, I believe that much of what ails our nation is due a therapy culture that has made our nation soft and self-indulgent, believing in a chaotic soup of subjective whims that follow the winds and tides. We've replaced a desire to heal neurosis with the validation of pleasure and fantasy... of how the world should be, rather than the world that is. This includes the nature of man, and his role in the world. While this roller coaster is quite insane, I am optimistic that we can each choose to get off the ride and continue to lead our lives while the roller coaster goes up and down, in circles, with the riders screaming, crying and smiling.

Ares Olympus said...

Minnesota Journalist Eric Black is recommended Goldberg's long article, so I suppose I'll have to read it in more detail to see what I really think.

Hillary is running in Obama's "economic recovery narrative", but she's much more ready to break course in foreign policy. I guess in 12 months we'll start to get to see where the "Hillary Doctrine" takes us.

On the other hand, if we elect Trump, we'll definitely be off the "don't do stupid spit" course for America. Come on, Florida, Rubio deserves his home state, PLEASE!
“The Obama Doctrine” is a stunning accomplishment that goes over all the major foreign-policy events of the past seven years and, mostly, gives Obama himself (although others are quoted in it) a chance to explain what he hoped to accomplish and — just as often — what quagmire he hoped to avoid.

If it hasn’t come across clearly before, I’m a pretty big Obama admirer. I’m also, while not a pacifist, pretty skeptical about the benefits to America of most of our recent wars, incursions, bombing missions, etc. Perhaps it will come as no surprise, but over the course of many conversations with Goldberg, Obama comes across as a guy who is reluctant to get us into the next quagmire. But, assuming Goldberg has a good tape recorder, Obama has a knack for explaining what he was weighing and what he hoped to accomplish at each step along the way.

Of course, you couldn’t be in our country since 2009 and not be aware that a lot of Americans and almost all practicing Republican politicians (I can think of a few exceptions, like Ron and Rand Paul) believe that Obama has been way too gun shy in such matters and missed out on a whole lot of opportunities to teach bad guys a lesson and spread democracy and free the oppressed.
But in the interviews, Obama, shockingly, rejected the whole credibility religion, as reflected in the following two sentences (Goldberg is summarizing in his own words what Obama told him except the quote at the end.)

“Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of ‘credibility’ — particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam. Within the White House, Obama would argue that ‘dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.’”

Yikes. I didn’t know he was allowed to say that, but maybe even a president has First Amendment rights, especially in explaining his own actions. To be clear, Obama wasn’t recommending a practice of making idle threats, just trying not to build a self-enforcing religion around the “credibility” doctrine.

Obama subscribes to a different doctrine, which is usually summarized in polite company as “don’t do stupid stuff,” although I’ve always assumed that “stuff” was a polite synonym for a different s-word, an assumption confirmed by Goldberg, who uses the impolite word. One of my favorite passages — one that made me laugh out loud when I read it — brings Hillary Clinton into the picture for mocking Obama’s favorite four-word principle. Here’s that passage, in which I have substituted the word “spit” for a common but rude synonym for excrement:

Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me [Goldberg] that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”


Dennis said...


It is no secret that I despise democracy as practiced because it always leads to the "MOB" using its power to control everyone else. It also leads to the desire of a significant number of people wanting a dictator to make their lives easier by providing for their every need. No longer does one have to take responsibility for their actions and work hard to be successful.
Can anyone look at Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump et al and not see the desire to have and be dictated to by a "strong," and I use this advisedly so, person. I purposely did not the word "leader" for most people have long forgotten what a leader is or how to be one. We have become a nation of followers who have confused fascistic actions with protest. Denying others their rights of free speech and association has more in common with the demagogues of history than with people who are real leaders. It is almost a given that when one sees or hears the various sex, race, Hitler, fascist, et al "cards" that the user is only defining themselves. The dictator's "useful idiots."
It denote the lack of intellectual quality and scholarship that now epitomizes our education system from K throughout PhDs. This disease perpetuated by the academy is seeping into every facet of our lives and culture. Much of this I agree with, but some of it I do not.
History is one of the most important subject area we can learn from and is the one most forgotten or ill taught. What else explains the lack of understanding between a democracy and a representative republic? Government t is like a fire. It starts of small and as it grows the more it consumes and destroys until there is nothing left. We are throwing gasoline on the fire of government to the point that we may not be able to kill it before it kills us. The long road from freedom and all that it requires to slavery where we meet the requirements of those who would control us.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dennis, What you've offered here is another version of what I was saying about "getting off the ride." You are corrct: the way out is a return to responsibility.

Dennis said...


Another area that we have failed is in the language we utilize. I am continually amazed at how little a significant number of people seem to grasp of the language we use to communicate. The lack of what words mean and how they affect our understanding of everything around us. I am beginning to believe social media's affect is to lessen our vocabulary to the point that true critical thinking is becoming a lost art. No wonder we have a large number of people who are afraid of language to the point of trying to keep other's ideas from being heard. It starts at the top of academe and works its way down. Ideas do not disappear because one is too sensitive to hear them. Force them underground and like a seed they will grow far past what they should have. The solution for speech is more speech.