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.