Americans will miss Barack Obama’s cool rationality in foreign policy


If a gaggle of 12-year-old video gamers were pulled together for a discussion of national security, they would easily match the level of insight that has been displayed by most of the Republican presidential candidates. Between Ted Cruz’s vision of Arab deserts glowing from the effects of carpet bombing to Donald Trump’ s loose talk about using torture and nuclear weapons, one would think these president wannabes spend their days playing “Mortal Kombat” in their parents’ basement.

For many long months now, the GOP campaign has operated on an idiotically low level of political discourse appealing to the belligerent impulses of voters and shamelessly playing on their irrational fears. Having been immersed in this babble myself for so long, it was a jolt to run across the following statement from a major American politician:

“I … believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”


The quotation — taken from an interview with the president of the United States — comes from a lengthy examination of Barack Obama’s foreign policy written by Jeffrey Goldberg in the current Atlantic magazine. What is remarkable about the passage is how candidly Obama acknowledges that the United States cannot fix every world problem by sending in troops and blowing things up. That is a type of straight talk that eludes even Donald Trump, the guy who supposedly is unafraid of stating inconvenient truths.

For seven years, we have been fortunate to have a president with a sophisticated understanding of the perilous international minefield he walks through every day. Whether you admire Obama or not, Goldberg’s piece is worth reading as an antidote to bombastic campaign rhetoric that implies foreign policy is akin to a video game in which force resolves every situation.

As the Atlantic article observes, there is a permanent foreign policy establishment in Washington that perpetually agitates for a muscular response to any challenge. Obama followed the establishment’s conventional wisdom when he drew a now-notorious “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. When Syrian dictator Bashar Assad crossed that line, the inside-the-Beltway hawks insisted that Obama had no choice but to unleash the cruise missiles or America would look weak.

Obama didn’t do it. Instead, he changed course and, working with the Russians, got the Syrians to destroy their chemical weapons. His critics still say he wimped out. His supporters say an attack would have merely added to the chaos in the region and done nothing to eliminate chemical weapons that might have ended up in the hands of Islamic State terrorists.

Obama is proud that he broke from the Washington playbook. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national security apparatus had gone fairly far,” he told Goldberg. “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.”

Whatever damage he sustained in public perception, Obama believes American interests were better served by finding a path around the Mideast morass, rather than plunging in with guns blazing. Obama learned from the calamitous mistakes of his predecessor in the White House, but it is hard to imagine that, facing a similar choice, Cruz, Trump or Hillary Clinton (who, as Obama’s secretary of State, reportedly criticized the president’s Syria decision) would not opt for bombs instead of nuanced diplomacy.


“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic,” Obama said in the Atlantic. “I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”

I have a feeling Americans are going to miss that perspective when a new president takes charge — no matter whom he or she may be.