On the eve of the Netanyahu visit to Washington, President Obama gave a lengthy interview to Jeffrey Goldberg that shows a chief executive who has learned next to nothing about the world in his five years in office.
First, kudos to Goldberg: he pressed Obama repeatedly, challenging vague formulations and seeking clarity. Goldberg pushed Obama hard, especially on Iran and Syria.
Obama isn’t good off the cuff, especially when challenged; he is far better with a prepared speech. And what emerged is an awful portrait of the president and his conception of the world.
Take Syria. Here’s what Obama said:
“I think those who believe that two years ago, or three years ago, there was some swift resolution to this thing had we acted more forcefully, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the conflict in Syria and the conditions on the ground there. … Over the last two years I have pushed our teams to find out what are the best options in a bad situation. … But I’ve looked at a whole lot of game plans, a whole lot of war plans, a whole bunch of scenarios, and nobody has been able to persuade me that us taking large-scale military action even absent boots on the ground, would actually solve the problem. And those who make that claim do so without a lot of very specific information.”
Who are these people who have inadequate information, misunderstand the conflict in Syria, and think there is much more the United States could have done? They include both of Obama’s secretaries of state, Clinton and Kerry, his former defense secretary Leon Panetta, and his former CIA director David Petraeus—all of whom wanted much more U.S. support for the Syrian rebels. And perhaps more to the point, take the case of Fred Hof.
Hof has been working on Syria and the broader Middle East since the 1970s, first as a career Army officer and then for the State Department. He was given the rank of ambassador and the title of “special adviser” on Syria by Obama in 2012. Hof has left the government and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where he writes regularly about Syria at the Council’s web site. He knows far more about Syria than Mr. Obama and saw the same intelligence Mr. Obama did (in fact, he no doubt read a lot more of it). And what he writes is filled with growing anguish and anger about Obama’s failure to act in the face of mass murder by the criminal regime in Damascus. But to Obama, any such criticism “fundamentally misunderstands…conditions on the ground there,” which of course only Obama really understands.
Obama’s “arguments” about Syria in the Goldberg interview are insulting to his former (and, in Kerry’s case, current) top advisers, whose advice he rejected, and misleading about their advice. He describes a situation where ignorant critics seek “large scale military action,” which is akin to the administration’s claim that those who want sanctions on Iran are “warmongers.” But that is a false description, for what was recommended time after time was serious help to the rebels, and a one-time strike (“incredibly small,” said Kerry, not “large scale”) at chemical weapons assets. So we have the president deriding those who disagreed with him—who include his top aides and top experts—and refusing, even now, to understand that his policy of passivity in Syria has produced nearly the worst of all possible worlds: 150,000 dead, 6 million homeless, and a menacing gathering of perhaps 25,000 jihadists at the heart of the Middle East.
On Israel, Obama was harsh and unfriendly to Netanyahu just days before the Netanyahu visit—quite a welcome to Washington. But the errors of his own analysis are striking. He says we must give the Palestinians “the dignity of a state,” but the Tunisians and Egyptians and other Arabs who rebelled in the “Arab Spring” had a state. They lacked dignity because that state treated them with contempt, giving them no real freedom and jailing them if they asked for it. Under Mr. Obama corruption in the Palestinian Authority has exploded and they have gone five additional years without an election.
Mr. Obama says this:
“Palestinians would still prefer peace. They would still prefer a country of their own that allows them to find a job, send their kids to school, travel overseas, go back and forth to work without feeling as if they are restricted or constrained as a people.”
If they would also prefer freedom of the press and of speech, and free elections, and an independent court system, and a government that does not steal their money, well, that isn’t of much interest to Mr. Obama. It isn’t even worth mentioning. So he would give the Palestinians the “dignity” that led to oppression and uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, and seems to have no interest in the actual conditions of political life in the state he would create.
The burden of making peace is put entirely on Israeli shoulders. PA president Abbas (whose term ended five years ago, and who is surrounded by growing corruption) is portrayed as a lovely man ready for peace—no mention that he refused it when it was offered by then-prime minister Olmert in 2008. Is Abbas really ready, now, to sign what he would not back then: an agreement that ends the conflict entirely and finally tells Palestinian “refugees” that they have no right to go to Israel? An agreement that acknowledges Israel as a Jewish state? These doubts are never acknowledged by Obama, who assumes that the only problems are on the Israeli side.
Then comes the kind of vague threat that Secretary Kerry has also made, in his case perhaps without meaning to:
“What we also know is that Israel has become more isolated internationally. We had to stand up in the Security Council in ways that 20 years ago would have involved far more European support, far more support from other parts of the world when it comes to Israel’s position.”
Now in truth the Obama administration has stood up in the Security Council with great reluctance, trying desperately at times to avoid vetoes of anti-Israel resolutions that deserved a quick and easy refusal. And that American reluctance to side clearly and early on with Israel in the Security Council has encouraged the Europeans to draw back as well, so the Obama account has it backwards. But the message remains clear: if Israel refuses the terms we give it, life will become tougher.
The difference between an American prediction of greater international isolation and an American promise that it will come is not very great.
OBAMA: “if you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction -- and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time -- if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.
GOLDBERG: Willingness, or ability?
OBAMA: Not necessarily willingness, but ability to manage international fallout is going to be limited. And that has consequences.
As to that “aggressive settlement construction,” it is worth noting that at Obama’s request Netanyahu suspended construction in settlements for ten months in 2009. Apparently that gesture, its political cost for Netanyahu, and the fact that it gained Netanyahu and Israeli absolutely nothing from the Palestinians or the Europeans, is now forgotten.
Israelis remember, as perhaps Mr. Obama does not, that getting out of Gaza required Ariel Sharon to fight a two-year political battle that caused him to lose his party: he had to leave Likud and found a new party, Kadima. And that was about Gaza, where only 7,500 Jews lived in a small number of settlements in an area of no religious significance. The political battle over the West Bank would be far greater, so Obama is telling Netanyahu he must risk his own and his party’s future—on faith in both Abbas’s reliability and Mr. Obama’s own. In the Sharon case, he took the risks only when he had secured an absolute promise of support from George W. Bush, whom he viewed as a reliable partner. Mr. Obama did not help his cause when, upon coming to office, he disregarded all the pledges Bush made to Sharon in 2004. In Kerry’s negotiations, any real peace deal would be reached next year or in 2016, when Obama will be a lame duck. Who knows what American pledges will be worth, when after all Obama disregarded all of the ones his own predecessor made.
When it comes to Iran, Obama shows an attitude that can only be described as solipsistic: what’s in his mind is reality. And any other reality is just plain silly. Here is the key exchange:
GOLDBERG: So just to be clear: You don’t believe the Iranian leadership now thinks that your “all options are on the table” threat as it relates to their nuclear program -- you don’t think that they have stopped taking that seriously?
OBAMA: I know they take it seriously.
GOLDBERG: How do you know they take it seriously?
OBAMA: We have a high degree of confidence that when they look at 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region that are engaged in constant training exercises under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past, that they should take my statements seriously. And the American people should as well, and the Israelis should as well, and the Saudis should as well….
GOLDBERG: So why are the Sunnis so nervous about you?
OBAMA: Well, I don’t think this is personal. I think that there are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off guard. I think change is always scary.
It’s pretty obvious to all analysts that Iran does not fear an American military strike much these days, especially after Mr. Obama’s failure to act in Syria last summer. But Obama denies it, referring to himself in the third person as someone “who has shown himself willing to take military action.” Drones, sure; a quick raid as well. But in Libya and Syria, he showed himself extremely reluctant to take military action. Remember “leading from behind?” If he genuinely thinks he is viewed as a scary guy with his finger near the trigger, we all have a problem.
Goldberg pushes him, asking why (as is obvious) no one in the Gulf believes Obama. “I don’t think it is personal,” says the president; the problem is them, not him, and his analysis is therapeutic: change is always scary, and they are having trouble catching up with it. But talk with Gulf Arabs and one finds quickly that it is in fact quite personal: they don’t trust Mr. Obama. They believe his handling of Iran and Syria and for that matter of Russia have made the world a more dangerous place.
Change is apparently not scary to Mr. Obama, who is confident all his policies are right. Those who disagree are uninformed, or itching for conflict, or ignorant about the risks they will soon face, or sadly unable to adapt to world events. This is the Obama who said of his own nomination that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” If he believes it, it must be so. The Goldberg interview reveals that five years in, nothing has changed.