Is the Obama doctrine the new American doctrine?
Shmuel Rosner Jewish Journal of Los Angeles 3-14-16
The Obama Doctrine by Jeffrey Goldberg is an enviable achievement. If you have the time to read just one article this week – read this one. If you have the time to read just one this month – still this one. If you have the time to read just one this year – well, we have a long way to go until the end of the year, but it still might be this one.
The Obama Doctrine by Jeffrey Goldberg is also a troubling achievement. Many pundits have already parsed some of the problematic details and pointed to the many concerning statements made by President Obama in this long interview. But the most troubling aspect of the article is the fact that it appeared now, rather than a year from now. A President of the United States who still has a year of presidency ahead of him decided that the time to insult world leaders and show his disdain for countries and peoples around the globe is now. He does not much care what the Prime Minister of Britain might think as he reads this article. He does not much care how the Saudis react to this blunt statement of inattentiveness. He does not consider the feelings and fears of Ukrainians.
This is the same President that faked insult when Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel dared to accept an invitation to speak in Congress – the same President that complained about the “breach of protocol” on Netanyahu's part.
There’s a wonderful line in Love and Kisses, the short sweet song by Sam Phillips. It reads: “History is written to say it wasn’t our fault, wasn’t our fault.”
Reading the Obama interview, this line kept playing in my head. Libya is not Obama’s fault – it is Cameron’s and Sarkozy’s. Palestine is Netanyahu’s. Ukraine is either Bush’s fault (he did not respond in Georgia) or just the fault of unfortunate geography. Afghanistan – it is the Pentagon that “jammed” Obama on a troop surge. Syria – the stakes for other players were higher, so the US was unable to change much. The Saudis need to learn to “share the neighborhood” with Iran and have nothing to complain as long as they treat women the way they do (because the Iranians treat their women exactly as Obama expects).
Goldberg’s history was written to say it wasn’t Obama’s fault.
Niall Ferguson responded to Obama’s interview by penning the following observation: “Power corrupts in subtle ways. It appears to have made Obama arrogant.” There’s no better way to describe it: Obama respects no one. As Daniel Drezner noted: “The essay is shot through with disdain from both the president himself and his White House staff about the opinions and judgments of the array of foreign policy think tanks and institutions in Washington.” But it is not just think tanks that the President has no respect for: it’s most of the leaders of Europe, and the leaders of all Arab countries, and, of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who deserves “his own category.”
I wonder why – why does Netanyahu ,of all leaders, deserve a special “category?” Obama, writes Goldberg, “has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so.” Suppose that this is true – and of course it isn’t – but suppose that this is true: does it justify a special category? Is Netanyahu the only leader that has failed to achieve a goal Obama finds worthy because of fear and political considerations? Even the article itself counts similar faults in other leaders. But these leaders do not get to be made special.
If you are a leader of a country in the Middle East and you read The Obama Doctrine, there are two questions you must ask yourself:
1. What happens in the long months until Obama departs from the presidency?
2. What happens after Obama departs from the presidency?
The first question is important: Obama still has power to make things happen. He can still impact the trajectory of the Syrian war, he still needs to decide how to act following Iran’s missiles tests.
The second question is more important, and much broader in nature. It is essentially the question: is it Obama or is it America? In other words: is Obama the exception and when his term ends the US will go back to its traditional foreign policy – or maybe this president heralds a new era in American foreign policy?
Translate the first question to Hebrew and what you get is this:
Will Obama use his last year in office to teach Israel – or Netanyahu – a lesson and move forward with a plan that will complicate Israel’s situation vis-à-vis the Palestinians? A couple of days ago, a New York Times story suggested such a possibility, and the Goldberg interview makes any hope for Obama being hesitant vanish. He no longer cares what other people or countries might think of him.
On the other hand, the interview also makes his insistence on advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process even more puzzling than it was before. Obama chose not to do anything about Syria because “the danger to the United States posed by the Assad regime did not rise to the level of these challenges” – but chooses to do something about Palestine (which is clearly of even lower significance to the direct interests of the United States)?
Translate the second question to Hebrew – the long term question - and what you get is much more complicated:
If Obama is an exception, then all Israel has to do is let his term lapse and wait for Clinton or Trump to hopefully make things better. Eight years of Obama are a long time, but if the basic contours of the US-Israel alliance have not changed as a result of it, the damage done to these relations by Obama are manageable.
On the other hand, if Obama’s approach to the world is a manifestation of what a majority of Americans want – then Israel has a long-term problem that it will need to address. In short: the need to reduce its reliance on American support and find ways to compensate for the void that will be created by America's absence.