The Atlantic has just published a long essay, The Obama Doctrine, by their Washington national correspondent, Jeffrey Goldberg. Based in most part on wide-ranging reflective interviews with President Barack Obama, the article makes extensive use of direct quotes from that interview. Considerable space is devoted to the various American engagements in the Middle East along with Obama’s views on prospects for the region. It is a remarkable journalistic event insofar as it represents a preemptive attempt by a sitting President to shape the discourse about his record and his legacy. What he says is revealing - less as analysis and interpretation of actions taken, though, than as an ‘exhibit' of all that is peculiar about Obama’s policy-making style - and what the implications for American diplomacy have been.
Obama's overall stance is one of dissociation from his own administration and its conduct. Throughout, he appears to be referring to himself in the 3rd person. This can be seen as the soon to be memoir writer's attempt to cast himself as detached statesman while distancing himself from errors made. However, this degree of dissociation by a still incumbent President is odd. It suggests that he has been playing the role of participant-observer while in the Oval Office. Moreover, it conveys his sense that somehow the words he utters are equivalent to actions. Indeed, a feature of his Presidency has been a frequent mismatch of words and deeds which never get reconciled. Nor do they in this seemingly candid interview. That raises a cardinal question: is this honest reflection or a characteristic flight from accountability?
Two, this strange attitude is most pronounced in his remarks about the Middle East. For example, he inveighs against allowing the United States to be placed in a position of picking sides in Islam's Sunni-Shi'ite civil war. He is especially adamant about the dangers of American power being used as a tool of the Saudis to advance their cause. Yet, this is exactly what he has been doing in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Bahrain. Moreover, he never has confronted the KSA leaders about the promotion of wahabbism or their concrete support for ISIl and al-Qaeda (in Syria and Yemen - where they fight side-by-side with Saudi troops) - either in private or in public.
Let’s step back and reflect on this. Barack Obama, President of the United States, in telling a journalist that his most important ‘ally’ in the Middle East has been aiding and abetting America’s mortal enemies – and that they should stop. Yet, three years after those hostile actions began he has yet to voice his displeasure directly in numerous meetings. Instead, he gets an interview published in a magazine that the Saudi leaders might pick up in the waiting room at the Mayo Clinic on their next medical visit. If there is any sense or logic to this, it must conform to a mental process never before encountered.