Goldberg on Obama’s Syria credibility ‘crisis’

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Everybody’s got something to say about Jeffrey Goldberg’s extensive article at The AtlanticThe Obama Doctrine. Since it was published last week, reviews have been more prolific than dandelions. It’s got a theme running through it; militarily, has the U.S. lost its deterrence credibility because of Barack Obama? And the article opens, closes, centers on, and drives home Obama’s failure to bomb Syria in August 2013 after Bashar al-Assad allegedly crossed Obama’s previously-stated red line.

Goldberg gnashes on this idea over and over in the interview. He’s not reporting the story, he’s driving it — for the neocons.

Are you too cautious?, I asked….

What has struck me is that, even as his secretary of state warns about a dire, Syria-fueled European apocalypse, Obama has not recategorized the country’s civil war as a top-tier security threat.

Obama’s hesitation to join the battle for Syria is held out as proof by his critics that he is too naive; his decision in 2013 not to fire missiles is proof, they argue, that he is a bluffer.

Which critics? He doesn’t name them. But “Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence.” So are we being prepped for Hillary coming in and bombing Syria? Is that why Goldberg is conducting this “debate” –2-1/2 years after the event– about Obama’s decision not to strike, which the reporter claims “will be interrogated mercilessly by historians.” 

Any doubt Goldberg’s primary focus is establishing Obama’s reluctance (“queasy….recoiling from the idea of an attack”) to invade Syria as leaving an indelible stain on his legacy can be dismissed by watching the video the journalist narrates that accompanies the article. He makes points in the video he doesn’t in writing, like ‘that’s when the crisis really began’. What crisis might you ask? Goldberg says it was when Obama realized it was “on him” to stop Assad from using chemical weapons “again” (no equivocation from Goldberg whether Assad had actually ever used them). However, the name of the video is “The Day Obama Broke With the Washington Playbook” (or “Obama’s ‘Red Line’ That Wasn’t”). That’s the crisis — and it entails American national-security credibility. According to Goldberg, Obama “secretly disdains” the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which makes “a fetish” of the idea of credibility.

Screenshot: "The Day Obama Broke With the Washington Playbook" narrated by Jeffrey Goldberg
Screenshot: “The Day Obama Broke With the Washington Playbook” narrated by Jeffrey Goldberg

The “playbook” phrasing is Obama’s, from the article:

“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

I have come to believe that, in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East—countries, he complains privately to friends and advisers, that seek to exploit American “muscle” for their own narrow and sectarian ends.

Though Goldberg mentions Obama “resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex… doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders,” he doesn’t elaborate explicitly who that foreign policy establishment Obama defied is (see below) nor which allies are so high maintenance.  And though he references August 30 as Obama’s “liberation day,” the first sentence in his article, counters a possibly “sagacious” Obama peering into a Middle Eastern abyss and stepping back as the alternative to the more likely storyline, a “feckless” president:

Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious ….

Later Goldberg rubs it in: “History may record August 30, 2013 … as the day he let the Middle East slip from America’s grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran, and ISIS.”

Credibility, or lack thereof, crops up repeatedly in the article. He collects statement after statement on America’s credibility, from a slew of characters — Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Kerry, Leon Panetta, Tim Kaine, and the list goes on. Way into the article he mentions “I again raised this question of deterrent credibility” to get another quote from Obama and hammers the point home — which explains why everyone’s discussing it.

To hear Goldberg tell it, David Cameron folded (The video picks up firebrand former MP George Galloway’s speech to British parliament to explain British House’s caving in on the matter), Obama turned to Congress and fell right after. We are told that Congress had “little interest” in a strike but he doesn’t tell us why. U.S. lawmakers weren’t down with the strike — and for good reason: the American public didn’t want another war in the Middle East.

Florida’s Rep. Alan Grayson led a national charge against authorizing the attack, estimating constituents calls were “100-to-1” against the resolution and House members were “listening to their constituents“. In short, there was a huge public outcry against an attack. So no, Obama didn’t just fold. Overwhelmingly, the strike lacked backing from the American people and from congress. All that is glossed over in Goldberg’s narration. Maybe because he’s part of that Washington foreign-policy establishment that has a credibility fetish.

Goldberg mentions the American people just once in the article. We “seemed unenthusiastic” about attacking Syria. That almost sounds lukewarm but I’d characterize it a gross understatement. More like cold, frozen cold. (And you wonder why Sanders’s and Trump’s antiwar statements are part of their popularity.)

And though Goldberg states that “The arrangement won the president praise from, of all people, Benjamin Netanyahu,” that praise came 9 months later in May 2014, in Goldberg’s own interview with Israel’s prime minister after all was said and done. Netanyahu issued no statement of support when Obama called off the strike or while AIPAC was pressuring Congress.

But the days leading up to August 30 were telling. There was the Weekly Standard‘s Experts to Obama: Here is what to do in Syria signed by Elliott Abrams, Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol,  Joe Lieberman, Danielle Pletka, Dan Senor, Bernard-Henri Levy, Cliff May, Max Boot, Karl Rove — and a long long list of usual suspects, spearheaded by Kristol’s The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), neocon interventionist signees who wanted Obama to impose “meaningful consequences on the Assad regime”, iow, destroy them and train and arm “moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition”.

All in all, this was, by far, an era of the most confusing messaging from the pro Israel community. Astoundingly, on the same day Kristol’s group wrote Obama pushing for intervention Politico published Israel lobby silent on Syria:

The Israel lobby, including the high-profile American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups, isn’t pushing for intervention.”

Weeks later Michael Oren stated that Israel wanted regime change all along even if it meant Al Qaeda was in charge, while Jodi Rudoren reported in the Times the chemical attacks in Syria were “comforting” to Israelis because they offered a “diversion” from the global focus on Israel/Palestine. Goldberg will recall as much, because he stepped right into the middle of a debate about whether that was ugly or justified.

The lobby kept its head down because it didn’t want to get blamed for pushing another war (as it did with Iraq). But the only Americans who seemed hot to strike Syria were the Israel lobby and their supporters. Did Goldberg mention them even once in the article? Nope. Maybe he forgot AIPAC pushed for the Syria strike and launched “a major lobbying campaign” at the behest of the president. Even Eli Lake reported “AIPAC in “Full Court Press on Syria”. It was a showdown and the Lobby lost. That part Goldberg completely left out. And it was a precursor (or a trial run?) –coincidentally or not — to AIPAC’s (and Netanyahu’s) spectacular failure to derail the Iran deal in 2015.

Goldberg says:

[T]he president had come to believe that he was walking into a trap—one laid both by allies and by adversaries…

But no mention, specifically, of who set the trap. We all know who these people are though. It’s the very same people Obama blamed in 2015 for pressuring him into the failed policy of training “moderate” rebels. Neoconservative Jennifer Rubin called it whining, she links to and quotes from the same FPI ‘bomb Syria and destroy Assad regime letter’.

And, like Libya in 2011, Hillary Clinton was in the forefront pushing for military intervention.

So, did Obama throw the a curve ball back in the fall of 2013?

“I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “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, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the “Washington playbook.”

Goldberg did get fantastic quotes from Obama:

The president’s unwillingness to counter the baiting by American adversaries can feel emotionally unsatisfying, I said, and I told him that every so often, I’d like to see him give Vladimir Putin the finger. It’s atavistic, I said, understanding my audience.

“It is,” the president responded coolly. “This is what they’re looking for.”

Who are the “American adversaries” Goldberg understands as his audience? He doesn’t say — but Obama seems to know exactly who’s being referenced.

Everyone should read the article because it’s fabulously revealing. But it’s what Goldberg left out that shaped the Obama Doctrine, and that’s what historians will likely be mercilessly interrogating way into the future. History just may record August 30, 2013 — as the day the sagacious Barack Obama brought to a premature end the reign of the neocons on American foreign policy.

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Obama is still a Sphinx, even if weathered. The Iran deal, healthcare, and not going all-in in Syria are amazing accomplishments, especially considering all the obstructionists and bullies the president has faced. He’s a man with vision. I will remember him kindly even if i would have liked to have… Read more »

Fabulous article and research, Annie. Quote: the day he defied *** America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East—countries, he complains privately to friends and advisers, that seek to exploit American “muscle” for their own narrow and sectarian ends. Could this mean Israel? Perish the thought. OTOH, Goldberg seems a… Read more »

Annie, is there a connection between Goldberg’s piece and the “coffee party” reference by Haim Saban in an email to Clinton about a US News & World Report “hatchet job” on Obama discussed here some weeks ago? Also, the word “playbook” has had some currency in recent years, as… Read more »

Syria is a mess. Before the Arab spring it was indeed one of the most repressive governments in the world and you had to look awfully hard to find a worse regime in the Arab world. Assad met the nonviolent demonstrations with bullets and thus was born the civil war.… Read more »

Annie, thanks so *much* for this great piece of research and analysis. I hadn’t seen the video. At 0:22 it stopped me in my tracks: “When Bashar Al-Asad actually *used* chemical weapons, he [Obama] realized that… ” So Jeffrey Goldberg, former Israeli prison guard, is now definitively telling us what… Read more »