Outgoing President Barack Obama.
As the Obama Administration approaches its final months, The Atlantic has published a mammoth and definitive analysis of the President’s foreign policy legacy. The analysis is written by Jeffrey Goldberg, a former IDF prison guard who worked at the Ktzi’ot prison camp during the First Intifada, a camp notorious for its violent guards, detention of children, and horrific living conditions. It is noteworthy that The Atlantic, which employs Goldberg, considers itself to be a progressive publication.
In his in-depth discussion of the President’s foreign policy legacy, Goldberg repeatedly commits the journalistic sin of giving his subject the benefit of the doubt, at times sounding sycophantic, and replacing warranted scepticism with American exceptionalist quotes. Indeed, half way through the article Goldberg openly admits that the goal of his analysis was “to see the world through Obama’s eyes”, rather than challenge what Obama’s eyes see. In this abdication of journalistic responsibility, Goldberg even publishes lies on the President’s behalf. What follows is an examination of these lies.
A philosophical current that runs throughout Goldberg’s analysis is, unsurprisingly, the concept of self-defense, a concept that American leaders have always stretched to its absolute limit. When is pre-emptive force justified, if at all? For Obama, humanitarian disasters and civil wars do not automatically justify American boots on the ground, “unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States”. Coincidentally, Obama gets to define what constitutes a “direct security threat”, and like his predecessors, he defines poorly.
Goldberg recalls how in his first term, Obama identified roughly three of these “direct security threats”: al-Qaeda, enemies of Israel, and a nuclear Iran. Although al-Qaeda is probably the only one on the list that mildly threatens anybody, identifying the other two gives the President a mandate to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs under the guise of national security. Sound familiar?
In Syria, an example Goldberg repeatedly comes back to, the case for self-defense remains exceptionally thin. Obama’s initial justification for intervention was that Assad had violated “well-established international norms” regarding the use of chemical weapons. This, according to Obama, warranted a military response because it could undermine America’s global authority. It could give pariah states across the globe the feeling that America was no longer on patrol, and that they could now literally get away with murder. In other words, the President seemed to think that “damage to American credibility in one region of the world would bleed into others”. Sounds like something from Ted Cruz’s campaign website.
“It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal that that international norm doesn’t mean much. And that is a danger to our national security“
A mere five lines later in the article, Goldberg notes that “within the White House, Obama would argue that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force””. Goldberg doesn’t even mildly scoff at this glaring contradiction.
In essence, an unknown state at an unknown time in the future might use chemical weapons because Assad did, and therefore – you guessed it – it’s a threat to national security. Even the investigators in Minority Report might be suspicious about this level of precognition, but Goldberg fails to challenge it.
Nor does Goldberg wonder why there no red lines were drawn when the U.S. used chemical weapons during the Iraq War. All that matters is that the President’s planetary authority could be compromised, and that is simply unacceptable. As Goldberg uncritically remarks, most in Washington regard American power as “an intangible yet potent force—one that, when properly nurtured, keeps America’s friends feeling secure and keeps the international order stable”. When we use chemical weapons, we’re promoting global stability. When they use chemical weapons, they’re violating an international norm.
To be frank, this claim about bringing stability is an outright lie, and Goldberg knows it. One could take a multitude of examples – from ignoring inconvenient UN Resolutions, to bullying small defenceless nations on its doorstep (Goldberg even recants how Obama bullied David Cameron into spending 2% of Britain’s GDP on defense by warning that the “special relationship” may come to an end) – to show how the U.S. has been a ruthless and brutal force for domination in the world. But let’s stick with Syria, since it’s a potent example and exposes both Goldberg’s and Obama’s distaste for the truth.
According to the Obama Administration’s narrative, the 2011 uprisings were brutally suppressed by an unhinged dictator who defied international law, and America’s response is predicated on a deep and lasting concern for the Syrian people. In short, a classic tale of good fighting evil, enlightened West versus backwards East (a narrative bordering on white supremacy that Goldberg hoggishly repeats in a video about his analysis).
But this narrative is deliberately missing key components – Assad did respond to peaceful demonstrations with abject violence, but what neither Obama nor Goldberg take into account is the role of the U.S. in creating the conditions ripe for an uprising to begin with. Ahead of the release of The Wikileaks Files, a cable from 2006 shows that the U.S. was interested in exploiting weaknesses in the Assad regime for over a decade. The good side had a hand in creating the evil side.
The cable details a list of vulnerabilities in the Assad regime, with recommendations on how to exploit and exacerbate them, with the purpose of turning Assad into a paranoid monster who would then lash out at his own people, thus setting the stage for another intervention. We do not know to what extent these recommendations were implemented, and they were handed to Bush, not Obama, but if Obama continued to exploit them, he has a hand in the civilian deaths too.
Leaked cables aside, Obama’s verifiable actions after the uprising can hardly be remembered fondly. Despite promising to only include “moderate” rebels in his Frankensteinian anti-Assad coalition, arms meant for these moderates has ended up in the hands of the extremist groups the U.S. was trying to avoid arming in the first place. Pictures and videos showing ISIS militants driving American military Jeeps caused some temporary shock, but nobody really asked how this bundle could have happened, and nor does Goldberg.
So zealous was Obama’s plan to topple Assad that he even ignored a 2012 Pentagon report warning that the so-called “moderates” he wanted to arm were actually colluding with ISIS, meaning that in the President’s mind, removing Assad could come at any price. Worse still, there are accusations that Obama refused to consider that the chemical weapon attack which caused him to draw the infamous “red line” may not have been committed by Assad to begin with. Obama was handed evidence to suggest that an al-Qaeda affiliate had the capabilities to manufacture the chemical weapons, and may have used them, but this wouldn’t help justify attacking Assad, and so it was ignored. Goldberg omits all of this from his analysis too.
For some liberal interventionists, doing nothing in the face of a civil war like this is unacceptable, but after seeing what intervention in Syria has done to stop the bloodshed – that is, strengthen terror groups – negligence looks to be a kindness.
Whether Assad’s regime survives the Syrian Civil War or not is of no consequence to the United States, at least not from a national security standpoint. Obama’s contention that Assad could inspire fellow pariah states to lash out is unfounded, and is proof that he is keen on the kind of open-ended perpetual wars that his predecessor relished in, despite his protestations to the contrary. Even the remotest possibility that non-intervention could challenge America’s global dominance is enough to justify drone strikes over populated areas.
Goldberg claims that Obama is “tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries”, and later claims that the President has “set a very high threshold for what constitutes a direct national security threat”. This is despite having bombed seven Muslim-majority countries during his time as President, and conducting an array of drone strikes not only across the Middle East, but across Africa too, often against groups that the United States has never declared war on, and against groups who have never conducted or even planned an attack on U.S. soil. If that’s a very high threshold for the use of force, one gets chills thinking about what a low threshold would look like.
Goldberg’s uncritical analysis depicts an almost saint-like caricature of Obama, a man just trying to do good in a world surrounded by the bloodthirsty, the inept, and the lazy. For Goldberg, Obama “[defies] the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile play-book”, and “has a more stringent definition of what constitutes a direct national security threat than a lot of other people”. The truth could not be more dissimilar: Obama is just as bloodthirsty and inept as his advisers, and his unauthorized violent adventurism across the Middle East stands as sombre testimony.
“For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world. If you compare us to previous superpowers, we act less on the basis of naked self-interest, and have been interested in establishing norms that benefit everyone. If it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it”
The entirety of Goldberg’s mammoth analysis goes beyond mere apologetics. Goldberg actually seems to delight in tales of bullying, cajoling, and aggression towards America’s allies and adversaries alike, and consistently follows the lead that Obama sets for him. He scoffs at Putin when Obama jokes about him. He refers to the President of Nicaragua as a “radical leftist” when Obama complains about him. The President can even hint at the possibility of a permanent military presence in Vietnam to “check the ambitions” of China, and Goldberg says nothing. Just imagine Goldberg’s response if China was considering a permanent military presence in Mexico. He is simply not interested in critically assessing the President’s legacy, which makes his analysis doomed from the outset.
Occasionally, Goldberg does think twice about what Obama has done, and comes close to asking pertinent questions about the foundations of the Obama Doctrine. Disappointingly, these questions are always followed up with a quote that justifies whatever action or position Goldberg is scrutinizing, usually from a senior government official. In the case of drone strikes, Goldberg wonders whether they have been used too ungracefully, only to quote CIA Director John Brennan, a strong advocate of drone warfare. Asking government officials to justify government actions is, yet again, a grave journalistic sin, one that Goldberg commits numerous times.
Goldberg’s whitewashed analysis is bad enough, but voices elsewhere in The Atlantic have somehow managed to out-do his ineptitude in assessing the President’s legacy. Opinion pieces on this topic usually fall into one of two categories: The revisionist Goldberg camp, which sees the President’s use of violence as temperate and righteous, or the Melhemist camp, which sees the President as not being violent enough.
As an interesting aside, The Atlantic has since published a story on how the Obama-Cameron defense spending quibble (referenced earlier) has been received rather poorly by Downing Street. For perspective, The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur cites three British opinion pieces, all of which questioning whether the President could have handled Cameron better, but agreeing that his irritation with the Prime Minister was undeniably justified. No matter his possible shortcomings, Obama yet again enters the situation from a place of righteousness.
This, as Noam Chomsky famously iterated, is limiting the spectrum of acceptable opinions, and then rigorously debating within that narrow spectrum, all with the purpose of sanctioning an underlying action as undeniably righteous. In their assessment of Obama’s foreign policy legacy, the repeated use of death and destruction was either a success, a failure, or somewhere in between. The question of whether such use of death and destruction is morally justifiable in the first place is deliberately left unanswered, and thus the reader should assume that it is justifiable.
For example, when listing the four reasons for the volte-face on Syrian airstrikes, the President talks at length about the strategic implications of attacking Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles, rather than the moral ones. If the attack failed to wipe out his munitions, it would make the U.S. look foolish and would give Assad political ammunition. Sure, there may have been the possibility of civilian casualties in the area, and the strikes may not have been sanctioned either by Congress or the UN, but above all, we don’t want to look bad.
“The U.S. president kills whomever he wants, wherever he wants, without regard for any semblance of law, process, accountability, or evidence” – Glenn Greenwald
One also finds it difficult to believe that in the days before the planned strikes, Obama felt increasingly queasy at the prospect of intervention without Congressional approval. His administration recently executed 150 people in Somalia with drones and missiles, later claiming that they were militants for al-Shabaab while refusing to release any evidence to support that assertion. Obama did not stop to ask Congress for approval for that intervention, nor for previous ones. The U.S. is not even at war with Somalia or any groups operating within it. Perhaps it was another of the President’s identified “direct security threats”, thus allowing him to continue his predecessor’s legacy and ignore demands for accountability. Naturally, mouthpiece Goldberg doesn’t notice this double-standard either.
For Barack Obama and the liberal cheerleaders of death at The Atlantic, might remains right, and even if the U.S. is sometimes ungraceful in its pursuit of universal values, the means always justify the ends, regardless of how many innocent people have to scream and die in the process. Obama will be remembered as the Nobel Peace Prize winning President that ended two wars and ushered in a new era of diplomacy and cooperation. Instead, he should be remembered for killing children.