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The Atlantic examines Obama’s foreign policy legacy

March 10, 2016 at 8:03 PM EST
What is President Obama’s real foreign policy legacy? Through a series of interviews with the commander in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic set out to determine an answer -- one divorced from the partisan rhetoric that tends to dominate such discussions. As part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff joins Goldberg to find out what he learned.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, a broad, yet intimate look at how President Obama views America’s role in the world. It comes from “The Atlantic”‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, who sat down for hours of interviews with the president for his cover story, “The Obama Doctrine,” out today.

Judy Woodruff begins our conversation with how the president’s foreign policy is seen.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: One of the interesting caricatures of President Obama is that he doesn’t believe that the U.S. is indispensable. You hear that from his critics all the time, that he’s a retrenchment president, he’s a withdrawal president, a declinist.

I think that’s wrong. I think he understands that America is indispensable to the smooth functioning of global affairs. I think he might be the first president who sometimes resents that role, who looks at our allies and thinks that these guys need to pay for something once in a while, these guys need to do more than they’re doing.

He is also a person who is more hesitant than the average president to use force, specifically in the Middle East. Now, there’s a contradiction here at the core of his presidency, which is that the president who his critics believe is almost a pacifist in some kind of way, a declinist, is also the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do any of the critics get it right? Because, on the right, Republicans are saying this is a president who is weak, he’s feckless, he doesn’t believe in America’s strength, and on the left, you have got some liberals saying he’s been too inclined to use force, to use drones, and he doesn’t care enough about humanitarian crises.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right.

What he does that annoys people on the right is that he has set a very high threshold for what constitutes a direct national security threat to the United States. But the people on the left understand him to be a ruthless hunter of terrorists, right? They have that — they have that right.

But I think the right gets it wrong. They have this caricature of this kind of feckless president who doesn’t defend the United States. For instance, they talk about ISIS as if we’re not currently fighting ISIS. But the U.S. is deeply engaged in that fight, and that, of course, comes from President Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You frame much of this remarkable article based on all these interviews, six hours, you spent talking with him just about foreign policy, around the Middle East.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to a large degree, his decision not to intervene in Syria, going back to the announcement that he was drawing a red line.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. would do something, and then he turned around and didn’t do something.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you come away from that understanding why he is so averse to the U.S. getting more involved in Syria?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: To take one step back, I think he’s drawn two conclusions about the Middle East. One is that it’s not fixable by the United States. He’s also come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter that much, because we have become mainly energy-independent.

This region just matters less and less. And what happened in that red line moment was the whole apparatus, the whole national security apparatus was moving toward enforcement of that red line. And at the very last moment, he kind of threw up his hands and said, you know what, I don’t want to do this.

I think he believes that to be a hinge moment of his presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The critical narrative of his foreign policy approach is that that’s — that’s the great failure of President Obama when it comes to dealing with the world.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right. Right.

That moment, when he decided not to take unilateral action, to throw it to Congress and sort of put a pause on everything, that was his — that was a very proud moment for him.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: The moment that a lot of people think was his weakest moment as president, he is recasting as his proudest moment, or the moment where he showed true leadership.

He believed that, if he had gone into Syria in 2013, the whole of his second term would have been eaten up, consumed by the Syrian civil war. And he looked at the situation in Iraq with George W. Bush as kind of a proof of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the other hand, you have now the growth metastasizing of ISIS in Syria. You have this horrendous humanitarian crisis in Syria.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right. Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How — doesn’t that undermine what he believes?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right. Right.

Without endorsing this view, I would say that his view is that, A, he is fighting ISIS, because ISIS does represent — unlike the Assad regime in his mind, ISIS represents a direct national security threat to the United States, because they kill American citizens. The refugee thing, I think, is the one that has sent them reeling a bit, especially because the European allies are begging the United States for more intervention.

So, the gamble that he’s made is that not intervening in Syria has saved America from untold crises and terrible crises and loss of life. And there’s a very good chance that he’s correct, and, in 10 years, we will all say, wow, that was really clever of him to sort of stay — to stay back.

There’s a non-negligible chance, there’s a reasonable chance also that he’s made a terrible mistake, and that by not intervening earlier, he has let this civil war metastasize and affect not only the Middle East, but even our European allies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Connected to that is his — what you describe as his willingness to just basically upend the way America has approached its friends and enemies in the rest of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Iran. He’s staked a lot on this Iran nuclear deal. He’s prepared to stand up to the Saudis.

Where does that come from?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right.

He, like a lot of Americans, I think, looks at Saudi Arabia and says, wait a second, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia. There were no Iranians on those planes. And he looks at Saudi Arabia and its traditional export of extreme models of Islam to other parts of the world. And there’s another central pillar of our foreign policy in the Middle East, which is that, since 1979, Iran is our primary foe.

And he just looks at it and says, wait, Iran, not great. There’s this caricature that he has a romantic view of what Iran is going to become. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But what he does look at is Saudi Arabia and sees it playing an unhelpful role in both the Middle East and in world Islam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When it comes to Israel, the Palestinians, the perception is that he’s been way too tough on Israel, that his well-known difficult relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, that he hasn’t been tough enough on the Palestinians.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he’s dealing with pretty significant personal animosity, isn’t he, from Netanyahu?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, this is one of the strangest relationships.

Like, the toxicity never sort of drains from this relationship. You have in Benjamin Netanyahu basically a guy who came to America literally to subvert President Obama’s marquee foreign policy goal. And Obama won that battle, but he will never forget what Netanyahu did.

From Netanyahu’s perspective, Obama is hopelessly naive about the realities of the Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: China, it seems he’s been able to deal with China and has a — he has a pretty clear sense of where he thinks the U.S. is headed.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: China represents a threat and an opportunity, I think, in his mind.

This goes to his general predisposition toward dealing more with Asia and less with the Middle East. This is the pivot to Asia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he clearly hasn’t been able to pivot as much as he would have liked.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: No. Well, this is the point.

Once — I turned to him once, because I like movies as much as he does, and I know that he’s a fan of the “Godfather” movies. There’s a moment when Michael Corleone, who’s trying to be legitimate, realizes that the mob will always have him, is pulling him back. And he says, just when I — and I mentioned this scene, and I said, and Michael Corleone says:

AL PACINO, Actor: Just when I thought I was out…

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: And Obama finished the sentence.

AL PACINO: … they pull me back in.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: And I think that’s the way he understands the Middle East, which is, there are things to be done, important things to be done in Asia and Latin America and Africa in particular, in his mind, right, which is, by the way, most of humanity, and if the United States gets sucked further into the Middle East and its — and in the quicksand in the Middle East, there’s only so much bandwidth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If you listen to the Republican candidates, you hear nothing but a relentless criticism of this president, that America’s much worse off under President Obama.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What have you seen in talking to him and trying to understand him, to contrast with that?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: You know, whether you agree with President Obama’s world view or not, if you read this article in “The Atlantic,” you will see that he’s trying to reason his way through a set of very complicated challenges to the United States.

I don’t see anything resembling that kind of mature reasoning process going on in the debate we’re having around foreign policy. On the Republican side, you have people talking about carpet-bombing and committing war crimes and then reinstituting torture.

On the Democratic side, too, you have one of the two candidates has shown zero interest in actually thinking about foreign policy. I’m obviously talking about Bernie Sanders. There’s no doubt in my mind that President Obama does a lot of hard thinking about how to best manage the United States’ role in the world.

He might reach the wrong conclusions, and we don’t know. And we don’t know yet. We might not know for five or 10 or 15 or 20 years. But there is a process in place in his head, where he’s dealing with things in non-bumper sticker terms.

The problem for Obama is that none of his foreign policy ideas can fit on a bumper sticker. The problem in the campaign is that all of the foreign policy ideas fit on a bumper sticker. That’s the split.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Watch other stories from our partnership with “The Atlantic,” including Judy’s recent trip with James Fallows to small cities like Greenville, South Carolina, where big things are happening.

That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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