Magazine article The New Yorker


Magazine article The New Yorker


Article excerpt


Even the most forgiving judge of Barack Obama, one willing to overlook his preference for chipping onto the sunlit greens of Martha's Vineyard rather than brooding in the fluorescent glare of the Situation Room, must admit that the President has sometimes been a thick-tongued steward of his own foreign policy. How did the author of "A More Perfect Union" become the author of "The world has always been messy"? Obama, who prides himself on late-night preparation, unshakable rationality, and a writerly ear, is compiling an anthology of botched pronouncements that have, at best, muddied his intentions. August, 2012: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." September, 2013: "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line." August, 2014: "I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet."

After six years in office, Obama broadcasts his world-weariness with wan gestures and pauses, with loose moments in the White House press room. The world has stubbornly denied him his ambition to transcend its cruelties, pivot smartly to the East, and "do some nation-building here at home." Obama's halting cool at the lectern now reads too often as weakness, and when he protests against the charges of weakness he can seem just tired. As the Middle East disintegrates and a vengeful cynic in the Kremlin invades his neighbor, Obama has offered no full and clarifying foreign-policy vision.

His opponents and would-be successors at home have seized the chance to peashoot from the sidelines. What do they offer? Unchastened by their many past misjudgments, John McCain and Lindsey Graham go on proposing escalations, aggressions, and regime changes. Rand Paul, who will likely run for President as a stay-at-home Republican, went to Guatemala recently and performed eye surgeries as a means of displaying his foreign-policy bona fides. Was Bashar al-Assad, Syria's ophthalmologist-in-chief, impressed?

Chris Christie insists on the efficacy of big men and tough talk--the Great Jersey Guy theory of history. Recently, he suggested that Vladimir Putin would not dare sponsor the bloody destabilization of Ukraine were Christie in charge. "I don't believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment," Christie said at a meeting of Republican activists. "Let's leave it at that." Christie is trying to bone up on world affairs by reading Kenneth Adelman's book on Ronald Reagan. Adelman was the cheerful adviser to Donald Rumsfeld who insisted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003, would be a "cakewalk." Rick Perry, another 2016 hopeful, took a more parochial view of the geostrategic crisis when he suggested that Obama had blithely overlooked the "very real possibility" that the black-hooded executioners from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham had already infiltrated the United States by way of the Mexican border. (According to Michael Barbaro, of the Times, this piece of intelligence elicited "eye rolls" from Pentagon officials.)

A more punishing critique came from Hillary Clinton, Obama's former Secretary of State, who, hoping to win herself some distance from an unpopular President, told the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle." Clinton had a point: "Don't do stupid stuff"--a mantra in the West Wing--does not have quite the analytical penetration of the Long Telegram. …

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