This week’s addition to the Obama administration valedictory is another lengthy article in The New York Times Magazine: “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru.” This one is by David Samuels, and it profiles Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication.
As with Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic on “The Obama Doctrine” and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “President Obama Weighs His Economic Legacy” (also in The New York Times Magazine), the article is full of information and juicy tidbits. Whether it is praiseworthy or damning will probably depend on your point of view.
What is most interesting to me, however, are the connections between this article and Jeffery Goldberg’s, especially what those connections say about President Obama’s worldview and how they explain the Administration’s policies, especially in the Middle East. While different people are doing the writing and different people are being written about, there is a real consistency between the two articles.
The headline point in David Samuels’ article is how the nuclear agreement with Iran was sold inaccurately.2 The Administration made it sound like the window for negotiations opened with the election of the moderate3 Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013. Except it wasn’t that way. The Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran started in at least 2012 (if not before).
In addition, it seems the main purpose of the Iran agreement, at least for President Obama, was less about stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Rather, it was a necessary intermediate step toward what President Obama really wanted to do, which was to get the U.S. out of the Middle East. Whether the President wanted us out because we always make things worse, because he wanted to focus on other things (nation-building at home, the shift to Asia, etc.), or so we no longer needed to be allies with countries like Saudi Arabia,4 I don’t know. It was probably some combination. In any case, he wanted us out. But before he could do that, he had to get an agreement with Iran that stopped them from getting nuclear weapons – or at least gave the appearance of doing so. Which he did.
But not only did the President want to get us out of the Middle East,5 he also wanted to make sure that we don’t go back.6 Which brings us, as do so many things, back to Iraq. George W. Bush eventually realized that things were not going well in Iraq (obviously, an understatement), and in late 2006, he stood up to most of the foreign policy establishment7 and most of his military advisers, to support General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency (“COIN”) strategy and to send in the surge in 2007-08. And it worked. By the time President Bush left office in January of 2009, COIN, the surge, effective diplomacy by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and President Bush’s own personal involvement, had turned things around in Iraq. The final result wasn’t guaranteed, but we were on the right path, with the hope that, if we continued, we would accomplish a part of our goal in Iraq. And even though President Obama, when he was campaigning in 2008, denied the surge, et al, was working, I think he probably knew it was.
But President Obama didn’t seem to appreciate what this success meant because he didn’t follow through on it. He certainly didn’t continue the personal effort that President Bush put in or appoint an effective ambassador to replace Ryan Crocker when Ambassador Crocker left.8 As I said here, President Obama’s view seemed to be that since he felt he was right about not going into Iraq, it didn’t matter how he got out.9 But President Obama did not just want us out, he also wanted to make sure that we do not return in the future. Which required changing the military's goals and size.
Therefore, as part of a new strategic guidance for the Defense Department, called “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” President Obama summed up his intentions for what we would do in the future – and how he try to limit us so we couldn’t do more:
“As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints – we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces.”10
The report itself continued that, while the U.S. would remain “ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations,” “US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”11 (italics in original) In other words, President Obama was going to make sure that we didn’t go back into the Middle East by making the Army small enough that we wouldn’t have the capability to do so, even if we wanted to.12
Of course, by limiting our ability to go back into the Middle East, he is also limiting our ability to conduct such operations elsewhere, too. If you think, as it appears President Obama does, that we should never do large-scale, prolonged stability operations again, or pretty much any kind of large-scale operations, and if you feel comfortable predicting what threats we are going to face not only in the near-term future, but also medium-term, then perhaps this is the right thing to do. On the other hand, if you are not so confident of our ability to predict what the next threat will be or where it might come from, or what we may be called on to do by circumstances beyond our control, then you might not be so comfortable with the President’s decision.
1 According to Mr. Goldberg, President Obama secretly disdains the Washington foreign policy establishment, though, obviously, his disdain is now no longer secret.
2 Not surprisingly, Mr. Rhodes has objected to this characterization.
3 “So-called” moderate to some.
4 See Jeffrey Goldberg’s article. Mr. Goldberg also mentions President Obama’s irritation with Benjamin Netanyahu, who apparently questions President Obama understanding of the Middle East, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who refused, in the President’s view, to use his army to bring stability to Syria. President Obama is even ticked off at King Abdullah II of Jordan, who apparently had complained to his friends in Congress about the President’s leadership. I wonder how many leaders don’t get President Obama upset. Mr. Samuels quotes one former Administration official: “Clearly the world has disappointed him.”
5 Obviously, he is not having the success that he hoped for, what with troops staying in Afghanistan and now going back into Iraq,
6 It makes you wonder if President Obama was ever really going to bomb Syria for ignoring his redline regarding the use of chemical weapons. Certainly, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama is “very proud” of his decision not to bomb Syria. It also makes you wonder whether, when John Kerry said, in a press conference, that our attacks on Syria would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort,” he wasn’t, in part, talking to President Obama and trying to convince him to follow through on his threat by emphasizing how little we would be doing.
7 Which, as noted, Ben Rhodes calls the Blob and which President Obama resents.
8 See Emma Sky, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015), p 281, 312-13.
9 Mr. Samuels notes that “Iraq is his [i.e., Ben Rhodes’] one-word answer to any and all criticism.” But that is the Iraq of the invasion and the initial aftermath. It ignores the accomplishments of General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, the surge, and COIN. Not unlike President Obama.
10 Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (2013), p. 357. This book is essential in understanding how President Obama has tried to limit what we are even capable of doing in the future.
11 Fred Kaplan, p. 357.
12 An article in Army Times earlier this month said that the Army is now the smallest it has been since before World War II.