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 Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Obama, in whose Cabinet Kerry serves faithfully, but with some exasperation, is himself given to vaulting oratory, but not usually of the martial sort associated with Churchill. Obama believes that the Manichaeanism, and eloquently rendered bellicosity, commonly associated with Churchill were justified by Hitler’s rise, and were at times defensible in the struggle against the Soviet Union. But he also thinks rhetoric should be weaponized sparingly, if at all, in today’s more ambiguous and complicated international arena. The president believes that Churchillian rhetoric and, more to the point, Churchillian habits of thought, helped bring his predecessor, George W. Bush, to ruinous war in Iraq. Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he was not seeking new dragons to slay. And he was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable. “If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, and his foreign-policy amanuensis, told me not long ago.
But Kerry’s rousing remarks on that August day, which had been drafted in part by Rhodes, were threaded with righteous anger and bold promises, including the barely concealed threat of imminent attack. Kerry, like Obama himself, was horrified by the sins committed by the Syrian regime in its attempt to put down a two-year-old rebellion. In the Damascus suburb of Ghouta nine days earlier, Assad’s army had murdered more than 1,400 civilians with sarin gas. The strong sentiment inside the Obama administration was that Assad had earned dire punishment. In Situation Room meetings that followed the attack on Ghouta, only the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, cautioned explicitly about the perils of intervention. John Kerry argued vociferously for action.
“As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way,” Kerry said in his speech. “History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most.”
Kerry counted President Obama among those leaders. A year earlier, when the administration suspected that the Assad regime was contemplating the use of chemical weapons, Obama had declared: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that 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. That would change my equation.”
Despite this threat, Obama seemed to many critics to be coldly detached from the suffering of innocent Syrians. Late in the summer of 2011, he had called for Assad’s departure. “For the sake of the Syrian people,” Obama said, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” But Obama initially did little to bring about Assad’s end.
He resisted demands to act in part because he assumed, based on the analysis of U.S. intelligence, that Assad would fall without his help. “He thought Assad would go the way Mubarak went,” Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to Obama, told me, referring to the quick departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, a moment that represented the acme of the Arab Spring. But as Assad clung to power, Obama’s resistance to direct intervention only grew. After several months of deliberation, he authorized the CIA to train and fund Syrian rebels, but he also shared the outlook of his former defense secretary, Robert Gates, who had routinely asked in meetings, “Shouldn’t we finish up the two wars we have before we look for another?”
The current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who is the most dispositionally interventionist among Obama’s senior advisers, had argued early for arming Syria’s rebels. Power, who during this period served on the National Security Council staff, is the author of a celebrated book excoriating a succession of U.S. presidents for their failures to prevent genocide. The book, A Problem From Hell, published in 2002, drew Obama to Power while he was in the U.S. Senate, though the two were not an obvious ideological match. Power is a partisan of the doctrine known as “responsibility to protect,” which holds that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens. She lobbied him to endorse this doctrine in the speech he delivered when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but he declined. Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.
Power sometimes argued with Obama in front of other National Security Council officials, to the point where he could no longer conceal his frustration. “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book,” he once snapped.
Obama, unlike liberal interventionists, is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,” Obama once told me). Bush and Scowcroft removed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991, and they deftly managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Scowcroft also, on Bush’s behalf, toasted the leaders of China shortly after the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. As Obama was writing his campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, in 2006, Susan Rice, then an informal adviser, felt it necessary to remind him to include at least one line of praise for the foreign policy of President Bill Clinton, to partially balance the praise he showered on Bush and Scowcroft.
At the outset of the Syrian uprising, in early 2011, Power argued that the rebels, drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens, deserved America’s enthusiastic support. Others noted that the rebels were farmers and doctors and carpenters, comparing these revolutionaries to the men who won America’s war for independence.
Obama flipped this plea on its head. “When you have a professional army,” he once told me, “that is well armed and sponsored by two large states”—Iran and Russia—“who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict …” He paused. “The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.” The message Obama telegraphed in speeches and interviews was clear: He would not end up like the second President Bush—a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East, whose decisions filled the wards of Walter Reed with grievously wounded soldiers, who was helpless to stop the obliteration of his reputation, even when he recalibrated his policies in his second term. Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit.”
Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.)
Syria, for Obama, represented a slope potentially as slippery as Iraq. In his first term, he came to believe that only a handful of threats in the Middle East conceivably warranted direct U.S. military intervention. These included the threat posed by al‑Qaeda; threats to the continued existence of Israel (“It would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States” not to defend Israel, he once told me); and, not unrelated to Israel’s security, the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. The danger to the United States posed by the Assad regime did not rise to the level of these challenges.
Given Obama’s reticence about intervention, the bright-red line he drew for Assad in the summer of 2012 was striking. Even his own advisers were surprised. “I didn’t know it was coming,” his secretary of defense at the time, Leon Panetta, told me. I was told that Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly warned Obama against drawing a red line on chemical weapons, fearing that it would one day have to be enforced.
Kerry, in his remarks on August 30, 2013, suggested that Assad should be punished in part because the “credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies” were at stake. “It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”
Ninety minutes later, at the White House, Obama reinforced Kerry’s message in a public statement: “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.”
It appeared as though Obama had drawn the conclusion that damage to American credibility in one region of the world would bleed into others, and that U.S. deterrent credibility was indeed at stake in Syria. Assad, it seemed, had succeeded in pushing the president to a place he never thought he would have to go. Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of “credibility”—particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam. 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.”
American national-security credibility, as it is conventionally understood in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the cluster of think tanks headquartered within walking distance of the White House, is an intangible yet potent force—one that, when properly nurtured, keeps America’s friends feeling secure and keeps the international order stable.
In White House meetings that crucial week in August, Biden, who ordinarily shared Obama’s worries about American overreach, argued passionately that “big nations don’t bluff.” America’s closest allies in Europe and across the Middle East believed Obama was threatening military action, and his own advisers did as well. At a joint press conference with Obama at the White House the previous May, David Cameron, the British prime minister, had said, “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.” Cameron’s statement, one of his advisers told me, was meant to encourage Obama toward more-decisive action. “The prime minister was certainly under the impression that the president would enforce the red line,” the adviser told me. The Saudi ambassador in Washington at the time, Adel al-Jubeir, told friends, and his superiors in Riyadh, that the president was finally ready to strike. Obama “figured out how important this is,” Jubeir, who is now the Saudi foreign minister, told one interlocutor. “He will definitely strike.”
Obama had already ordered the Pentagon to develop target lists. Five Arleigh Burke–class destroyers were in the Mediterranean, ready to fire cruise missiles at regime targets. French President François Hollande, the most enthusiastically pro-intervention among Europe’s leaders, was preparing to strike as well. All week, White House officials had publicly built the case that Assad had committed a crime against humanity. Kerry’s speech would mark the culmination of this campaign.
But the president had grown queasy. In the days after the gassing of Ghouta, Obama would later tell me, he found himself recoiling from the idea of an attack unsanctioned by international law or by Congress. The American people seemed unenthusiastic about a Syria intervention; so too did one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She told him that her country would not participate in a Syria campaign. And in a stunning development, on Thursday, August 29, the British Parliament denied David Cameron its blessing for an attack. John Kerry later told me that when he heard that, “internally, I went, Oops.”
Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.
While the Pentagon and the White House’s national-security apparatuses were still moving toward war (John Kerry told me he was expecting a strike the day after his speech), the president had come to believe that he was walking into a trap—one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do.
Many of his advisers did not grasp the depth of the president’s misgivings; his Cabinet and his allies were certainly unaware of them. But his doubts were growing. Late on Friday afternoon, Obama determined that he was simply not prepared to authorize a strike. He asked McDonough, his chief of staff, to take a walk with him on the South Lawn of the White House. Obama did not choose McDonough randomly: He is the Obama aide most averse to U.S. military intervention, and someone who, in the words of one of his colleagues, “thinks in terms of traps.” Obama, ordinarily a preternaturally confident man, was looking for validation, and trying to devise ways to explain his change of heart, both to his own aides and to the public. He and McDonough stayed outside for an hour. Obama told him he was worried that Assad would place civilians as “human shields” around obvious targets. He also pointed out an underlying flaw in the proposed strike: U.S. missiles would not be fired at chemical-weapons depots, for fear of sending plumes of poison into the air. A strike would target military units that had delivered these weapons, but not the weapons themselves.
Obama also shared with McDonough a long-standing resentment: He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries. Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.
When the two men came back to the Oval Office, the president told his national-security aides that he planned to stand down. There would be no attack the next day; he wanted to refer the matter to Congress for a vote. Aides in the room were shocked. Susan Rice, now Obama’s national-security adviser, argued that the damage to America’s credibility would be serious and lasting. Others had difficulty fathoming how the president could reverse himself the day before a planned strike. Obama, however, was completely calm. “If you’ve been around him, you know when he’s ambivalent about something, when it’s a 51–49 decision,” Ben Rhodes told me. “But he was completely at ease.”
Not long ago, I asked Obama to describe his thinking on that day. He listed the practical worries that had preoccupied him. “We had UN inspectors on the ground who were completing their work, and we could not risk taking a shot while they were there. A second major factor was the failure of Cameron to obtain the consent of his parliament.”
The third, and most important, factor, he told me, was “our assessment that while we could inflict some damage on Assad, we could not, through a missile strike, eliminate the chemical weapons themselves, and what I would then face was the prospect of Assad having survived the strike and claiming he had successfully defied the United States, that the United States had acted unlawfully in the absence of a UN mandate, and that that would have potentially strengthened his hand rather than weakened it.”
The fourth factor, he said, was of deeper philosophical importance. “This falls in the category of something that I had been brooding on for some time,” he said. “I had come into office with the strong belief that the scope of executive power in national-security issues is very broad, but not limitless.”
Obama knew his decision not to bomb Syria would likely upset America’s allies. It did. The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, told me that his government was already worried about the consequences of earlier inaction in Syria when word came of the stand-down. “By not intervening early, we have created a monster,” Valls told me. “We were absolutely certain that the U.S. administration would say yes. Working with the Americans, we had already seen the targets. It was a great surprise. If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.” The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was already upset with Obama for “abandoning” Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, fumed to American visitors that the U.S. was led by an “untrustworthy” president. The king of Jordan, Abdullah II—already dismayed by what he saw as Obama’s illogical desire to distance the U.S. from its traditional Sunni Arab allies and create a new alliance with Iran, Assad’s Shia sponsor—complained privately, “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.” The Saudis, too, were infuriated. They had never trusted Obama—he had, long before he became president, referred to them as a “so-called ally” of the U.S. “Iran is the new great power of the Middle East, and the U.S. is the old,” Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, told his superiors in Riyadh.
Obama’s decision caused tremors across Washington as well. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the two leading Republican hawks in the Senate, had met with Obama in the White House earlier in the week and had been promised an attack. They were angered by the about-face. Damage was done even inside the administration. Neither Chuck Hagel, then the secretary of defense, nor John Kerry was in the Oval Office when the president informed his team of his thinking. Kerry would not learn about the change until later that evening. “I just got fucked over,” he told a friend shortly after talking to the president that night. (When I asked Kerry recently about that tumultuous night, he said, “I didn’t stop to analyze it. I figured the president had a reason to make a decision and, honestly, I understood his notion.”)
The next few days were chaotic. The president asked Congress to authorize the use of force—the irrepressible Kerry served as chief lobbyist—and it quickly became apparent in the White House that Congress had little interest in a strike. When I spoke with Biden recently about the red-line decision, he made special note of this fact. “It matters to have Congress with you, in terms of your ability to sustain what you set out to do,” he said. Obama “didn’t go to Congress to get himself off the hook. He had his doubts at that point, but he knew that if he was going to do anything, he better damn well have the public with him, or it would be a very short ride.” Congress’s clear ambivalence convinced Biden that Obama was correct to fear the slippery slope. “What happens when we get a plane shot down? Do we not go in and rescue?,” Biden asked. “You need the support of the American people.”
Amid the confusion, a deus ex machina appeared in the form of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, which was held the week after the Syria reversal, Obama pulled Putin aside, he recalled to me, and told the Russian president “that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike.” Within weeks, Kerry, working with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would engineer the removal of most of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal—a program whose existence Assad until then had refused to even acknowledge.
Amid the confusion, a deus ex machina appeared in the form of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, which was held the week after the Syria reversal, Obama pulled Putin aside, he recalled to me, and told the Russian president “that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike.” Within weeks, Kerry, working with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would engineer the removal of most of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal—a program whose existence Assad until then had refused to even acknowledge.
The arrangement won the president praise from, of all people, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, with whom he has had a consistently contentious relationship. The removal of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles represented “the one ray of light in a very dark region,” Netanyahu told me not long after the deal was announced.
John Kerry today expresses no patience for those who argue, as he himself once did, that Obama should have bombed Assad-regime sites in order to buttress America’s deterrent capability. “You’d still have the weapons there, and you’d probably be fighting isil” for control of the weapons, he said, referring to the Islamic State, the terror group also known as isis. “It just doesn’t make sense. But I can’t deny to you that this notion about the red line being crossed and [Obama’s] not doing anything gained a life of its own.”
Obama understands that the decision he made to step back from air strikes, and to allow the violation of a red line he himself had drawn to go unpunished, will be interrogated mercilessly by historians. But today that decision is a source of deep satisfaction for him.
“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.”
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. 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. By 2013, Obama’s resentments were well developed. He resented military leaders who believed they could fix any problem if the commander in chief would simply give them what they wanted, and he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex. A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”
For some foreign-policy experts, even within his own administration, Obama’s about-face on enforcing the red line was a dispiriting moment in which he displayed irresolution and naïveté, and did lasting damage to America’s standing in the world. “Once the commander in chief draws that red line,” Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and then as secretary of defense in Obama’s first term, told me recently, “then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.” Right after Obama’s reversal, Hillary Clinton said privately, “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.”
“Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than ‘punished’ as originally planned.” Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, wrote for The Atlantic at the time. “He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return.”
Even commentators who have been broadly sympathetic to Obama’s policies saw this episode as calamitous. Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently that Obama’s handling of this crisis—“first casually announcing a major commitment, then dithering about living up to it, then frantically tossing the ball to Congress for a decision—was a case study in embarrassingly amateurish improvisation.”
Obama’s defenders, however, argue that he did no damage to U.S. credibility, citing Assad’s subsequent agreement to have his chemical weapons removed. “The threat of force was credible enough for them to give up their chemical weapons,” Tim Kaine, a Democratic senator from Virginia, told me. “We threatened military action and they responded. That’s deterrent credibility.”
History may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war, and the day he removed the threat of a chemical attack on Israel, Turkey, or Jordan. Or it could be remembered as the day he let the Middle East slip from America’s grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran, and isis.
I first spoke with obama about foreign policy when he was a U.S. senator, in 2006. At the time, I was familiar mainly with the text of a speech he had delivered four years earlier, at a Chicago antiwar rally. It was an unusual speech for an antiwar rally in that it was not antiwar; Obama, who was then an Illinois state senator, argued only against one specific and, at the time, still theoretical, war. “I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein,” he said. “He is a brutal man. A ruthless man … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors.” He added, “I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
This speech had made me curious about its author. I wanted to learn how an Illinois state senator, a part-time law professor who spent his days traveling between Chicago and Springfield, had come to a more prescient understanding of the coming quagmire than the most experienced foreign-policy thinkers of his party, including such figures as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry, not to mention, of course, most Republicans and many foreign-policy analysts and writers, including me.
Since that first meeting in 2006, I’ve interviewed Obama periodically, mainly on matters related to the Middle East. But over the past few months, I’ve spent several hours talking with him about the broadest themes of his “long game” foreign policy, including the themes he is most eager to discuss—namely, the ones that have nothing to do with the Middle East.
“isis is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told me in one of these conversations. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Obama explained that climate change worries him in particular because “it is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, and it is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.”
At the moment, of course, the most urgent of the “seemingly more urgent” issues is Syria. But at any given moment, Obama’s entire presidency could be upended by North Korean aggression, or an assault by Russia on a member of nato, or an isis-planned attack on U.S. soil. Few presidents have faced such diverse tests on the international stage as Obama has, and the challenge for him, as for all presidents, has been to distinguish the merely urgent from the truly important, and to focus on the important.
My goal in our recent conversations was to see the world through Obama’s eyes, and to understand what he believes America’s role in the world should be. This article is informed by our recent series of conversations, which took place in the Oval Office; over lunch in his dining room; aboard Air Force One; and in Kuala Lumpur during his most recent visit to Asia, in November. It is also informed by my previous interviews with him and by his speeches and prolific public ruminations, as well as by conversations with his top foreign-policy and national-security advisers, foreign leaders and their ambassadors in Washington, friends of the president and others who have spoken with him about his policies and decisions, and his adversaries and critics.
Over the course of our conversations, I came to see Obama as a president who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events, even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements—controversial, provisional achievements, to be sure, but achievements nonetheless: the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate-change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal. These he accomplished despite his growing sense that larger forces—the riptide of tribal feeling in a world that should have already shed its atavism; the resilience of small men who rule large countries in ways contrary to their own best interests; the persistence of fear as a governing human emotion—frequently conspire against the best of America’s intentions. But he also has come to learn, he told me, that very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership.
Obama talked me through this apparent contradiction. “I want a president who has the sense that you can’t fix everything,” he said. But on the other hand, “if we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen.” He explained what he meant. “The fact is, there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results,” he said. “That’s true whether you’re talking about nuclear security, whether you’re talking about saving the world financial system, whether you’re talking about climate.”
One day, over lunch in the Oval Office dining room, I asked the president how he thought his foreign policy might be understood by historians. He started by describing for me a four-box grid representing the main schools of American foreign-policy thought. One box he called isolationism, which he dismissed out of hand. “The world is ever-shrinking,” he said. “Withdrawal is untenable.” The other boxes he labeled realism, liberal interventionism, and internationalism. “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery,” he said. “We have to choose where we can make a real impact.” He also noted that he was quite obviously an internationalist, devoted as he is to strengthening multilateral organizations and international norms.
I told him my impression was that the various traumas of the past seven years have, if anything, intensified his commitment to realist-driven restraint. Had nearly two full terms in the White House soured him on interventionism?
“For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world,” he said. “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.”
If a crisis, or a humanitarian catastrophe, does not meet his stringent standard for what constitutes a direct national-security threat, Obama said, he doesn’t believe that he should be forced into silence. He is not so much the realist, he suggested, that he won’t pass judgment on other leaders. Though he has so far ruled out the use of direct American power to depose Assad, he was not wrong, he argued, to call on Assad to go. “Oftentimes when you get critics of our Syria policy, one of the things that they’ll point out is ‘You called for Assad to go, but you didn’t force him to go. You did not invade.’ And the notion is that if you weren’t going to overthrow the regime, you shouldn’t have said anything. That’s a weird argument to me, the notion that if we use our moral authority to say ‘This is a brutal regime, and this is not how a leader should treat his people,’ once you do that, you are obliged to invade the country and install a government you prefer.”
“I am very much the internationalist,” Obama said in a later conversation. “And I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values, because not only do they serve our interests the more people adopt values that we share—in the same way that, economically, if people adopt rule of law and property rights and so forth, that is to our advantage—but because it makes the world a better place. And I’m willing to say that in a very corny way, and in a way that probably Brent Scowcroft would not say.
“Having said that,” he continued, “I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”
If Obama ever questioned whether America really is the world’s one indispensable nation, he no longer does so. But he is the rare president who seems at times to resent indispensability, rather than embrace it. “Free riders aggravate me,” he told me. Recently, Obama warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who subsequently met the 2 percent threshold.
Part of his mission as president, Obama explained, is to spur other countries to take action for themselves, rather than wait for the U.S. to lead. The defense of the liberal international order against jihadist terror, Russian adventurism, and Chinese bullying depends in part, he believes, on the willingness of other nations to share the burden with the U.S. This is why the controversy surrounding the assertion—made by an anonymous administration official to The New Yorker during the Libya crisis of 2011—that his policy consisted of “leading from behind” perturbed him. “We don’t have to always be the ones who are up front,” he told me. “Sometimes we’re going to get what we want precisely because we are sharing in the agenda. The irony is that it was precisely in order to prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting that we, by design, insisted” that they lead during the mission to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power in Libya. “It was part of the anti–free rider campaign.”
The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”
In his efforts to off-load some of America’s foreign-policy responsibilities to its allies, Obama appears to be a classic retrenchment president in the manner of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Retrenchment, in this context, is defined as “pulling back, spending less, cutting risk, and shifting burdens to allies,” Stephen Sestanovich, an expert on presidential foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained to me. “If John McCain had been elected in 2008, you would still have seen some degree of retrenchment,” Sestanovich said. “It’s what the country wanted. If you come into office in the middle of a war that is not going well, you’re convinced that the American people have hired you to do less.” One difference between Eisenhower and Nixon, on the one hand, and Obama, on the other, Sestanovich said, is that Obama “appears to have had a personal, ideological commitment to the idea that foreign policy had consumed too much of the nation’s attention and resources.”
I asked Obama about retrenchment. “Almost every great world power has succumbed” to overextension, he said. “What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that.”
But once he decides that a particular challenge represents a direct national-security threat, he has shown a willingness to act unilaterally. This is one of the larger ironies of the Obama presidency: He has relentlessly questioned the efficacy of force, but he has also become the most successful terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency, one who will hand to his successor a set of tools an accomplished assassin would envy. “He applies different standards to direct threats to the U.S.,” Ben Rhodes says. “For instance, despite his misgivings about Syria, he has not had a second thought about drones.” Some critics argue he should have had a few second thoughts about what they see as the overuse of drones. But John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, told me recently that he and the president “have similar views. One of them is that sometimes you have to take a life to save even more lives. We have a similar view of just-war theory. The president requires near-certainty of no collateral damage. But if he believes it is necessary to act, he doesn’t hesitate.”
Those who speak with Obama about jihadist thought say that he possesses a no-illusions understanding of the forces that drive apocalyptic violence among radical Muslims, but he has been careful about articulating that publicly, out of concern that he will exacerbate anti-Muslim xenophobia. He has a tragic realist’s understanding of sin, cowardice, and corruption, and a Hobbesian appreciation of how fear shapes human behavior. And yet he consistently, and with apparent sincerity, professes optimism that the world is bending toward justice. He is, in a way, a Hobbesian optimist.
The contradictions do not end there. Though he has a reputation for prudence, he has also been eager to question some of the long-standing assumptions undergirding traditional U.S. foreign-policy thinking. To a remarkable degree, he is willing to question why America’s enemies are its enemies, or why some of its friends are its friends. He overthrew half a century of bipartisan consensus in order to reestablish ties with Cuba. He questioned why the U.S. should avoid sending its forces into Pakistan to kill al-Qaeda leaders, and he privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a disastrously dysfunctional country, should be considered an ally of the U.S. at all. According to Leon Panetta, he has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies receive; but he has also questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism. He is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally. And of course he decided early on, in the face of great criticism, that he wanted to reach out to America’s most ardent Middle Eastern foe, Iran. The nuclear deal he struck with Iran proves, if nothing else, that Obama is not risk-averse. He has bet global security and his own legacy that one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism will adhere to an agreement to curtail its nuclear program.
It is assumed, at least among his critics, that Obama sought the Iran deal because he has a vision of a historic American-Persian rapprochement. But his desire for the nuclear agreement was born of pessimism as much as it was of optimism. “The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran,” Susan Rice told me. “It was far more pragmatic and minimalist. The aim was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.”
I once mentioned to obama a scene from The Godfather: Part III, in which Michael Corleone complains angrily about his failure to escape the grasp of organized crime. I told Obama that the Middle East is to his presidency what the Mob is to Corleone, and I started to quote the Al Pacino line: “Just when I thought I was out—”
“It pulls you back in,” Obama said, completing the thought.
The story of Obama’s encounter with the Middle East follows an arc of disenchantment. In his first extended spree of fame, as a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama often spoke with hope about the region. In Berlin that summer, in a speech to 200,000 adoring Germans, he said, “This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.”
The next year, as president, he gave a speech in Cairo meant to reset U.S. relations with the world’s Muslims. He spoke about Muslims in his own family, and his childhood years in Indonesia, and confessed America’s sins even as he criticized those in the Muslim world who demonized the U.S. What drew the most attention, though, was his promise to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was then thought to be the central animating concern of Arab Muslims. His sympathy for the Palestinians moved the audience, but complicated his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister—especially because Obama had also decided to bypass Jerusalem on his first presidential visit to the Middle East.
When I asked Obama recently what he had hoped to accomplish with his Cairo reset speech, he said that he had been trying—unsuccessfully, he acknowledged—to persuade Muslims to more closely examine the roots of their unhappiness.
“My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel,” he told me. “We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity. My thought was, I would communicate that the U.S. is not standing in the way of this progress, that we would help, in whatever way possible, to advance the goals of a practical, successful Arab agenda that provided a better life for ordinary people.”
Through the first flush of the Arab Spring, in 2011, Obama continued to speak optimistically about the Middle East’s future, coming as close as he ever would to embracing the so-called freedom agenda of George W. Bush, which was characterized in part by the belief that democratic values could be implanted in the Middle East. He equated protesters in Tunisia and Tahrir Square with Rosa Parks and the “patriots of Boston.”
“After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” he said in a speech at the time. “The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders … Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.”
But over the next three years, as the Arab Spring gave up its early promise, and brutality and dysfunction overwhelmed the Middle East, the president grew disillusioned. Some of his deepest disappointments concern Middle Eastern leaders themselves. Benjamin Netanyahu is in his own category: Obama has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so. Obama has also not had much patience for Netanyahu and other Middle Eastern leaders who question his understanding of the region. In one of Netanyahu’s meetings with the president, the Israeli prime minister launched into something of a lecture about the dangers of the brutal region in which he lives, and Obama felt that Netanyahu was behaving in a condescending fashion, and was also avoiding the subject at hand: peace negotiations. Finally, the president interrupted the prime minister: “Bibi, you have to understand something,” he said. “I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.” Other leaders also frustrate him immensely. Early on, Obama saw Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, as the sort of moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West—but Obama now considers him a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria. And on the sidelines of a nato summit in Wales in 2014, Obama pulled aside King Abdullah II of Jordan. Obama said he had heard that Abdullah had complained to friends in the U.S. Congress about his leadership, and told the king that if he had complaints, he should raise them directly. The king denied that he had spoken ill of him.
In recent days, the president has taken to joking privately, “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.” Obama has always had a fondness for pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats, telling aides, “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.”
The unraveling of the Arab Spring darkened the president’s view of what the U.S. could achieve in the Middle East, and made him realize how much the chaos there was distracting from other priorities. “The president recognized during the course of the Arab Spring that the Middle East was consuming us,” John Brennan, who served in Obama’s first term as his chief counterterrorism adviser, told me recently.
But what sealed Obama’s fatalistic view was the failure of his administration’s intervention in Libya, in 2011. That intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do. Obama did not want to join the fight; he was counseled by Joe Biden and his first-term secretary of defense Robert Gates, among others, to steer clear. But a strong faction within the national-security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, along with Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national-security adviser—lobbied hard to protect Benghazi, and prevailed. (Biden, who is acerbic about Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, has said privately, “Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.”) American bombs fell, the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre, and Qaddafi was captured and executed.
But Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.
Why, given what seems to be the president’s natural reticence toward getting militarily ensnarled where American national security is not directly at stake, did he accept the recommendation of his more activist advisers to intervene?
“The social order in Libya has broken down,” Obama said, explaining his thinking at the time. “You have massive protests against Qaddafi. You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya. Benghazi is a focal point for the opposition regime. And Qaddafi is marching his army toward Benghazi, and he has said, ‘We will kill them like rats.’
“Now, option one would be to do nothing, and there were some in my administration who said, as tragic as the Libyan situation may be, it’s not our problem. The way I looked at it was that it would be our problem if, in fact, complete chaos and civil war broke out in Libya. But this is not so at the core of U.S. interests that it makes sense for us to unilaterally strike against the Qaddafi regime. At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
“Free riders?,” I interjected.
“Free riders,” he said, and continued. “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight. And we worked with our defense teams to ensure that we could execute a strategy without putting boots on the ground and without a long-term military commitment in Libya.
“So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”
Mess is the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a “shit show,” in part because it’s subsequently become an isis haven—one that he has already targeted with air strikes. It became a shit show, Obama believes, for reasons that had less to do with American incompetence than with the passivity of America’s allies and with the obdurate power of tribalism.
“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said. He noted that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, lost his job the following year. And he said that British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things.” Of France, he said, “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention. This sort of bragging was fine, Obama said, because it allowed the U.S. to “purchase France’s involvement in a way that made it less expensive for us and less risky for us.” In other words, giving France extra credit in exchange for less risk and cost to the United States was a useful trade-off—except that “from the perspective of a lot of the folks in the foreign-policy establishment, well, that was terrible. If we’re going to do something, obviously we’ve got to be up front, and nobody else is sharing in the spotlight.”
Obama also blamed internal Libyan dynamics. “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected. And our ability to have any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources broke down very quickly.”
Libya proved to him that the Middle East was best avoided. “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,” he recently told a former colleague from the Senate. “That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.”
President Obama did not come into office preoccupied by the Middle East. He is the first child of the Pacific to become president—born in Hawaii, raised there and, for four years, in Indonesia—and he is fixated on turning America’s attention to Asia. For Obama, Asia represents the future. Africa and Latin America, in his view, deserve far more U.S. attention than they receive. Europe, about which he is unromantic, is a source of global stability that requires, to his occasional annoyance, American hand-holding. And the Middle East is a region to be avoided—one that, thanks to America’s energy revolution, will soon be of negligible relevance to the U.S. economy.
It is not oil but another of the Middle East’s exports, terrorism, that shapes Obama’s understanding of his responsibilities there. Early in 2014, Obama’s intelligence advisers told him that isis was of marginal importance. According to administration officials, General Lloyd Austin, then the commander of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the White House that the Islamic State was “a flash in the pan.” This analysis led Obama, in an interview with The New Yorker, to describe the constellation of jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria as terrorism’s “jayvee team.” (A spokesman for Austin told me, “At no time has General Austin ever considered isil a ‘flash in the pan’ phenomenon.”)
But by late spring of 2014, after isis took the northern-Iraq city of Mosul, he came to believe that U.S. intelligence had failed to appreciate the severity of the threat and the inadequacies of the Iraqi army, and his view shifted. After isis beheaded three American civilians in Syria, it became obvious to Obama that defeating the group was of more immediate urgency to the U.S. than overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.
Advisers recall that Obama would cite a pivotal moment in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman movie, to help explain not only how he understood the role of isis, but how he understood the larger ecosystem in which it grew. “There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had his turf. And then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. isil is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”
The rise of the Islamic State deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.
On a rainy Wednesday in mid-November, President Obama appeared on a stage at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (apec) summit in Manila with Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, and a 31-year-old Filipina inventor named Aisa Mijeno. The ballroom was crowded with Asian CEOs, American business leaders, and government officials from across the region. Obama, who was greeted warmly, first delivered informal remarks from behind a podium, mainly about the threat of climate change.
Obama made no mention of the subject preoccupying much of the rest of the world—the isis attacks in Paris five days earlier, which had killed 130 people. Obama had arrived in Manila the day before from a G20 summit held in Antalya, Turkey. The Paris attacks had been a main topic of conversation in Antalya, where Obama held a particularly contentious press conference on the subject.
The traveling White House press corps was unrelenting: “Isn’t it time for your strategy to change?” one reporter asked. This was followed by “Could I ask you to address your critics who say that your reluctance to enter another Middle East war, and your preference of diplomacy over using the military, makes the United States weaker and emboldens our enemies?” And then came this imperishable question, from a CNN reporter: “If you’ll forgive the language—why can’t we take out these bastards?” Which was followed by “Do you think you really understand this enemy well enough to defeat them and to protect the homeland?”
As the questions unspooled, Obama became progressively more irritated. He described his isis strategy at length, but the only time he exhibited an emotion other than disdain was when he addressed an emerging controversy about America’s refugee policy. Republican governors and presidential candidates had suddenly taken to demanding that the United States block Syrian refugees from coming to America. Ted Cruz had proposed accepting only Christian Syrians. Chris Christie had said that all refugees, including “orphans under 5,” should be banned from entry until proper vetting procedures had been put in place.
This rhetoric appeared to frustrate Obama immensely. “When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a r
It’s 2 a.m. The bar is closing. Republicans have had a series of strong and nasty Trump cocktails. Suddenly Ted Cruz is beginning to look kind of attractive. At least he’s sort of predictable, and he doesn’t talk about his sexual organs in presidential debates!
Well, Republicans, have your standards really fallen so low so fast? Are you really that desperate? Can you remember your 8 p.m. selves, and all the hope you had about entering a campaign with such a deep bench of talented candidates?
Back in the early evening, before the current panic set in, Republicans understood that Ted Cruz would be a terrible general election candidate, at least as unelectable as Donald Trump and maybe more so. He is the single most conservative Republican in Congress, far adrift from the American mainstream. He’s been doing well in primaries because of the support of “extremely conservative” voters in very conservative states, and he really hasn’t broken out of that lane. His political profile is a slightly enlarged Rick Santorum but without the heart.
On policy grounds, he would be unacceptable to a large majority in this country. But his policy disadvantages are overshadowed by his public image ones. His rhetorical style will come across to young and independent voters as smarmy and oleaginous. In Congress, he had two accomplishments: the disastrous government shutdown and persuading all his colleagues to dislike him.
There is another path, one that doesn’t leave you self-loathing in the morning. It’s a long shot, but given the alternatives, it’s worth trying. First, hit the pause button on the rush to Cruz. Second, continue the Romneyesque assault on Trump. The results on Saturday, when late voters swung sharply against the Donald, suggest it may be working.
Third, work for a Marco Rubio miracle in Florida on March 15. Fourth, clear the field for John Kasich in Ohio. If Rubio and Kasich win their home states, Trump will need to take nearly 70 percent of the remaining delegates to secure a majority. That would be unlikely; he’s only winning 44 percent of the delegates now.
The party would go to the convention without a clear nominee. It would be bedlam for a few days, but a broadly acceptable new option might emerge. It would be better than going into the fall with Trump, which would be a moral error, or Cruz, who in November would manage to win several important counties in Mississippi.
This isn’t about winning the presidency in 2016 anymore. This is about something much bigger. Every 50 or 60 years, parties undergo a transformation. The G.O.P. is undergoing one right now. What happens this year will set the party’s trajectory for decades.
Since Goldwater/Reagan, the G.O.P. has been governed by a free-market, anti-government philosophy. But over the ensuing decades new problems have emerged. First, the economy has gotten crueler. Technology is displacing workers and globalization is dampening wages. Second, the social structure has atomized and frayed, especially among the less educated. Third, demography is shifting.
Orthodox Republicans, seeing no positive role for government, have had no affirmative agenda to help people deal with these new problems. Occasionally some conservative policy mavens have proposed such an agenda — anti-poverty programs, human capital policies, wage subsidies and the like — but the proposals were killed, usually in the House, by the anti-government crowd.
The 1980s anti-government orthodoxy still has many followers; Ted Cruz is the extreme embodiment of this tendency. But it has grown increasingly rigid, unresponsive and obsolete.
Along comes Donald Trump offering to replace it and change the nature of the G.O.P. He tramples all over the anti-government ideology of modern Republicanism. He would replace the free-market orthodoxy with authoritarian nationalism.
He offers to use government on behalf of the American working class, but in negative and defensive ways: to build walls, to close trade, to ban outside groups, to smash enemies. According to him, America’s problems aren’t caused by deep structural shifts. They’re caused by morons and parasites. The Great Leader will take them down.
If the G.O.P. is going to survive as a decent and viable national party, it can’t cling to the fading orthodoxy Cruz represents. But it can’t shift to ugly Trumpian nationalism, either. It has to find a third alternative: limited but energetic use of government to expand mobility and widen openness and opportunity. That is what Kasich, Rubio, Paul Ryan and others are stumbling toward.
Amid all the vulgarity and pettiness, that is what is being fought over this month: going back to the past, veering into an ugly future, or finding a third way. This is something worth fighting for, worth burning the boats behind you for.
The hour is late and the odds may be long. But there is still hope. It’s a moment for audacity, not settling for Ted Cruz simply because he’s the Titanic you know.
If Republican Party leaders dislike Donald J. Trump so much, why haven’t they done more to stop him?
They should be able to. In “The Party Decides,” a book I wrote in 2008 with Marty Cohen, David Karol and John Zaller, we argued that the leaders of party coalitions have great influence over the selection of a presidential nominee
Before then, the conventional wisdom was that such broad and diverse coalitions of politicians, activists and interest groups within parties were largely shut out of the nominating process by primaries and caucuses in the 1970s. This led to a free-for-all among narrowly factional candidates. In 1976, Jimmy Carter emerged from a crowded field to win the nomination despite having no connections to most leaders in the national party.
We argued that since that 1976 contest, party leaders had been exerting influence by coordinating on their choice during the “invisible primary” — the period before any voting when the leaders observed, met with and vetted candidates — then supporting that candidate throughout the process.
When party leaders work together, they nearly always win, we said.
The book’s argument became influential: “The Party Decides” was called “the most-cited and the most-maligned book of this election cycle” by Nate Silver. While we stand by the theoretical contributions of the book, events in 2016 show that it has earned some of its criticism.
This year’s election has not followed our script. Mr. Trump is the clear front-runner, but is loathed by the party establishment. Until the past week, almost no nationally prominent Republicans had endorsed him. Another top candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, is no more popular with Republican leaders.
Party leaders have been obsessing and scheming, but until recently, they had barely taken any action. They seem to have finally settled on Senator Marco Rubio, far later than we would have expected. If Mr. Rubio wins, it would be at best a partial victory for “The Party Decides.”
The parties converged on a favorite candidate early in eight of nine contested nominations from 1980 to 2000, with that selected candidate winning all eight. Since then, in only two out of six races has the favored candidate won. Either the theory was wrong all along, or at the very least, we need to think harder about why the party leaders can coordinate sometimes and not at other times. Here are some possible explanations.
Maybe the political environment has changed. For one, the invisible primary has become far more visible, with more televised debates that have greater audiences and more media scrutiny. By early 1999, for example, party leaders had evaluated and chosen to back George W. Bush long before most people had turned their attention to the nomination. In contrast, by 2007, the parties’ conversations about the candidates were entirely public; together, the two parties held 47 debates in the 2008 campaign.
It’s hard to remember these days, but just a few years ago, everybody loved Hillary Rodham Clinton. When she stepped down as US secretary of state in January 2013 after four years in office, her approval rating stood at what the Wall Street Journal described as an “eye-popping” 69%. That made her not only the most popular politician in the country, but the second-most popular secretary of state since 1948.
The 2012 “Texts from Hillary” meme, which featured a sunglasses-clad Clinton scrolling through her Blackberry aboard a military flight to Libya, had given rise to a flood of think pieces hailing her “badass cool.” The Washington Post wanted president Barack Obama to give vice president Joe Biden the boot and replace him with Clinton. Taking stock of Clinton’s approval ratings, Nate Silver noted in a 2012 piece for the New York Times that she currently held “remarkably high numbers for a politician in an era when many public officials are distrusted or disliked.”
How times have changed. “The FBI And 67 Percent of Americans Distrust Hillary Clinton,” booms a recent headline in the Huffington Post. Clinton’s favorability ratings currently hover around 40.8%. Bob Woodward complains that “there is something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating.” “Hillary’s personality repels me,” Walker Bragman writes in Salon.
How can we reconcile the “unlikable” Democratic presidential candidate of today with the adored politician of recent history? It’s simple: Public opinion of Clinton has followed a fixed pattern throughout her career. Her public approval plummets whenever she applies for a new position. Then it soars when she gets the job. The wild difference between the way we talk about Clinton when she campaigns and the way we talk about her when she’s in office can’t be explained as ordinary political mud-slinging. Rather, the predictable swings of public opinion reveal Americans’ continued prejudice against women caught in the act of asking for power.
We beg Clinton to run, and then accuse her of feeling “entitled” to win. Several feminist writers have analyzed the Clinton yo-yo. Melissa McEwan sees a deliberate pattern of humiliation, which involves “building [Clinton] up and pressuring her to take on increasingly prominent public challenges, only to immediately turn on her and unleash breathtaking misogyny against her when she steps up to the plate.”
If you find this hypothesis unlikely, there’s Ann Friedman’s explanation: Clinton makes people uncomfortable by succeeding too visibly. Clinton is trapped in “the catch-22 of female ambition,” Friedman writes: “To succeed, she needs to be liked, but to be liked, she needs to temper her success.”
Yet it seems odd that even when Clinton ascends to ever-greater positions of power—from first lady to senator, from senator to secretary of state—we start liking her again once she’s landed the job. It’s not her success that seems to arouse ire, but the act of campaigning itself.
This issue is not specific to Clinton. As Slate writer Jamelle Bouie has pointed out on Twitter, even progressive demigod Elizabeth Warren was seen as “unlikable” when she ran for the Massachusetts senate seat. Local outlets published op-eds about how women were being “turned off” by Warren’s “know-it-all style”—a framing that’s indistinguishable from 2016 Clinton coverage. “I’m asking her to be more authentic,” a Democratic analyst for Boston radio station WBUR said of Warren. “I want her to just sound like a human being, not read the script that makes her sound like some angry, hectoring school marm.”
Once Warren made it to the Senate, she was lionized—right down to a Clinton-esque moment in which supporters begged her to run for President. Yet seeing Warren engaged in the actual act of running seems to freak people out.
Campaigning is not succeeding. It’s asking for success, and for power. To campaign is to publicly claim that you are better than the others (usually white men) who want the same job, and that a whole lot of people should work to place you in a more powerful position. In other words, campaigning is a transgressive act for women.
Women often find self-promotion difficult even outside the realm of politics. For example, a 2011 study found that men are four times more likely to ask for raises than their female co-workers. Women are much more likely than men to under-estimate their abilities. When they apply for jobs, they often refuse to even submit a resume unless they’re certain they have 100% of the requisite qualifications. (The qualification threshold for men is only 60%. Think about that the next time you wonder why on Earth Donald Trump thinks he should be president–or, for that matter, when Bernie Sanders insists that his lack of foreign policy experience compared to Clinton’s doesn’t matter, because he has better “judgment.”)
Articles on women’s workplace behavior are littered with tales of the “confidence gap” and “impostor syndrome”–that is, the recurring belief among high-achieving women that all of their achievements have been somehow accidental and are therefore undeserved. But the rare, lucky women who do manage to apply for higher-level jobs, advocate for fair wages, and feel good about themselves in the meantime may find that the “confidence gap” is less personal neurosis than sadly justified risk assessment. Women who put themselves forward in the same assertive, confident style as men are routinely found pushy, “bitchy,” or unlikable, and professionally penalized for that, too.
In politics, the pattern is no different. The so-called “ambition gap” begins in college. In both 2001 and 2011, women were 16 percentage points less likely than men to say they had thought about running for office, according to a study of nearly 4,000 Americans published in 2012 by the Women & Politics Institute. Women consider themselves less qualified for politics (again, men with the exact same qualifications as those women describe themselves as “very qualified” for the same positions), less interested in high-level positions and less likely to run for them.
When women do overcome the ambition gap, we punish them for it. One Harvard study found that “when participants saw female politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having less communality (i.e., being unsupportive and uncaring), while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking male politicians.” Power-seeking men were seen as strong and competent. Power-seeking women were greeted by both sexes with “moral outrage.”
Thus, the single worst thing a female politician can do to herself is to look for a job in politics. We can accept women in power, but not women’s desire for more of it.
Would a victory in the primaries or general election cool down public anger toward Clinton—or increase it to record levels? As Friedman pointed out to me in conversation, there’s no way to know: “When you get to the level Hillary is at now … there’s no data. It’s just her.” As the only woman to ever be a leading contender for president, Clinton is the only case study we have about how gender impacts frontrunners. This gives us an incomplete picture, as Friedman notes, because it erases any complexity that arises from Clinton’s status as an individual, and imperfect, politician.
Personally, I think that we’ll start liking Clinton again sooner rather than later. After all, she can’t keep campaigning forever. If she loses the Democratic primaries or the general election, she’ll have run out of rungs to climb. The loss would let us forgive her. And if she makes it to the top, she’ll have reached a vantage point that she—and we—have never seen before. Up there, everything may look new.
We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society — politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics.
Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.
The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.
But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.
As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, “In Defence of Politics,” “Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.”
Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want “outsiders.” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.
Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.
This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals:
The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.
The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.
We’re now at a point where the Senate says it won’t even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution. We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.
And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.
Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
I printed out a Times list of the insults Trump has hurled on Twitter. The list took up 33 pages. Trump’s style is bashing and pummeling. Everyone who opposes or disagrees with him is an idiot, a moron or a loser. The implied promise of his campaign is that he will come to Washington and bully his way through.
Trump’s supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.
This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”
WASHINGTON — THE Clinton campaign is shellshocked over the wholesale rejection of Hillary by young women, younger versions of herself who do not relate to her.
Hillary’s coronation was predicated on a conviction that has just gone up in smoke. The Clintons felt that Barack Obama had presumptuously snatched what was rightfully hers in 2008, gliding past her with his pretty words to make history before she could.
So this time, the Clintons assumed, the women who had deserted Hillary for Barack, in Congress and in the country, owed her. Democrats would want to knock down that second barrier.
Hillary believed that there was an implicit understanding with the sisters of the world that now was the time to come back home and vote for a woman. (The Clintons seem to have conveniently forgotten how outraged they were by identity politics when black leaders deserted them in 2008 to support Obama.)
This attitude intensified the unappetizing solipsistic subtext of her campaign, which is “What is Hillary owed?” It turned out that female voters seem to be looking at Hillary as a candidate rather than as a historical imperative. And she’s coming up drastically short on trustworthiness.
As Olivia Sauer, an 18-year-old college freshman who caucused for Bernie Sanders in Ames, Iowa, told a Times reporter: “It seems like he is at the point in his life when he is really saying what he is thinking. With Hillary, sometimes you get this feeling that all of her sentences are owned by someone.”
Hillary started, both last time and this, from a place of entitlement, as though if she reads her résumé long enough people will surrender. And now she’s even angrier that she has been shown up by someone she considers even less qualified than Obama was when he usurped her place.
Bernie has a clear, concise “we” message, even if it’s pie-in-the-sky: The game is rigged and we have to take the country back from the privileged few and make it work for everyone. Hillary has an “I” message: I have been abused and misunderstood and it’s my turn.
It’s a victim mind-set that is exhausting, especially because the Clintons’ messes are of their own making.
On the trail in New Hampshire, Madeleine Albright made the case that it was a betrayal of feminist ideals to support Bernie against Hillary, noting that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” When Sanders handily won the women’s vote on Tuesday, David Axelrod noted dryly that they were going to need to clear out a lot of space in hell.
And in a misstep for the feminist leader who got famous by going undercover as a Playboy bunny, Gloria Steinem told Bill Maher that young women were flocking to Bernie to be where the boys are. Blaming it on hormones was odd, given the fact that for centuries, it was widely believed that women’s biology made them emotionally unfit to be leaders.
What the three older women seemed to miss was that the young women supporting Sanders are living the feminist dream, where gender no longer restricts and defines your choices, where girls grow up knowing they can be anything they want. The aspirations of ’70s feminism are now baked into the culture.
The interesting thing about the spectacle of older women trying to shame younger ones on behalf of Hillary is that Hillary and Bill killed the integrity of institutional feminism back in the ’90s — with the help of Albright and Steinem.
Instead of just admitting that he had had an affair with Monica Lewinsky and taking his lumps, Bill lied and hid behind the skirts of his wife and female cabinet members, who had to go out before the cameras and vouch for his veracity, even when it was apparent he was lying.
Seeing Albright, the first female secretary of state, give cover to President Clinton was a low point in women’s rights. As was the New York Times op-ed by Steinem, arguing that Lewinsky’s will was not violated, so no feminist principles were violated. What about Clinton humiliating his wife and daughter and female cabinet members? What about a president taking advantage of a gargantuan power imbalance with a 22-year-old intern? What about imperiling his party with reckless behavior that put their feminist agenda at risk?
It rang hollow after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. When it was politically beneficial, the feminists went after Thomas for bad behavior and painted Hill as a victim. And later, when it was politically beneficial, they defended Bill’s bad behavior and stayed mute as Clinton allies mauled his dalliances as trailer trash and stalkers.
The same feminists who were outraged at the portrayal of Hill by David Brock — then a Clinton foe but now bizarrely head of one of her “super PACs” — as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” hypocritically went along when Hillary and other defenders of Bill used that same aspersion against Lewinsky.
Hillary knew that she could count on the complicity of feminist leaders and Democratic women in Congress who liked Bill’s progressive policies on women. And that’s always the ugly Faustian bargain with the Clintons, not only on the sex cover-ups but the money grabs: You can have our bright public service side as long as you accept our dark sketchy side.
Young women today, though, are playing by a different set of rules. And they don’t like the Clintons setting themselves above the rules.