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The Washington Playbook

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Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is enlightening, showing the president’s great personal confidence in bucking “the Washington playbook” that had dominated administrations from both parties since the Reagan years. Rejecting those who would draw lines in sand and start wars to defend American prestige–including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, among many, many others–Obama instead has operated at a higher level than most of his advisors, seeking to defuse conflicts and, in his words, “not do stupid shit.” This is the post-Bush presidency we needed. Of course, Hillary Clinton is all about doing some 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.)

Given the fairly high likelihood (or at least reasonable possibility) that Power would be Clinton’s Secretary of State, we can likely expect a return to the older version of American interventionism, which will probably do harm in the world and to the U.S. Ah, if only Bernie Sanders had any articulated foreign policy at all to which we could reasonably compare this.

The transformational issue for Obama was bombing Syria, where he declared a “red line” and then didn’t bomb when Assad crossed it. But does anyone think Syria would be better off today if the U.S. bombed it to smithereens? When has that worked? When has the supposed hit to American prestige if we didn’t bomb actually manifested itself? Seems to me the hit to American prestige was starting a stupid war in Iraq that we weren’t even prepared enough for to understand the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. Obama went down this road in Libya. It didn’t work. And unlike Hillary, he learned from it.

And, my God, he even has a clue about the history of America’s terrible foreign policy of the past and it influences his actions.

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.”

Now, I certainly have my criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, especially around trade. But when was the last president with a better foreign policy? Grover Cleveland, who for all his faults was at least anti-imperialist? FDR I suppose is the better answer. But it’s been a long, long time. It may be a low bar but Obama has easily cleared it. The deals with Cuba and Iran are tremendously important and change the trajectory of the nation.

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