Obama: Master of Dissociation
What happens when the world’s presumably most powerful man plays the role of participant-observer while still in the Oval Office?
March 10, 2016
In the beginning, there was Cool Obama. Now, in a kind of out-of-body experience, we have the Obama who dissociates himself from his own administration.
What gives occasion to this assessment is a long essay in The Atlantic magazine, The Obama Doctrine, written by its Washington staff writer, Jeffrey Goldberg.
The article, based in good part on a wide-ranging reflective interview with President Barack Obama, is a remarkable journalistic event insofar as it represents a preemptive attempt by a sitting President to shape the discourse about his record and his legacy.
What Obama says is revealing – less with regard to the analysis and interpretation of actions he has taken than as an exhibit of all that is peculiar about Obama’s policy-making style. It is also revealing in terms of the implications for U.S. diplomacy.
Master of dissociation
Obama’s overall stance is one of dissociation from his own administration and its conduct. Throughout the article, he tellingly appears to referring to himself in the third person.
This can be seen as the soon-to-be memoir writer’s attempt to cast himself as detached statesman while distancing himself from errors made.
However, this degree of dissociation by a still incumbent President is odd. It suggests that he has been playing the role of participant-observer while in the Oval Office.
Moreover, it conveys his disturbing sense that somehow the words he utters are equivalent to actions.
Indeed, a feature of his President has been a frequent mismatch of words and deeds which never get reconciled. Nor do they get reconciled in this seemingly candid interview.
Flight from accountability
All of which raises a cardinal question: Is this honest reflection or a characteristic flight from accountability?
This strange attitude on Obama’s part is most pronounced in his remarks about the Middle East, to which the interview devotes considerable space, especially with regard to the various U.S. engagements in the Middle East.
For example, Obama inveighs against allowing the United States to be put in a position of picking sides in Islam’s Sunni-Shiite civil war.
He is especially adamant about the dangers of American power being used as a tool of the Saudis to advance their cause.
That is an eminently reasonable position to take – and one that would take considerable backbone to make stick on the home front, considering strong interests that favor Saudi Arabia.
Yet, far from acting in a balanced manner, Obama favored the Saudis – witness “his” position on letting the Saudis do their shortsighted, entirely self-interested bidding in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Bahrain.
Perhaps tragically, but definitely spinelessly, Obama also has never confronted the KSA’s leaders about the their reckless promotion of Wahhabism or their concrete support for ISIS and al-Qaeda (in Syria and Yemen, where they fight side-by-side) – either in private or in public.
Brave words, no action
Obama urges that Saudi Arabia and Iran learn to co-exist, “to share space,” in the region. Yet, in the wake of the nuclear accord, he’s gone overboard in denouncing Iran as the primary source of instability in the Middle East.
He has also insisted that, until the Iranians cease and desist, no normalization is possible. That is, at best, half of the real story. Just because the Saudis are great customers for U.S. defense goods is no reason to give them a free ride.
Finally, Obama strongly criticizes Washington’s foreign policy Establishment. He sees it as overly rigid in its thinking and imposing its views on America’s leaders.
This is the most baffling statement Obama made. Is the President not the head of the Establishment? Has Obama not stocked his two administrations – to a man and to a woman – with members of the Establishment?
Does he not invite Robert Kagan to intimate Camp David deep think sessions? Hasn’t he bowed the knee before the Israeli lobby?
Does he not have the authority to address the country directly and to instruct them about world realities?
Baffling as his assertion is, part of the explanation lies in the President’s singular personality. Despite his high intelligence, he seems to live with a great number of unreconciled contradictions.
Some have to do with his background and upbringing. Some are intellectual. Either way, the title of The Atlantic article is misleading.
There is no “Obama Doctrine.” All too often, incoherence is the hallmark of American actions, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. The interview with Goldberg only confirms that.
First, we had “Cool Obama.” Now we have the Obama who dissociates himself from his own administration.
Such dissociation by a still incumbent President suggests that he is being a participant-observer.
Because the Saudis are great customers for US defense goods is no reason to give them a free ride.
Michael J. Brenner
Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh [Texas, United States] Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner is […]