President Barack Obama discussed the legacy of his foreign policy, the Obama doctrine, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic.
Obama openly shares his thoughts on the foreign policy issues that have been plaguing his two terms in office. The interview is supplemented by a series of reflection articles from experts, who agree his agenda will go down as a clear shift in American foreign policy.
The interview goes into detail about Obama’s relationships with some of America’s closest allies. At one point he got in an altercation with British Prime Minister David Cameron over the UK’s declining defense spending. Obama told Goldberg that “free riders aggravate me” and that Cameron had to pay “his fair share.” Obama explained that he regarded this as part of his job, to encourage other nations to take actions for themselves by “leading from behind.”
Another harsh exchange Obama recalls was with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to Obama, questioned his understanding of the situation in the Middle East.
“I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house,” Obama told Netanyahu. “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.”
Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote that Obama’s interactions with his cabinet and world leaders confirm his idea of the president regarding himself “as the smartest person in the room — any room.”
Using an example of Secretary of State John Kerry handing over a classified document with Obama responding: “Oh, another proposal?” Ferguson concludes that power seem to have “made Obama arrogant.”
Another example is Obama’s approach to the rise of Islamic State, which he feared, yet didn’t consider a threat to the U.S.
Obama faced a great deal of criticism for not taking more steps toward fighting the organization more aggressively, particularly during the fall of 2015 during the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe and with the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
Goldberg says Obama at one point used Batman character “The Joker” as a metaphor to describe ISIS.
“These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order,” Obama said describing a scene from The Dark Knight. “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.”
But as Ferguson points out, “when the Joker started decapitating American citizens, the president abandoned his policy of non-intervention in Syria.”
Obama further used global warming to justify why ISIS wasn’t a priority.
“ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told Goldberg in one of their conversations. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.”
The defining moment for the Obama doctrine came August 2013, when he decided to go against his foreign policy advisors and not strike the Assad regime in Syria when it crossed his chemical weapons red line. Obama says it was a way of going against the “Washington Playbook.”
“That is the source of the controversy,” Obama said. “There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment.”
Obama’s reluctance to intervene in war zones around the world has been based on a policy to not put American soldiers at great risk “unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.”
Martin Indyk, vice president and director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., wrote in his own reflection piece that the Obama doctrine was “captured in memorable lines of ‘don’t do stupid shit’ and ‘leading from behind.'”
His time as commander-in-chief marked a clear shift away from the Middle East to a recognition of the rise of China and India as “the most consequential powers of the 21st century,” Indyk continued.
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