Jeffrey Goldberg, the unctuous Zionist liberal and diehard supporter of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, gained extraordinary access to President Obama for an Atlantic Magazine interview titled “The Obama Doctrine”. This 20,000-word document has been hailed by Patrick Cockburn as evidence that Obama has “turned his back on Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies”. If that is the case, one might expect to see him, Patrick L. Smith, Robert Parry, Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, Tariq Ali and David Bromwich on the unemployment line soon.
Although the prospects of wading through 37 pages of an article consisting of these two stroking each other’s ego filled me with dread, it behooved me as a chronicler of the Syrian debacle to lift up the rock and see what’s crawling around.
To start off, it confirms what I have argued for the longest time. Samantha Power, who was widely regarded as an aggressive “regime change” proponent who had Obama’s ear, was regarded as a king-sized annoyance by Obama who would only consider intervention if it improved the corporate bottom line. Rescuing impoverished Syrian farmers and shopkeepers fighting for their lives and a better future for their children was not even worth considering.
Referring to her book “A Problem from Hell” that defended a liberal interventionist “right to protect” policy that supposedly he agreed with, Obama rebuked her for advocating a war that was not in America’s interest from a realpolitik standpoint:
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.
The clash should have been obvious to anybody closely following White House foreign policy as I reported nearly two years ago. I seemed to be the only person who had read a NY Times article from October 22nd 2013 that stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”
Within the thousands of articles in CounterPunch, DissidentVoice, Salon, ZNet, World Socialist Website and Global Research warning about Obama following in the footsteps of George Bush, there was a fundamental flaw they shared. They got the name right but only partially:
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.
This is the same Brent Scowcroft who deftly parried Ali G.’s advice that the US of A bomb Canada ‘cuz they wasn’t expectin’ it. Perhaps this is what inspired Obama to study his example. On a more fundamental level, Obama’s foreign policy boiled down to the precept he passed on to anybody who would listen—but privately: “Don’t do stupid shit.” I am sure that Bill Maher was one of the people Obama shared this wisdom with. I can just see the two high-fiving each other and braying like jackasses.
Almost sounding like Trump and Rubio, Obama went after Hillary Clinton when she wrote an article in the August 2014 Atlantic urging military aid to the Syrian rebels. According to Goldberg, Obama became “rip-shit angry” but afterwards made up with her, the woman he probably understood would carry on the Clinton/Bush/Obama legacy of neoliberalism and realpolitik. It boiled down to this. Obama had no interest in toppling Assad because he did not see him as a threat to American security. In fact, although Goldberg does not mention it, the Syrian dictator had collaborated with the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program, had gotten the red carpet treatment from Obama’s counterpart Tony Blair and even been written up with his wife in Mademoiselle magazine as the Middle East’s Beautiful Couple. More like the people who would have been invited to the White House than bombed.
Goldberg analyzes Obama’s retreat from the “red line” stance he took after the Baathists used sarin gas in an attack on Ghouta in August 2013 as one dictated by a fear of “going it alone”. It seemed that his allies had little interest in a war on Syria. Also, his Director of National Intelligence James Clapper entertained the idea that the rebels might have gassed themselves in a “false flag” operation. Had he been reading Global Research? I wouldn’t put it past him. This is the same James Clapper who had a “huge concern” that ISIS would exploit the refugee crisis to sneak terrorists into Europe and who lied to Congress in 2013, telling it that the NSA does not collect private data. In other words, just the sort of person who Obama would take at his word.
What’s missing from Goldberg’s account, however, is the more obvious explanation for Obama’s misgivings. It might jeopardize the rapprochement with Iran that was in its early stages. In September 2013, when all the usual left websites were besides themselves over the possibility of Obama invading Syria to impose “regime change”, he was on the telephone with Iran’s president discussing how to move things forward as the Guardian reported:
Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani held the first direct talks between American and Iranian leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution, exchanging pleasantries in a 15-minute telephone call on Friday that raised the prospect of relief for Tehran from crippling economic sanctions.
Speaking at the White House shortly after the historic call, Obama said his discussion with Rouhani had shown the “basis for resolution” of the dispute over Iran nuclear programme.
At least for me, this carried a lot more weight than anything else. The White House had made up its mind that a tilt toward Iran was in its interest. Why overthrow Assad and alienate a country that had already proved itself as a flexible partner back when Oliver North was hammering out deals to supply weapons to the Nicaraguan contras?
For Obama’s critics on the interventionist right, his inaction was a blow to American credibility. Such “dithering” made the USA look weak and indecisive. But this is a shallow analysis. In fact, Obama’s stance was bold and decisive. He had decided that it was in America’s interest to have friendly relations with Iran and he would go to any lengths to ensure success. If he antagonized the Republican Party in the process, that would matter little since they had already shown a tendency to put a minus wherever he put a plus.
This pretty much covers what Obama had to say about Syria but I do want to conclude with some brief words about Libya, which factored heavily in his decision to stay out of Syria. As we have heard thousands of times from the Baathist amen corner, this “failed state” was reason enough to defend Assad, who like Gaddafi knew how to keep the jihadi rabble in line. Never forget that the two were entirely open to torturing them on behalf of the CIA. Waterboarding would learn ’em out of sharia law, you betcha.
Speaking now of the Libyan intervention, Obama says “It didn’t work.” An interesting observation but what does it mean? Keep in mind that the “anti-imperialist” left always thought that after Gaddafi was toppled, Libya would become something more or less like Panama after Noriega was overthrown—a vassal state that could reliably carry out American designs in the region like building up AFRICOM. (Of course, they never bothered to go to the AFRICOM website where Gaddafi’s high military command was held in high regard by their American counterparts for their willingness to collaborate.)
Yes, I suppose things turned out to be a disaster in Libya since it is anything but a tool of American interests. Widely regarded as an expert on what “went wrong” in Libya, Horace Campbell put it this way:
There is not a week since October 2011 when oil executives from Europe have not complained about insecurity in Libya. Although the Libyan ‘government’ has established a Petroleum Facilities Guard with 18,000 men to protect oil production, there are constant statements about ‘insecurity’ in Libya among European oil companies. According to the Financial Times, “Heavily armed militias are invading oilfields, locals demanding jobs are blockading facilities, and protests are closing down export terminals. And then there are the regional concerns in the wake of the attack on an oil facility in neighbouring Algeria earlier this year.”
Unruly natives demanding jobs are blockading facilities? Time to civilize ‘em with a Krag, I’d say.
Obama worried that if Assad was overthrown, Syria would become a mess like Libya with Islamic militias running around threatening law and order and creating a hostile environment for foreign investors. Who can blame him since Libya is a mess by any standard? And most of all, a place where it is dangerous to walk down the streets with out of control trigger-happy militias on the loose.
Just look at the murder rate. Since the militias declared open season on each other in 2014, 4,275 people have been killed. That’s nearly 32 out of every 100,000 people annually. There is of course an issue over whether this litmus test might be applied to Venezuela that has nearly 3 times as high a murder rate but this does not matter so much since the deaths are not accompanied by cries of God is Great, a sure sign of a failed state. This is not to speak of Syria that supposedly is fighting the Good Fight so that it does not end up like Libya, a rather puzzling proposition in the light of the proportional losses it would have suffered in the last two years if it was the size of Syria: 134,000.
At any rate, I will be taking up these questions at a future date when I have had a chance to do some necessary research. I will say at this point, however, that Libya like every other state in MENA is sharply divided by ethnic and religious differences, often masking a more fundamental class divide. In my view, the best way out of this impasse is building a revolutionary left like the kind that emerged in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1917 or the Cuban revolution of 1960. That task is not furthered by writing apologetics for Baathist barbarism, even if there were Cold War-encouraged delusions that Gaddafi or the Baathists were our kinds of peeps. These sorts of beliefs have been endemic on the left for much too long and it is about time we started with a clean slate.