In a series of interviews with The Atlantic magazine released this week, President Obama says his reluctance to use military power shouldn’t be seen as weakness and fired back at critics who “promote the notion that we should go around bombing people.”
The comments, collected in recent months by the publication, largely center on attacks on his strategy for dealing with the civil war in Syria, and his decision not to attack Syrian President Bashar Assad when evidence of chemical weapons use was uncovered in 2013.
Obama said part of that decision came after an assessment that “while we could inflict some damage on Assad, we could not, through a missile strike, eliminate the chemical weapons themselves.” A partial failure may have been seen as a victory for the sitting government.
But the wide-ranging interviews stretch into the commander in chief’s larger philosophy toward war, diplomacy and foreign policy.
Obama attacked the narrative that former President Reagan’s tough talk during the Iranian hostage crisis led to freedom for those individuals — “Reagan’s posture, his rhetoric had nothing to do with their release” — and pushed back against “the machinery of our national-security apparatus” in escalating threats instead of diffusing them.
“For me to press the pause button at that moment (in the Syrian conflict), I knew, would cost me politically,” he told the magazine. “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 … I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. … Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”
Obama draws distinctions between his reluctance to commit U.S. troops to open-ended wars and his frequent use of drone strikes to target terrorist suspects, asserting the terrorist suspects present an immediate and substantial threat to the American homeland.
He also argues that U.S. foreign policy needs to be “hardheaded at the same time as we’re big-hearted,” balancing security interests with basic humanitarian empathy.
U.S. leaders need to “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.”
Obama lists China as the greatest foreign policy challenge in coming years, but not necessarily an adversary of the United States. “If we get that right and China continues on a peaceful rise, then we have a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order.”