In praise of not doing stupid shit.
We don't however have to imagine something highly similar. Boris Johnson this morning accused President Obama of hypocrisy for sticking his oar in over the EU referendum vote. Denis Healey once said that being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep, a decent put down turned into the complete destruction of a lesser foe, thanks to how awful politicians generally are at verbally pummelling their opponents into submission. Boris, who likes to think of himself as a classical sophisticate when not acting the upper class twit, is in every way far more like good ol' Bill Clinton. A charismatic dilettante who has repeatedly cheated on his wife, with a far higher opinion of himself than has ever been warranted, continually getting away with it thanks to how he's, well, Boris. Boris Johnson laying into Barack Obama is like watching a toddler trying to knock over Geoff Capes. It's like watching Nick Grimshaw and Rita Ora sit in judgement of other people. It's like Chris Evans trying his damnedest to be Jeremy Clarkson. It's like spending however much it is for a ticket to go and see Adele when you could stay at home and listen to next door's cat fight the tom from down the road for free.
It's ignorant, pathetic and stupid is what I'm getting at. Obama has not been, the consensus seem to be, the greatest of presidents. Especially for one who came to office promising so much, only to achieve relatively little. He has still without a shadow of doubt been the best US president of my lifetime thus far, and barring something astonishing happening, I would say is odds on to be the best US president of my lifetime full stop.
This much is apparent just from reading the superb extended interview/feature in the Atlantic, somewhat hopefully titled the Obama Doctrine. Each president must have a foreign policy doctrine. Dubya's was to act pre-emptively against threats, both perceived and real. It didn't go well. Obama's, by contrast, so much as he has one, is "to not do stupid shit". This not doing stupid shit itself has not always worked out. Intervening in Libya might not have been stupid, if say there had been a plan for handling the aftermath. Sadly, there was no plan for handling the aftermath. Likewise, the going along with the Saudi/Qatari plan for Syria, arming and funding jihadists, and from almost the outset demanding that Assad must go has been stupid. It has though been vastly preferable to the alternative, active US intervention in Syria, as demanded and urged by most of Obama's advisers and appointees.
"Not doing stupid shit" is in fact Obama playing down his impact on foreign policy, as is the notion that his time in office has signalled something of a retreat from the world. Obama has it's true not sent US troops to other countries in anything like the numbers that Bush did. He has though given the go ahead to a "surge" in Afghanistan; intervened again in Iraq; intervened in Syria, if only against Islamic State; intervened in Libya; and also has authorised an unknown number of drone strikes in countries from Somalia to Pakistan. This is without considering the backing given by the US to other states to carry out their wars, like in Ukraine and to the Saudis in Yemen. Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden.
Obama sums it up best himself:
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
Almost needless to say, most of Obama's aides and his secretaries of state, including John Kerry and a certain Hillary Clinton do follow this playbook. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz will without doubt follow it. Trump you can't be certain of, just as you can't be certain of anything he says, but you'd wager he'll be far more of a traditionalist than he claims he would be currently. Clinton gets it the neck repeatedly, and deservedly, and makes clear how she would operate, saying in reference to Obama's withdrawn red line on Syria that "If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice." Hillary was gung-ho for the Libya intervention to the point where Joe Biden is reported to have said "Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir."
Most of the reaction over here to the piece was focused on Obama's criticism of David Cameron over Libya, or as Obama apparently refers to the Libyan intervention, a "shit show". Cameron, according to Obama, stopped paying attention, "distracted by a range of other things.” Which is in truth a fair summary of the intervention as a whole: we went in, Gaddafi got sodomised with a knife, Dave flew to Benghazi to be garlanded by the locals, and once that was over it was time to move on. No messing around Iraq style with trying to create a new state out of the one we destroyed; we'd just leave the Libyans to it. What we thought we knew turned out to be wrong, and soon liberated Benghazi became a city fit to be filmed as a hellhole of anti-Americanism by Michael Bay. A couple of MPs, including Andrew Mitchell, claimed this was all terribly unfair without really putting their all into it, for the reason that it's true. France and ourselves were the ones who wanted the intervention for reasons known only to Sarkozy and Cameron, and Obama went along with it in the belief that this time maybe his allies would pull their weight as well as anything for a quiet life. Instead the Americans again had to do all the heavy lifting, just as they are doing in Syria while Cameron makes a song and dance in the Commons about our magnificent Brimstone missiles that so far haven't killed any Islamic State fighters. No wonder Obama had to make clear to Dave that 2% spending on defence was truly non-negotiable.
Obama does of course want to portray the decisions he has made in the best possible light. It's that he does so convincingly, or Jeffrey Goldberg is skilful enough in his write-up to present it that way. He feels constrained by the pressure put him on by the foreign policy establishment, the foreign and military funded thinktanks, the "playbookers", the Samantha Power "responsibility to protect" agitators. He would clearly have liked to have dumped Saudi Arabia as an ally given the chance, Pakistan probably too. You can argue that a truly radical president would have done these things, would have refused to listen to people that he believed were advising him to do "stupid shit". You can also look back through recent American history and see that by most measures Obama's foreign policy has been relatively sane, based mostly on correcting the mistakes of his predecessors.
Whoever wins the election in November (unless there is a Sanders miracle) will almost certainly have a doctrine that abandons the not doing stupid shit rule. Difficult as it is to believe Clinton could be worse than Trump on this score, such are the advisers she has always had by her side (Susan Rice, Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter are all long term associates), such was the way her husband used foreign policy repeatedly as a distraction from problems at home. The rise of Corbyn here has not stopped our once similarly critical of foreign adventures prime minister from following the playbook, while his potential successors, George Osborne especially, are if anything even more minded to act. Labour itself has a core group of MPs that have never seen a war they didn't want to get involved in, who coincidentally tend to be the most critical of Corbyn and the left.
After 8 years of Bush, Obama was the most blessed relief. I can't help but feel we're about to plunge into the maelstrom again.