Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is in his own category” when it comes to the Middle East leaders who have most deeply disappointed President Barack Obama, according to a major overview of the Obama presidency, featuring numerous interviews with the president, published online Thursday by The Atlantic.
In the piece, headlined “The Obama Doctrine,” writer Jeffrey Goldberg goes to great lengths to trace the president’s growing disillusionment, over the course of his presidency, with the possibility of changing the region for the better. “Some of his deepest disappointments concern Middle Eastern leaders themselves,” Goldberg writes. Of these, “Benjamin Netanyahu is in his own category.”
According to Goldberg, “Obama has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so.”
To illustrate Obama’s impatience with Netanyahu, one of several Middle Eastern leaders said to have questioned the president’s understanding of the region, Goldberg relates an incident during an undated Obama-Netanyahu meeting, at which the Israeli prime minister “launched into something of a lecture about the dangers of the brutal region in which he lives.”
Obama, relates Goldberg, “felt that Netanyahu was behaving in a condescending fashion, and was also avoiding the subject at hand: peace negotiations. Finally, the president interrupted the prime minister: ‘Bibi, you have to understand something,’ he said. ‘I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. 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.’”
The piece does not single out Netanyahu as the only regional leader to “frustrate him immensely.” Obama now thinks of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who he had hoped could bridge the East-West divide, as “a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria,” Goldberg writes.
He also says Obama two years ago took Jordan’s King Abdullah II aside at an international summit because he was unhappy that the monarch was badmouthing him. “Obama said he had heard that Abdullah had complained to friends in the U.S. Congress about his leadership, and told the king that if he had complaints, he should raise them directly. The king denied that he had spoken ill of him.”
“In recent days,” Goldberg continues, “the president has taken to joking privately, ‘All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.’ Obama has always had a fondness for pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats, telling aides, ‘If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.’”
According to Goldberg, Obama now acknowledges that a goal of his Cairo speech in 2009, early in his presidency, in which he sought to persuade Muslims to look honestly at the sources of their unhappiness and stop blaming Israel for all their problems, has proved unsuccessful.
He quotes Obama as follows: “My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel… We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting — problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity. My thought was, I would communicate that the U.S. is not standing in the way of this progress, that we would help, in whatever way possible, to advance the goals of a practical, successful Arab agenda that provided a better life for ordinary people.”
What unfolded over the following three years, Goldberg goes on, “as the Arab Spring gave up its early promise, and brutality and dysfunction overwhelmed the Middle East,” left Obama bleak. “The unraveling of the Arab Spring darkened the president’s view of what the U.S. could achieve in the Middle East, and made him realize how much the chaos there was distracting from other priorities,” Goldberg writes.
More recently, says Goldberg, the rise of the Islamic State terror group has “deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed — not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.”
In the piece, Goldberg quotes Obama castigating Islamic State in the most bitter tones, as “the distillation of every worst impulse.” Says Obama: “The notion that we are a small group that defines ourselves primarily by the degree to which we can kill others who are not like us, and attempting to impose a rigid orthodoxy that produces nothing, that celebrates nothing, that really is contrary to every bit of human progress— it indicates the degree to which that kind of mentality can still take root and gain adherents in the 21st century.”
Obama is also quoted praising Israelis’ ability to withstand a relentless climate of terrorism. Writes Goldberg of the US president: “Several years ago, he expressed to me his admiration for Israelis’ ‘resilience’ in the face of constant terrorism, and it is clear that he would like to see resilience replace panic in American society.”
Relating to last July’s nuclear agreement with Iran, on which he and Netanyahu disagreed so profoundly and so publicly, Obama told Goldberg as recently as January that he wasn’t bluffing when he said in 2012 that he would have attacked Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon. “I actually would have,” Goldberg quotes Obama saying, in reference to a strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities, “If I saw them break out… This was in the category of an American interest.”
Where he and Netanyahu differed, Goldberg elaborates, is that “Netanyahu wanted Obama to prevent Iran from being capable of building a bomb, not merely from possessing a bomb.”
Much of the article relates to Obama’s decision not to strike at Syria after President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in the summer of 2013 — a landmark volte face in his presidency. Goldberg reveals, however, that Secretary of State John Kerry has continued to press Obama “to violate Syria’s sovereignty” and “launch missiles at specific regime targets, under cover of night, to ‘send a message’ to the regime.” The president has insistently refused these requests, Goldberg writes, “and seems to have grown impatient” with Kerry’s lobbying. “Recently, when Kerry handed Obama a written outline of new steps to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, Obama said, ‘Oh, another proposal?’”
Goldberg concludes the piece by arguing that Obama “has placed some huge bets” in foreign policy — notably where the Iran deal is concerned. When Goldberg told him last May that he was “nervous” about the deal, Obama replied: “Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this… I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
For supporters of the president, Goldberg sums up, “his strategy makes eminent sense: Double down in those parts of the world where success is plausible, and limit America’s exposure to the rest. His critics believe, however, that problems like those presented by the Middle East don’t solve themselves — that, without American intervention, they metastasize.”