President Obama said something to Jeffrey Goldberg that strikes me as critically important to understanding the way he has defined his approach to foreign policy.
Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.
He made that statement when addressing the critique some have made that – by invading Crimea and engaging militarily in Syria – Vladimir Putin is gaining credibility on the world stage. But Obama’s statement is also a direct challenge to what he calls the “Washington playbook.”
“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.”
Goldberg goes into great detail explaining the inartful process that ensued in the White House after Assad’s use of chemical weapons. I remember that at the conclusion of all that, I was confused as to why a consensus developed that President Obama had bugled the situation. Eventually I realized that conclusion was based on the rules of the Washington playbook. They assumed that the “red line” the President had drawn was a threat to punish Assad if he used chemical weapons. By failing to do so, he had damaged America’s credibility.
For some foreign-policy experts, even within his own administration, Obama’s about-face on enforcing the red line was a dispiriting moment in which he displayed irresolution and naivete, and did lasting damage to America’s standing in the world. “Once the commander in chief draws that red line,” Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and then as secretary of defense in Obama’s first term, told me recently, “then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.”
What I understood from the beginning was that President Obama’s goal was to use our power to get Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons – which is what actually happened, with an assist from Putin. The threat of punishment was a means towards that end. This is also why so many Republicans are reeling at the lifting of sanctions against Iran. Their ultimate goal is to punish Iran, whereas Obama used the sanctions as a way to reach his goal of stopping them from developing a nuclear bomb.
While there is some truth to Panetta’s assessment, the whole idea of maintaining credibility has overshadowed the actual role of punishment as simply a means to – as Obama says – “get what you want.” Real power lies in “keeping your eyes on the prize” of the end goal – which keeps all of your options on the table.