Obama Rejects the “Carly Simon Syndrome”

Donald Trump thinks President Barack Obama is sympathetic to ISIS. In reality, Obama knows much of the Middle East is outside U.S. control.

No one has interviewed President Obama on foreign policy more often or competently than Jeffrey Goldberg. So when presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump suggests that the President is sympathetic to ISIS, who better than Goldberg to knock that kind of nonsense out of the park.

Before getting to what he had to say about Obama, it is important to note that Goldberg starts off with a few comments about Trump.

Barack Obama, to Donald Trump, is, and will forever be, the Manchurian President—Manchuria, by way of Kenya, with a detour in Raqqa.

He goes on to say that Trump’s critique of Obama is “analysis-free and comprehensively unserious.” So the question becomes, why bother with addressing it at all? My response would be that it provides a way to distinguish President Obama’s approach – not just from the lack of anything coherent from Trump — but from how most Republicans have tried to frame the issue. Here is Goldberg doing a masterful job of providing the really big picture (with some choice takes on Trump thrown in):

The fundamental difference between Obama and Trump on issues related to Islamist extremism (apart from the obvious, such as that, unlike Trump, Obama a) has killed Islamist terrorists; b) regularly studies the problem and allows himself to be briefed by serious people about the problem; and c) is not racist or temperamentally unsuitable for national leadership) is that Trump apparently believes that two civilizations are in conflict. Obama believes that the clash is taking place within a single civilization, and that Americans are sometimes collateral damage in this fight between Muslim modernizers and Muslim fundamentalists.

Donald Trump is not the only one who wants to frame the challenge posed by ISIS as a conflict between two civilizations. That was basically Chris Christie’s message back when he was running for president and kept talking about how “the world is on fire.” Or how about when Marco Rubio said, “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today.” It is important to point out – as Goldberg does – that this view of the conflict is shared by none other than ISIS itself.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph of Islamic State, argues that there is no place in the West for a devout Muslim. Donald Trump often gives the impression that he shares this view, and that he is advancing the cause of ISIS, by endorsing its premise that the struggle in which it is engaged is, in fact, civilizational.

To explain President Obama’s view, Goldberg recounts something the President told him about what he was trying to accomplish with his speech in Cairo in 2009.

“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.”

Those who are fighting against such a reformation within Islam are the object of President Obama’s contempt.

Privately, Obama expresses the deepest loathing for ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. ISIS, he has noted, stands for—quite literally—everything he opposes.

I would assume that he feels the same way about the leaders of countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran when they attempt to thwart change. It’s just not very helpful for him to say so out loud.

Goldberg has a wonderful description of how Obama sees this differently than a lot of the foreign policy establishment.

Obama developed strong antibodies to what I call the Carly Simon Syndrome, which is an affliction affecting American policymakers so vain that they probably think Islamist extremism, and everything else, is about them. Obama, unlike many American analysts, does not suffer from this delusion. He sees the problems affecting parts of the Muslim world as largely outside American control.

Of course, assuming that anything is outside American control is anathema to the whole neocon wet dream of Pax Americana. What these folks don’t seem to understand – but Obama does – is that being unaware of the limits of your power causes you to make mistakes that diminish your actual power. To employ another musical reference, as “The Gambler” once said…”you gotta know when to hold em. Know when to fold em. Know when to walk away. And know when to run.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.