President Barack Obama defended his decision not to intervene militarily in Syria’s civil war in an interview published Thursday detailing internal clashes among high-level U.S. officials.
Obama said that he was “very proud” of his decision not to take military action against the regime and breaking with conventional foreign policy wisdom, something he called the “Washington playbook.”
The interview was part of an in-depth article in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg exploring the President’s foreign policy doctrine, particularly in the Middle East. Here are eight things we learned.
1. Kerry felt he “got f—ed over” on Syria
In the article, Obama stood firmly by his 2013 decision to avoid ordering a military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon infrastructure despite having declared the previous year that the use of such weapons would cross a “red line.”
Though the U.S. confirmed the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Obama reversed himself on the unilateral use of force and the Syrian government agreed to have international inspectors remove all of its chemical stockpiles.
The decision not to strike stunned U.S. allies and Obama’s Cabinet and closest advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry told friends he “got f**ked over” when Obama decided against strikes on Syria, according to the article, after having pressed the issue publicly on the White House’s behalf.
Obama’s reversal drew push-back from current and former administration officials. His former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was quoted as saying, “Once the commander in chief draws that red line, then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.”
2. Obama has been exasperated with Kerry’s calls for intervention
The Atlantic also reports that, over the last year, Kerry has repeatedly lobbied Obama to launch missiles at specific Assad regime targets in an attempt to protect civilians, proposals that Obama has steadfastly resisted.
“Recently, when Kerry handed Obama a written outline of new steps to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, Obama is quoted as saying, ‘Oh, another proposal?’”
And the article details how, at a National Security Council meeting held at the Pentagon in December, Obama announced that no one except the secretary of defense should bring him proposals for military action, which the article notes was widely seen as a rebuke to Kerry.
Kerry’s desire to intervene also brought him into conflict with Vice President Joe Biden, who reportedly privately told the decorated Vietnam Veteran, “John, remember Vietnam? Remember how that started?”
3. Allies blame ‘untrustworthy’ Obama for violence in Syria
The article also highlights criticism from world leaders over the decision not to attack Syria for its chemical weapons use. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that not intervening had “created a monster” in Syria, while the crown prince of Abu Dhabi described Obama as “untrustworthy.”
The King of Jordan Abdullah II reportedly remarked, “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.”
4. Obama blames allies for ‘s–t show’ in Libya
Conversely, Obama called Libya “a mess” and laid the blame for instability there on European failures to follow through with a peacekeeping effort after the 2011 NATO-led toppling of toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said, noting that then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy lost reelection soon after the intervention. According to the article, Obama privately refers to Libya as a “s–t show.” Obama added that he wanted U.S. allies to take the lead “in order to prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting.”
5. Obama to Netanyahu: ‘I live in the White House’
Obama also clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu over Iran’s nuclear program and the President’s understanding of the region. The article reported that Obama sees Netanyahu as being capable of bringing about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict but feels that the Israeli politician is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so.
The President recalled telling Netanyahu, after he launched into a long speech about the regional dynamics that Obama reportedly felt was condescending: “Bibi, you have to understand something. I’m the African American son of a single mother, and 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.”
6. Iran and Saudi Arabia need to ‘share the neighborhood’
While Obama acknowledged that Iran “has been an enemy of the United States” since 1979, he said that the competition between the Saudis and the Iranians had led to “proxy wars and chaos” from Syria to Iraq to Yemen.
Always siding with America’s traditional Gulf partners, he continued, would force the U.S. to use “our military power to settle scores.”
He added that the Sunni and Shia nations “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
7. Obama is Batman, ISIS is the Joker
Obama once called ISIS “the JV team” rather than an existential threat, but no longer.
Advisors recall that Obama has since likened ISIS, also known as ISIL, to the character of the Joker in the 2008 Batman movie “The Dark Knight.”
He was quoted as telling them: “There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting. These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had his turf.”
And then, he said, “the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. ISIL is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”
8. Putin is ‘polite, very frank’ and ‘not completely stupid’
The President said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “scrupulously polite, very frank” and that their meetings “are very businesslike.”
However, he said that Putin’s military actions in Ukraine and Syria were caused by internal weakness in Russia, not strength, saying “he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished.”
He added, “the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player … Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.”
In fact, he argued, “Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.”
But the President acknowledged Russia’s position in Ukraine, saying, “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do” due to Russian military proximity.