Reprinted from Consortium News
Nearing the last year of his presidency, Barack Obama and his foreign policy remain an enigma. At times, he seems to be the "realist," working constructively with other nations to achieve positive solutions, as with the Iran nuclear deal and his rapprochement with Cuba. Other times, he slides into line with the neocons and liberal hawks, provoking ugly crises, such as his "regime change" tactics in Honduras (2009), Libya (2011), Syria (over several years) and Ukraine (2014).
Yet, even in some of those "regime change" scenarios, Obama pulls back from the crazier "tough guy/gal" ideas and recognizes the catastrophes such schemes could create. In 2013, he called off a planned bombing campaign against the Syrian military (which could have led to a victory for Al Qaeda or the Islamic State), and in 2014, he resisted a full-scale escalation of Ukraine's war against ethnic Russian rebels resisting the new U.S.-backed political order in Kiev (which could have pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear war).
Yet, Obama also won't stand up to the neocons and liberal hawks by sharing crucial information with the American people that could undermine pro-intervention narratives.
For instance, Obama has held back the latest U.S. intelligence analysis describing who was responsible for the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack that almost precipitated the U.S. war on the Syrian military, and he won't release the intelligence assessment on who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, the tragedy which ratcheted up the crisis with Russia over Ukraine.
In both cases, I'm told U.S. intelligence analysts have backed off early rushes to judgment blaming the Syrian government for the sarin attack, which killed hundreds, and the Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian rebels for the MH-17 crash, which killed 298 people. But Obama has left standing the earlier propaganda themes blaming the Syrian and Russian governments, all the better to apply American "soft power" pressure against Damascus and Moscow.
Thus, Obama's foreign policy has a decidedly zigzag nature to it. Or as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently described Obama: "On the prudential level he's a realist. But his vision is more ideological than strategic," a typically cryptic Kissingerian phrasing that I interpret to mean that Obama is a prudent realist when it comes to major military actions but -- short of all-out war -- ideologically embraces neocon/liberal-hawk interventionism.
My view of Obama is somewhat different. It strikes me that Obama is what you might call a "closet realist." He understands the limits of American power and wants to avoid costly military entanglements. But he also doesn't want to challenge the neocon/liberal-hawk dominance of Official Washington.
In other words, he's a timid opportunist when it comes to reshaping the parameters of the prevailing "group think." He's afraid of being cast as the "outsider," so he only occasionally tests the limits of what the neocon/liberal-hawk "big thinkers" will permit, as with Cuba and Iran.
Obama is also fundamentally an elitist who believes more in manipulating the American people than in leveling with them. For instance, a leader who truly trusted in democracy would order the maximum declassification of what the U.S. intelligence community knows about the pivotal events in Syria and Ukraine, including the sarin attack and the MH-17 shoot-down.
An elitist would keep the public in the dark while letting the hasty initial judgments stand, which is what Obama has done.
Redirecting Conventional Wisdom
Obama never trusts the people to help him rewrite the narratives of these crises, which could create more space for reasonable compromises and solutions. Instead, he leaves the American public ignorant, which empowers his fellow "smart people" of Official Washington to manage national perceptions, all aided and abetted by the complicit mainstream U.S. media which simply reinforces the misguided "conventional wisdom."
Despite his power to do so, Obama won't shatter the frame of Official Washington's fun-house mirror of reality. That's why his attempt to invoke the memory of President John F. Kennedy's famous "we all inhabit this small planet" speech at American University in 1963 fell so flat earlier this month when Obama went to AU and offered a pedestrian, point-by-point defense of the Iran nuclear deal without any of Kennedy's soaring, universal rhetoric.
Presumably Obama feared that he would be cast as a starry-eyed idealist if he explained to the American people the potential for using the Iran agreement as a way to begin constructing a more peaceful Middle East. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Obama's Pragmatic Appeal for Iran Peace."]
These limitations in Obama's personality and world view have probably doomed his legacy to be viewed as an overall failure to reshape America's approach to the world, away from a costly and confrontational strategy of seeking endless dominance to one favoring a more respectful and pragmatic approach toward the sensitivities and needs of other nations.