STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Obama contends his biggest foreign policy mistake was actually a success. He said that to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Obama spoke of a choice he made in 2013. He backed away from ordering an attack on Syria. The president did not enforce a red line he had been understood to draw against Syria's use of chemical weapons. Jeffrey Goldberg says this is how the president talks of that decision now.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Pretty much the worst reason to bomb someone is to prove that you're willing to bomb someone.
INSKEEP: Obama spoke with Goldberg in the White House and even aboard Air Force One, the president settled on a couch as the plane descended toward Kuala Lumpur. Both the president and his critics think a lot about that Syria decision in 2013. It's on their minds even though Syria's government finally did agree to surrender chemical weapons.
Why did you think it was important to dig in and better understand that foreign policy decision a couple years later? More than that, even?
GOLDBERG: Because he told me that this was a hinge moment of his presidency. He suggested this very strongly to me, that this was the moment that he, quote, "Broke with the Washington playbook," end quote. And I asked him what he meant by the Washington playbook, and he says, you know, there's literally a playbook on the shelf in the foreign policy establishment in the Pentagon, in the State Department that says if country X does this, then the United States does Y. And he believes that the playbook is over-militarized, that - and it's kind of a cruise missile playbook. If these people do this, then I'm going to fire this missile at them. He believes that the playbook also holds that the U.S. is responsible for management of the Middle East. And that's another core aspect of the Obama doctrine, is to question that underlying assumption that we've made for three decades or more that this is our main responsibility in the world - is to keep this under management. And so at that moment in 2013, a lot of different things are welling up inside of him. There's practical political considerations obviously, but there's also these broader themes, which is like, I don't want to be the manager of the Middle East. And so this is what he's thinking in that moment. And when he made that decision, he thought, I've finally broken with the Washington playbook.
INSKEEP: You are delivering news to us here, Jeffery Goldberg, because this is a decision that had been endlessly criticized by the president's critics...
INSKEEP: ...As a moment of weakness. Even the president's supporters have said they did not...
GOLDBERG: ...Many ex-Cabinet members...
INSKEEP: ...Have said, I did not believe in that decision. They've said that again and again and again; that this was a failure, that this cost American credibility in the world.
INSKEEP: You're saying that the president not only defends that decision, but believes it was a success.
GOLDBERG: The quote from the president - and I was somewhat taken aback the first time I heard him say this - is he's very proud of this moment. He's very proud of the moment he decided not to do the thing that everyone seemed to want him to do. So you can interpret this two ways. One is that's true. The other is that this is a master politician at work, and he's kind of doing a little bit of jujitsu - in other words, telling people, the moment that you think is my weakest moment as president is actually my best moment as president.
INSKEEP: And yet you portray a president who is bothered that people do continue to focus on that moment of drawing the red line and then not...
INSKEEP: ...Not striking out. You've got a quote here that I wrote down - nobody remembers bin Laden anymore, the president says to you. Nobody talks about ordering me 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. The red line crisis, he said, is the point of the inverted pyramid upon which all other theories rest.
INSKEEP: What did he mean by that?
GOLDBERG: He's clearly bothered by the fact that people think of him as a weak national security president. And his argument is - and this is true, what I'm about to say - is this president who has this reputation is the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the American presidency. I mean, we just saw in the last week the 150 militants in Somalia wiped out by a U.S. strike. Who ordered that strike? There's a record there, and he...
INSKEEP: ...This is a guy who used drones in ways that many people...
GOLDBERG: ...This is a guy who has killed terrorists in seven or eight different countries.
INSKEEP: There have been arguments made here in Washington that maybe this was the right decision for Syria, maybe it was the wrong decision for Syria, but that there are consequences that the president drew a red line, somebody defied that, and that the United States did not attack. Have there been larger consequences, negative consequences, for the United States?
GOLDBERG: We won't know for years, I think.
INSKEEP: Does the president acknowledge that there were larger consequences?
GOLDBERG: The president does not believe in these credibility arguments the way a lot of people in the foreign policy establishment believe it. He does not believe that people are no longer scared of the United States. He believes, for instance, that Iran made the deal on nuclear weapons that it did because it understands the power of the United States.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you about one more word. It's a word you chose to describe the president after sitting with him so many times. Why do you describe the president as fatalistic?
GOLDBERG: One of the surprising things in these conversations was how fatalistic he is about the Middle East, especially considering where he was when he started as president. You know, one of his big first speeches was a speech in Cairo which was meant to reset relations with the Muslim world. And he had a lot of hope for the peace process, he had a lot of hope for transition and during the Arab Spring - the first days of the Arab Spring. But he has come to the conclusion that there's nothing that the United States can do. Nothing that would change systems in the Middle East, nothing the United States can do that would make the Middle East a better place. He believes it's a generational problem. He believes that the forces of fundamentalism and tribalism are so strong in the Middle East that the U.S. would be foolish to try to shape that region.
INSKEEP: Jeffrey Goldberg's article based on several interviews with President Obama is in the Atlantic. Jeffrey, thanks very much.
GOLDBERG: Thank you.
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