Quotations from Chairman Barry

I still have my old copy of Quotations From Chairman LBJ. The book was inspired by Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (“the little red book”). Compiled by Jack Shepherd and Christopher Wren and published by Simon and Schuster in the annus horribilis of 1968, the book consisted of supposedly laughable quotes attributable to President Johnson. It was popular enough to go through multiple printings. My copy derives from the third printing. Despite its success as a publishing venture I can’t find much in the book that in the fullness of time has proved laughable or derisory except the attitude it displays toward Johnson as the left turned on him.

The form has been dedicated to documenting the supposed stupidity of Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan (Reagan Quotes, compiled by Mark Tracy from two books by liberals about Reagan) and George W. Bush (George W. Bushisms, compiled by Jacob Weisberg).

We’re well past the time when the form should be resurrected for President Obama. David Boze took a pass at such a project with The Little Red Book of Obamunism (2012) but earlier posts in this series demonstrate the need for something comprehensive and updated.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg could easily compile such a red book for Obama, but Goldberg’s would follow the original Chinese model. Goldberg worships Obama as a fount of wisdom in the Dear Leader style. The man is smitten. He is intoxicated by Obama. He needs an intervention.

Goldberg’s latest contribution of Quotations comes in his 20,000-word April Atlantic cover story, “The Obama doctrine.” Goldberg’s piece makes for incredibly painful reading. It is insufferable. I would have thought it would be painful even for an Obama supporter, but Goldberg shows this not to be the case.

In Goldberg’s cover story, Obama presents with the straw men and false alternatives to which we have grown accustomed. His judgment is more or less unerring, though occasionally others have let him down (as in Libya). The finger of blame is always pointed out and down. While others are to blame for his rare failures, he is responsible (by his lights) for his mostly unblemished record of success.

Here I want to extract several of Chairman Barry’s Quotations from the contextual goo that Goldberg supplies. I urge readers who can tolerate the full catastrophe (including Obama’s characteristically high-handed critique of Reagan administration foreign policy) to access Goldberg’s article and review it in its entirety.

Thus spake Chairman Barry:

Within the White House, Obama would argue that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”

* * * * *

On standing down on his red line in Syria: “I’m very proud of this moment. The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

* * * * *

“ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Obama explained that climate change worries him in particular because “it is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, and it is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.”

* * * * *

“I…believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”

* * * * *

“One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”

* * * * *

“Almost every great world power has succumbed” to overextension, he said. “What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that.”

* * * * *

Goldberg reports that those who speak with Obama about jihadist thought say that he possesses a no-illusions understanding of the forces that drive apocalyptic violence among radical Muslims, but he has been careful about articulating that publicly, out of concern that he will exacerbate anti-Muslim xenophobia.

* * * * *

According to Leon Panetta, he has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies receive; but he has also questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism.

* * * * *

To Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Bibi, you have to understand something. I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I 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.”

* * * * *

Goldberg quotes Obama telling his aides on foreign policy: “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.”

* * * * *

Obama on the Libya intervention: “It didn’t work.”

* * * * *

Obama on the Libya intervention: “So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”

Mess is the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a “shit show,” in part because it’s subsequently become an ISIS haven—one that he has already targeted with air strikes. It became a shit show, Obama believes, for reasons that had less to do with American incompetence than with the passivity of America’s allies and with the obdurate power of tribalism.

“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up…”

Obama also blamed internal Libyan dynamics. “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected. And our ability to have any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources broke down very quickly.”

Libya proved to him that the Middle East was best avoided. “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,” he recently told a former colleague from the Senate. “That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.”

* * * * *

Early in 2014, Obama’s intelligence advisers told him that ISIS was of marginal importance. According to administration officials, General Lloyd Austin, then the commander of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the White House that the Islamic State was “a flash in the pan.” This analysis led Obama, in an interview with The New Yorker, to describe the constellation of jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria as terrorism’s “jayvee team.” (A spokesman for Austin told me, “At no time has General Austin ever considered ISIL a ‘flash in the pan’ phenomenon.”)

* * * * *

Obama on ISIS (to Valerie Jarrett): “They’re not coming here to chop our heads off.”

Goldberg adds: “Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do. Several years ago, he expressed to me his admiration for Israelis’ ‘resilience’ in the face of constant terrorism, and it is clear that he would like to see resilience replace panic in American society. Nevertheless, his advisers are fighting a constant rearguard action to keep Obama from placing terrorism in what he considers its “proper” perspective, out of concern that he will seem insensitive to the fears of the American people.”

* * * * *

“Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East,” he said. “You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You’ve got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”

He went on, “Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems—enormous poverty, corruption—but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark.”

* * * * *

“If we’re not talking to them,” he said, referring to young Asians and Africans and Latin Americans, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”

* * * * *

“There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society,” he said. But he added, “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.”

* * * * *

The Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace. An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

* * * * *

“It is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism. I understand the tribal impulse, and acknowledge the power of tribal division. I’ve been navigating tribal divisions my whole life. In the end, it’s the source of a lot of destructive acts.”

* * * * *

“Look, I am not of the view that human beings are inherently evil. I believe that there’s more good than bad in humanity. And if you look at the trajectory of history, I am optimistic.”

* * * * *

Obama on ISIS: “A group like ISIL is the distillation of every worst impulse along these [retrograde] lines. The notion that we are a small group that defines ourselves primarily by the degree to which we can kill others who are not like us, and attempting to impose a rigid orthodoxy that produces nothing, that celebrates nothing, that really is contrary to every bit of human progress—it indicates the degree to which that kind of mentality can still take root and gain adherents in the 21st century.”

* * * * *

“Every president has strengths and weaknesses. And there is no doubt that there are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

* * * * *

“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”

* * * * *

“Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there,” he said. “He’s done the exact same thing in Syria, at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country. And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.”

“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.”

* * * * *

“As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face. If you start seeing more severe drought; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse. That’s above and beyond just the existential issues of a planet that starts getting into a bad feedback loop.”

* * * * *

“Nobody remembers bin Laden anymore,” he says. “Nobody talks about me ordering 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan.” The [Syria] red-line crisis, he said, “is the point of the inverted pyramid upon which all other theories rest.”

Those searching for sober commentary may want to check out Charles Moore’s “By choosing not to lead, Obama has left the West dangerously exposed,” or Bret Stephens’s “Barack Obama checks out,” or Caroline Glick’s “The Obama doctrine, unplugged,” or Elliott Abrams’s “The president gratuitously damages American alliances.” By contrast, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius finds Obama “authoritative and compelling” in the interviews on which Goldberg draws for his cover story.

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