Appearing in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy piece “The Obama Doctrine“, presents US President Barack Obama as a moderate, standing up to those favoring a more aggressive American foreign policy. More accurately put, Obama is a relative moderate, who has considered and taken some not so pragmatic pursuits. As quoted in Tass, the Russian government gave a mildly brief response to the Goldberg piece.
Goldberg’s long winded feature overlooks a number of particulars relating to Russia’s military action in Syria. In a rather propagandistic manner, Goldberg begins his piece by characterizing a brutish Syrian government willfully killing its citizenry. There’s no acknowledgement of a flip side, having to do with brutal manner among some of the anti-Syrian government opposition – an observation that can’t be legitimately dismissed in full as faulty propaganda.
Goldberg’s depiction is akin to CNN host Wolf Blitzer attributing all of the Syrian Civil War casualties to the Syrian government. Over the years, the Israelis have noted the collateral damage matter when attacking armed adversaries in civilian areas. Blitzer and Goldberg would disagree with blaming Israel for all of the deaths related to its action regarding the Palestinians. Detailing the hypocrisy of America’s adversaries (real or otherwise), typically excludes an acknowledgement of the hypocrisy evident in US mass media. Another whataboutism notes the horrid reaction to the simplicity of just comparing the number of WW II American civilian deaths by Japanese action, versus the greater number of Japanese citizens killed by US air raids.
Further down Goldberg’s article is this excerpt:
The president’s unwillingness to counter the baiting by American adversaries can feel emotionally unsatisfying, I said and I told him that every so often, I’d like to see him give Vladimir Putin the finger. It’s atavistic, I said understanding my audience.
“It is,” the president responded coolly. “This is what they’re looking for.”
He described a relationship with Putin that doesn’t quite conform to common perceptions. I had been under the impression that Obama viewed Putin as nasty, brutish and short. But, Obama told me, Putin is not particularly nasty.
“The truth is actually, Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank. Our meetings are very businesslike. He never keeps me waiting two hours like he does a bunch of these other folks.” Obama said that Putin believes his relationship with the U.S. is more important than Americans tend to think. “He’s constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”
Russia’s invasion of Crimea in early 2014, and its decision to use force to buttress the rule of its client Bashar al-Assad, have been cited by Obama’s critics as proof that the post-red-line world no longer fears America.
So when I talked with the president in the Oval Office in late January, I again raised this question of deterrent credibility. “The argument is made” I said, “that Vladimir Putin watched you in Syria and thought, he’s too logical, he’s too rational, he’s too retrenchment. I’m going to push him a little further in Ukraine.”
Obama didn’t much like my line of inquiry. “Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument. I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.” Obama was referring to Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, which was undertaken for many of the same reasons Putin later invaded Ukraine – to keep an ex-Soviet republic in Russia’s sphere of influence.
“Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of its grip. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there.’ he said. “He has 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 force 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.”
Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.
“The fact that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.’ he said.
I asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.
“It’s realistic,” he said. “But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.” he then offered a critique he had heard directed against him, in order to knock it down. “I think that the best argument you can make on the side of those who are critics of my foreign policy is that the president doesn’t exploit ambiguity enough. He doesn’t maybe react in ways that might cause people to think, wow, this guy might be a little crazy.”
The ‘crazy Nixon’ approach I said: Confuse and frighten your enemies by making them think you’re capable of committing irrational acts.
“But let’s examine the Nixon theory,” he said. “So we dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II, and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and the authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell. When I go to visit those countries, I’m going to be trying to figure out how we can, today, help them remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids. In what way did that strategy promote out interests?”
But what if Putin were threatening to move against, say, Moldova – another vulnerable post-Soviet state? Wouldn’t it be helpful for Putin to believe that Obama might get angry and irrational about that?
Such is Goldberg’s arrogantly ignorant and hypocritical stance, in line with Obama saying that Putin isn’t “completely stupid“. Like Putin has actually done something to really offend Goldberg. If anything, the insults aren’t primarily Russian instigated. Goldberg’s piece has content that serves to encourage anti-Americanism. I very much caution non-Americans to not take his delivery as reflecting all Americans. By now, the relatively objective and well informed observer can see thru the faulty spin – which isn’t always true with many Americans, having a secondary interest in the issues covered by Goldberg.
Upon the 9/11 tragedy, Russia was the first nation to reach out to the US. Before the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian and Ukrainian governments supported a coordinated Russia-West route in developing Ukraine’s very troubled economy. In contrast, the West took more of a zero sum game (Russia or the West) approach.
The Goldberg and Obama bit on Russia invading Crimea is simplistically propagandistic. There was a coup in Kiev against the democratically elected Yanukovych, followed by a series of anti-Russian actions. The pro-Russian majority in Crimea can’t be legitimately faulted for preferring Russia over a kleptocratic Kiev regime with increased anti-Russian influences. In other parts of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, there’s considerable anti-Russian and pro-Russian discontent with the Kiev regime. On the subject of changed territorial statuses in the post-Soviet era, Goldberg and Obama seem more willing to accept Kosovo’s separation from Serbia, in contradiction to a standing UN resolution and the preference of Belgrade.
Goldberg and Obama rehash faulty innuendo about the 2008 war in the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, involving the Abkhaz and Ossetians, who generally prefer Russia over Georgia. Under Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s government militarily initiated the conflict by attacking South Ossetia and killing Russian citizens. (Now criminally wanted in Georgia, Saakashvili is currently serving as the Kiev regime’s appointed governor to Odessa.)
Goldberg repeats a standard line about Russia “threatening” Moldova, when something more nuanced is at play. As I previously noted:
The former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (former Moldavian SSR for short) has been periodically referenced as having similar circumstances as Ukraine. Among other examples, Josh Rogin’s April 23, 2014 Daily Beast article on the former Moldavian SSR “Is This Putin’s Next Target?”, is misleading sensationalism. Rogin doesn’t cover the neocon to neolib to flat out anti-Russian influences that unnecessarily provoke a pro-Russian backlash inside and outside of Russia, which the Kremlin can’t simply ignore; and becomes especially difficult to put aside on account of an activist anti-Russian tone among Western foreign policy politicos, who lobby (in one form or another) on former Soviet territory. It’s unrealistically unjust to expect an inactive Kremlin attitude towards such activity. In place of these thoughts, the simple suggestion is made of an aggressive Russia looking to takeover more territory and have greater influence.
There has been no dramatic change in the status of the disputed pro-Russian former Moldavian SSR territory of Pridnestrovie (AKA Transnistria and closely related spellings). The main reason for this has to do with an ongoing situation that isn’t as threatening when compared to what Crimea saw when a democratically elected Ukrainian president was overthrown, with an increased anti-Russian political stance in Kiev.
Within the rest of the former Moldavian SSR, a cross section of pro-EU and pro-Russian parties have converged to oppose a Moldovan political establishment that’s seen by many as ineffective and corrupt. In the long run, can these different East-West sympathies agree on the benefit of a mutually pro-Russian and pro-West course? This very preference is what the last pre-Euromaidan Ukrainian government sought along with Russia – a sharp contrast from the zero sum game (Russia or the West approach) taken by the EU and Obama administration, before the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
It wouldn’t surprise if Goldberg’s Moldova quip was influenced by Rogin, who (in addition to his Daily Beast piece) had hustled the same line in a CNN segment with Blitzer. On Russia related matters, Rogin comes across like he could be a mouthpiece for neocon to neolib advocates, favoring a flawed tougher line towards Russia.
Rogin’s Bloomberg article of this past March 11, “Hawks See Obama’s NATO Pick as Soft on Russia“, highlights the slanted US foreign policy establishment takes. The appointee in question, Rose Gottemoeller is at best a relative moderate, along the lines of Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry. As one of several examples, Gottemoeller’s Twitter account uncritically features Tweets from John McCain and Samantha Power, in support of Nadiya Savchenko, a pro-Kiev regime combatant, who is facing a trial in Russia. For McCain and Power, the trial of Savchenko is a farce with no direct rebuttals to the counter claim of that view.
(Look for this story to get increased coverage. A verdict on Savchenko is scheduled on March 21. Concerning her status, Kerry and the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently had a sharp exchange. With Jeffrey Gedmin, Masha Gessen, Brian Whitmore,UNIAN and some others in mind, there has been a good deal of overly partisan coverage with limited specifics.
Without further elaboration, the cell phone billing presented in Savchenko’s defense doesn’t come across as being foolproof. Can a billing statement of this type get manipulated? Did Savchenko always have exclusivity to the cell phone in question?
The claim that Savchenko was captured before the two Russian journalists were killed doesn’t mean that she wasn’t a “spotter”, as such activity can monitor the whereabouts of a given target over an extended period – before the hit is made. Was an alleged spotter spotted? Were the journalists specifically targeted, or were they victims of collateral damage?
Some of Savchenko’s comments and her association with an extremist militia, likely involved in war crimes, makes one hesitant to view her as a heroine. A Lugansk Archpriest’s stated experience with Savchenko, portrays the latter as a sadistically violent individual.)
Some observers like the acclaimed historian Stephen Cohen, have portrayed Kerry as a moderate, who is outnumbered. According to Goldberg’s Atlantic piece, Obama withstood Kerry’s desire for a more aggressive US role in Syria. Kerry was also in favor of the Clinton administration led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.
When he ran for president in 2004, Kerry suggested that his opponent George Bush was soft on Russia. In more recent times, Kerry has bashed RT, the Russian government funded 24/7 trilingual (English, Spanish and Arabic) TV news station, in addition to being quite hardline at the 2016 Munich Security Conference. The case can be made that Kerry isn’t as extreme as Obama foreign policy appointees Victoria Nuland, Samantha Power, Daniel Fried and Ash Carter. At the same time, Kerry isn’t going to rock the boat too much (if at all), because he isn’t that radically different from them as his past reveals.
A bit of a digression notes Mitt Romney suggesting that Obama was soft on Russia during the last US presidential race between the two. Russia is probably not a primary interest of Obama and whoever his successor will be. What seems to happen with US presidents is their becoming beholden to the existing foreign policy establishment structure favoring a limited scope of perspectives – the kind that get favored by the likes of Fareed Zakaria on his CNN show and The Atlantic.
Michael Averko is a New York based foreign policy analyst and media critic. This articleinitially appeared at the Strategic Culture Foundation’s website on March 17.