How Iraq warped Obama’s worldview

President Barack Obama sitting in front of a map of the world

Editors’ Note: President Obama styles himself a cool, modern technocrat, writes Shadi Hamid—but looked at another way, Obama has proved to be an ideological president. This article, responding to Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent interview with Obama, originally appeared on The Atlantic.

On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama gave a speech opposing war in Iraq—perhaps, in retrospect, the most important speech he ever gave. He was right, of course, and the foreign-policy establishment was largely wrong. The problem is that politicians who were right about Iraq tend to overestimate what that says about their foreign-policy judgment. For Obama, the effects of being right are magnified. He became president, in part, because of Iraq and the considerable damage the conflict had done to the country. Obama offered the promise of a decisive correction and, for true believers, a kind of spiritual atonement.

It is unclear what being right on Iraq would mean for your likelihood of being right on Syria, since the contexts in question are, in a way, opposites: Civil war in Iraq began after the United States intervened. Civil war in Syria happened in the absence of intervention. History will have to judge, but it may actually be the case that being right on Iraq made you more likely to be wrong about subsequent interventions. The tragedy of Iraq, if you weren’t careful, was likely to distort your perception of everything that followed, for wholly understandable reasons.

Iraq’s dark shadow seems to be everywhere in Jeffrey Goldberg’s fascinating yet unsettling exchanges with Obama. “Multilateralism regulates hubris,” Obama says. And he is right: It does. What is left unsaid is why, exactly, regulating hubris should, seven years after the conclusion of the Bush era, remain a primary preoccupation. It is hard to imagine any world leader citing the hubris of overextension as the problem that the United States, today, must take extra care to correct for or guard against. Obama has already corrected for it, many times over.

[I]t may actually be the case that being right on Iraq made you more likely to be wrong about subsequent interventions.

Elsewhere, there are straw men to be built. “Every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order,” Obama says, except that no one favoring intervention in Syria has called for Iraq-style military action. Obama says 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,” except that I’m not aware of a single critic of Obama’s Syria policy who believes intervening against Bashar al-Assad would “automatically solve” anything. The stated goal was always rather different: to diminish the Assad regime’s ability to kill and to provide clear incentives for Russia, Iran, and Assad to change their calculus and begin negotiating in something resembling good faith with Syrian rebel forces. Meanwhile, comments like “there is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa” again present a wildly false choice.

Obama’s tendency to distort beyond recognition the positions of his critics goes hand in hand with an apparent disdain for those critics and, perhaps more worryingly, an unwillingness to even so much as question his own decisions after he’s made them. Over the course of his conversations with Goldberg, the only thing he really blames himself for is having “more faith” in the Europeans than they apparently deserved. Elsewhere, he faults himself for underappreciating “the value of theater in political communications.” Of course, what Obama is faulting himself for is not clearly appreciating the faults of others.

It is jarring to hear, in such measured words, a president so confident in his own abilities (George W. Bush, contrary to popular perception, was willing to reassess his policies, shift direction, and accept outside counsel during his second term). The colorfully rendered Obama doctrine of “don’t do stupid shit,” itself a phrase dripping with disdain, is little more than a reaction to critics who Obama thinks, presumably, support doing stupid shit.

As troubling as all of these things are, especially in a president, they are not the most troubling thing that emerges from Goldberg’s interviews. As much as he himself might insist otherwise, Obama is basically a Huntingtonian at heart. I had seen flashes of a “clash of civilizations” in Obama’s various speeches, but these usually seemed like momentary lapses rather than omens of a more coherent philosophy. I think about Obama’s universally panned and seemingly non-representative endorsement of the “ancient hatreds” thesis to explain Middle Eastern conflicts (something I argued against in these pages). I think about his remarks from the Oval Office just a month prior, where he suggested that Muslims had some communal responsibility—just by virtue of them being Muslim—to do more to condemn and confront extremism.

I am not against the notion that Islam is in some way different than other faith traditions. I argue in my new book that Islam is “exceptional” in how it relates to politics, and that this has profound implications for the future of the Middle East. But this is not quite the same thing as viewing “Islamic exceptionalism” as something bad, unusual, or at odds with history. Being the liberal determinist that he is, Obama, like so many others, seems frustrated by both Islam and Muslims. Why can’t they just get their act together and stop being such a nuisance, distracting me from dealing with “emotionally contained” technocrats in Asia? This was a sentiment I noticed more and more after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015: the desire, sometimes a demand, to see Muslims embrace liberalism, and an anger that many simply won’t. Too many Muslims, it seemed, were intent on defying the arc of history.

In Goldberg’s article, Obama repeatedly imposes a deeply problematic framework—and a rather patronizing one—on Muslims as well as “Islam.” Obama speaks of the need for Muslims to “undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society.” He speaks of a “reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.” That Islam—a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution—should follow a path similar to Christianity’s is an odd presumption. Why, exactly, should Christianity and its eventual secularization in the West be the standard by which other religions are judged? The Reformation was a response to clerical despotism. The modern Middle East’s curse, if anything, has more often than not been secular despotism. In the pre-modern era, meanwhile, it was a self-regulating clerical class that, as keepers of God-given law, provided a check on the sultan’s executive power and authority, as Harvard’s Noah Feldman has argued.

Perhaps these are understandable oversights, but they recur in Goldberg’s article, suggesting that these aren’t oversights at all, but rather features of Obama’s evolving framework for understanding the region. I felt queasy reading Obama’s comments to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on how Indonesian Islam has grown harsher and more uncompromising. Interestingly, Obama chose to highlight the increasing number of Indonesian women wearing the headscarf, or hijab, as evidence of this shift. The implication was clear enough: that to be truly “modern” is to adopt a particular set of views about gender equality or, more generally, to be or become liberal. 

President Obama styles himself a cool, modern technocrat, whose most valued trait is his ability to withstand the passions of political life. He is prudent where others are impetuous. He is rational where others—especially Russian presidents and Arab autocrats—insist on acting against their own self-interest. Looked at another way, however, Obama has proved to be an ideological president, one with a developed, even philosophically coherent worldview. If there was one thing I became even more persuaded of after reading Goldberg’s account, it was that Obama is not just an intelligent man, but a brilliant one. He is also a president who believes, with something resembling passion, that he is doing the right thing. This, I have come to realize, is precisely what worries me the most.