Jeffrey Goldberg writes: A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with Philip Gordon, who held the Middle East portfolio at the National Security Council from 2013 to 2015 (and before that, served as assistant secretary of state for European affairs) about my Atlantic article, “The Obama Doctrine.” The piece tried to explain how the president understands the world, and America’s role in it. (This week, the president is on a tour of the some of the countries he discussed in the article.)
Gordon, a loyal Obama man, is, like his ex-boss, somewhat-to-very fatalistic about the ability of the U.S. to direct the course of events in the Middle East (“realistic,” rather than “fatalistic,” is the term the president prefers). Gordon is known for, among other things, a pithy and concise formula he developed to explain why President Obama, and many of his advisers, are so hesitant to engage fully in the various catastrophes of the Middle East. In Iraq, the Gordon dictum goes, Obama learned that full-scale invasions leading to regime change don’t work; in Libya, he learned that partial interventions leading to regime collapse don’t work; and in Syria he learned that non-intervention also doesn’t work. An unspoken but obvious lesson: Once a president reaches this set of conclusions, can you blame him for wanting to pivot to Asia?
So I was a bit surprised to hear Gordon tell me that he believes, in retrospect, that President Obama should have attacked Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons in 2013. A year earlier, the president drew a “red line” for the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad regarding the potential use of such weapons; a year later, when Assad deployed sarin gas in the town of Ghouta, killing as many as 1,300 people, Obama set in motion a strike, but stood down at the last minute, putting the matter in the hands of Congress. In one of the interviews that informed “The Obama Doctrine,” the president told me that this moment was a source of pride for him; he resisted the pressure — and the temptation — to carry out an operation preordained by the “Washington playbook.” The “playbook,” in Obama’s mind, is in part a set of received understandings about what a president should do in the event of a rogue-state provocation. Obama argued to me that the Washington playbook is overmilitarized, and is overused.
As we know, the decision to stand down was not a popular one with America’s allies, who believed that Obama had squandered U.S. credibility. When a superpower sets a red line, the thinking goes, it must enforce the red line.
It was noteworthy that Gordon disagreed with Obama’s decision, and agreed with the criticism of U.S. allies, because he is known, in national-security circles, for being extremely wary of the consequences of deeper U.S. involvement in Syria (in this, he resembles his successor, Robert Malley, who is now Obama’s coordinator for anti-ISIS activities). I asked Gordon if he would speak to me on the record about these events, and he agreed. A full transcript of our conversation appears below, but here are some highlights: [Continue reading…]