U.S. President Barack Obama came into the White House “as a child of the Pacific,” born in Hawaii, raised there and, for four years, in Indonesia. For Obama, Asia represents the future; it deserves far more U.S. attention than it receives, writes Jeffrey Goldberg in a much-cited article. But the president found himself stuck in the Middle East. He quotes a line from The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone cries out in exasperation, “Just when I thought I was out [of the world of crime] it pulled me back in.” We learn this and much more about Obama’s inner thoughts and feelings about foreign policy in Jeff Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic. The article is the talk of the town (I mean Washington D.C.). David Brooks of The New York Times dedicated a column to it. So did Brent Stephens in The Wall Street Journal.
Reading the almost 20,000 word article from an Asian perceptive, one is struck by how little this part of the world is discussed. The “opening” to Cuba, Libya and Syria gets similar attention as U.S.-China relations. Much of the article explores Obama’s reluctance to interfere in Syria, the challenge posed by ISIS, and the collapse of many states in the Middle East. The president refers to the situation as a mess and one the U.S. is not called upon to fix. Thus, while he acknowledges that the forces in the Middle East prevent him from pivoting to where he would like to engage, he also scoffs at them. He tells Goldberg that the threat of ISIS is vastly exaggerated; that more Americans die each year from handguns, car accidents, and falls in the bathtub than from terrorism.
“Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East,” he said. 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.” Note the positive subtext; nothing here about violation of human rights or expansionist China. More about this soon.
One would expect that all this would lead Obama to do his best to extract the U.S. from the mess in the Middle East and finally invest much more in the often cited pivot or rebalancing toward Southeast Asia. However, this is not where the president’s inner light points him. Instead, he told Goldberg in a sort of overview of his global priorities: “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.” China can be viewed as a good partner – because it is helping in dealing with the issue most on the president’s mind: saving the world from frying.
To understand Obama’s view of China and the climate one must recall that he is very averse to conflict and much focused on his legacy. The president’s early life forced him to bridge different people, different cultures, and different communities. He had to deal with the tension between his mother, father and stepfather; with being half black and half white. The president avoided taking sides at Harvard Law School, in which factions were locked in a bitter fight. His election campaign focused on bringing people together. He was quick to reach out to U.S. adversaries, Iran and Russia and Cuba, and – even to the obstructionist Republicans.
As far as legacy goes, Obama came to the White House committed to doing things which would leave a lasting impact on the U.S., if not the world. He resisted focusing on the economic crisis and spent much of his political capital on introducing a national health care plan, arguing that presidents who deal with recessions are soon forgotten but those who introduce even an element of a New Deal are celebrated for generations. Climate change fits into such legacy priority.
All this helps explain the way the president views China. “If we get that right [U.S. China relationship] and China continues on a peaceful rise, then we have a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order.” He continues: “If China fails; if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population and has to resort to nationalism as an organizing principle; if it feels so overwhelmed that it never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order…then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, but we will find ourselves having more difficulty dealing with these other challenges that are going to come.”
Granted these lines can be read in different ways, one best compares them to many other statements by those alarmed by China’s rise. These are not limited to the right wing; thus Hillary Clinton is quoted as stating: “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.” In contrast, the president clarifies his position when he closes with: “I’ve been very explicit in saying that we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” Indonesia is discussed, not as part of a drive to contain China, but rather by the president’s concern with the rise of ISIS-like groups in that nation. Vietnam is discussed, not in terms of a new military alliance with the U.S. – but because of its participation in the TPP and getting it to respect labor unions.
Obama is quite explicit that to remain true to his agenda, and his non-confrontational approach to China, he has to contend with and deflect pressures from the Pentagon. Goldberg reports that “Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had ‘jammed’ him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.” For those who may wonder if I am reading too much into this passage, you may wish to note that recently The Washington Post reported that: “A senior American general has proposed resuming offensive strikes against the Taliban, exposing a rift between the military and senior administration officials over the U.S. role in the war in Afghanistan, according to military officials.” I previously noted here that the recent freedom of navigation assertions in the South China Sea by the U.S. military evoked the White House ire. And earlier, that several detailed reports on policy deliberations in the White House show no sign that the President approved or even reviewed a major Pentagon plan on how to confront China by invading the mainland, that used to be referred to as AirSea Battle and is now the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons – a name that reveals nothing and is hard to remember. However, the plan has been merely upgraded.
A line Obama used to describe his successful meeting with the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, captures well the president’s overarching view of the use of force. Goldberg reports “Obama told me, calling this a key victory in his campaign to replace stick-waving with diplomatic persuasion.” It is an approach that the U.S. military has not fully embraced quite yet.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book, Privacy in a Cyber Age was published in 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To receive his monthly newsletter, please send an e-mail with the subject line “Subscribe” to [email protected]