Senior Advisor Phil Gordon offers insights on U.S. policy towards the Middle East and North Africa
Obama’s Former Middle East Adviser: We Should Have Bombed Assad
Philip Gordon says the administration did just enough in Syria to perpetuate the conflict without resolving it.
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:
On the red-line issue, Gordon said, “Without denying the president’s concerns about a slippery slope,” that it “would have been possible to say that this is not about changing the regime in Syria, it’s not about going to war in Syria—but when the United States says you can’t use chemical weapons, you can’t use chemical weapons.” He went on to say, “I accept that there was some risk of a slippery slope if he used CW again. But Assad would also have had to run that risk, and that’s just the dynamic that you’re in, so we needed to plant in his mind that if he tested our resolve, well, he was running a pretty big risk, too. And that might not be in either of our interests, but it certainly wouldn’t be in his. ... This was a more limited and therefore more achievable objective than regime change. What he would be saying is, ‘I’m going to try to stop them from gassing people because if I don’t, we are essentially saying, you can use chemical weapons as much as you like.’”
“I think sometimes, on the credibility point, on the deterrence point, you actually have to be willing to do things that are a cost to you.”
Obama’s decision to stand down from an attack on Assad’s forces has, in some minds, been vindicated—in an ad hoc, post-facto way—because the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, soon worked with him to remove most of Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpiles. I asked Gordon if he thinks the president still could have gotten the stockpiles out of Syria, had he carried out his threat to strike. “I think he would have been even more likely to get it,” Gordon said. “As it turns out, we got lucky. My concern at the time was … that the next time we say to someone, ‘There are consequences if you act,’ we won’t really mean that. I think that this has repercussions in Europe, in Asia, and elsewhere. I think sometimes, on the credibility point, on the deterrence point, you actually have to be willing to do things that are a cost to you.”
When I raised with Gordon an assertion I have heard articulated in hawkish circles in Washington—that the president chose not to strike Syria in 2013 because he feared that such a strike would upset Syria’s patron, Iran—he was dismissive. He said the subject of Iran’s feelings never came up in any of the White House discussions concerning the proposed strike. “I don’t think you need that explanation for why the president didn’t want to get bogged down in Syria,” he said. “The simplest answer—the Occam’s Razor’s answer—works here. You don’t need to invent some extracurricular explanation for why a president determined not to get bogged down in a Middle Eastern war did things to avoid getting bogged down in a Middle Eastern war.”
On the subject of Saudi Arabia, a country for which Obama feels no great fondness, I asked Gordon if he thought that the president is actually up-ending another aspect of the so-called playbook, by questioning its worth as an ally. “This is another example of the difficulty of challenging the playbook,” he said, “and it frankly demonstrates why we follow the playbook—because certain policies are in our interests. Whatever the president might think of Saudi Arabia, it turns out that it’s important for the U.S. to have strong relations there, and in the broader Gulf. Whatever he thinks personally, he is following a decades-old policy of pursuing strong relations in the Gulf region. And if you think about it, what would challenging the playbook on Saudi Arabia consist of? Promoting regime change? Refusing to sell them weapons or defend them? Would that lead to a better outcome for us? Whatever our differences, it’s not as if there are good alternatives to our partnership.”
Here is our conversation, edited for clarity and concision.
Jeffrey Goldberg: After the “Obama Doctrine” appeared, I heard from a number of people who argued that one important reason President Obama had for not striking Syria in August of 2013—one that he didn’t mention to me—was that he was afraid that an attack on Syria by the U.S. would derail what were then early negotiations for an Iran nuclear deal. You were there. Was Obama trying to mollify Iran by choosing not to strike?
Philip Gordon: That’s a false critique. In the several years I was working in the White House, working on both of these issues—Iran and Syria—I never saw any evidence of that. More importantly, I don’t think you need that explanation for why the president didn’t want to get bogged down in Syria. The simplest answer—the Occam’s Razor’s answer—works here. You don’t need to invent some extracurricular explanation for why a president determined not to get bogged down in a Middle Eastern war did things to avoid getting bogged down in a Middle Eastern war. This has been a core principle of his foreign policy. I don’t think you need Iran to explain Syria. And just to add from a more empirical point of view, I never heard that.
Goldberg: He never said, in the course of these events, I don’t want to do anything that would upset the applecart with Iran?
Gordon: I must have been involved in hundreds of hours of discussions on these issues and it was never raised as an issue. In the most important meetings, like right before the moment he made his decisions on military strikes, he walked through a checklist. “Okay, they used chemical weapons. We’re going to respond. Do we have the legal basis for it? What are the military implications? The diplomatic?” And at no point did anyone say, “Well if we do this, I don’t know what happens to Iran negotiations if we do this.”
“I think one of the things that comes across when you think through the entire Obama presidency, is how hard it is to challenge the playbook.”
Goldberg: President Obama described this moment to me as the moment he broke with the so-called Washington playbook. I get the sense you don’t necessarily think that the “playbook” has been disrupted to the extent that the president thinks it has been disrupted.
Gordon: The president obviously underscored to you the degree to which he feels he’s challenged the playbook. I think one of the things that comes across when you think through the entire Obama presidency, is how hard it is to challenge the playbook, and even in his case, the challenges were limited. So he talks about how he prides himself on being willing to resist this inevitable pressure to do things. So in Libya I think his instinct was to resist those pressures, but we ended up intervening militarily in Libya. I was still at the State Department at the time and I remember going down to the gym one evening, as this was being debated, and seeing interviews with senators about a no-fly zone. And I just said to myself, “We’re going in.” That’s the Washington playbook: CNN showing people getting killed and then senators stepping up and talking about the administration’s fecklessness.
But we often followed the playbook. The president ended up putting significant numbers of new U.S. troops in Afghanistan under pressures of what one might consider the playbook. And then even in Syria, which the president presents to you as the best example of challenging the playbook, we also intervened in Syria and we got involved in a process of seeking to change a regime and providing support to the opposition and working with partners in the region on this agenda. So I guess the point is, even for a president whose instincts may be very different from what you’d consider the foreign-policy establishment’s, there are certain pressures of the system. There are also by the way good reasons for the playbook: The United States is the only country that can do certain things, you have Congress, you have public opinion, you have allies, you have the press. And so even for a president whose instincts may be different, there’s a certain dynamic that makes it really hard to challenge that playbook.
Goldberg: So you think the president is kidding himself when he sees himself as breaking from the “playbook”?
Gordon: I think he, of all people, has an appreciation for that dynamic that I just referred to. He knows better than anyone how hard it is to challenge that. Again, you go to the Situation Room and you get briefed, and, you know, Syria again is a good example. Your secretary of state is telling you how much pressure there is from our partners in the region to act. On Libya it was the European and Gulf allies. In Syria it was the Gulf and European allies. Your CIA director is telling you about the humanitarian pressures, your strategic-communications adviser is telling you the press is all over this, your legislative adviser is telling you Congress wants action. It takes enormous discipline not to do what they want you to do.
Goldberg: The Saudis think we’re changing the playbook on them.
Gordon: This is another example of the difficulty of challenging the playbook, and it frankly demonstrates why we follow the playbook—because certain policies are in our interests. Whatever the president might think of Saudi Arabia, it turns out that it’s important for the U.S. to have strong relations there, and in the broader Gulf. Whatever he thinks personally, he is following a decades-old policy of pursuing strong relations in the Gulf region. And if you think about it, what would challenging the playbook on Saudi Arabia consist of? Promoting regime change? Refusing to sell them weapons or defend them? Would that lead to a better outcome for us? Whatever our differences, it’s not as if there are good alternatives to our partnership.
Goldberg: So this is more of a cry of frustration about the quality of our allies?
Gordon: My point is that there are sound reasons the playbook exists, even for a president who admittedly challenges it more than most. The funny thing is that his critics claim he has challenged the playbook even more than he does, not least because [of] our engagement with Iran. But there too, Iran is an exception that proves the rule. For all of the boldness of the Iran deal, and the alleged challenge to the playbook that it represents, we still don’t have an embassy there, or trade with them. Americans can’t invest in Iran; we still have many layers of sanctions on Iran. With the Gulf on the other hand we share intelligence; we have deep defense relationships; we buy energy; we have summits with them. The idea that Obama has somehow “pivoted” to Iran in the Middle East is wildly exaggerated.
“Whatever the president might think of Saudi Arabia, it turns out that it’s important for the U.S. to have strong relations there, and in the broader Gulf.”
Goldberg: You have famously said—call this the Gordon dictum, or whatever you want—that the lessons we have learned from the Middle East are as follows: In Iraq, full-scale intervention didn’t work; Libya, partial intervention didn’t work; in Syria, no intervention doesn’t really work. So you have a choice of intervening fully and not having it work, on the one hand, and not doing very much and not having it work, you may as well not do much.
Gordon: I was trying to capture a basic reality I think worth keeping in mind, and like any dictum, or single sentence, this can easily be misinterpreted. But what I’m suggesting is the need to bring a certain humility to the notion that there is some simple solution to any of these big challenges. And that is, I realize, very frustrating, especially during political season when simple solutions are at a premium. But it would be very surprising if, in fact, there were “right” answers to Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and two successive administrations just applied the wrong ones to the wrong issues. This is, of course, the impossibility of counterfactuals—what I call “the road not traveled,” and we faced that all the time.
In Libya, people argue that the obvious thing to have done was to have put in a big force. But when you think that through, it’s not clear that that was the solution. No doubt in the early days, we could have kept some stability in Libya. But once you start understanding that the Libyans didn’t want us there—that’s one of the reasons we didn’t do it. They vigorously opposed it. They care about Libya’s future a lot more than we do. I think you should be equally wary of the suggestion that there was some middle road, some sweet spot, that would really work. It may be that in a country where any institutions that had ever existed had been destroyed over 40 years of horrible dictatorship, [that] is deeply divided along tribal sectarian lines, [and that] had those tribes and sects fueled by hugely competing outside actors like Qatar, Turkey, U.A.E., Egypt—it may just be that if you remove that regime, there’s not going to be stability. And that an outside occupation is not the answer, but just letting them handle it is also not the answer either, and that leaving the dictator in place, is also not a good answer because that has consequences too. So let’s just not pretend that there was a good solution in Libya and Obama just failed to find it.
Goldberg: So this is just an issue that’s beyond saying that Britain and France didn’t pull their weight? Free riders and all that?
Gordon: Actually we pulled it off pretty well, initially. We said we would provide our unique capabilities because no one else had—I think there were 103 cruise missiles on the first day, and of that number we launched a hundred of them. And we took out their air defenses, and NATO allies stepped up and did their job. But the aftermath, the idea that there was some fix—“If only we did this, if only we did that.” There are a lot of op-eds written. You know I did my Ph.D. dissertation on French defense policy. In the Algerian War, France was pretty committed to staying. At one point they had deployed over 400,000 troops to try to deal with the insurrection. Charles de Gaulle, I think it’s fair to say, was not known to be weak on the use of force or short on determination or stubbornness. He had profound reasons to stay. And the credibility issue—if you pull out of Algeria, boy, you lose face, right? And so the argument was, stay in and keep a lid on it. The point is, it’s a North African country, once the locals decide they don’t want you, ultimately they are going to care more than you. And so let’s just not assume that all you need is a bit of backbone and everything will be fine.
Goldberg: In Washington, we do seem to be plagued with this, “If only….” paradigm.
Gordon: Look, in Syria, too, the flaw, or weakness, in our Syria policy is seen to be a kind of inaction, or non-intervention—to just suggest that had we intervened, we could have avoided all of this. In your piece, you quote the prime minister of France, who says, “Imagine what would have happened had we intervened early.” Well, indeed, let’s do that. And I suspect we would have seen the same counter-escalation by the regime, Russia, and Iran that we’ve been seeing for five years—
Goldberg: But wait, you do think the president should have struck Syria in August 2013, over the red-line chemical-weapons issue?
Gordon: That’s a separate issue. The president said in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons was a red line for us. I think this threat actually worked for a time. This was in Assad’s mind, and it led him not to use chemical weapons, at least on a large scale, for almost a year. So sometimes there’s utility in putting down a marker like that.
Goldberg: But then Assad went big in his use of sarin gas. A lot of people in the White House agree with the president now that he was right not to go, not to launch a strike.
Gordon: Well, I thought at the time that it was important to act, because if not we’d pay a price. I very much share the president’s broad view on credibility, and he was articulate with you about the reasons you don’t bomb, because you can make a fetish of it, and Vietnam is the best example. And look, I’m someone who started to buck the trend on Syria early in the system and was told that we’d lose our credibility if we didn’t act—
Goldberg: “Buck the trend,” meaning looking for a way to minimize U.S. exposure to the Syria conflict?
Gordon: Meaning, looking for a way to de-escalate the war, even without achieving the desired objective of regime change in Syria. My view was that while achieving a comprehensive political transition in Syria was a noble goal, we were not succeeding and we were unlikely to succeed and therefore the costs of pursuing that goal—dead people, refugees, destabilizing neighbors, radicalization, instability in Europe—were becoming far greater than the costs of de-escalation. But I was always told that our credibility was at stake, and that we couldn’t stop halfway. And I have to admit, the Vietnam analogy comes up. It would be like in 1967 saying, “I don’t think we are achieving our goal here. And there are real costs to pursuing it so let’s reconsider.” And being told, “Look, we’re out there, the president said, you know, our credibility is at stake, our allies are counting on us, and we can’t do anything but escalate.”
“Don’t pretend there’s going to be a ‘Goldilocks’ option where you accomplish your goals without costs or consequences.”
Goldberg: But you still believe a limited strike would have been the right thing to do?
Gordon: I believed it, and I said so at the time. And this is what I thought the president thought as well. The president made clear that the regime’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013 was an example of what he meant when he warned against CW use. And remember, he said in the Rose Garden, even after he decided to go to Congress, right, he said—here’s the quote, “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced? Make no mistake—this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”
Goldberg: So your position is still a yes on a strike.
Gordon: Yes. But without denying the president’s concerns about a slippery slope. I think it would have been possible to say that this is not about changing the regime in Syria, it’s not about going to war in Syria—but when the United States says you can’t use chemical weapons, you can’t use chemical weapons. I accept that there was some risk of a slippery slope if he used CW again. But Assad would also have had to run that risk, and that’s just the dynamic that you’re in, so we needed to plant in his mind that if he tested our resolve, well, he was running a pretty big risk, too. And that might not be in either of our interests, but it certainly wouldn’t be in his.
Goldberg: So ideally what he would have done was destroy the chemical-weapons delivery systems, meaning air bases, helicopters, planes on the ground, air strips—
Gordon: It would be very clear, we’re not intervening in Syria. This was a more limited and therefore more achievable objective than regime change. What he would be saying is, “I’m going to try to stop them from gassing people because if I don’t, we are essentially saying, you can use chemical weapons as much as you like.”
Goldberg: He could have still gotten the Putin deal that led to the removal of most of the chemical stockpiles?
Gordon: I think he would have been even more likely to get it. As it turns out, we got lucky. My concern at the time was that if we didn’t act, having said we would act—we would have been saying to Assad a couple of things. One, you’re actually welcome to use chemical weapons as much as you’d like, because we’ve basically said now that we’re not going to respond to an attack that kills even 1,000 people. And not only you but just pretty much anyone else. Chemical weapons are now okay—we would have been saying that. And also, the next time we say to someone, “There are consequences if you act,” we won’t really mean that. I think that this has repercussions in Europe, in Asia, and elsewhere. I think sometimes, on the credibility point, on the deterrence point, you actually have to be willing to do things that are a cost to you.
Goldberg: On Iran, it never made much sense to me for people to say, “Well, since he didn’t use force against Assad, he would never use force against Khamenei on the nuclear issue.”
Gordon: Right, different country, different issue. And the people who are the recipient of this message have to make that calculation. And they better be careful not to misread it. I completely agree with the president on Ukraine. The idea that Putin went into the Ukraine because Obama didn’t use force in Syria just makes no sense at all. It certainly doesn’t make sense that Putin went into Georgia in 2008 because of anything Obama did in 2013!
Goldberg: Stay on Syria. You’ve come to the conclusion that our Syria policy has been ineffective because it is not as hands-off as critics believe, nor is it as engaged as other people believe. It was too ambivalent, is that the idea?
Gordon: Yes, and that’s a real problem. I came to the conclusion as early as late 2013 that we were pursuing a policy that had very little chance of working, and at very high cost. And that the costs of seeking a de-escalation and diplomatic engagement that would stop short of our ultimate political objective—removing the regime—were much less than the cost of perpetuating a policy that couldn’t work. And it gets back to the Washington playbook and this notion that critics of Syria policy like to suggest as well, that we didn’t actually do anything in Syria. The president, in your interviews, questions whether it was ever realistic that a popular resistance, an insurgency, could overthrow a standing army backed by Russia and Iran. That’s a good question. But the problem is that our policy was in fact to “change the equation on the ground.” And our policy was to support the opposition to the point that it was strong enough to lead the regime and its backers to come to the table and negotiate away the regime. And that was an unrealistic objective.
And so ultimately where we ended up was with a political objective that couldn’t be achieved by using the means that we were prepared to use. My problem is with the many critics who don’t want to accept that the alternative was a major U.S. military intervention. They seem to believe that had we somehow just helped the opposition a bit more, we could have achieved that goal of getting Russia and Iran to kick out of Assad. I just think that that is fundamentally not true.
“I came to the conclusion as early as late 2013 that we were pursuing a policy that had very little chance of working, and at very high cost.”
Goldberg: Are you saying that Obama went along with policies he really didn’t believe in just to show that we were doing something?
Gordon: I think he’s said himself that he’s been very skeptical that this could work. I wouldn’t use your words, “just to show we were doing something.” But the pressures from partners to do something, the pressures publicly to say we were doing something—Congress, the press—led to pursuing a policy that I think, and I think the president suggests, was always unrealistic.
Goldberg: You’re describing a thoroughly muddled policy.
Gordon: I think it is fair to say that we ended up doing enough to perpetuate a conflict, but not enough to bring it to a resolution. This goes back to the dictum that we’ve experienced failures with all levels of interventions. In Iraq, we decided the goal was getting rid of Saddam. We’d already tried other things—no-fly zone, sanctions—and they didn’t work. The Bush administration and its allies decided that goal was so important that it was worth invading, changing the regime, and putting in a major force. And that did not work out very well, most Americans have concluded.
In Libya, we also decided that tolerating a cruel, wicked regime—which it was—was unacceptable. Actually, and interestingly and relevantly, we didn’t decide on regime change. The UN Security Resolution was about protecting civilians. And keep in mind also, we did a no-fly zone. One of the things that is called for in Syria is a no-fly zone. That’s what we did in Libya. We prevented the regime from flying, but didn’t prevent it from pursuing its aims and massacring people using artillery and infantry. Nor did it end with the negotiated political settlement, including the departure of the leader, that was the goal in Syria. It ended after seven months of war and ten of thousands of NATO sorties and the arming of the opposition, with the violent overthrow of the government. So the reason I’m making these points about Syria is that I think these are terrifically hard problems. You can have an important, honest democratic debate about how important different political objectives are, and sometimes they are so important that you should use direct American military force and accomplish that goal. But don’t pretend there’s going to be a “Goldilocks” option where you accomplish your goals without costs or consequences.
“We ended up doing enough to perpetuate a conflict, but not enough to bring it to a resolution.”
Goldberg: You’re for the use of military force with contained objectives?
Gordon: Of course. I also supported the use of force in Kosovo when I was on President Clinton’s NSC in 1999. We had a discrete, achievable objective—we wanted Serbia to get its security forces out of Kosovo. And even there I would remind you, it took all of NATO, and 78 days, and tens of thousands of sorties, and a real threat of a ground invasion, to achieve that limited political objective. So let’s not imagine if the objective had been regime change like in Syria that a little bit of aid to the opposition would have worked. It took massive military strikes for three months by NATO and the threat of a ground invasion, and Milosevic’s Serbia wasn’t even backed by the equivalent of today’s Iran and Russia. So I’m saying to critics: Don’t sell us this notion that there’s some cheap alternative here.
Goldberg: You were President Obama’s key Middle East expert for a couple of years. Talk about his fatalism about the region a bit more. Looking back now, do you feel like there was an ambivalence and even a fatalism even that was shot through the whole discussion? He did tell me that he didn’t want to spend time in places where all they want to do is kill Americans.
Gordon: Look, there are very sound grounds for the president’s caution and skepticism about our ability to affect change in the Middle East.
There are powerful tectonic shifts and changes going on in the region, many of which have little to do with us. We certainly didn’t launch the Arab Spring. The people are overthrowing their governments, and the irony there is that the Bush administration had had that as an agenda while this administration didn’t, but that’s what started to happen. It wasn’t U.S. policy, but ultimately the president got behind what was taking place.
Or take the deep divisions in the Sunni world between Islamists and the non-Islamist leaders. This is tearing the region apart and it has nothing to do with us. So I’m very sympathetic to his caution and humility, and he is rightly very sensitive to the second-, third-, and fourth-order consequences of everything we do. Unintended consequences in Iraq are a good example of it. Obama’s critics now are very much focused on what they see as his empowerment of Iran. But remember, it was changing the regime in Iraq that not only put Iran largely in charge in Iraq, but fueled sectarian tensions by shifting the balance to the Shia in Iraq, and—contributing to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS. So that sort of presidential caution that we’re talking about—worrying about the second-, third-order consequences—I sympathize with entirely.
Goldberg: President Obama also seems to believe—my interpretation—that the Middle East just isn’t as important to the U.S. as it used to be.
Gordon: Where I might differ from what comes across in your interviews with him is the degree to which U.S. interests are at stake. I actually believe that U.S. interests are at stake in the Middle East, and we have unique responsibilities and abilities to do what we can do to manage the region. And we don’t really have the option of pivoting away, and not just on a humanitarian level, when you have hundreds of thousands of people being killed and displaced, but also from a pure, cold national-interest perspective. Terrorism affects us directly. The refugee crisis is destabilizing important partners in the region—Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq. And it’s literally now having an effect on the stability of the European Union: Far-right movements rising in Europe, the viability of the EU, the Brexit debate, Greece. Even on the issue of energy and oil, which people often point to as the reason we can pivot away—the world still depends on Middle East oil. We don’t import oil directly like we used to, but it’s fungible. If the Chinese or Indian economies are undermined by a lack of access to oil in the Middle East, we’re going to have major economic problems here. So this is where I depart from those who think we can just pivot away from the region. I think we have very strong national interests there and unique responsibilities to do what we can.
Goldberg: So just coming back to this again, because it’s so important, it’s your view that to a very large degree, President Obama has not thrown out the playbook. Is that fair to say? South China Sea, for example.
Gordon: Yes, and, by the way, I think not throwing away the playbook in many cases is a good thing. Like NATO—he has strongly committed to Article 5, he has reinforced spending 3.5 billion more dollars and re-deploying assets to Eastern Europe. To be honest, other than some direct arming which fundamentally wouldn’t change the situation in Ukraine, he is doing what other presidents would have done. People denounce him for “letting” Putin take Crimea, but I’d like to know how President Bush or any other president would have prevented that.
Goldberg: That’s something that I didn’t highlight in the article, which is that there are actually broad continuities here. I mean, maybe with a President Trump we’ll see broad discontinuities. But President Obama may be dispositionally different in the way he talks about certain issues. But with the exception of the red line and a couple of other things—
Gordon: It’s an important point. A revolutionary new foreign policy would not have done the Libya operation; not intervened in Syria at all; not redeployed in Afghanistan; not done Special Forces and significant bombing in Iraq against ISIS; not reinforced NATO. A revolutionary president in foreign policy might have left NATO altogether, or not done sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. It might have re-assessed our relationships with Israel, or with Saudi Arabia. Those things would be revolutionary, but that’s not what we’ve done, and there are good reasons for that, going back to America’s responsibilities in the world, and President Obama’s understanding of those responsibilities. And it’s important to keep in mind, even on the Middle East, where critics suggest that Obama really is breaking from the playbook, that he is maintaining the relationships with Gulf allies, for instance, as well of course as with Israel.
Goldberg: We do have a bipolar sort of relationship with the Middle East, though.
Gordon: Well, we had the Bush administration, which also saw problems in the Middle East and determined that the fix was to use massive American military power, to transform the region, to democratize it. I think Americans broadly judge that this didn’t work. And then the Obama administration has sought to a degree to pivot away and avoid getting bogged down. I don’t think anyone would say they’re satisfied where we are in the Middle East now either. The next administration will need to learn the right lessons from both experiences. And it will have to deal with the Middle East whether it wants to or not.