The Art of Obama’s War

How will historians judge Aug. 30, 2013, the day that Barack Obama gave up on bombing Bashar Assad’s Syria, Assad having just crossed the red line fixed by the American president one year earlier about the use of gas against Assad’s population? Will historians emphasize that Obama prevented his country from sinking into a new civil war in the Muslim world by neutralizing chemical weapons that threaten Israel, Turkey and Jordan? Or will they hold that this was the day when the Middle East escaped American control only to fall under that of Russia, Iran and the Islamic State?

These are the questions, along with plenty of others that American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg has shared with Obama himself during numerous conversations over several years. Goldberg is the author of “The Obama Doctrine” which appeared in The Atlantic. It is a rare exercise for a serving president, but one which we understand in that he is very worried about his place in history. First, let us say that three years earlier, Obama remained calm about his choice not to attack Syria. If he is still that Obama, it is because his decision results from a lucid reading of the balance of power, of the position of the United States in the world as well as the objectives that he fulfilled.

Tough on His Allies

Goldberg did not write anything very new about the Obama Doctrine. Obama had articulated it repeatedly, in particular in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations. These 70 pages of investigation and confidential discussions enlighten, on the other hand, a style of power, the articulation of a thought and, after all, the nature of an exceptional strategist in this day and age. The American president shows himself being almost tougher in the face of his allies (the Europeans) who are not up to it or who do not defend the same values (the Arab autocrats) than he shows in the face of his Chinese or Russians adversaries.

In Obama’s eyes, the principal problems of today are the integration of China into the international system on one hand, and the fight against climate change on the other. Vladimir Putin’s maneuvers appear to be the last gasps of a badly inspired leader at the head of a declining power. As for the Near East, one weight was lifted after the energy revolution that allowed the United States to limit its dependence on Arab hydrocarbons.

In the Words of Sun Zi

Obama thinks in the long term, a way of reading the world that especially surprises Europe. Our democratic leaders have become prisoners of the dictatorship of political immediacy and politics. Obama’s reactions against interventionists of all kinds, military or humanitarian, and think tank experts aligned with Israel or the Gulf States which finance them do not convince skeptics who hold this president as naïve, weak, defeatist, or, at best, as an idealist or a fatalist who precipitates the end of American power.

The reality is that the United States today is in a position of force and credibility greater than it was eight years ago, when Obama first arrived in the White House in an America ruined by the hubris of a clique of ideologists who could make a return one day.

“Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence,” Obama says to Goldberg, who interviewed him on the Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Maybe it is necessary to reread Sun Zi and his treaty on the art of war dating from the 6th century B.C. to better understand this. An eminently modern thought.

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