«Don’t do stupid shit». Nial Ferguson e la Dottrina Obama.

Con le primarie per le presidenziali di novembre 2016 giunge anche il tempo di un primo bilancio della presidenza Obama. La lunga analisi della Dottrina Obama, che Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent di The Atlantic, ha pubblicato sull’ultimo numero del magazine (aprile 2016), ha suscitato ampio dibattito fra esperti e nell’opinione pubblica non soltanto negli Stati Uniti. Marilyn Young, docente di storia della New York University, commenta l’articolo di Niall Ferguson pubblicato sempre su The Atlantic, Barack Obama’s Revolution in Foreign Policy. Ferguson, prendendo le mosse dall’analisi di quella che Goldberg ha definito come la dottrina Obama, critica la politica estera americana degli ultimi otto anni considerando il caso siriano come il più eclatante fallimento della sua presidenza. Young mette in luce i punti deboli dell’analisi di Ferguson, sottolineando al contrario come proprio sulla Siria Obama sia stato in grado di rispettare il suo personale mantra «Don’t do stupid shit».


Nial Ferguson opens his comments on «Barack Obama’s Revolution in Foreign Policy» (Jeffrey Goldberg The Atlantic, April 2016) by noting the president’s reported propensity for thinking himself the «the smartest person in the room – any room.» Indeed Obama «seems to think he’s the smartest person in the world, perhaps ever.» He can’t possibly be since Nial Ferguon is the smartest person in the world, perhaps ever.

Obama doctrine

Ferguson’s invited comments on the Goldberg essay largely consist of quotes reproduced as if they were self-evidently absurd. Apparently Obama «“secretly disdains…the Washington policy establishment.”» Ferguson doesn’t comment on this presidential secret, he just lets it sit there as if this was an obvious error.  But what exactly is the problem with the president’s rejection of the Washington policy establishment? Is it that Obama keeps his disdain a secret or is the disdain itself at issue? If it’s the latter, why is that wrong?  The Washington policy establishment has been wrong at almost every recent turn: it supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, cheered on regime change in Libya, issued constant, ominous warnings against negotiating with Iran, and beat war drums for intervention in Syria. Indeed it has earned the disdain not just of the president but of us all.

Similarly Ferguson notes Obama’s dismissal of his predecessors’ record as strategists. Again, he quotes Obama: «“We dropped more ordinance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II,” he tells Goldberg, “and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell.”»  «So much for Nixon and Kissinger,» Ferguson concludes, once again as if Obama’s judgment was self-evidently wrong. But it seemed to me a remarkably succinct summary of the foreign policy of the Nixon-Kissinger years.

After a few more swipes at the president, Ferguson moves to what he considers to be the «central foreign-policy failure of the Obama presidency» – the failure to intervene in Syria. Of course some might consider this the Obama presidency’s central foreign-policy success. Against immense pressure from some in the military and much of the Washington foreign policy establishment, Obama largely managed to fulfill his personal foreign-policy mantra: «Don’t do stupid shit.» True, he initially drew the «red line» he later erased. Goldberg’s essay details the reasons for Obama’s decision (very briefly: the evident resistance to military action in both Congress and the public; doubts raised about the use of the weapons themselves; subsequent negotiations which effectively shut down Assad’s chemical weapons facilities). It was a most difficult decision to have taken and one of which Obama is justifiably proud. Instead of either adding more weapons to the Syrian mix in aid of rebel factions whose loyalties could neither be known nor guaranteed, or launching an open-ended intervention, Obama took the political heat. «The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake,» Obama told Goldberg. He knew there would be personal political costs and he was ready to pay them. Compare this to the reasoning of the front-running candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton: «If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.» Really? No choice? The mindlessness of the statement astonishes. Hey, Mom, I’ve just told Billy I could fly, so I guess I have to jump off the building. Yes, my darling.  There’s no choice. If you’ve said you’re going to do stupid shit you’d best do it.

Ferguson’s summary of Obama’s foreign policy «revolution» is that the «foes shall become friends, and the friends, foes.» Thus Israel and Saudi Arabia are «out, Iran is in.» This is a ludicrously inflated notion of what Obama has done with respect to either country. True, he admonished Netanyahu against interference in American domestic politics and suggested to the Saudis that they might want to re-think their efforts to dominate the region. Most observers of US foreign policy would applaud these modest efforts. Ferguson wildly inflates their meaning and, for that matter, their impact.  Perhaps most outrageously Ferguson writes that Obama would rather have a «special relationship» with Cuba than with Britain – a mind-bending inflation of Obama’s mild criticism of the Cameron government and of his opening to Cuba.

Obama told Goldberg that the day he erased his own red line had been «liberation day.» A day on which he had defied «the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook…» Ferguson finds this cause for despair; the rest of us should rejoice.