Russia announces the withdrawal of its forces from Syria. The decision is a surprise—President Obama is shocked. This is a feeling he experiences often.
He was astonished when Vladimir Putin intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015. He was startled when ISIS conquered a fair portion of Mesopotamia in 2014. He was jarred when Putin invaded Crimea, and launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine that same year. Rogue states pursue policies contrary to what Obama the Wise sees as their self-interest, and the presidential response never varies. He is stunned. He is saddened. He is filled with sangfroid.
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Bewilderment happens when reality dispels illusions. I used to think President Obama’s illusions were simply the product of his ideology, of his faith in the universality of human reason, in the idea of historical progress, of his ambivalence toward American power. But after reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s epic, absorbing, revealing interview with the president in The Atlantic, I have come to a different conclusion. It’s not just ideology that drives Obama’s cluelessness. It’s narcissism.
If there is a theme to Goldberg’s article, it is this: Barack Obama knows better. He knows better than the "foreign policy establishment" that his team snidely dismisses as controlled by Jewish and Arab money. He knows better than the elected leaders of Great Britain, France, and Israel, and the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, of whom he is so contemptuous. (Angela Merkel of Germany, Goldberg reports, is "one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects.") And he knows better than his critics, whose arguments he pores over in obsessive detail, coming up with explanations, rebuttals, and straw men to dismiss them.
Why does Obama know better? Not out of any intense study of or reflection on diplomatic and world history and international relations theory. Not because he served in the military or in the diplomatic corps or held senior posts in government prior to election as president. What graces Obama with superior insight and prudence is the simple fact of his own existence. He is his own proof of his superiority.
Goldberg tells us about one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s visits to the states. "The Israeli prime minister launched into something of a lecture about the dangers of the brutal region in which he lives, and Obama felt that Netanyahu was behaving in a condescending fashion, and was also avoiding the subject at hand: peace negotiations." So Obama interrupted him.
"Bibi, you have to understand something," Obama said. "I’m the African-American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do."
Now, Barack Obama is a tremendously accomplished man. He is clearly very intelligent and well read, he graduated from Columbia and Harvard, he is the author of two highly praised books and will no doubt write many more in the years to come, he went from nothing to president of the United States in less than a decade, he has outfoxed his Republican opponents at nearly every turn. But his reply to Netanyahu is a colossal non sequitur, a category error of enormous proportions. It makes absolutely no sense.
In what mental universe other than the president’s does being raised in Hawaii and Indonesia and spending adulthood rising through the academy and U.S. political institutions grant someone a deep (or even superficial!) understanding of Zionism, of the Holocaust, of four wars for survival over 25 years, of unending terrorist violence directed toward civilians, of hijackings and kidnappings and bombings and stabbings, of SCUD attacks from Iraq, rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, incitement and de-legitimization campaigns from Tehran? Conversely, what in President Obama’s life story leads him to comprehend the Palestinians, addicted to enmity and resentment and violence, victims of institutional collapse and official corruption, awash and adrift in the worst movements of the last 100 years from nationalism to socialism to pan-Arabism to Islamic fundamentalism?
Note the reverse snobbery when Obama tells Netanyahu, "You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do." (My emphasis.) Maybe the elected leader of an American ally was doing nothing more than trying to explain his view of his region and the source of his reluctance to comply with the president’s demands. Or does Obama actually believe that buried in every disagreement with him is an assumption of his inferiority, disrespect for his heritage and upbringing? If that were the case, then it would be next to impossible to challenge his authority. One would be acting always in bad faith. Which is exactly what he so often accuses his opponents of doing.
This idea of Barack Obama’s existential power, this notion that his very being is what gives him empathy with and moral authority over the world, has gripped the president and his supporters from the beginning. "What does he offer?" asked Andrew Sullivan in December 2007. "First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential rebranding of the United States since Reagan." His international background, son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, who spent time in Indonesia and Pakistan, is why Obama declared himself a "citizen of the world" in his 2008 Berlin speech. And his personal familiarity with Islam inspired him to deliver the Cairo speech in 2009, when as Goldberg puts it, "he spoke about Muslims in his own family, and his childhood years in Indonesia, and confessed America’s sins even as he criticized those in the Muslim world who demonized the U.S."
Seven years later, the Greater Middle East that Obama sought to reshape by his mere appearance and oratory is a dumpster fire. State collapse, sectarian war, slavery, crucifixion, beheadings, chemical warfare, genocide characterize the region. The foreign leader who has most consistently outwitted him, Vladimir Putin, enjoys free rein in Eastern Europe and Syria. And the region of the world to which Obama hoped to "pivot"—here too for partly biographical reasons—is engulfed in a deepening territorial dispute between China and the nations it bullies.
Confidence is one thing. But Obama is more than confident. He’s narcissistic. He looks at the world and sees nothing but his reflection: rational, cool, unmoved, and always right. When reality surprises him, it’s not because he’s in error. It’s because Putin or Assad or the mullahs have failed to live up to the standards he’s set for them. Forget about them being true to themselves. They’re not being true to Barack Obama. And Barack Obama, lest we forget, is all that matters.