The president’s first stop was another event designed to highlight his turn to Asia, this one a town-hall meeting with students and entrepreneurs participating in the administration’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. Obama entered the lecture hall at Taylor’s University to huge applause. He made some opening remarks, then charmed his audience in an extended Q&A session.
But those of us watching from the press section became distracted by news coming across our phones about a new jihadist attack, this one in Mali. Obama, busily mesmerizing adoring Asian entrepreneurs, had no idea. Only when he got into his limousine with Susan Rice did he get the news.
Later that evening, I visited the president in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The streets around the hotel had been sealed. Armored vehicles ringed the building; the lobby was filled with swat teams. I took the elevator to a floor crowded with Secret Service agents, who pointed me to a staircase; the elevator to Obama’s floor was disabled for security reasons. Up two flights, to a hallway with more agents. A moment’s wait, and then Obama opened the door. His two-story suite was outlandish: Tara-like drapes, overstuffed couches. It was enormous and lonely and claustrophobic all at once.
“It’s like the Hearst Castle,” I observed.
“Well, it’s a long way from the Hampton Inn in Des Moines,” Obama said.
ESPN was playing in the background.
When we sat down, I pointed out to the president a central challenge of his pivot to Asia. Earlier in the day, at the moment he was trying to inspire a group of gifted and eager hijab-wearing Indonesian entrepreneurs and Burmese innovators, attention was diverted by the latest Islamist terror attack.
A writer at heart, he had a suggestion: “It’s probably a pretty easy way to start the story,” he said, referring to this article.
Possibly, I said, but it’s kind of a cheap trick.
“It’s cheap, but it works,” Obama said. “We’re talking to these kids, and then there’s this attack going on.”
The split-screen quality of the day prompted a conversation about two recent meetings he’d held, one that generated major international controversy and headlines, and one that did not. The one that drew so much attention, I suggested, would ultimately be judged less consequential. This was the Gulf summit in May of 2015 at Camp David, meant to mollify a crowd of visiting sheikhs and princes who feared the impending Iran deal. The other meeting took place two months later, in the Oval Office, between Obama and the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong. This meeting took place only because John Kerry had pushed the White House to violate protocol, since the general secretary was not a head of state. But the goals trumped decorum: Obama wanted to lobby the Vietnamese on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—his negotiators soon extracted a promise from the Vietnamese that they would legalize independent labor unions—and he wanted to deepen cooperation on strategic issues. Administration officials have repeatedly hinted to me that Vietnam may one day soon host a permanent U.S. military presence, to check the ambitions of the country it now fears most, China. The U.S. Navy’s return to Cam Ranh Bay would count as one of the more improbable developments in recent American history. “We just moved the Vietnamese Communist Party to recognize labor rights in a way that we could never do by bullying them or scaring them,” Obama told me, calling this a key victory in his campaign to replace stick-waving with diplomatic persuasion.
I noted that the 200 or so young Southeast Asians in the room earlier that day—including citizens of Communist-ruled countries—seemed to love America. “They do,” Obama said. “In Vietnam right now, America polls at 80 percent.”
Obama then cited America’s increased influence in Latin America—increased, he said, in part by his removal of a region-wide stumbling block when he reestablished ties with Cuba—as proof that his deliberate, nonthreatening, diplomacy-centered approach to foreign relations is working. The albamovement, a group of Latin American governments oriented around anti-Americanism, has significantly weakened during his time as president. “When I came into office, at the first Summit of the Americas that I attended, Hugo Chávez”—the late anti-American Venezuelan dictator—“was still the dominant figure in the conversation,” he said. “We made a very strategic decision early on, which was, rather than blow him up as this 10-foot giant adversary, to right-size the problem and say, ‘We don’t like what’s going on in Venezuela, but it’s not a threat to the United States.’ ”
Obama said that to achieve this rebalancing, the U.S. had to absorb the diatribes and insults of superannuated Castro manqués. “When I saw Chávez, I shook his hand and he handed me a Marxist critique of the U.S.–Latin America relationship,” Obama recalled. “And I had to sit there and listen to Ortega”—Daniel Ortega, the radical leftist president of Nicaragua—“make an hour-long rant against the United States. But us being there, not taking all that stuff seriously—because it really wasn’t a threat to us”—helped neutralize the region’s anti-Americanism.
The president’s unwillingness to counter the baiting by American adversaries can feel emotionally unsatisfying, I said, and I told him that every so often, I’d like to see him give Vladimir Putin the finger. It’s atavistic, I said, understanding my audience.
“It is,” the president responded coolly. “This is what they’re looking for.”
He described a relationship with Putin that doesn’t quite conform to common perceptions. I had been under the impression that Obama viewed Putin as nasty, brutish, and short. But, Obama told me, Putin is not particularly nasty.
“The truth is, actually, Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank. Our meetings are very businesslike. He never keeps me waiting two hours like he does a bunch of these other folks.” Obama said that Putin believes his relationship with the U.S. is more important than Americans tend to think. “He’s constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”
Russia’s invasion of crimea in early 2014, and its decision to use force to buttress the rule of its client Bashar al-Assad, have been cited by Obama’s critics as proof that the post-red-line world no longer fears America.
So when I talked with the president in the Oval Office in late January, I again raised this question of deterrent credibility. “The argument is made,” I said, “that Vladimir Putin watched you in Syria and thought, He’s too logical, he’s too rational, he’s too into retrenchment. I’m going to push him a little bit further in Ukraine.”
Obama didn’t much like my line of inquiry. “Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument. I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.” Obama was referring to Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, which was undertaken for many of the same reasons Putin later invaded Ukraine—to keep an ex–Soviet republic in Russia’s sphere of influence.
“Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there,” he said. “He’s done the exact same thing in Syria, at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country. And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.”
Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he said.
I asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.
“It’s realistic,” he said. “But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.” He then offered up a critique he had heard directed against him, in order to knock it down. “I think that the best argument you can make on the side of those who are critics of my foreign policy is that the president doesn’t exploit ambiguity enough. He doesn’t maybe react in ways that might cause people to think, Wow, this guy might be a little crazy.”
“The ‘crazy Nixon’ approach,” I said: Confuse and frighten your enemies by making them think you’re capable of committing irrational acts.
“But let’s examine the Nixon theory,” he said. “So we dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II, 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. When I go to visit those countries, I’m going to be trying to figure out how we can, today, help them remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids. In what way did that strategy promote our interests?”
But what if Putin were threatening to move against, say, Moldova—another vulnerable post-Soviet state? Wouldn’t it be helpful for Putin to believe that Obama might get angry and irrational about that?
“There is no evidence in modern American foreign policy that that’s how people respond. People respond based on what their imperatives are, and if it’s really important to somebody, and it’s not that important to us, they know that, and we know that,” he said. “There are ways to deter, but it requires you to be very clear ahead of time about what is worth going to war for and what is not. Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it. The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action that is tangential to that particular area is somehow going to influence the decision making of Russia or China is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years.”
Obama went on to say that the belief in the possibilities of projected toughness is rooted in “mythologies” about Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.
“If you think about, let’s say, the Iran hostage crisis, there is a narrative that has been promoted today by some of the Republican candidates that the day Reagan was elected, because he looked tough, the Iranians decided, ‘We better turn over these hostages,’ ” he said. “In fact what had happened was that there was a long negotiation with the Iranians and because they so disliked Carter—even though the negotiations had been completed—they held those hostages until the day Reagan got elected. Reagan’s posture, his rhetoric, etc., had nothing to do with their release. When you think of the military actions that Reagan took, you have Grenada—which is hard to argue helped our ability to shape world events, although it was good politics for him back home. You have the Iran-Contra affair, in which we supported right-wing paramilitaries and did nothing to enhance our image in Central America, and it wasn’t successful at all.” He reminded me that Reagan’s great foe, Daniel Ortega, is today the unrepentant president of Nicaragua.
Obama also cited Reagan’s decision to almost immediately pull U.S. forces from Lebanon after 241 servicemen were killed in a Hezbollah attack in 1983. “Apparently all these things really helped us gain credibility with the Russians and the Chinese,” because “that’s the narrative that is told,” he said sarcastically. “Now, I actually think that Ronald Reagan had a great success in foreign policy, which was to recognize the opportunity that Gorbachev presented and to engage in extensive diplomacy—which was roundly criticized by some of the same people who now use Ronald Reagan to promote the notion that we should go around bombing people.”
In a conversation at the end of January, I asked the president to describe for me the threats he worries about most as he prepares, in the coming months, to hand off power to his successor.
“As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face,” he said. “If you start seeing more severe drought; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse. That’s above and beyond just the existential issues of a planet that starts getting into a bad feedback loop.”
Terrorism, he said, is also a long-term problem “when combined with the problem of failed states.”
What country does he consider the greatest challenge to America in the coming decades? “In terms of traditional great-state relations, I do believe that the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the most critical,” he said. “If we get that right 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. 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; if it views the world only in terms of regional spheres of influence—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.”
Many people, I noted, want the president to be more forceful in confronting China, especially in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton, for one, has been heard to say in private settings, “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.”
“I’ve been very explicit in saying that we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China,” Obama said. “I think we have to be firm where China’s actions are undermining international interests, and if you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea, we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances.”
A weak, flailing Russia constitutes a threat as well, though not quite a top-tier threat. “Unlike China, they have demographic problems, economic structural problems, that would require not only vision but a generation to overcome,” Obama said. “The path that Putin is taking is not going to help them overcome those challenges. But in that environment, the temptation to project military force to show greatness is strong, and that’s what Putin’s inclination is. So I don’t underestimate the dangers there.” Obama returned to a point he had made repeatedly to me, one that he hopes the country, and the next president, absorbs: “You know, the notion that diplomacy and technocrats and bureaucrats somehow are helping to keep America safe and secure, most people think, Eh, that’s nonsense. But it’s true. And by the way, it’s the element of American power that the rest of the world appreciates unambiguously. When we deploy troops, there’s always a sense on the part of other countries that, even where necessary, sovereignty is being violated.”
Over the past year, John Kerry has visited the White House regularly to ask Obama to violate Syria’s sovereignty. On several occasions, Kerry has asked Obama to launch missiles at specific regime targets, under cover of night, to “send a message” to the regime. The goal, Kerry has said, is not to overthrow Assad but to encourage him, and Iran and Russia, to negotiate peace. When the Assad alliance has had the upper hand on the battlefield, as it has these past several months, it has shown no inclination to take seriously Kerry’s entreaties to negotiate in good faith. A few cruise missiles, Kerry has argued, might concentrate the attention of Assad and his backers. “Kerry’s looking like a chump with the Russians, because he has no leverage,” a senior administration official told me.
The U.S. wouldn’t have to claim credit for the attacks, Kerry has told Obama—but Assad would surely know the missiles’ return address.
Obama has steadfastly resisted Kerry’s requests, and seems to have grown impatient with his lobbying. Recently, when Kerry handed Obama a written outline of new steps to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, Obama said, “Oh, another proposal?” Administration officials have told me that Vice President Biden, too, has become frustrated with Kerry’s demands for action. He has said privately to the secretary of state, “John, remember Vietnam? Remember how that started?” At a National Security Council meeting held at the Pentagon in December, Obama announced that no one except the secretary of defense should bring him proposals for military action. Pentagon officials understood Obama’s announcement to be a brushback pitch directed at Kerry.