New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza On Barack Obama Foreign Policy, The Consequentialist
HH: I am also talking foreign policy today with Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, and my guest right now, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, whose piece, The Consequentialist in the new New Yorker is turning a lot of heads and causing a lot of comment. Ryan, welcome back, it’s great to have you.
RL: Hey, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
HH: I have been through this article twice now. And I am completely amazed that you got what you got here, and that the White House hasn’t blown up your car. What is the reaction to this piece?
RL: This is, the reaction is fascinating, because I think perhaps liberals see one thing in this piece, and conservatives see another. And I imagine you’re going to want to talk about this phrase, “leading from behind.”
HH: Yes, in the very last paragraph of the piece. Explain to people how proud they are of leading from behind.
RL: Well Hugh, I think it’s an easy phrase to poke fun of, right?
RL: Because it’s this paradox, leading from behind, ha ha ha. We don’t want a president who leads from behind. We want a president who leads. And that’s been the tenor of a lot of the commentary about that quote, especially on the right, that there can’t be any such thing as leading from behind. And just before I got on the show, I was writing a blog on it about this, maybe helping explain this concept in a little bit more detail. And I agree that as a political slogan, as I point out in the piece, you know, not the greatest phrase in the world. But the context this came up in is the Obama administration’s response to Libya, okay? And I think you have to look carefully at what they did in Libya to understand why this was their strategy. We went to war, and we are at war, in another Muslim country. Now how do you get the world to go along with the United States wanting to bomb another Muslim country? Do you do it just unilaterally? Does the President just get up and say hey, I want Gaddafi gone, we’re sending in the bombs right now? Or do you work through multilateral institutions, and try to get the U.N. to back you, try and get Arab support, and try not to have the whole effort branded as an American-led enterprise, because you know that that will be used against us in some, in many quarters of the world? And if you look really, really carefully at what they did in Libya, it was essentially a massive bait and switch. The Arab League, and some other Arab states, said oh, yeah, we want a no-fly zone. Well, the no-fly zone was the option on the table at the United Nations. It was the resolution that was proposed by Lebanon, the U.K., and the French. And what Obama did at the very last second, and I think this has really been missed in a lot of the reporting on what went down over Libya, at the last second, they said no, a no-fly zone won’t do anything to save Benghazi, because there are no Libyan planes about to bomb Benghazi, there are tanks on the ground, so what we need is a resolution that gives full authorization for military intervention in Libya. And so essentially the Obama administration very quietly asked for a more hawkish, a more militaristic resolution, and they got it.
HH: But you know, Ryan, if that was…
RL: And I go through all of that, Hugh, just to say that if the way that they got that was by playing down their own role in it, then you have to judge it on the terms of the outcome rather than on the style of leadership.
HH: Well, if they had intended to get there, you have a pretty good argument. But what emerges from The Consequentialist is incoherence, schizophrenia, an up/down, almost manic-depressive engagement with the world. And what really is powerfully condemning of the Obama administration is the light you throw on their Iranian policy, or actually the failure of Iranian policy. And I think buried in The Consequentialist is one revelation that some of Obama’s White House aides regretted having stood idly by why the Iranian regime brutally repressed the Green Revolution. And more than standing idly by, they rebuked the State Department young guy for getting involved with the Twitter controversy. It confirms every conservative’s critique of President Obama’s indifference to the smashing of the Green Revolution. I think that’s one of the huge takeaways of your piece.
RL: I agree. I agree that that’s…to me, that was a very important part of the piece, and to really spell out how there was a major shift in policy. And as they moved from engagement, and almost a certain amount of respect for the Iranian regime, as that whole policy really got upended by the Green Revolution, there is quite a bit, several of his advisors realize and will admit that yeah, they got that wrong, that to the extent that they…now let me explain…from their point of view, their explanation is well, it was really about, the policy of non-interference with the protestors was really about making sure that the regime couldn’t use the U.S. involvement to sort of discredit them. And look, there’s something to be said for that. You have to be careful about the effects. But they, there was regret over that, and I think that’s why when it came to Egypt, they tried to strike a different balance. And you’re absolutely right. I was very surprised to find that this young guy, Jared Cohen, who unilaterally, essentially all by himself, contacted Twitter, and told them to delay a scheduled maintenance upgrade so that the Iranians could continue to use Twitter. It was a very controversial, I mean, inside, someone at the White House referred to it as, when I asked about it, they said oh yeah, you’re talking about Twittergate, right?
HH: You see, that’s quite good reporting. I’m curious, how did you get this much access, because you were with Hillary in Tunis, you were with her in Cairo. You obviously talked to Donilon, you quote him here, and that’s one of the freighted quotes in this piece about we’re over-weighted in the Middle East, and underweighted in China and Asia. And I thought to myself, that’s just perfect gibberish from the new age nonsensical people. But how did they, why did they say yes to you on these requests?
RL: Well look, I think when you’re going in and you’re saying I’m going to do a lengthy review of your foreign policy, and I want you to explain it to me, they have an incentive to explain it. And so they were all, at various parts of the administration, they were very willing to sit down, you know, and talk about this stuff.
HH: Hillary? I mean, when you’re talking, when you’re having breakfast with her, I think it’s in Tunis?
HH: And she kind of implores you, what’s the standard? I can just see her saying what am I going to do? I can’t go everywhere in the world.
RL: Well, yeah, and I thought that was a very revealing moment.
HH: It was.
RL: …because she was saying like look, these cases are hard. You can’t, if you, you know, there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in the world. And she pointed out at that point Congo and Cote d’Ivoire, and we can’t intervene everywhere. And I think her point was, you know, what she said is part of her job is to try and build an international consensus to do something about these problems. And that was her point about Libya, is you’ve got to get consensus from the actors in the region. There is this sense in the Obama administration that the U.S. can’t do everything. And I’ll tell you, Hugh, on the right, I think we’re, I think folks in America are sort of schizophrenic about this, because on the one hand, we feel somehow if the U.S. isn’t leading the charge on a big international issue, we feel like you know, that’s not right, we’re supposed to lead on every issue. On the other hand, you talk to a lot of people who think well, why should be bear all the burdens? And I saw that, I saw both of those arguments among conservatives as we went back and forth about what to do in Libya, right?
RL: Some people saying how are we letting Sarkozy lead this effort, and other people saying you know, why are we getting involved at all.
HH: Well, it’s the Scowcroft-Cheney divide in the Republican Party.
HH: But what got me about this piece that’s communicated so well is that the Secretary of State would tell you, however widely regarded you are as a reporter, Ryan, that the biggest problem in the administration is that they don’t have a rule yet articulated. She’s telling you this on the record. It confirms for me they really don’t know what they’re doing, and that the Department of State and the White House are at loggerheads with each other.
RL: Well, I think that they don’t have a…look, Obama himself has said this pretty clearly in some of the TV interviews he did after the Libyan intervention. He said that this doesn’t mean that there’s a new doctrine being laid down about when we do and don’t intervene. And you know, there’s a school of foreign policy thinking that doctrines are the worst thing for a president, because once you have some doctrine, you are straightjacketed when presented with a new crisis or threat. And you know, I think there’s a reluctance by Obama to sort of lay down something that everyone will call a doctrine, because you want to, frankly, as president, you want to have the flexibility to be inconsistent, right? You want to have the flexibility to do something in Libya, and maybe not in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.
HH: Or Iran or Syria, where we’re getting standing idly by 2.0 underway right now in Syria.
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HH: A couple of other aspects I can’t cover, it’s a very long article, I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com, Ryan Lizza. The President sends a memo out on August 12, 2010, saying you know, we really have got to take a look at these Middle Eastern regimes ruled by autocrats. Things could go wrong there. So he gets a little working group together which reports back the day before Tunisia falls apart. Good timing, that, eh?
RL: Well look, you could look at this…one way to look at that is hey, they were still debating these issues when the Middle East exploded. But another way to look at it is they realized that things weren’t going well in the Middle East. They realized that there were limits to their approach, they’ve realized that Iran policy got short-circuited by the Green Revolution, although remember, Hugh, they did get sanctions on Iran. That was a pretty big step, and they got the Security Council to support sanctions on Iran, so that’s not nothing. And you know, they realized that with elections in Egypt and a few other places coming up, that it was time to look anew at U.S. policy in the Middle East. And Obama basically wanted to know was it now more in our interest to support a bold, political reform message in the Middle East. And that was what that group was discussing.
HH: But you know, Ryan, I’m a member of a faculty, a law school faculty.
HH: So I know what faculty meetings are like. And there are a lot of smart people talking, talking, talking.
HH: In fact, at one point in your piece, you write about all the earnest, young women and men over at the Department of State, talking about Facebook revolutions, and globalization, and they’re talking over at the White House, and they’re having these seminars. Meanwhile, the world is rushing past them. And I’m sure they’re talking about Syria right now, but they don’t have anything to do about it, do they?
RL: You know, I haven’t done enough reporting about Syria to really know. And the issue has obviously gotten much, much more intense over the last few days when Assad has just decided that he’s, you know, he’s going to do anything it takes to stay in power. What are the options in Syria, though, right? I mean, we don’t have leverage with Assad. We had a lot of leverage with Mubarak. It’s one of the cases for engagement with bad guys, is when they get, when they’re at their worst, you at least have some leverage. And one of the things we did with Mubarak is we very strongly sent the message that violence against the protestors was a red line that he shouldn’t cross.
HH: But Ryan…
RL: Whether the U.S. is responsible for him holding back or not, I don’t know. But I’m just saying in Syria, we don’t have a lot of great options, right? Our influence is extremely limited.
HH: No, but in your piece, I mean, the Egyptian reporting is fascinating, because yeah, we sent that message, and we sent a bunch of other messages as well, and then we sent Wisner, and they threw Wisner under the bus, or as he said, to the reelection committee. And at one point, you’re downstairs, the Secretary of State’s upstairs, and there are a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood guys who won’t go upstairs, because they prefer Obama’s policy to that of the Secretary of State. That is in one anecdote the definition of incoherence in a foreign policy, isn’t it?
RL: I disagree. Your takeaway from some of these anecdotes is probably a little bit different than mine. So my view of, so this was a meeting for Egyptian activists. Two of them were sort of self-described moderates or liberals, one of them is a Marxist, and one is Muslim Brotherhood. And they all boycotted Hillary Clinton’s meeting because of something she said very early on in the protests. She said that the Mubarak regime is stable, or Mubarak government is stable. They all remembered that stable comment, and it really pissed them off. And they wouldn’t meet with her over it. Interestingly, I asked the Muslim Brotherhood guy if he would meet with Obama, and his face lit up and said yes. So Hugh, just think about that for a second. On the one hand, it gets at this sort of split between Hillary and Obama. But it’s a split in their perceptions of the two of them. In other words, they thought that Obama was on their side. This is a guy…and isn’t that what we want? We want the guys in the Muslim Brotherhood to think you know what, the U.S. has a president that in some way I can relate to. I don’t see that as a negative. I see that in some ways as a positive.
HH: I’m pretty sure my pal, Frank Gaffney, would say the Muslim Brotherhood is thinking that this guy is a patsy, and we can play him like a rube, and therefore, we’re not going to deal with the tough lady upstairs. We’re going to wait for Obama to wilt under the pressure of public opinion, and his perceived need to be liked by quasi-revolutionary movements.
RL: No, but my view of what they were telling me, and remember, it wasn’t just the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the guys from a selfish U.S. perspective, that you want to see succeed in Egypt. It was the moderates. It was the guys who, the non-religious moderates. They…and remember, all these guys were on the same side. It’s the same anti-Mubarak side. They’re all starting to divide and split and form parties and oppose each other. But for that one moment in Tahrir Square, they were all on the same side, right? So the Muslim Brotherhood guys and the liberals we want to succeed, were all trying to oust Mubarak together. And so where they agreed was that they thought that President Obama was more on the side of the protestors than on the side of Mubarak. And you know, I think the White House very skillfully maneuvered Obama into that sort of public position, even though behind the scenes, things were a lot more complicated with the whole Wisner episode, as you point out.
HH: Let me close by talking about the one passage which really jumped out, and it jumped out because it echoed, I had Mitt Romney on the program, oh, about a week ago, blasting President Obama. I had Tim Pawlenty on yesterday.
RL: Yeah, I saw that. I didn’t see Romney, but I read the Pawlenty excerpt.
RL: He didn’t totally take the bait on the leading from behind, though.
HH: Oh, he was getting there. I ran out of time, though. But he did love the Zbigniew Brzezinski piece, where you quote Zbig as saying about the President, I don’t think he really has a policy that’s implementing his insights and understanding. The rhetoric is always terribly imperative and categorical. You must do this, he must do that, this is unacceptable. Brzezinski added, he doesn’t strategize, he sermonizes. That’s almost verbatim from Romney’s critique eight or nine days ago, and may become a meme along with leading from behind, Ryan Lizza. What are they saying about your piece? Are they happy with it?
RL: I don’t know. Frankly, I haven’t talked to many people in the administration since it’s come out. But you know, all you can do is…
HH: Write what you hear.
RL: Yeah, write what you hear, be fair, but also be tough. It’s our job, to maintain some critical distance.
HH: Was there much conversation about Israel at all? Because it’s not here.
RL: There was some. Hey look, there was some, and look, Zbig, I think Zbig, I didn’t detail this, but I think Zbig Brzezinski’s big issue is Israel. I think he thinks that Obama has mishandled Israel, and has retreated from a policy that Zbig was encouraging, that is to be a little bit tougher on Israel. And so I think that’s part of Zbig’s concern. But in general, as the quote you read suggests, Zbig thinks there’s a gap between the words and actions of the administration.
HH: Ryan Lizza, great piece, thanks for joining me on it. The Consequentialist is in the latest issue of the New York, how the Arab spring remade Obama’s foreign policy. And you’ve got to read it a couple of times. I think you’ll, I know every Republican presidential candidate is going over it and reading it with a fine-toothed comb, as I suspect the House Foreign Affairs Committee will be, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
End of interview.