Ed Yong has an interesting article in the Feb 2017 Edition of the Atlantic.
I especially like it as it shows that we can disagree without being disagreeable.
It’s a good time to be interested in the brain. Neuroscientists can now turn neurons on or off with just a flash of light, allowing them to manipulate the behavior of animals with exceptional precision. They can turn brains transparent and seed them with glowing molecules to divine their structure. They can record the activity of huge numbers of neurons at once. And those are just the tools that currently exist. In 2013, Barack Obama launched the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative—a $115 million plan to develop even better technologies for understanding the enigmatic gray blobs that sit inside our skulls.
John Krakaeur, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been asked to BRAIN Initiative meetings before, and describes it like “Maleficent being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s birthday.” That’s because he and four like-minded friends have become increasingly disenchanted by their colleagues’ obsession with their toys. And in a new paper that’s part philosophical treatise and part shot across the bow, they argue that this technological fetish is leading the field astray. “People think technology + big data + machine learning = science,” says Krakauer. “And it’s not.”
He and his fellow curmudgeons argue that brains are special because of the behavior they create—everything from a predator’s pounce to a baby’s cry. But the study of such behavior is being de-prioritized, or studied “almost as an afterthought.” Instead, neuroscientists have been focusing on using their new tools to study individual neurons, or networks of neurons. According to Krakauer, the unspoken assumption is that if we collect enough data about the parts, the workings of the whole will become clear. If we fully understand the molecules that dance across a synapse, or the electrical pulses that zoom along a neuron, or the web of connections formed by many neurons, we will eventually solve the mysteries of learning, memory, emotion, and more. “The fallacy is that more of the same kind of work in the infinitely postponed future will transform into knowing why that mother’s crying or why I’m feeling this way,” says Krakauer. And, as he and his colleagues argue, it will not.
That’s because behavior is an emergent property—it arises from large groups of neurons working together, and isn’t apparent from studying any single one. You can draw parallels with the flocking of birds. Biologists have long wondered how they manage to wheel about the skies in perfect coordination, as if they were a single entity. In the 1980s, computer scientists showed that this can happen if each bird obeys a few simple rules, which dictate their distance and alignment relative to their peers. From these simple individual rules, collective complexity emerges.
But you would never have been able to predict the latter from the former. No matter how thoroughly you understood the physics of feathers, you could never have predicted a murmuration of starlings without first seeing it happen. So it is with the brain. As British neuroscientist David Marr wrote in 1982, “trying to understand perception by understanding neurons is like trying to understand a bird’s flight by studying only feathers. It just cannot be done.”
A landmark study, published last year, beautifully illustrated his point using, of all things, retro video games. Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording examined the MOS 6502 microchip, which ran classics like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, in the style of neuroscientists. Using the approaches that are common to brain science, they wondered if they could rediscover what they already knew about the chip—how its transistors and logic gates process information, and how they run simple games. And they utterly failed.
“What we extracted was so incredibly superficial,” Jonas told me last year. And “in the real world, this would be a millions-of-dollars data set.” If the kind of neuroscience that
has come to dominate the field couldn’t explain the workings of a simple, dated microchip, how could it hope to explain the brain—reputedly the most complex object in the universe?
This criticism misses the mark, says Rafael Yuste from Columbia University, who works on developing new tools for studying the brain. We still don’t understand how the brain works, he says, “because we’re still ignorant about the middle ground between single neurons and behavior, which is the function of groups of neurons—of neural circuits.” And that’s because of “the methodological shackles that have prevented investigators from examining the activity of entire nervous system. This is probably futile, like watching TV by examining a single pixel at a time.” By developing better tools that can watch entire neural circuits in action, programs like the BRAIN Initiative are working against reductionism and will take us closer to capturing the emergent properties of the brain.
But Krakauer says that this viewpoint just swaps “neuron” for “neural circuit” and then makes the same conceptual mistake. “It’ll be interesting to see emergent properties at the level of the circuit, but it’s a fallacy to think that you get closer to the whole organism and understanding will automatically ensue,” he says.
He and his colleagues aren’t dismissing new technologies, either. They’re not neuro-Luddites. “These new tools are amazing; I’m using them right now in my lab,” says Asif Ghazanfar from Princeton University, who studies communication between pairs of marmoset monkeys. “But I spent seven years trying to understand their vocal behavior first. Now, I have some specific ideas about what the neural circuitry behind that might look like, and I’ll design careful experiments to test them. Often it seems that people do the reverse: They look at the cool tech and say, ‘What questions can I ask with that?’ And then you get these results that you can interpret in vague ways.”
This point is crucial. Unlike others who have levied charges of reductionism against neuroscience, Ghazanfar and his peers aren’t dualists—they aren’t saying there’s a mind that sits separate from the brain and resists explanation. They’re saying that explanations exist. It’s just that we’re looking for them in the wrong way. Worse, we’re arriving at the wrong explanations.
Consider mirror neurons. These cells, first discovered in monkeys, fire in the same way when an animal performs an action and when it sees another individual doing the same. To some scientists, these shared firing patterns imply understanding: Since the monkey knows its intentions when it moves its own body, based on the firing of the mirror neurons, it should be able to infer similar intentions upon whomever it watches. And so, these neurons have been mooted as the basis of empathy, language, autism, jazz, and even human civilization—not for nothing have they been called the “most hyped concept in neuroscience.”
Here’s the problem: In the monkey experiments, scientists almost never check the animals’ behavior to confirm that they genuinely actually understand what they’re seeing in their peers. As Krakauer and colleagues write, “An interpretation is being mistaken for a result; namely, that the mirror neurons understand the other individual.” As others have written, there’s little strong evidence for this—or even for the existence of mirror neurons in humans. This is the kind of logical trap that you fall into when you ignore behavior.
By contrast, Krakauer points to his own work on Parkinson’s disease. People with the disease tend to move slowly—a symptom that’s been linked to a lack of dopamine. Increase the levels of that chemical, and you can hasten a person’s movements. That’s could lead to new treatments, which is no small victory. But it doesn’t tell a neuroscientist why or how the loss of dopamine leads to the behavior.
Krakauer found a clue in 2007 by asking Parkinson’s patients to reach for objects at varying speeds. These experiments revealed that they’re just as capable of moving quickly as healthy people; they’re just unconsciously reluctant to do so. They suggested that dopamine-producing neurons that connect two parts of the brain—the substantia nigra and the striatum—determine our motivation to move. Deplete that dopamine, and we opt for less energetic movements for a given task. Hence the slowness. Later experiments in mice, in which modern techniques were used to raise or lower dopamine levels, confirmed this idea.
There are many other examples where behavior led the way. By studying how owls listen out for scurrying prey, neuroscientists discovered how their brains—and later, those of mammals—localize sound. By studying how marmosets call to each other, Ghazanfar has learned more about the rules that govern turn-taking in human conversation. Critically, these cases began with studying behaviors that the animals naturally do, not those that they had been trained to perform. Likewise, bats, sea slugs, and electric fish have all told us a lot about how brains work, because each has its own specialized skills. “If you pick a species that does one or two behaviors super-well, you can identify the underlying circuits more clearly,” Ghazanfar says. “Instead, mice are treated as if they’re this generic mammal that have smaller versions of human brains—and that’s preposterous.”
“I am thrilled to see this paper emphasize the importance of carefully studied behavior,” says Anne Churchland, who studies decision-making at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “I’ve seen in neuroscience that behavior is often an afterthought, studied with insufficient understanding of the animal’s strategy.” But she adds that such studies are hard. It’s difficult to get animals to behave naturally in a lab, because you might need to recreate aspects of their world that aren’t obvious to us.
Ghazanfar agrees. “If your goal is to understand the brain, you have to understand behavior, and that’s not trivial. I think a lot of neuroscientists think it is,” he says. “Perhaps one way forward would be to develop tools to help address the complexity of behavior” suggests Ed Boyden from MIT, who pioneered the breakthrough technique called optogenetics. “Behavioral investigation has a strong tradition in neuroscience and I hope it grows even stronger.”
For the moment, the problem is that it’s getting harder to publish such studies in flagship neuroscience journals. Behavioral studies get rejected for “not having enough neuro”, says Ghazanfar, and “it’s as if every paper needs to be a methodological decathlon in order to be considered important.”
Marina Picciotto from Yale University, who is editor in chief of the Journal of Neuroscience, says it boils down to how studies are framed. If they’re just describing behavior, they’re probably more appropriate for a journal that, say, focuses on psychology. But if behavioral experiments explicitly lead to hypotheses about circuits in the brain, or something of that kind, they’re more relevant for the neuroscience field. But “the line between ‘pure’ behavior and neuroscience is fluid,” she admits, and she’s both appreciative of the new paper and open to discussions about the issues it raises.
To Krakauer, the current line demeans behavioral work, deeming it valuable “as long as it tells us where to stick the electrodes.” But it’s important in itself. “My fear is that people will say: Yes, of course, we should continue to do everything we’ve been doing, but also do better behavior studies. I’m trying to say: You’ve got to do the behavior first. You can’t fly the plane while building it.”
Wretch 32 ft Jacob Banks – ‘Doing OK’ (Official Video) Link
Good to see that the NBA All Star list for 2017 has a whole lot of good guys on it.
Young, gifted, and Homelessness More than 100,000 students on U.S. youth, public school and college teams have no stable place to live. Sports Illustrated goes inside the lives of three teen athletes struggling to overcome the hardships of homelessness. Published On :- 2014-Oct-16th Link
Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Most Intriguing Point Guard In NBA History Link
On the worst nights, when the fadeaways are short and the pocket passes are late, Giannis Antetokounmpo skips the showers. He storms out of the Bradley Center in full uniform, from home locker room to player parking lot, and hops into the black Explorer the local Ford dealer lent him. He turns right on North 4th Street in downtown Milwaukee, steers toward the Hoan Bridge and continues six miles south to the Catholic seminary in St. Francis, where the priests pray and the Bucks train and The Freak dispenses his rage. Alone, Antetokounmpo reenacts the game he just played, every shot he clanked and every read he missed. Sometimes, he leaves by 1 a.m. Other times, he stays until three, sweating through his white jersey for a second time. “I get so mad, and if I go right home, I’m afraid I’ll never get that anger out,” Antetokounmpo says. “This is how I get the anger away.”
He used to administer his form of self-flagellation on the court, because that’s what he saw Chris Paul do after a Clippers loss in L.A. But he noticed some fans lingering in the lower bowl with their cellphone cameras and he didn’t want anybody to think he was putting on a show. So he retreats, in space and time. Here he is not the $100 million man with the catchy nickname and the barrel chest who studies Magic Johnson’s fast breaks and Russell Westbrook’s mean mugs, who wrestles LeBron and mimes Dirk, who hears MVP chants and references 40-balls. Here he is not even the spring-loaded first-round pick who arrived wide-eyed in the United States three and a half years ago, tweeting breathlessly about his first smoothie, refusing to use the auto-pump feature on his gas nozzle because he was so excited to pump it himself, chirping after a burger at In-N-Out in Westwood Village: “This is America right here! The real America! Isn’t it beautiful?”
No, here he is the lanky hustler from Athens, peddling watches, sunglasses, toys and video games, on the streets near the Acropolis while his parents feared that police would demand their papers and deport them back to Africa. Much of his backstory has been told, how Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo emigrated from Nigeria to Greece in 1991 for a better life, had four boys there, and bounced from one eviction notice to another. But the further Giannis gets from his childhood, the more it resonates, in different ways. “I can’t push it to the side,” Antetokounmpo explains. “I can’t say, ‘I’ve made it, I’m done with all that.’ I will always carry it with me. It’s where I learned to work like this.” He could sell all day, serenade tourists with Christmas carols at night, and return home without enough cash for dinner. Still, he laments, “The results were never guaranteed.” Therein he finds the biggest difference between his life then and now. “If I work here,” he says, “I get the results. That’s the greatest feeling ever for me.” It keeps him coming back to the gym—straight from the arena after losses, straight from the airport after road trips, straight from the bed after back-to-backs.
Antetokounmpo stands 6’ 11″, with legs so long opposing coaches constantly complain that he is traveling, until they review the tape. “He’s not,” says Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “It’s just that we’ve never seen somebody with a stride like this.” Among the NBA’s legion of stretchy giants, Kevin Durant is the scorer, Anthony Davis the slasher. Antetokounmpo is the creator, traversing half the court with four Sasquatch steps, surveying traffic like a big rig over smart cars. Durant and Davis try to play point guard. Antetokounmpo actually does it, dropping dimes over and around defenders’ heads, leading the Bucks in every major category; 23.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals. This season he will be the team’s first All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004, and before you learn to spell his surname, he will be much more.
Growing up, his customers occasionally mentioned his cartoonishly long limbs, but he shrugged. He didn’t need a 7’ 3″ wingspan. He needed a sucker to buy those knockoff shades. He viewed himself less as The Greek Freak than a Greek grinder. “I didn’t really look at my body and think about what it meant,” Antetokounmpo says. “I didn’t figure it out.” He glances down at his 12-inch hands, bigger than Kawhi Leonard’s, bigger than Wilt Chamberlain’s. He finally knows those names. “A lot of players will tell you, ‘When I was a kid, I watched Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, LeBron, Magic, and I wanted to be just like them,’ ” Antetokounmpo says. “For me it wasn’t like that at all.” He laughs, because at last he grasps the magnitude of his gifts and the ways they can be unleashed. He understands that a 22-year-old with his build and his drive should never go home hungry again.
Antetokounmpo lives in a modest three-story townhouse near Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, in the same complex as his parents. Like any hoop phenom, he subsists on Wingstop and NBA TV. But when he needs to steady himself amid his unimpeded ascent, he heads west to Omega restaurant, where 24 hours a day he can order gyros and lamb chops with sides of nostalgia and perspective. “I think about where I was four years ago, on the streets, and where I am today, able to take care of my kids and my grandkids and their grandkids,” Antetokounmpo marvels. “I’m not saying that in a cocky way or a disrespectful way. But it is a crazy story, isn’t it?”
On March 28, 2013, Bucks general manager John Hammond sat in a dining room at the Bradley Center before a game against the Lakers and explained why his team could not acquire a superstar. Hammond was in his fifth season, with a record of 181–206, never good enough to contend and never bad enough to tank. The stars he had brought to Milwaukee, if you can call them that, were Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, John Salmons and Carlos Delfino. Hammond outlined the two most obvious ways to land a prospective headliner: Finish on the fringe of the lottery and turn a lucky Ping-Pong ball into the first overall draft pick, which has about a 1.8% chance of occurring. Or pitch a premier free agent on a small market with a frigid climate and a mediocre roster, which comes with even steeper odds.
At the end of an otherwise dispiriting conversation, Hammond mentioned casually that he was leaving town the next day. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“Greece,” he said.
Memories of the trip have become blurred in the recounting: Antetokounmpo’s coach, idling outside the gym on a scooter, smoking a cigarette; Antetokounmpo’s teammates, nearly twice his age, coming straight to pregame warmups from their day jobs; Antetokounmpo’s parents, sitting high in the stands, as their beanstalk son deftly ran the point for Filathlitikos in the Greek second division. Hammond flashed back to a line that coach Larry Brown once told him. “For some people the game goes 110 miles per hour. For others, it goes 70.” Afterward Antetokounmpo’s Greek agents drove Hammond through Athens. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this guy,” the GM said from the backseat. “But his life is about to change in a major way.”
The 18-year-old Antetokounmpo was no secret among scouts, but many organizations were scared to draft him, given that he couldn’t even score an invitation to the Nike Hoop Summit. But Hammond, desperate for that elusive star, was ready to take a risk. The Bucks picked Antetokounmpo 15th overall in 2013, recognizing that there is yet another way to secure a difference-maker: Steal him.
The day after the draft Antetokounmpo walked out of the elevator at The Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, where former Wisconsin senator and Bucks owner Herb Kohl was coincidentally sitting in the lobby coffee shop. Antetokounmpo was self-conscious about his broken English, but Kohl’s top lieutenant, JoAnne Anton, happened to be fluent in Greek. “I remember how his eyes lit up when he heard her voice,” Hammond recalls. “It was a small thing, but you couldn’t help but think, ‘Maybe this is meant to be.’”
So began an endearing affair between Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee. He moved into a two-and-a-half-bedroom apartment in St. Francis that he shared with his parents and younger brothers, Kostas and Alex. Bucks guard O.J. Mayo sent him a U-Haul filled with furniture. Caron Butler and Zaza Pachulia helped him pick out clothes for road trips. Hammond and assistant general manager David Morway taught him to drive, parallel parking on the seminary grounds, and assistant video coordinator Ross Geiger lent him his maroon Subaru Outback Legacy. Geiger was Antetokounmpo’s best friend in Milwaukee, the one who oversaw his graduation from EDM to hip-hop, and instructed him on which lyrics he could sing in public and which he could not. But when they ate dinner, even at McDonald’s, Antetokounmpo insisted on splitting the bill. Either he didn’t comprehend how much more he earned than a video guy, or he couldn’t bear to part with the cash.
Milwaukee went 15–67 in Antetokounmpo’s rookie season, which dampened his enthusiasm not a bit. He memorized lines from Coming to America and Next Friday. He learned to throw a football with Morway’s sons, Michael and Robbie. He begged teammates to play the shooting game two-for-a-dollar that he picked up from power forward John Henson. When a Greek TV station came to visit, he told Geiger they would need a customized handshake, “so we look like we know what we’re doing.” The Bucks were brutal, and The Greek Freak averaged only 6.8 points, a reserve small forward who spent most of his time marooned in the corner, probing for open spaces and put-back dunks. But he provided highlights and hope. “I love Milwaukee!” Antetokounmpo told teammates over lunch at the facility one day. “I’m going to be in Milwaukee 20 years! I’ll be here so long they’ll be sick of me!” He feared that somebody would wake him from his dream and send him home. “That they’d take it all away from me,” he says.
To Bucks vets, Antetokounmpo supplied comic relief during a dismal winter, but Geiger sensed he was capable of more. One night they were watching a game on television when Antetokounmpo shouted, “Whoa! Did you see that?” Geiger hit rewind. Antetokounmpo was always amazed he could rewind live TV. “There it is!” Antetokounmpo yelped. “Look at the action on the help side and how that opens up the whole play!” Another night Geiger invited him to dinner at a friend’s house and Antetokounmpo barely uttered a word. On the way home, he told Geiger, “You’re really close with Erik, but you’re not that close with Matt.”
“He was right,” Geiger says. “He knows how to read people and situations. That’s because of how he grew up. He couldn’t waste his time selling you something for five minutes if you weren’t going to buy. He had to read body language and move on.”
When Antetokounmpo reminisces about his rookie year, he sounds as if he is talking about another era and another person. “I was like a kid in the park, seeing all the cities, seeing LeBron and KD, having so much fun. But that kid—the kid with the smoothies—I’m not really that kid anymore.”
Pro sports age everybody. There was the night in his first season when Antetokounmpo’s agent at Octagon, Alex Saratsis, told him that a Bucks assistant coach believed he wasn’t working hard enough. “You can tell me I’m not playing well,” Antetokounmpo replied, tears in his eyes. “You can tell me I’m not doing the right things. But you cannot tell me this. I won’t accept it.” And there was the night in his second season when the Bucks’ new head coach, Jason Kidd, banned him from shooting three-pointers. “I want to shoot threes,” Antetokounmpo argued. “How can I not shoot threes?” Geiger left for the Suns. Morway went to the Jazz. Nate Wolters, Antetokounmpo’s best friend on the team, was waived. “I didn’t know all that would happen,” Antetokounmpo says. “You build these relationships, know these people, and then all of a sudden you get a text in the summer: ‘I’m not coming back.’ What? You get mad. You learn this is a business.”
The first time Kidd benched him, Antetokounmpo was irate. “I was like, ‘Let’s see what this guy did in his career, anyway,’ ” Antetokounmpo recounts, and called up Kidd’s bio on his phone. “I saw Rookie of the Year, NBA championship, USA Olympic gold medal, second in assists, fifth in made threes, blah, blah, blah. I was like, ‘Jesus freaking Christ, how can I compete with that? I better zip it.’ ”
At 6’ 4″, Kidd is one of the best point guards who ever lived. “But I wanted so badly to be 6’ 7″ or 6’ 8″,” Kidd says. “Guys like Magic are looking through a window that’s so high. They can make passes I could only dream about.” He detected enough playmaking ability from Antetokounmpo to try him at point guard in the 2014 summer league and again in the ’15 preseason, but he wasn’t satisfied with the results. Last Feb. 20 in Atlanta, with the Bucks 11 games under .500 and Michael Carter-Williams coming off the bench, Kidd put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s massive mitts. “We didn’t talk about it,” Kidd says. “We didn’t make a big deal out of it. There was no pressure. We just wanted to try something different.”
The Bucks won that night in double overtime as Antetokounmpo had 19 points and three assists, and afterward Kidd embarked on an audacious experiment: building the biggest point guard anybody can remember. Kidd oversees the project, but assistant coach Sean Sweeney runs it, accompanying Antetokounmpo to his midnight workouts, deconstructing his pick-and-rolls, furnishing him with clips of Magic but also less predictable influences such as Kiki Vandeweghe’s post moves and Shawn Kemp’s transition dunks. Antetokounmpo hung a photo of himself, facing up against the Raptors, in Sweeney’s office. Sweeney has repeatedly taken the picture down, but somehow, it always returns. “Don’t forget about me!” Antetokounmpo sings.
This summer they worked out twice a day for two-and-a-half weeks at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid, picking strangers out of the bleachers to fill fast breaks. “It was an inordinate amount of time going through situations,” Sweeney says. “We’d start with the running game. ‘First look is to the big running to the rim. Next look is up the side to the wing. Next look is across the side. Now can you get it and go full speed? Now you can get it and go and pitch it back to a trailer who can shoot?’ ”
“You know what I liked about using all those strangers?” Kidd adds. “He had to speak. You don’t know these people, but you have to tell them what to do. They’re looking at you for direction and you have to give it to them. That’s what a point guard does. He has to know his teammates better than they know themselves.”
The Bucks acquired Matthew Dellavedova in July and made him their de facto floor general, but Giannis is the one making the decisions and feeling the consequences. “If this guy gets the ball five times, I know he’s happy, and if that guy gets it once, I know he’s not,” Antetokounmpo groans. “So I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to get that guy the ball.’ It’s hard to satisfy everybody.”
Actually, it’s impossible, which is another of the lessons Kidd is imparting. There are things stars do, like pick up the bill at McDonald’s, and things they don’t, like placate everyone in their presence. “To make the next step, I’ve learned you need a little cockiness inside you,” Antetokounmpo says. “I can be a little cocky.” As a rookie, he jawed with Carmelo Anthony. In his second season, he body checked Mike Dunleavy. But the Bucks have been seeing his snarl more often of late, after pep talks from Kobe Bryant last season and Kevin Garnett last month, as well as daily skull sessions with veteran Bucks guard Jason Terry. “I’ll tell him something at a timeout like, ‘Watch the curl, and if the curl isn’t there, the slip will be wide open,’ ” says Terry. “And he’ll always tell me, ‘I got you, bro.’ ” He searches for the slightest edge, because a highlight a night is not enough anymore. He needs 25/12/8 with a win. “I’ve definitely become more serious,” Antetokounmpo says. “I have a franchise on my shoulders.”
On 28-And-a-half acres around the Bradley Center, the Bucks are constructing a new practice facility that will open later this year and a new arena that will open next year. Next to the site is a billboard, featuring Antetokounmpo’s muscled back, over the slogan the future looks strong. Hammond, it turns out, proved himself wrong, and possibly twice. He found a star, and he might have snagged another, drafting forward Jabari Parker second in 2014. The Bucks currently sit seventh in the East, but outside of Cleveland, their long-term outlook is as bright as anybody’s.
Hammond and Antetokounmpo talk often, though no longer about the perils of right turns on red. “He’s trying to figure this whole thing out, what he’s going to be,” Hammond says. “We’re seeing this more focused side of him, but it’s a fine line. You still want to enjoy the game, the fun part of it.” His trust is difficult to earn. Private trainers with renowned NBA clients offer to work with Antetokounmpo every summer. He turns them all down, sticking with Bucks staffers.
“Because my parents were illegal, they couldn’t trust anybody,” Antetokounmpo says. “They were always nervous. A neighbor could be like, ‘These people are making too much noise, their children are making too much noise,’ and the cops could knock at our door and ask for our papers and that’s it. It’s that simple. So you’re always a little closed. I’m outgoing when I feel comfortable, but it took me 21 years just to invite a girl to meet my friends. I’m closed too.”
Around familiar faces, like his live-in girlfriend, his innocence is impossible to extinguish. When Saratsis mentions the All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo hushes him, so as not to jinx it. When Geiger visits, Antetokounmpo hands him the Wingstop menu, with the addendum, “I’m buying!” And when Kostas left home for the University of Dayton this fall, big brother drove six hours to move him into his dorm, stopping only at Wal-Mart. “Here is Giannis at midnight, with 80% of the freshman class, walking up and down the hallway carrying bedsheets,” recalls Dayton coach Archie Miller.
Giannis functions as the family patriarch, with his father adjusting to the United States and his older brother, Thanasis, playing in Spain. When Giannis inked his four-year, $100 million extension in September—after postponing the signing by four hours to accommodate a morning workout—he called Bucks co-owner Wes Edens at his hotel in Ireland. “I just wanted to say thank you for the money,” Antetokounmpo started. “It means so much to me and my family. I’m going to work very hard for it.” Then he offered to buy friends and family steak at the Capital Grille in Milwaukee for lunch. When the meat arrived, with appetizers and side dishes, Giannis looked alarmed. “I don’t know who’s paying for all this,” he cracked, “because I only said I’d get the steak.”
Three months later he walks into the practice gym the morning after a home-and-home with the Cavaliers, 76 minutes in close proximity to LeBron James. “You feel different after you play him,” Antetokounmpo reports. “Your legs, your body, you’re sore everywhere. Sometimes you have to lie to yourself, lie to your mother: ‘Yeah, I’m good, I’m good.’ ” The team has the day off. “But where else do I have to be?” he asks. He plays two-on-two. He shoots along the arc with Sweeney. Rookie Thon Maker mops the floor. Antetokounmpo’s three-point percentage, 29.3 this season, right around his career mark, is still the source of much consternation. Judging by his practice sessions, it will spike soon, and then there won’t be any way left to defend him. “When I’m coaching,” muses the 39-year-old Terry, “he’ll be pretty much unguardable.”
The next night, against Washington, Antetokounmpo starts the game with a reverse layup, a midrange pull-up, a pair of sweeping hooks and finger rolls. The Wizards can’t keep him out of the lane or off the free throw line. He dunks off a Eurostep, a lob, a back-cut and a put-back. He dunks over Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter and Markieff Morris, flexing as they wince. When Morris fouls him hard on a breakaway, Antetokounmpo sprints over to ask him about it. He has 24 points in the first half, Milwaukee has 73, and the Cream City Clash in Section 222 chant: “Can’t Stop Gian-nis!” He looks as long as Durant, as strong as Davis, as ferocious as Westbrook. He’s got Dirk’s fadeaway, with the right knee raised, and a nifty two-handed scoop all his own.
He finds Parker for a dunk and a layup, Henson for a layup, Dellavedova for a short J. Leading the break, he whips a pass to Terry in the corner for three. I got you, bro. In the post he backs down a trio of Wizards and kicks out to Malcolm Brogdon for another three. With 6:26 left he stands on the free throw line, and the locals break out a rare MVP chant. He has a career-high 39 points. He craves the 40-ball. He tries to settle himself, but the second free throw rims out, and Kidd calls him to the bench. The Bucks lead by 27, which will be their final margin. He winks at Alex, his youngest brother, behind the courtside seats.
In the locker room afterward, players scatter for Christmas, two days away. “Stay out of the gym!” swingman Tony Snell cautions, and Antetokounmpo surreptitiously shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he mutters. A few minutes later the black Explorer turns right on North 4th Street, toward the snow-covered bridge, taking the league’s most unlikely driver to a place only he can see.ic fever dream that is Giannis Antetokounmpo on a basketball court. Basketball fans now call him “The Greek Freak,” a name he’s fully earned with his play.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Antetokounmpo’s dizzying skill-set is exemplified in those passes. At the end of last season, with the playoffs out of reach, Bucks coach Jason Kidd began experimentally playing the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo, who has the height of a center, at point guard.
The results were exhilarating for Bucks fans, and terrifying for the rest of the league. In the team’s final 26 games last season, Antetokounmpo registered five triple doubles, two more than any Bucks player had ever registered in a full season, according to Fox Sports Wisconsin. He averaged 18.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.9 blocks per game — eye-popping numbers for any NBA player, let alone a 21-year-old who not long ago was playing in Greece’s second division.
But those days — like the days of wondering whether the family fridge would be full or empty — are now a world away.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. I can’t describe how excited I feel, you know,” Antetokounmpo told Sager on draft day in 2013. “It’s a dream come true.”
Sam Liard :- Marshable.Com
The NBA’s newest $100 million man is someone whose story you can’t help but love Link
This is the ninth edition of the Democracy Index. It records how global democracy fared in 2016. The title of this year’s report refers to the popular revolt in 2016 against political elites who are perceived by many to be out of touch and failing to represent the interests of ordinary people (“political elites” refers primarily to governments, legislatures, state institutions and political parties, though it also encompasses the media, expert bodies and international organisations). It was a revolt that was foretold in recent editions of the Democracy Index, which have focused on the growing disconnect between political elites and the people that is particularly evident in the world’s most mature democracies. The UK’s vote in June 2016 to leave the EU (Brexit) and the election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 sent shock waves around the globe. Both were an expression of deep popular dissatisfaction with the status quo and of a hankering for change. A triumph of democracy or a threat to it? This was the question posed by the dramatic political events of 2016. The answer from many was unequivocally negative. The Brexit vote and the election of Mr Trump were for many liberals nothing more than outbursts of primal emotions and visceral expressions of narrow-minded nationalism. Countless commentaries following the shock results blamed popular ignorance and xenophobia for the Brexit and Trump results and implied that those who voted for these outcomes were at best political illiterates who had been duped by “post-truth politics” or, at worst, bigots and xenophobes in thrall to demagogues. The intensity of the reaction to the Brexit and Trump victories is commensurate with the magnitude of the shock to the political system that they represent and the strength of feeling on both sides of the political divide. A strong attachment to the post-war, liberal, democratic order makes it difficult for those on the losing side to come to terms with what happened in 2016. However, such a powerful rebuke to the political class demands a wide-ranging investigation of its causes. In recent decades, political elites have become unused to having their worldview challenged and have largely assumed that the values represented by the liberal democratic consensus are shared by the vast majority of the electorate. The events of 2016 have proven that this is definitely not the case in the UK or the US and the populist advance elsewhere suggests that it is probably not true for many other democracies in Europe. Shock at the results and fear of the changes that they denote may help to explain the reluctance of some opponents of Brexit and Trump to examine fully why they lost the political argument. Instead of seeking to understand the causes of the popular backlash against the political establishment, some have instead sought to delegitimise the Brexit and Trump outcomes by disparaging the values of those who supported them. Even when they acknowledge that Brexit and Trump supporters had legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the status quo, some commentators suggest that their views and/or their choices are illegitimate. This negative interpretation of the seminal political events of 2016 fails to see anything encouraging in the increased political engagement and participation of ordinary people. The two votes captured the contradictions besetting contemporary democracy. They were symptomatic of the problems of 21st-century representative democracy and, at the same time, of the positive potential for overcoming them by increasing popular political participation. Insofar as they engaged and mobilised normally quiescent or absentee voters—and the UK referendum campaign was especially successful in this regard—the votes were a vindication of democracy. In their different ways, both events expressed a desire, often inchoate, for more democracy, or at least something better than what has been on offer in recent decades. The same can be said to a great degree of the increasing support in Europe for populist or insurgent political parties which are challenging the mainstream parties that have ruled since 1945. Of course, one referendum campaign or one populist victory at the polls does not change anything in and of itself. Popular engagement and participation need to be sustained to make a substantive difference to the quality of democracy. Populist victories may raise expectations of change that end up being dashed (the recent experience of Greece is a case in point), demoralising those who voted for it and encouraging more popular cynicism with the functioning of democracy. The predominant response among political elites to the events of 2016 has been to rue the popular backlash against the democratic order and to interpret it as a threat to the future of liberal democracy. Some have even questioned whether ordinary people should be trusted to make decisions about important matters such as the UK’s membership of the EU. Yet the popular backlash against the established order can also be seen as a consequence, not a cause, of the failings of contemporary democracy. We explore the various factors that led to the 2016 backlash in the section entitled “The roots of the contemporary crisis of democracy“.
2016: a year of global democratic recession and, for the US, demotion
In the 2016 Democracy Index the average global score fell to 5.52 from 5.55 in 2015 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Some 72 countries experienced a decline in their total score compared with 2015,
almost twice as many as the countries which recorded an improvement (38). The other 57 countries stagnated, with their scores remaining unchanged compared with 2015. In the 2016 Democracy Index five regions, compared with three in 2015, experienced a regression—eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and western Europe—as signified by a decline in their regional average score. Eastern Europe recorded by far the biggest decline (from 5.55 to 5.43). Not a single region recorded an improvement in its average score in 2016. Two regions—Asia & Australasia and North America—stagnated in 2016.
Almost one-half (49.3%) of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only 4.5% reside in a “full democracy”, down from 8.9% in 2015 as a result of the US being demoted
from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” (see Table 1, Democracy Index 2016 by regime type). Around 2.6bn people, more than one-third of the world’s population, live under authoritarian rule, with a large share being, of course, in China. According to the Democracy Index, 76 of the 167 countries covered by the model, or 45.5% of all countries, can be considered to be democracies. However, the number of “full democracies” has declined from 20 in 2015 to 19 in in this year’s Democracy Index. The US, a standard-bearer of democracy for the world, has become a “flawed democracy”, as popular confidence in the functioning of public institutions has declined. The score for the US fell to 7.98 from 8.05 in 2015, causing the world’s leading economic superpower to slip below the 8.00 threshold for a “full democracy”. Of the remaining 91 countries in our index, 51 are “authoritarian” and 40 (up from 37 in 2015) are considered to be “hybrid regimes”.
Popular trust in government, elected representatives and political parties has fallen to extremely low levels in the US. This has been a long-term trend and one that preceded the election of Mr Trump as US president in November 2016. By tapping a deep strain of political disaffection with the functioning of democracy, Mr Trump became a beneficiary of the low esteem in which US voters hold their government, elected representatives and political parties, but he was not responsible for a problem that has had a long gestation. The US has been teetering on the brink of becoming a “flawed democracy” for several years, and even if there had been no presidential election in 2016, its score would have slipped below 8.00. A similar trend of declining popular confidence in political elites and institutions has been evident in Europe over the past decade and helps to explain the outcome of the UK Brexit referendum in June 2016 as well as the growing ascendancy of populist movements across Europe. Popular confidence in government and political parties is a vital component of the concept of democracy embodied by the Democracy Index model. Growing popular disaffection with the key institutions of representative democracy has been a factor in the democratic regression of recent years and in the rise of insurgent, populist, anti-mainstream parties and politicians in Europe and North America.
Democracy Index 2016 highlights
A trust deficit causes the US to become a “flawed democracy”
Trust in political institutions is an essential component of well-functioning democracies. Yet surveys by Pew, Gallup and other polling agencies have confirmed that public confidence in government has slumped to historic lows in the US. This has had a corrosive effect on the quality of democracy in the US, as reflected in the decline in the US score in the Democracy Index. The US president, Donald Trump, is not to blame for this decline in trust, which predated his election, but he was the beneficiary of it. Popular confidence in political institutions and parties continues to decline in many other developed countries, too.
Brexit referendum leads to increased political participation in the UK
A 21st-century record turnout of 72.2% in the June 2016 Brexit referendum, compared with average turnouts of 63% in the four general elections since 2001, revealed a rise in popular engagement and participation that boosted the UK’s score in 2016 to 8.36 from 8.31 in 2015. The UK is in 16th place in the global ranking. The long-term trend of declining political participation and growing cynicism about politics in the UK seemed to have been reversed. There has also been a significant increase in membership of political parties over the past year.
Asia’s upward momentum stalls in 2016
Since we began producing the Democracy Index in 2006, Asia has made more headway in advancing democracy than any other region, increasing its regional average score from 5.44 in 2006 to 5.74 in 2016. However, despite making impressive progress over the past decade, the region is still some way from catching up with Latin America (average score 6.33), Western Europe (8.40) and North America (8.56) and cannot afford to stagnate, as it did in 2016. Latin America suffers a “populist hangover” In 2016 the rise of populism upset the political establishment and status quo in much of the world, but Latin America largely bucked the trend. Suffering from a “populist hangover”, the region began to move to calmer politics in 2016, with centre-right, pro-market candidates taking the helm of many countries. This followed the decade of the so-called “Pink Tide”, in which many countries elected leftwing populists in a backlash against the neo-liberal economics of the post-cold war era. Argentina ended 12 years of rule by the populist, left-wing Kirchners in December 2015, bringing the centreright, pro-business candidate Mauricio Macri to the presidency. Peruvian voters elected a centreright technocrat, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, after the five-year presidency of the left-wing Ollanta Humala. The Brazilian Congress impeached the president, Dilma Rousseff, of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (which has held the presidency since 2003) for contravening budget rules.
Democratic backsliding in 19 countries in eastern Europe
In eastern Europe, there is a mood of deep popular disappointment with democracy, and the former communist bloc has recorded the most dramatic regression of any region during the decade since we launched the Democracy Index. In 2016 the region featured the largest number of country regressions (19), with the remaining countries either stagnating (6) or improving only modestly (3). Not one state ranks as a full democracy, despite 11 being EU members. There was a notable weakening of electoral processes in several countries in the region in 2016, suggesting that even the formal trappings of democracy are being called into question.
Sub-Saharan Africa is beating eastern Europe on political participation, but lags behind on formal democracy
Reflecting the scant democratic progress made in Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, the region’s average score in the Democracy Index has remained relatively flat since 2011 (dipping slightly to 4.37 in 2016 from 4.38 in 2015). Political participation and political culture have improved over the past five years (albeit with a few notable exceptions), but this has been offset by deteriorating scores for civil liberties and the functioning of government. Moreover, while elections have become commonplace across much of the region, the regional score for electoral processes has remained persistently low, reflecting a lack of genuine pluralism in most countries.
The long Arab winter continues, and Tunisia slumps in the rankings
With the exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring has given way to a wave of reaction and a descent into violent chaos, and even Tunisia experienced a reversal of fortunes in 2016. Widely regarded as having been the sole democratic success of the Arab Spring, Tunisia slipped by 12 places to 69th in the Democracy Index global ranking in 2016. Tunisia’s transition to democracy over the past five years has coincided with a very poor economic performance, and this trend continued in 2016, undermining the hope of young Tunisians that democracy would bring improved economic prospects. Similarly, Algeria’s score deteriorated owing to less favourable perceptions among the population of the benefits of democratic governance.
Brexit, Trump and the 2016 revolt against the elites
The parallels between the June 2016 Brexit vote and the outcome of the November 8th US election are manifold. In both cases, the electorate defied the political establishment. Both votes represented a rebellion from below against out-of-touch elites. Both were the culmination of a long-term trend of declining popular trust in government institutions, political parties and politicians. They showed that society’s marginalised and forgotten voters, often working-class and blue-collar, do not share the same values as the dominant political elite and are demanding a voice of their own—and if the mainstream parties will not provide it, they will look elsewhere. This is the main lesson for political leaders facing election in Europe in 2017 and beyond. Donald Trump’s victory was stunning because it was achieved in the face of the unremitting hostility of the entire political establishment, including in his own Republican Party, big business, the media (only one major newspaper and one major TV channel backed Mr Trump) and the cultural elite. This was even more the case for Mr Trump than for the “Leave” campaign in the UK, which had the support of sections of the establishment and some daily newspapers. Mr Trump’s campaign cleverly used social media, especially Twitter, to flatten the media and reach out to people directly. The thing that mainstream commentators said disqualified Mr Trump—his lack of political experience—was what qualified him in the view of so many who voted for him. He appealed to the angry, anti-political mood of large swathes of the electorate who feel that the two mainstream parties no longer speak for them. Exit polls on the day of the election revealed that a desire for change, for a break with the political status quo, was a major factor in determining voting choices in the election. This has been the message coming out of countless surveys of US voters from the Pew Research Centre, the Gallup polling agency and the World Values Survey reports, which have revealed a long term trend of declining confidence in political institutions and elites (see Box: A trust deficit is undermining democracy page 14). Pew surveys show that less than one in five Americans think that “you can trust the government to do what is right” all or most of the time. In June 2016 only 9% of US respondents expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, according to Gallup. During the Brexit campaign similar surveys revealed a huge divide in levels of trust in government, politicians and experts between Remain and Leave supporters. The same trend of falling popular trust in institutions has been evident in Europe in recent decades, as confirmed by the regular Eurobarometer surveys.
The populists are mobilising people
The populists are channelling disaffection from sections of society that have lost faith in the mainstream parties. They are filling a vacuum and mobilising people on the basis of a populist, anti elite message and are also appealing to people’s hankering to be heard, to be represented, to have their views taken seriously. Populist parties and politicians are often not especially coherent and often do not have convincing answers to the problems they purport to address, but they nevertheless pose a challenge to the political mainstream because they are connecting with people who believe the established parties no longer speak for them. A striking and much-remarked upon feature of the populist upsurge, in both Europe and the US, is its increasingly (but not exclusively) working-class or blue-collar character. It is a revolt by large sections of society who feel that they have been abandoned politically, economically, socially and culturally by the mainstream political parties to which they used to give their allegiance. The non college educated, white vote was firmly for Mr Trump, with large percentages of the pro-Trump vote coming from “forgotten” voters in left-behind towns in the rust belt. A similar trend was evident in the UK, where working-class voters, including many who had not bothered to vote in recent general elections and some who had never previously bothered to vote, made it their business to cast their ballots for Brexit. The turnout in the Brexit referendum was above 72%, indicating that the electorate was motivated to turn out because they believed that their vote could change something for once. Similarly, in France Marine Le Pen of the Front national (FN) refers to the France beyond Paris of blue-collar workers, small farmers and low-level employees as the “France of the forgotten”. She is hoping to build on the momentum provided by the Brexit and Trump victories and persuade disenchanted French voters to break with the mainstream parties and vote for change as represented by the FN.
The political class against the “deplorables”
In Europe and the US, the political class seems increasingly out of touch with the people they purport to represent and often seems to express contempt for sections of the electorate. Hillary Clinton put half of Mr Trump’s voters in her “basket of deplorables”. In the UK, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) picked up support from workers in the Midlands and the north of England who no longer feel much connection with the Labour Party, the traditional party of the working class. Mr Trump deliberately drew on the popular revolt against the political order epitomised by the Brexit vote. He visited the UK the morning after the vote and hailed the result as signifying “independence day”. He drew the parallel often at his campaign-trail rallies. He invited Mr Farage to the US to address his audience. In the closing days of the campaign he said that if he won it would be “Brexit plus, plus, plus” for the US. Mr Trump was also able to count on the distinct lack of enthusiasm for Mrs Clinton among working class black and Hispanic voters.
Unsurprisingly, in 2016 black voters did not turn out for Mrs Clinton, a doyenne of the white political establishment who failed to inspire them with hope in the manner of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Although they voted overwhelmingly for Mrs Clinton, they did not do so in sufficient numbers to tip the result. The Hispanic voter turnout was higher than ever before, predominantly favouring Mrs Clinton, but Mr Trump increased the Republican share of the Hispanic vote compared with Mitt Romney in 2012.
The seismic nature of the Brexit and Trump victories should not be underestimated. Politics as we have known it for the past 70 years is not going to go back to “normal”. The Brexit and Trump breakthroughs could add further fuel to the populist challenge to the mainstream parties that is evident across Europe. The populists are prepared to debate the big political issues of the day, and they are mobilising people to become engaged in the political process and to vote. Ruling elites across Europe are facing the prospect of a gathering anti-elite revolt, and apart from dismissing the insurgent parties and their voters as being deluded, manipulated or simply beyond the pale, they have so far shown little inkling of how to respond. In the next section we look at the broader manifestations of the present crisis of democracy and examine their roots, and we analyse how a combination of economic, social and political factors contributed to the Brexit and Trump phenomena.
The roots of the contemporary crisis of democracy
There has been a growing perception in recent years that democracy is in trouble—even in crisis. With the exception of a few notable dissenters, this view is shared by the main institutions that measure and rank the world’s democracies. According to Larry Diamond, a democracy scholar, we have been living through a “mild democracy recession” since 2006. Below we discuss the features of that democratic recession and try to explain what has caused it. The pace of global democratisation accelerated after the start of its so-called “third wave” in 1974 and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The concept of the third wave was coined by Samuel Huntingdon in his 1991 book, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. During the 1970s and 1980s more than 30 countries shifted from authoritarian to democratic political systems. In the 1990s the collapse of communism in eastern Europe led to the proliferation of independent states and new democracies across the eastern bloc. A democratic transition also got under way in the 1990s in Sub-Saharan Africa and continued in Latin America.
Symptoms of the malaise
In recent years, however, the wave of democratisation has slowed or, in the case of some countries, been reversed. Today the perception of democracy being in crisis is palpable and is in stark contrast to the triumphalism about democracy and the end of history that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Apart from the instances of democracy reversals, there has been a steady decline in many countries in some aspects of governance, political participation and media freedoms, and a clear deterioration in attitudes associated with, or conducive to, democracy. In Europe and the US the main features of regression are a declining trust in political institutions; other weaknesses in the functioning of government; the increasing role played by non-elected technocrats, experts and judges; increased voter abstention and declining political participation; and curbs on civil liberties, including media freedoms. All of these are having a corrosive effect on some long-established democracies, as expressed in the Democracy Index over many years. l Between 2006 and 2016 democracy has stagnated or regressed as illustrated by the average aggregate global democracy score. l Between 2006 and 2016 almost half of the 167 countries (81, or 48.5%) covered by the EIU’s Democracy Index registered a decline in their overall scores. l The biggest regressions have been in three regions—eastern Europe, North America and western Europe—which experienced a significant decline in their regional average scores between 2006 and 2016. l Of the 21 countries in western Europe, 13 suffered a regression as their scores declined between 2006 and 2016 (two stagnated and six improved).
The US score has declined significantly over the life of the Democracy Index, from 8.22 in 2006 to 7.98 in 2016, pushing the US into the “flawed democracy” category. The crisis of democracy is expressed in the failing traditional political party system; the growing gap between elites and electorates; and the rise of populist parties. The contemporary problems of democracy are clearly not just “over there”—in Russia, China, the Middle East or Africa. Democracy is in trouble in the West, in the mature democracies of western Europe and the US, which are no longer obvious beacons for those striving for democracy in the nondemocratic world. According to World Values Survey (WVS) data [waves 3-6 1995-2014], there appears to have been a sharp decline in the level of support for democracy as a system of government, especially among younger generations, and a rise in support for authoritarian alternatives, such as military rule, or other non-democratic alternatives, such as rule by experts. In several articles in the Journal of Democracy, Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on political theory at Harvard University’s department of government, presented evidence suggesting that a process of democratic deconsolidation might be under way. The two academics developed an early warning system, designed to test the health of a country’s democracy, based on three factors: the importance citizens attach to living in a democracy; public openness to non-democratic alternatives such as military rule; and whether public support for populist, anti-system parties is gaining ground. If public support for democracy is falling and the other two indicators are rising, this could be a sign that “democratic consolidation” is under threat, suggested the authors.
Waning support for democracy among the young
Foa and Mounk drew upon WVS data, which point to growing popular cynicism in the developed democracies of North America and western Europe about democracy as a political system. The data suggest that the older generations, born during the interwar period, attach a great deal of importance to living in a democracy, whereas the millennial generation (those born since 1980) are more indifferent. When asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how “essential” it is for them “to live in a democracy” 72% of those born before the first world war choose 10. Only one in three Dutch millennials attach maximum (10 on a scale of 1 to 10) importance to living in a democracy; in the US the number is slightly lower, at 30%. Waning support for democracy among the young is the result of a “cohort” effect rather than an “age” effect. For example, in 1995, only 16% of Americans born in the 1970s (then in their late teens or early twenties) believed that democracy was a “bad” political system for their country. Twenty years later, the number of “anti-democrats” in this same generational cohort had increased by around four percentage points, to 20%. The WVS data suggest that the next cohort, those born in the 1980s, is even more anti-democratic. In 2011, 24% of US millennials (then in their late teens or early twenties) considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country. Support for non-democratic alternatives is rising too according to the WVS data: the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or a “very good” thing rose from 1:16 in 1995 to 1:6 in 2014. That trend is even more pronounced among younger people. The same trend and the same generational differences were apparent in the WVS data for western Europe. Some have taken issue with Foa and Mounk, suggesting that the underlying data from WVS might be flawed or that other factors such as the pace of economic growth can help to explain the results. For example, Ronald F Inglehart, also writing in the Journal of Democracy, agrees with the two authors’ main conclusion that public faith in democracy has declined in recent decades and that there has been a rise in public support for non-democratic alternatives. However, he argues that their data suggest that this is mainly the result of a US period effect and that the US is distinctive because US democracy has become so dysfunctional in recent decades. There may be something to this argument, but the evidence from the WVS of similar, if less dramatic, trends in western Europe suggests that the US is not that distinctive. Foa and Mounk acknowledge that their research does not prove conclusively that democracy is deconsolidating—though they say that it should have us worried—and suggest that it is for political scientists to investigate further whether deconsolidation is happening and what are the possible causes of this development. The Democracy Index results of recent years point to at least a decade of regression in the most advanced democracies. In the next section we address some of the possible causes.
Why is democracy struggling?
There may be a consensus about democracy being in difficulty, but there is less agreement about the causes—and even less about what can be done about it. Several explanations have been advanced, but the dominant one blames the economic and financial crash of 2008-09 and the prolonged crisis that followed, which resulted in large GDP contractions in some countries, growing unemployment, inequality and poverty, and the euro zone sovereign debt crisis. The political dysfunction that characterised the official response to the crisis and the austerity measures that ensued have undermined the legitimacy of political elites and institutions in Europe and the US. Another related explanation is that globalisation in all its forms has created social, regional, generational and class divides and led to a large pool of people who feel they have been “left behind” and not benefited. There is some merit to these arguments, but they do not delve deep enough into the causes of today’s crisis, and they do not go back far enough. Fallout from the global economic and financial crisis of 2008-09 has undoubtedly led to a heightened mood of popular disenchantment with the functioning of democracy today. However, the crisis was not the cause of the poor state of democracy in the West; it merely helped to reveal long-standing weaknesses. Disappointment with democracy and populism preceded the 2008-09 crash. Regressive trends in democracy in Europe and the US can be traced back much further. Nor is contemporary disaffection with democracy simply a reaction to economic underperformance. That populist movements have come to prominence in rich and poor European countries alike suggests that they are not the product solely of the economic crisis. Economic issues are often not at the forefront of the populists’ concerns; issues of culture, identity, tradition and values dominate the populist discourse and resonate with their supporters. Dismissing the upsurge of populism in Europe as an anti-austerity “backlash” evades some uncomfortable truths. The assumption is that populism will fade away once conditions in Europe return to “normal”. This underestimates the deep roots of the popular revolt and the challenge to the political order that it represents. Those who see the populist revolt as a reaction against the consequences of globalisation get closer to understanding the causes of the anti-elite backlash, but even they underestimate other social, political and cultural factors that have contributed to the populist upsurge.
Towards a multi-faceted explanation of the popular revolt
The recent backlash against political elites and the growth of populist politics have deep roots, and their causes are multifaceted. Our account looks at the socioeconomic, structural-demographic and political-ideological forces that have led over many decades to the breakdown of popular faith in the liberal-democratic consensus as represented by political elites and parties in Europe and North America. Mass support for the system of government and the traditional parties was taken for granted in the post-war years of the 1950s and 1960s. However, as the long economic boom that followed the end of the second world war came to an end in the 1970s, everything began to change. The US economy is the biggest in the world, but it has been losing dynamism in recent decades. Comparing successive business cycles, we see that annual real GDP growth averaged 3.5% in the 1950s, 4.5% in the 1960s, 2.8% in the 1970s, 3% in the 1980s and 1990s and less than 2% over the past decade. Even in periods of relatively strong growth in recent decades, levels of investment, productivity growth and median wage growth have been weaker than in the 1970s. The pattern of slowing economic growth has been even more pronounced in many European economies. The end of the post-war boom led to structural changes in the advanced economies and a process of de-industrialisation. The number of manufacturing jobs, which once provided the livelihoods of non-college-educated workers, has declined dramatically in the US and in Europe. There were more than 18m manufacturing jobs in the US in the mid-1980s; today the number has declined to little more than 12m. Over the same period millions of manufacturing jobs in the US were exported abroad by corporations in search of cheaper labour. Technological innovation has also led to the shedding of manufacturing jobs on a large scale. A similar trend occurred in the UK, where the number of manufacturing jobs declined from a little less than 9m in 1966 to 2.6m in today. There has been a hollowing out of industrial towns, a growth in low-wage jobs for non-college educated workers and a rise in income inequality in the US especially. As we argue in our review of the Democracy Index results for the US in the next section, income inequality has been a major factor in fuelling political discontent. Real wages (after taking inflation into account) in the US have been stagnating for more than three decades. Typical American workers and the nation’s lowest-wage earners have experienced little or no growth in their real weekly wages: real weekly wages for the bottom 10% declined by 1% between 1979 and 2014; those for median earners increased by 7.9% over the same period; and those for the top 10% increased by 33.5%. (US Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2015) Between 1979 and 2007, before the 2008 crash, pay-cheque income of the top 1% of U.S. earners exploded by 256%.The average incomes of the bottom 90% of US earners increased by 16.7% over the same period. (Data from Inequality.org for the Institute for Policy Studies) At the same time, immigration in the US and in Europe has led to increased competition from millions of immigrants for blue-collar or working-class jobs. For white working-class men in their 30s and 40s in the US, participation in the labour force dropped from 96% in 1968 to 79% in 2015.
Collapse of communities
The social impact of deindustrialisation has been hugely negative. Charles Murray, an American sociologist, observed in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, that the consequences of these economic changes are visible across the country in terms of their negative social impact on communities, families, crime rates and rates of alcohol and drug addiction. A study by two Princeton economists, Anne Case and Nobel prize-winning Sir Angus Deaton, entitled “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century”, found that mortality rates among middle-aged white Americans have been rising at a dramatic rate, unlike anything seen in other racial and ethnic groups in the US or in their contemporaries in other rich countries. The rising annual death rate among this group is being driven not by the usual killers such as heart disease and diabetes, but by suicides and medical conditions stemming from substance abuse, alcoholic liver diseases and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids. In middle age, poorly educated American whites are dying at such a high rate that they are driving up the average death rate for all middle-aged white Americans. The death rate for whites aged 45-54 with no more than a high-school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people between 1999 and 2014. According to the study, the catastrophe for uneducated, middle-aged white males had only one parallel in a modern peacetime setting: the impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay community. In his book Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, published in 2000, another American social scientist, Robert Putnam, explored some of the broader socioeconomic and structural demographic developments in recent decades that have led to a decline in civic engagement, social connectedness and political participation. One of the major developments has been the movement of women into the labour force. Over the course of several decades from the 1970s onwards, many millions of women have moved out of the home and into paid employment. Positive as this development has been for women liberated from domesticity, according to Putnam this social revolution has led to increasing pressures on the family and less civic participation by women and contributed to other demographic transformations, including fewer marriages, more divorces, fewer children, lower real wages. Bowling Alone argues that changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, women’s role and leisure pursuits have diminished social capital and undermined communities, leading to people becoming disconnected from family, friends, neighbours and democratic structures. In his latest book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, published in 2015, Putnam draws upon a huge volume of research undertaken especially for his book to expose the growing opportunity gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds. He contends that not only has absolute mobility stalled in the US since the 1970s (because economic and educational advances have stalled), but also that social mobility has stalled, threatening to puncture the American Dream.
The post-war party system begins to break down
Alongside these socioeconomic developments of recent decades came changes in the political arena. The post-war political order began to experience challenges from the 1970s, as the end of the postwar economic boom led to conflicts between governments and workers. The experience of the UK Labour Party is instructive. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the British economy was doing well, British politics was characterised by consensus politics, exemplified by a tripartite system of bargaining involving the state, the employers and the trade unions. Economic stagflation in the 1970s put this system under strain, as employers sought to restore profitability by shaking out industry and the state imposed cuts in welfare spending. The austerity policies of the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in 1974-79 demoralised the unions and helped to prepare the ground for the subsequent, more confrontational approach of the Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in the 1980s. Labour’s state socialist policies were seen to have failed and workers began to desert the Labour Party. During the 1960s approximately 65% of the working-class vote went to Labour; by the 1980s this had fallen to 50%. Many of the policies pursued by the Thatcher governments of the 1980s found their echo in Reaganomics across the Atlantic and in the austerity policies pursued across the Channel by Socialist governments in France and Spain. This period saw the beginnings of the rupturing of the relationship between Europe’s post-war political parties and their traditional support base—especially, but not exclusively, that between social-democratic, labour and communist parties and their working-class supporters. Up to the 1980s, Europe’s political parties managed to retain most of their share of the vote and their party membership, but in the 1980s party membership began to fall away in most developed countries. By the 1990s the convergence of left and right on economic and social policies made it difficult for parties to maintain distinct identities. The decline in party membership accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s, and while the traditional political parties remain in place today, they are so disconnected from wider society that they bear no relation to their forebears of the 1950s. Parties of the left (social-democratic, socialist, communist) and the right (Christian-democratic, conservative), which dominated the post-war body politic, have lost touch with their traditional supporters and, as a consequence, have lost votes and influence. As they lost touch with their former social constituencies, political parties became closer to the state; they moved to the centre ground to try to widen their support base. Gradually the world view of party and political elites began to develop in contradistinction to, and in opposition to, that of the voters they had increasingly neglected and left behind. The revolt against the elites has been driven by economic and social factors, but it is also a consequence of the shift over the past few decades of the mainstream parties towards the centre ground of technocratic politics. There has been a growing estrangement of political parties from the electorate, as well as a growing gulf in the values held by political elites and ordinary people. More than anything, the 2016 events were a reaction against the way in which political elites have been conducting politics—by keeping the electorate at arm’s length, by avoiding the issues that are important to people, and by presuming that everyone shares their moral values. The 2016 revolt demonstrated that vast swathes of the electorate do not share those values and have had enough of being ignored.
New political fault lines
The old left-right political distinctions do not mean that much nowadays; instead the battle lines are being drawn over issues such as globalisation versus national sovereignty, cosmopolitanism versus national identity, and open borders versus immigration controls. The populists are winning ground because they have been talking about these things, whereas traditional political elites have evaded these issues. The Brexit and Trump votes have brought this divide out into the open. Instead of debating the merits or otherwise of these opposing standpoints, some have sought to delegitimise these views and disparage those who hold them either as xenophobes in thrall to dangerous demagogues or ignorant dupes of post-truth politics. Populists have mobilised people to become engaged in the political process and to vote, and have opened up debate about big questions that have often been ignored by the mainstream parties. The Brexit referendum in the UK encouraged political discussion among ordinary people to a degree that has been unheard of for decades. It resulted in the biggest electoral turnout in the UK for many years. This called into question the often held view that people are too apathetic to bother with politics. It suggests that when people believe that their involvement can make a difference, they will be motivated to participate. Since the Brexit vote, there has also been an increase in membership of all political parties, though this is nowhere near reversing the collapse in membership that has occurred in recent decades. Of course, some have drawn opposite conclusions about the way that populists are mobilising people. Faced with the Brexit vote, the Trump victory and the challenge from insurgent populist parties such as the Front national and Alternative für Deutschland, they have argued that democracy is not working and that it is wrong to trust ordinary people to make sensible decisions about politics. Andrew Sullivan in The New Yorker magazine argued that “democracies end when they become too democratic”. The criticism that democracy has become too direct, too popular and thus “too democratic” has been one reaction to the Trump victory and recent populist mobilisations in Europe. In particular, there has been a strong negative reaction to the increasing use of referendums to decide important questions. These are presented as a threat to the system of representative democracy. Arguably, however, the increasing recourse to referendums suggests that the prevailing system of representative democracy is failing to engage people in discussing the important issues of the day and is even seen to be excluding the public from having a say on questions that matter to them. The trend towards declining political participation, which has been a feature of all the advanced democracies in recent decades, is a threat to the future of democracy. Democracies do not end when they become “too democratic”; they begin to founder when they exclude the demos.
Democracy around the regions in 2016
The developed OECD countries of Europe dominate among the world’s “full democracies”; there are the two Australasian countries (but no Asian ones), one Latin American country (Uruguay) and one African country (Mauritius). The almost complete predominance of OECD countries among those ranked as “full democracies” suggests that level of economic development is a significant, if not a binding, constraint on democratic development. “Flawed democracies” are concentrated in Latin America (15), eastern Europe (13) and Asia (13), although western Europe now has six, including leading European countries such as France and Italy. Eastern Europe does not have a single “full democracy”, as some of the region’s most politically developed nations, such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, have failed to establish a democratic political culture or encourage broad political participation. Even some of the formal trappings of democracy are now being called into question. Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) now have more nondemocratic countries than democratic ones, being home to 15 “hybrid” or “authoritarian” regimes and 13 “flawed democracies”. Many Latin American countries have fragile democracies, levels of political participation are generally low and democratic cultures are weak.
Asia and Australasia
Since we began producing the Democracy Index in 2006, Asia has made more headway in advancing democracy than any other region, increasing its regional average score from 5.44 to 5.74. Yet it also encompasses the widest variation—from New Zealand (globally ranked 4th in 2016, unchanged from 2015) through to North Korea (still at the bottom of the global ranking, in 167th place). Boasting two “full democracies” in Australasia and 13 “flawed democracies”, the majority of Asian countries are classified as democratic. However, despite impressive progress between 2006 and 2016, the region is still some way from catching up with Latin America (average score 6.33), Western Europe (8.40) and North America (8.56).
The Philippines held transformative elections in 2016 that brought a strongman back into government. Widespread public discontent with traditional elites’ failure to rein in rising economic inequality and voters’ concerns over domestic security helped Rodrigo Duterte, an erstwhile mayor, to secure the presidency. Having been in office for a little more than six months, Mr Duterte has already become embroiled in numerous international and domestic controversies. For instance, the harsh crackdown on the drugs trade and Mr Duterte’s heavy-handed style of governance have raised troubling questions about the rule of law and the integrity of the country’s fragile political institutions. We do not anticipate that Mr Duterte’s electoral win will encourage the rise of other strongmen in South-east Asia. The still-rapid pace of economic growth in that region will help to keep populist demands for more radical change at bay. Moreover, compared with the West, governments in the region generally have greater control over the political discourse. Discontent with ruling elites reared its head in South Korea in 2016, but this resulted in rising support for liberal parties. South Korea went through a difficult political year amid a wide-ranging corruption scandal that ultimately led parliament to vote for the impeachment of the conservative president, Park Geun-hye. South Korea’s president came under pressure as discontent against her built throughout the year, resulting in large anti-government rallies. Parliamentary elections in April 2016 were encouraging for the country’s developing democracy. Sparked by rising youth underemployment and discontent with economic policies, there was a significant increase in the youth vote. If sustained, this trend could shake up the country’s political dynamics. Australia’s general election granted the Liberal-National coalition another term in government. However, the coalition was left in a significantly weakened position, presaging a legislative impasse. In both Australia and New Zealand the electorate has little confidence in political parties, but public support for democratic institutions remains strong.
From slowdown to stagnation
Despite notable political and electoral developments in some countries in Asia in 2016, the regional average score remained unchanged from 2015 at 5.74. Progress has slowed in recent years and may remain elusive in coming years, held back by deeply embedded anti-democratic practices such as media censorship and tight restrictions governing assembly in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. However, some countries—including Japan, South Korea, India and Taiwan—are close to being classified as “full democracies” and could make the transition over the coming years, depending on public support for democratic governance, increased voter turnout or stronger confidence in political parties. Japan lowered the voting age in 2015, but voter turnout at the upper house election in 2016 increased by just 2% compared with the previous poll in 2013, suggesting that increasing participation levels may not be achieved through such legal changes, and upgrades may be difficult to come by. Other countries, such as Myanmar, could regress in coming years. Its democratic transition is at an early stage, and the military continues to wield significant political power. Any major disagreements within the quasi-civilian government, for example regarding the fragile peace process with armed ethnic groups, could persuade the army to retake more political control.
Eastern Europe Eastern
Europe has performed poorly in our Democracy Index in recent years, held back by the lack of a political culture based on trust and popular disenchantment with the transition from communism. In the 2016 Democracy Index eastern Europe was the worst-performing region. It suffered the largest number of country regressions (19), with the remaining countries either stagnating (6) or improving only modestly (3). The regional average score fell for the third consecutive year to its lowest level, 5.43, since we first constructed the Democracy Index in 2006 (when the region had an average score of 5.76). Between 2006 and 2016 eastern Europe experienced the largest decline (0.33) of all the regions in its regional average score. Not one state ranks as a full democracy, despite 11 being EU members.
Within the region, countries can be divided into three performance tiers: a top group consisting of EU member states—all “flawed democracies”; a middle group including the western Balkan states, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and the Kyrgyz Republic—mostly “hybrid regimes”; and a lower tier of “authoritarian regimes” made up of Belarus, Russia and the remaining South Caucasus and Central Asian states. All three groups registered a deterioration in their scores on average, but the middle tier of states stood out as having experienced the sharpest regressions. These were driven by constitutional and electoral crises in Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro and the Kyrgyz Republic. The countries in the lower tier are all classified as “authoritarian regimes”, a category in which not one east European country improved its score. In the top tier of east European countries, Hungary’s and Poland’s poor performance in recent years has attracted significant attention. In 2016 Hungary modestly improved its score and ranking, while Poland slid further on the back of the wholesale replacement of the public media leadership, a new law setting up a single body to control non-governmental organisation (NGO) funding, and attempts to limit the right to protest. The top performers were the other Visegrad countries and the Baltic states, with Estonia leading the way, followed by the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia. The three newest EU member states, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania, made up the remainder of the leading group, and Bulgaria notably scored better than Poland and Hungary. Overall, the leading countries scored well in the electoral process and civil liberties categories, and more poorly in political participation and political culture. The eastern Europe region is characterised by low levels of popular support for democracy. Much of this stems from widespread disappointment with the political and economic transition from communism. Indeed, political culture is the region’s second-worst category, and recent surveys have affirmed this characteristic. The adult population in most countries shows only moderate or low interest in following politics, and there is widespread cynicism towards state institutions and political parties. This is exacerbated by political parties’ weak roots among voters and the poor functioning of many governments. Not a single country in the region evinces a high level of popular support for democracy.
Some alarming electoral developments
Despite the absence of a political culture based on trust, it had been assumed that formal democratic processes were relatively well established in the more developed countries in the region. However, the 2016 Democracy Index registered a marked weakening in many countries’ electoral processes. This is of significant concern, as it suggests that even the formal trappings of democracy are being undermined. While electoral process and pluralism remains the region’s best-scoring category—on which it performs better than the Asia & Australasia region despite a lower overall regional average score—in a number of the hybrid and authoritarian regimes there were significant irregularities in the voting process in 2016. Just as alarming are the unclear mechanisms for the orderly transfer of power from one government to another in many countries. This was illustrated most clearly by events in three of the hybrid regimes mentioned above. In Macedonia, the presidential pardons in April 2016 (later revoked in response to international pressure) for government leaders under corruption investigation were indicative of the extent to which government authority overwhelmed the nominal system of checks and balances. The pre-term parliamentary election was postponed twice owing to parties’ inability to agree that the appropriate conditions were in place for free and fair elections. In Montenegro, the opposition protested about irregularities in the conduct of the October 2016 election and the authorities said that they had thwarted an alleged coup attempt on election day. In the Kyrgyz Republic the president, Almazbek Atambayev, and his party are trying to consolidate power, and there is significant use of administrative resources that limits the ability of the opposition to gain power. In addition, in Serbia, which is classified as a “flawed democracy” for the first time in the postMilosevic period, there appear to have been irregularities in the conduct of the election and the election count in April 2016. Even in several EU member states there were setbacks. In Lithuania, corruption scandals in 2016 reduced trust in the mainstream parties, which were ejected from power in the October elections. In several EU members, including the Czech Republic, Estonia and Poland, fewer citizens see democracy as the best form of government. In Romania, the former ruling party’s victory in the parliamentary election was convincing, but the subdued turnout of 39.5% illustrates the low regard in which the electorate holds political parties and politicians. Authoritarian regimes such as Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, still nominally more pluralistic than Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, as usual performed particularly poorly in the electoral process and pluralism category. Even when democratic mechanisms were not called into question, public confidence in governments and democracy weakened. In Moldova, public confidence in the government fell to an all-time low as a result of the giant bank heist of late 2014. In Russia, the ruling party gained a constitutional majority in parliament, but the low turnout of 47.8%, which might also have been inflated by electoral fraud, suggests that support for the regime is weaker than the ruling party’s super-majority would imply.
Latin America remains the most democratic region of the developing world in our Index for another year (it scores behind only North America and western Europe). Nevertheless, the region’s average score has continued to decline, falling to 6.33 in 2016, from an annual average of 6.37 in 2011-15 and a peak of 6.43 in 2008. The region has relatively strong democratic fundamentals—including comparatively high scores for electoral process and pluralism and civil liberties—but the full consolidation of democracy in the region continues to be held back by issues regarding political effectiveness and culture. By and large, countries’ scores registered little change this year, and their placement in the global and regional ranking saw little movement. This middling state of democracy is reflected in regime type: the region counts just one full democracy, Uruguay (at 19), and one authoritarian regime, Cuba (at 128). Among the rest of the region’s countries there are 15 flawed democracies and seven hybrid regimes. In 2016 the rise of populism upset the political establishment and status quo in much of the world, but Latin America largely bucked the trend. Suffering from a “populist hangover”, the region began to move to calmer politics in 2016, with centre-right, pro-market candidates taking the helm of many countries. This followed the decade of the so-called “Pink Tide”, during which many countries elected left-wing populists in a backlash against the neo-liberal economics of the post-cold war era.
Argentina ended 12 years of rule by the populist, left-wing Kirchners in December 2015, bringing the centre-right, pro-business candidate Mauricio Macri to the presidency, who has worked to restore economic credibility to the country and return the economy to growth. In June 2016 Peruvian voters elected a centre-right technocrat, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, after the five-year presidency of the leftwing Ollanta Humala, whose time in office was marred by a corruption scandal and an uptick in antimining protests. And in August the Brazilian Congress impeached the president, Dilma Rousseff, of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (which has held the presidency since 2003) for contravening budget rules. She was replaced by her centre-right vice-president, Michel Temer, who has introduced more orthodox economic reforms. However, allegations of corruption continue to rock the Brazilian political establishment. Elsewhere, Bolivian voters rejected an initiative to put to a referendum a measure that would have granted indefinite re-election to the country’s president, Evo Morales (although it appears that the government may seek to overturn this), and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa said he would not stand for a third term (and the 2017 presidential election may be competitive for the first time in a decade). Nevertheless, the receding of the Pink Tide should not be interpreted as a regional ideological shift to the right but rather as an expression of public disenchantment with the region’s leaders, especially as the commodities supercycle comes to an end. In the absence of the easy money the era brought, voters are concerned with continued social advancement and have become more demanding of their public servants. Leaner times have tested voters’ patience with corruption, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal in Brazil, which investigates kickbacks between the political and the business establishment involving contracts and donations from the state oil company, Petróleo Brasileiro (Petrobras). In addition to claiming the head of Ms Rousseff (although she herself was not implicated in any malfeasance), it has implicated a number of leading politicians and members of the country’s business elite.
Going down: Venezuela and Nicaragua
However, the move away from populist left-wing governments in the region has caused such leaders to cling to power elsewhere, often at the expense of democratic norms. Nowhere was this more apparent in 2016 than in Venezuela and Nicaragua, both of which experienced a significant deterioration in their scores, which largely led to the decline in Latin America’s average score. Venezuela’s score fell from 5 to 4.68 and its ranking from 99th in 2015 to 107th in 2016, reflecting the government’s response to the opposition winning control of the National Assembly in December 2015 by slowly chipping away at its rights and powers. In January the government-dominated Supreme Court ruled all decisions by the Assembly null and void after the Assembly swore in three disputed lawmakers, and declared all bills passed by the Assembly unconstitutional. In October the government passed the 2017 budget through the Supreme Court rather than submit it to the National Assembly. This has in effect invalidated the power of the National Assembly and removed government accountability. In October the government-controlled electoral authority suspended an oppositions ponsored recall referendum for the president, Nicolás Maduro, before it was to go to a signature drive citing fraud in the original proposal. The military has also assumed a more prominent role in the country this year, including assuming responsibility for key parts of the economy. Nicaragua saw its score fall from 5.26 to 4.81 as a result of efforts by the president, Daniel Ortega, to win re-election for a third consecutive term. This was originally permitted by a 2014 ruling, whereby the government-dominated Supreme Court eliminated constitutional term limits. In 2016 Mr Ortega nominated his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his vice-president and used the government-controlled electoral authority to have the main opposition party, Partido Liberal Independiente, eliminated from participating in the election and also had the party ousted from Congress. This came after the party refused to accept the Supreme Court’s choice for its party leader, Pedro Reyes, arguing that Mr Reyes was a tool of Mr Ortega. Many smaller parties also refused to participate, saying the election was tilted in favour of Mr Ortega’s Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). In addition, Mr Ortega did not allow any independent external observers to monitor the election. At the election voter turnout and support for his FSLN far exceeded pre-election polling, pointing to significant irregularities. The dynastic nature of the government (with a husband-and-wife team that is likely to remain in power for many years) and the total lack of accountability are behind Nicaragua’s downgrade, which was the largest in Latin America this year (and which caused the country to fall from 95th in 2015 to 104th in our latest ranking).
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
For the MENA region, 2016 was on the whole a year of political stagnation. Few countries made strides to foster democratic practices, and several slid further towards greater authoritarianism. Stagnation has taken hold in a host of Arab states, including Sudan, Syria and the Gulf monarchies. For example, the score for Sudan, ruled for nearly three decades by the regime of Omar al-Bashir, a so-called Islamist president, remained unchanged as the government continued to confront prodemocracy activists with brutal force. A similar trend prevailed in Syria, where international efforts to halt the civil war failed to improve security or to make the Assad regime more accountable to the public beyond a meaningless and uncompetitive parliamentary election. As a result, Syria continues to rank at the bottom of our index, second only to North Korea. Meanwhile, scores remained largely stable in countries with long-established autocratic polities, such as the Gulf Arab states, where absolute monarchies have maintained their hegemony over decision-making. Contrary to this pattern, however, Saudi Arabia and Oman, which are typically ranked low down in the Democracy Index, have improved in the global ranking. Nonetheless, even in these cases the change in ranking was driven by the setbacks in other regions (mainly Africa) rather than positive developments at home. Perhaps the most disappointing outcome of the year for MENA was in Tunisia, widely regarded as the sole democratic success of the Arab Spring, which slipped by 12 places to 69th in the global ranking. Tunisia’s transition to democracy over the past five years has coincided with a dismal economic performance, which continued in 2016 and has served to weaken the belief among young Tunisians that democracy and improved economic performance go hand in hand. Similarly, Algeria’s score deteriorated owing to less favourable perceptions among the population of the benefits of democratic governance. Pro-democracy movements in neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria have failed to provide a convincing alternative model to the authoritarian rule of the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Although its score was unchanged, Libya fell by two places to 155th globally as others improved and overtook the country, which is struggling to overcome civil infighting and remains divided between two administrations, neither of which enjoys much democratic legitimacy. Elsewhere, marginal improvements were seen in Egypt, Morocco and Iran. In Egypt, another focal point of the Arab Spring, mixed developments meant that the country’s standing in the Democracy Index has improved slightly in 2016, by one position to 133rd. The main positive development was the inauguration of an elected parliament in January 2016, although this was offset by the government’s continued crackdown on political opponents and civil society groups. Elsewhere in North Africa, Morocco’s ranking improved by two places to 105th (although it remains a “hybrid regime”) thanks to the October 2016 parliamentary election, which improved female representation in the legislature. Female candidates secured 81 of the 395 seats in the lower house (Chamber of Representatives), giving women more than 20% of the seats. Iran’s position has also improved in the global ranking, rising by two places to 154th. The change of government after the presidential
elections in 2013 and the more recent parliamentary election in early 2016 (which was followed by an internal vote for the speakership) showed that to some degree at least government transfer norms are relatively well established and accepted. The best performer in the region was Israel, climbing five places and rising to 29th place globally. Israel has worked to strengthen various public institutions—such as the offices of the attorney general and the accountant general—to ensure that the government remains accountable to the public between elections. However, the improvement in Israel’s ranking masks a huge disparity between the rights enjoyed by its Jewish citizens and the rapidly growing Muslim-Arab population. Overall, the higher score was not sufficient to propel Israel into the ranks of the world’s “full democracies”.
The performance of the two North American democracies has diverged in recent years. Canada and the US continue to perform reasonably well but lag behind many Western countries, particularly those of northern Europe. The US fell below the threshold for a “full democracy” in 2016 and is now considered a “flawed democracy”. This is the result of a small deterioration in its total score, from 8.05 in 2015 to 7.98 in 2016, and it has also slipped one place in the rankings, from 20th to 21st. The score for Canada improved in 2016, from 9.08 to 9.15, and it moved up the global ranking from seventh to joint sixth place (with Ireland).
The decline in the US democracy score reflects an erosion of confidence in government and public institutions over many years. According to the Pew Research Centre, public trust in government has been on a steady downward trend since shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001 (see Box: A trust deficit is undermining democracy, page 14). Donald Trump won the November 2016 presidential election by exploiting this trust deficit and tapping into Americans’ anger and frustration with the functioning of their democratic institutions and representatives. He positioned himself as the insurgent candidate, a political outsider taking on a “rigged system” who would “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC. However, his candidacy was not the cause of the deterioration in trust but rather a consequence of it. Survey data from Pew and Gallup and other polling agencies reveal a protracted and persistent decline in levels of popular confidence in political institutions and parties. Pew surveys show that public trust in government remains close to historic lows, at 19%, and Gallup polls revealed that popular confidence in political leaders and the mass media dropped to its lowest level in polling history in 2016. There are several reasons for this decline in popular confidence in public institutions. Major political events over many decades have damaged confidence: the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Iraq wars, the financial crisis in 2008-09 and repeated federal government shutdowns. The Economist Intelligence Unit believes that income inequality has also been a key underlying factor. Income inequality is higher in the US than in other rich countries, and it has worsened since the financial crisis. Studies show that higher income inequality reduces trust in others and social capital—this is linked to a notion of fairness. An IMF study finds that income inequality at the bottom of the distribution in the US is particularly important—economically vulnerable and less educated people are more likely to distrust each other. It is no surprise that poorer and less educated voters were attracted by the candidacy of Mr Trump. If income inequality has exacerbated American trust in government and public institutions, continued economic progress should start to reverse this trend in the coming years. The unemployment rate has fallen below 5%, average hourly wage growth is at its highest level since the financial crisis, and income inequality should gradually narrow if the economic recovery continues. If these trends are maintained, the US could improve in our 2017 rankings.
Partisanship and deadlock
There are other long-standing reasons why the US scores comparatively poorly in the Democracy Index, including in other indices of the functioning of government. The ideological entrenchment of congressional representatives fosters deadlock. Bitter partisanship has developed, in part because many congressional districts have been redrawn in a way that gives one party a built-in advantage. As a result, members of Congress fear a challenge in their party primaries, which are controlled by the party base, and are consequently incentivised to move to the right (for Republicans) or to the left (for Democrats). The upshot is a stronger emphasis on ideological purity and less appetite for compromise, which reinforces a lack of confidence in Congress among voters. Nevertheless, respect for the constitution and democratic values are deeply entrenched as a result of centuries of democratic practice. For urgent and crucial decisions majorities can normally be obtained, but solutions to long-term problems often fall victim to deadlock. With a long history of democratic government, Canada scores highly in the electoral process category and for functioning of government. There is scope for improvement in the scores for political participation and to a lesser extent political culture. In contrast to its neighbour south of the border, Canadians’ trust and confidence in government improved in 2016. Canada scores extremely well in the category of civil liberties. Personal freedom is largely unconstrained by the state, and civil rights are guarded by an independent judiciary. Domestic print and electronic media are unfettered and competitive, access is unrestricted, and the market is not dominated by large, state-owned providers. Freedom of expression and religious and cultural tolerance are ingrained in the Canadian state and are particularly important, given its large French-speaking and native minorities. Tensions over federal-provincial relations eased following the victory of the federalist Parti Libéral in the election for the Quebec legislature in 2014. The defeat of the separatist Parti Québécois, formed to promote the independence of the largely French-speaking province, reduced concerns over the unity of Canada. The Liberals had promised that the federal election in 2015 would be the last one held under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. An all-party committee of members of parliament delivered a report in December 2016; its main finding was the need to put any proposed change to a referendum. It suggested that this referendum offer FPTP and a form of proportional representation (PR) as the options, but did not specify what form of PR should be used. It is unlikely that there will be a change to the system in time for the 2019 election cycle, and any proposed change will have no impact on Canada’s score in the Democracy Index until it is implemented. The only category in which Canada scores comparatively poorly is political participation. This is a problem faced by many developed countries and reflects poor voter turnout, low membership of political parties and a general lack of political engagement. However, voter turnout increased in the October 2015 election, and Canada’s score in this category is not so bad in an international comparison.
Western Europe remains the top region in our 2016 Democracy Index, when measured by the number of full democracies, filling seven of the top ten positions and 15 of the top 20 positions. However, it has also registered the second-most significant decline in its regional average score, after eastern Europe, of all the regions since the launch of the Democracy Index rankings in 2006, with the score falling from 8.60 to 8.40 in 2016. The score declined again in 2016, from 8.42 in 2015. In 2016 more countries registered a decline in their overall score (9) than an improvement (5), and the rest stagnated (7). Western Europe still dominates the category of “full democracies”, with Norway, Iceland and Sweden taking the top three spots in the global ranking. The other two Scandinavian countries, Denmark (5th) and Finland (9th) are also highly placed. Five countries managed to improve their overall score in 2016: in order of rank from high to low, Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Cyprus, with only the score for Ireland improving significantly. Furthermore, no country moved up into the “full democracy” category in 2016, after France slipped down a category last year to a “flawed democracy”. Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Cyprus and Greece also fall under this category. Turkey is the only “hybrid regime”, and its score fell further in 2016, causing it to fall to 97th place in the global ranking, sandwiched between Madagascar and the Kyrgyz Republic. This was largely due to a crackdown on perceived anti-government forces launched by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a failed coup in July. Democratic institutions remain under pressure throughout much of western Europe, as trust in institutions is still suffering from the after-effects of the global financial crisis and the euro zone crisis, which has still not been conclusively resolved. Compounding public cynicism and disaffection with the political elites’ response to the economic crisis was the bumbling European response to the inflow of more than 1m migrants in 2015 and early 2016. Attempts by European officials to impose a quota system, according to which all EU member states would take a share of migrants, met at best with grudging acceptance and at worst with outright opposition, further straining relations between member states. A series of terrorist attacks in France and Germany in 2015-16 has also tested the capacities of the authorities. Besides encouraging support for the Front national in France and populist right-wing parties throughout the region, such as the PVV in the Netherlands and the Sweden Democrats, these developments contributed to the breakthrough of the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a party further to the right than the centre-right Christian Social Union (CSU), which would previously have been unthinkable in Germany. The vote to leave the EU in June 2016 improved the UK’s score thanks to increased political participation and popular engagement. It was a shock for the region and was quickly followed by calls throughout the EU from populist forces for their own referendums and for a rethink of the European integration process. However, since then it has become clear that electorates in most other EU states are less enthusiastic about cutting themselves loose from the European project than the British electorate. Nevertheless, deep frustrations remain with what are often seen as undemocratic EU institutions and, at the very least, it is clear that there is no political appetite for a deeper political union. The year 2017 will be a test case for many of these trends, with elections coming up in the Netherlands, France and Germany. In all three contests anti-immigration, anti-Islam and Eurosceptic parties will play a large role. Although we do not expect any of these to win or gain power, they will shift the political debate and possibly draw in voters who had previously switched off from the political process.
Reflecting the scant democratic progress made in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in recent years, the region’s average score in the Democracy Index has remained relatively flat since 2011 (dipping slightly to 4.37 in 2016 from 4.38 in 2015). Political participation and political culture have improved over the past five years (albeit with a few notable exceptions), but this has been offset by deteriorating scores for civil liberties and the functioning of government. Moreover, while elections have become commonplace across much of the region, the regional score for electoral processes has remained persistently low, reflecting a lack of genuine pluralism in most countries. Supporting the average score, democratic gains were made in a handful of countries in 2016. In Côte d’Ivoire (up ten places in the global ranking) progress was marked by the re-entry of the main opposition party into electoral politics for the first time since the country’s civil war in 2010-11, and in Cape Verde (up nine places), high turnout in the country’s credible and competitive elections underscored popular trust in democratic institutions. Other climbers include Liberia, where the post Ebola recovery led to an improvement in government effectiveness, and Tanzania, whose reform minded president has strengthened citizens’ trust in the government. The democratic success stories on the continent were, however, outweighed by declining scores elsewhere. The average score for civil liberties recorded the most significant decline, with media freedom undermined in several countries by incumbent regimes’ efforts to unfairly influence nominally democratic processes. In some instances, the crackdown on the media in 2016 was a direct consequence of political pressure for reform, and viewpoints that opposed the government were overtly censored. Internet penetration is gradually increasing in SSA, which could strengthen political engagement, but here too access is often restricted. Several countries introduced far reaching laws in 2016 to police the Internet, and whereas social media have provided a key platform for democratic movements elsewhere in the world, it is growing increasingly common in SSA for social media to be shut down arbitrarily (and often during election periods). Despite the pressures on civil liberties, the overall score for political participation held up, suggesting that citizens’ engagement in democracy comes in spite of, not because of, the political elite. However, the Sub-Saharan countries which experienced the fastest slides down the global ranking in 2016—Ethiopia and Mozambique, both down six places––saw participation in politics retreat. In both instances, this was rooted in crisis. Amid frustrations over governments’ failure to manage the political, security and economic crises afflicting their countries, the absence of accountable institutions and the security forces’ heavy-handed response to mass protests left citizens with limited avenues through which to push for change. The consequence was a drop in political engagement. Overall, SSA has fewer full or flawed democracies than it did a year ago, with Zambia falling into the category of “hybrid regime” (formerly “flawed democracy”) after the 2016 general election was marred by systematic bias in the media, a lack of transparency and restrictions on the freedom of assembly. Most countries in SSA are still considered “authoritarian regimes”––a fact that has remained unchanged since the Democracy Index was launched in 2006. While there will probably be more shoots of democratic progress in 2017, much of the region will continue to be characterised as deeply entrenched one-party states that go through the motions of holding elections without providing the freedoms necessary to promote genuine democracy.
Defining and measuring democracy
There is no consensus on how to measure democracy. Definitions of democracy are contested, and there is a lively debate on the subject.
The issue is not only of academic interest. For example, although democracy promotion is high on the list of US foreign-policy priorities, there is no consensus within the US government as to what constitutes a democracy.
As one observer put it: “The world’s only superpower is rhetorically and militarily promoting a political system that remains undefined—and it is staking its credibility and treasure on that pursuit,” (Horowitz, 2006, p. 114). Although the terms “freedom” and “democracy” are often used interchangeably, the two are not synonymous. Democracy can be seen as a set of practices and principles that institutionalise, and thereby, ultimately, protect freedom. Even if a consensus on precise definitions has proved elusive, most observers today would agree that, at a minimum, the fundamental features of a democracy include government based on majority rule and the consent of the governed; the existence of free and fair elections; the protection of minority rights; and respect for basic human rights.
Democracy presupposes equality before the law, due process and political pluralism. A question arises as to whether reference to these basic features is sufficient for a satisfactory concept of democracy. As discussed below, there is a question as to how far the definition may need to be widened. Some insist that democracy is, necessarily, a dichotomous concept: a state is either democratic or not. But most measures now appear to adhere to a continuous concept, with the possibility of varying degrees of democracy. At present, the best-known measure is produced by the US-based Freedom House organisation. The average of its indexes, on a 1 to 7 scale, of political freedom (based on 10 indicators) and of civil liberties (based on 15 indicators) is often taken to be a measure of democracy. The Freedom House measure is available for all countries, and stretches back to the early 1970s. It has been used heavily in empirical investigations of the relationship between democracy and various economic and social variables. The so-called Polity Project provides, for a smaller number of countries, measures of democracy and regime types, based on rather minimalist definitions, stretching back to the 19th century. These have also been used in empirical work. Freedom House also measures a narrower concept, that of “electoral democracy”. Democracies in this minimal sense share at least one common, essential characteristic. Positions of political power are filled through regular, free and fair elections between competing parties, and it is possible for an incumbent government to be turned out of office through elections. Freedom House’s criteria for an electoral democracy include: 1) A competitive, multi-party political system. 2) Universal adult suffrage. 3) Regularly contested elections conducted on the basis of secret ballots, reasonable ballot security and the absence of massive voter fraud.
Friday, august 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Obama, in whose Cabinet Kerry serves faithfully, but with some exasperation, is himself given to vaulting oratory, but not usually of the martial sort associated with Churchill. Obama believes that the Manichaeanism, and eloquently rendered bellicosity, commonly associated with Churchill were justified by Hitler’s rise, and were at times defensible in the struggle against the Soviet Union. But he also thinks rhetoric should be weaponized sparingly, if at all, in today’s more ambiguous and complicated international arena. The president believes that Churchillian rhetoric and, more to the point, Churchillian habits of thought, helped bring his predecessor, George W. Bush, to ruinous war in Iraq. Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he was not seeking new dragons to slay. And he was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable. “If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, and his foreign-policy amanuensis, told me not long ago.But Kerry’s rousing remarks on that August day, which had been drafted in part by Rhodes, were threaded with righteous anger and bold promises, including the barely concealed threat of imminent attack. Kerry, like Obama himself, was horrified by the sins committed by the Syrian regime in its attempt to put down a two-year-old rebellion. In the Damascus suburb of Ghouta nine days earlier, Assad’s army had murdered more than 1,400 civilians with sarin gas. The strong sentiment inside the Obama administration was that Assad had earned dire punishment. In Situation Room meetings that followed the attack on Ghouta, only the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, cautioned explicitly about the perils of intervention. John Kerry argued vociferously for action.
“As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way,” Kerry said in his speech. “History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most.”
The current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who is the most dispositionally interventionist among Obama’s senior advisers, had argued early for arming Syria’s rebels. Power, who during this period served on the National Security Council staff, is the author of a celebrated book excoriating a succession of U.S. presidents for their failures to prevent genocide. The book, A Problem From Hell, published in 2002, drew Obama to Power while he was in the U.S. Senate, though the two were not an obvious ideological match. Power is a partisan of the doctrine known as “responsibility to protect,” which holds that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens. She lobbied him to endorse this doctrine in the speech he delivered when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but he declined. Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.
Power sometimes argued with Obama in front of other National Security Council officials, to the point where he could no longer conceal his frustration. “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book,” he once snapped.
Obama, unlike liberal interventionists, is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,” Obama once told me). Bush and Scowcroft removed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991, and they deftly managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Scowcroft also, on Bush’s behalf, toasted the leaders of China shortly after the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. As Obama was writing his campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, in 2006, Susan Rice, then an informal adviser, felt it necessary to remind him to include at least one line of praise for the foreign policy of President Bill Clinton, to partially balance the praise he showered on Bush and Scowcroft.
At the outset of the Syrian uprising, in early 2011, Power argued that the rebels, drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens, deserved America’s enthusiastic support. Others noted that the rebels were farmers and doctors and carpenters, comparing these revolutionaries to the men who won America’s war for independence.
Obama flipped this plea on its head. “When you have a professional army,” he once told me, “that is well armed and sponsored by two large states”—Iran and Russia—“who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict …” He paused. “The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.” The message Obama telegraphed in speeches and interviews was clear: He would not end up like the second President Bush—a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East, whose decisions filled the wards of Walter Reed with grievously wounded soldiers, who was helpless to stop the obliteration of his reputation, even when he recalibrated his policies in his second term. Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit.”
Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” WhenThe Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.)
Syria, for Obama, represented a slope potentially as slippery as Iraq. In his first term, he came to believe that only a handful of threats in the Middle East conceivably warranted direct U.S. military intervention. These included the threat posed by al‑Qaeda; threats to the continued existence of Israel (“It would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States” not to defend Israel, he once told me); and, not unrelated to Israel’s security, the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. The danger to the United States posed by the Assad regime did not rise to the level of these challenges.
Given Obama’s reticence about intervention, the bright-red line he drew for Assad in the summer of 2012 was striking. Even his own advisers were surprised. “I didn’t know it was coming,” his secretary of defense at the time, Leon Panetta, told me. I was told that Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly warned Obama against drawing a red line on chemical weapons, fearing that it would one day have to be enforced.
Kerry, in his remarks on August 30, 2013, suggested that Assad should be punished in part because the “credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies” were at stake. “It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”Ninety minutes later, at the White House, Obama reinforced Kerry’s message in a public statement: “It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal that that international norm doesn’t mean much. And that is a danger to our national security.”It appeared as though Obama had drawn the conclusion that damage to American credibility in one region of the world would bleed into others, and that U.S. deterrent credibility was indeed at stake in Syria. Assad, it seemed, had succeeded in pushing the president to a place he never thought he would have to go. Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of “credibility”—particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam. Within the White House, Obama would argue that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
American national-security credibility, as it is conventionally understood in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the cluster of think tanks headquartered within walking distance of the White House, is an intangible yet potent force—one that, when properly nurtured, keeps America’s friends feeling secure and keeps the international order stable.
In White House meetings that crucial week in August, Biden, who ordinarily shared Obama’s worries about American overreach, argued passionately that “big nations don’t bluff.” America’s closest allies in Europe and across the Middle East believed Obama was threatening military action, and his own advisers did as well. At a joint press conference with Obama at the White House the previous May, David Cameron, the British prime minister, had said, “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.” Cameron’s statement, one of his advisers told me, was meant to encourage Obama toward more-decisive action. “The prime minister was certainly under the impression that the president would enforce the red line,” the adviser told me. The Saudi ambassador in Washington at the time, Adel al-Jubeir, told friends, and his superiors in Riyadh, that the president was finally ready to strike. Obama “figured out how important this is,” Jubeir, who is now the Saudi foreign minister, told one interlocutor. “He will definitely strike.”
Obama had already ordered the Pentagon to develop target lists. Five Arleigh Burke–class destroyers were in the Mediterranean, ready to fire cruise missiles at regime targets. French President François Hollande, the most enthusiastically pro-intervention among Europe’s leaders, was preparing to strike as well. All week, White House officials had publicly built the case that Assad had committed a crime against humanity. Kerry’s speech would mark the culmination of this campaign.
But the president had grown queasy. In the days after the gassing of Ghouta, Obama would later tell me, he found himself recoiling from the idea of an attack unsanctioned by international law or by Congress. The American people seemed unenthusiastic about a Syria intervention; so too did one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She told him that her country would not participate in a Syria campaign. And in a stunning development, on Thursday, August 29, the British Parliament denied David Cameron its blessing for an attack. John Kerry later told me that when he heard that, “internally, I went, Oops.”
Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.
While the Pentagon and the White House’s national-security apparatuses were still moving toward war (John Kerry told me he was expecting a strike the day after his speech), the president had come to believe that he was walking into a trap—one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do.
Many of his advisers did not grasp the depth of the president’s misgivings; his Cabinet and his allies were certainly unaware of them. But his doubts were growing. Late on Friday afternoon, Obama determined that he was simply not prepared to authorize a strike. He asked McDonough, his chief of staff, to take a walk with him on the South Lawn of the White House. Obama did not choose McDonough randomly: He is the Obama aide most averse to U.S. military intervention, and someone who, in the words of one of his colleagues, “thinks in terms of traps.” Obama, ordinarily a preternaturally confident man, was looking for validation, and trying to devise ways to explain his change of heart, both to his own aides and to the public. He and McDonough stayed outside for an hour. Obama told him he was worried that Assad would place civilians as “human shields” around obvious targets. He also pointed out an underlying flaw in the proposed strike: U.S. missiles would not be fired at chemical-weapons depots, for fear of sending plumes of poison into the air. A strike would target military units that had delivered these weapons, but not the weapons themselves.
Obama also shared with McDonough a long-standing resentment: He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries. Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.
When the two men came back to the Oval Office, the president told his national-security aides that he planned to stand down. There would be no attack the next day; he wanted to refer the matter to Congress for a vote. Aides in the room were shocked. Susan Rice, now Obama’s national-security adviser, argued that the damage to America’s credibility would be serious and lasting. Others had difficulty fathoming how the president could reverse himself the day before a planned strike. Obama, however, was completely calm. “If you’ve been around him, you know when he’s ambivalent about something, when it’s a 51–49 decision,” Ben Rhodes told me. “But he was completely at ease.”
Not long ago, I asked Obama to describe his thinking on that day. He listed the practical worries that had preoccupied him. “We had UN inspectors on the ground who were completing their work, and we could not risk taking a shot while they were there. A second major factor was the failure of Cameron to obtain the consent of his parliament.”
The third, and most important, factor, he told me, was “our assessment that while we could inflict some damage on Assad, we could not, through a missile strike, eliminate the chemical weapons themselves, and what I would then face was the prospect of Assad having survived the strike and claiming he had successfully defied the United States, that the United States had acted unlawfully in the absence of a UN mandate, and that that would have potentially strengthened his hand rather than weakened it.”
The fourth factor, he said, was of deeper philosophical importance. “This falls in the category of something that I had been brooding on for some time,” he said. “I had come into office with the strong belief that the scope of executive power in national-security issues is very broad, but not limitless.”
Obama knew his decision not to bomb Syria would likely upset America’s allies. It did. The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, told me that his government was already worried about the consequences of earlier inaction in Syria when word came of the stand-down. “By not intervening early, we have created a monster,” Valls told me. “We were absolutely certain that the U.S. administration would say yes. Working with the Americans, we had already seen the targets. It was a great surprise. If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.” The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was already upset with Obama for “abandoning” Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, fumed to American visitors that the U.S. was led by an “untrustworthy” president. The king of Jordan, Abdullah II—already dismayed by what he saw as Obama’s illogical desire to distance the U.S. from its traditional Sunni Arab allies and create a new alliance with Iran, Assad’s Shia sponsor—complained privately, “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.” The Saudis, too, were infuriated. They had never trusted Obama—he had, long before he became president, referred to them as a “so-called ally” of the U.S. “Iran is the new great power of the Middle East, and the U.S. is the old,” Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, told his superiors in Riyadh.
Obama’s decision caused tremors across Washington as well. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the two leading Republican hawks in the Senate, had met with Obama in the White House earlier in the week and had been promised an attack. They were angered by the about-face. Damage was done even inside the administration. Neither Chuck Hagel, then the secretary of defense, nor John Kerry was in the Oval Office when the president informed his team of his thinking. Kerry would not learn about the change until later that evening. “I just got fucked over,” he told a friend shortly after talking to the president that night. (When I asked Kerry recently about that tumultuous night, he said, “I didn’t stop to analyze it. I figured the president had a reason to make a decision and, honestly, I understood his notion.”)
The next few days were chaotic. The president asked Congress to authorize the use of force—the irrepressible Kerry served as chief lobbyist—and it quickly became apparent in the White House that Congress had little interest in a strike. When I spoke with Biden recently about the red-line decision, he made special note of this fact. “It matters to have Congress with you, in terms of your ability to sustain what you set out to do,” he said. Obama “didn’t go to Congress to get himself off the hook. He had his doubts at that point, but he knew that if he was going to do anything, he better damn well have the public with him, or it would be a very short ride.” Congress’s clear ambivalence convinced Biden that Obama was correct to fear the slippery slope. “What happens when we get a plane shot down? Do we not go in and rescue?,” Biden asked. “You need the support of the American people.”
Amid the confusion, a deus ex machina appeared in the form of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, which was held the week after the Syria reversal, Obama pulled Putin aside, he recalled to me, and told the Russian president “that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike.” Within weeks, Kerry, working with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would engineer the removal of most of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal—a program whose existence Assad until then had refused to even acknowledge.
The arrangement won the president praise from, of all people, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, with whom he has had a consistently contentious relationship. The removal of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles represented “the one ray of light in a very dark region,” Netanyahu told me not long after the deal was announced.
John Kerry today expresses no patience for those who argue, as he himself once did, that Obama should have bombed Assad-regime sites in order to buttress America’s deterrent capability. “You’d still have the weapons there, and you’d probably be fighting isil” for control of the weapons, he said, referring to the Islamic State, the terror group also known as isis. “It just doesn’t make sense. But I can’t deny to you that this notion about the red line being crossed and [Obama’s] not doing anything gained a life of its own.”
Obama understands that the decision he made to step back from air strikes, and to allow the violation of a red line he himself had drawn to go unpunished, will be interrogated mercilessly by historians. But today that decision is a source of deep satisfaction for him.
“I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the “Washington playbook.”
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
I have come to believe that, in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East—countries, he complains privately to friends and advisers, that seek to exploit American “muscle” for their own narrow and sectarian ends. By 2013, Obama’s resentments were well developed. He resented military leaders who believed they could fix any problem if the commander in chief would simply give them what they wanted, and he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex. A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”
For some foreign-policy experts, even within his own administration, Obama’s about-face on enforcing the red line was a dispiriting moment in which he displayed irresolution and naïveté, and did lasting damage to America’s standing in the world. “Once the commander in chief draws that red line,” Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and then as secretary of defense in Obama’s first term, told me recently, “then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.” Right after Obama’s reversal, Hillary Clinton said privately, “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.”
“Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than ‘punished’ as originally planned.” Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, wrote for The Atlantic at the time. “He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return.”
Even commentators who have been broadly sympathetic to Obama’s policies saw this episode as calamitous. Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently that Obama’s handling of this crisis—“first casually announcing a major commitment, then dithering about living up to it, then frantically tossing the ball to Congress for a decision—was a case study in embarrassingly amateurish improvisation.”Obama’s defenders, however, argue that he did no damage to U.S. credibility, citing Assad’s subsequent agreement to have his chemical weapons removed. “The threat of force was credible enough for them to give up their chemical weapons,” Tim Kaine, a Democratic senator from Virginia, told me. “We threatened military action and they responded. That’s deterrent credibility.”History may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war, and the day he removed the threat of a chemical attack on Israel, Turkey, or Jordan. Or it could be remembered as the day he let the Middle East slip from America’s grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran, and isis.
I first spoke with obama about foreign policy when he was a U.S. senator, in 2006. At the time, I was familiar mainly with the text of a speech he had delivered four years earlier, at a Chicago antiwar rally. It was an unusual speech for an antiwar rally in that it was not antiwar; Obama, who was then an Illinois state senator, argued only against one specific and, at the time, still theoretical, war. “I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein,” he said. “He is a brutal man. A ruthless man … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors.” He added, “I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
This speech had made me curious about its author. I wanted to learn how an Illinois state senator, a part-time law professor who spent his days traveling between Chicago and Springfield, had come to a more prescient understanding of the coming quagmire than the most experienced foreign-policy thinkers of his party, including such figures as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry, not to mention, of course, most Republicans and many foreign-policy analysts and writers, including me.
Since that first meeting in 2006, I’ve interviewed Obama periodically, mainly on matters related to the Middle East. But over the past few months, I’ve spent several hours talking with him about the broadest themes of his “long game” foreign policy, including the themes he is most eager to discuss—namely, the ones that have nothing to do with the Middle East.
“isis is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told me in one of these conversations. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Obama explained that climate change worries him in particular because “it is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, and it is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.”
At the moment, of course, the most urgent of the “seemingly more urgent” issues is Syria. But at any given moment, Obama’s entire presidency could be upended by North Korean aggression, or an assault by Russia on a member ofnato, or an isis-planned attack on U.S. soil. Few presidents have faced such diverse tests on the international stage as Obama has, and the challenge for him, as for all presidents, has been to distinguish the merely urgent from the truly important, and to focus on the important.
My goal in our recent conversations was to see the world through Obama’s eyes, and to understand what he believes America’s role in the world should be. This article is informed by our recent series of conversations, which took place in the Oval Office; over lunch in his dining room; aboard Air Force One; and in Kuala Lumpur during his most recent visit to Asia, in November. It is also informed by my previous interviews with him and by his speeches and prolific public ruminations, as well as by conversations with his top foreign-policy and national-security advisers, foreign leaders and their ambassadors in Washington, friends of the president and others who have spoken with him about his policies and decisions, and his adversaries and critics.
Over the course of our conversations, I came to see Obama as a president who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events, even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements—controversial, provisional achievements, to be sure, but achievements nonetheless: the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate-change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal. These he accomplished despite his growing sense that larger forces—the riptide of tribal feeling in a world that should have already shed its atavism; the resilience of small men who rule large countries in ways contrary to their own best interests; the persistence of fear as a governing human emotion—frequently conspire against the best of America’s intentions. But he also has come to learn, he told me, that very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership.
Obama talked me through this apparent contradiction. “I want a president who has the sense that you can’t fix everything,” he said. But on the other hand, “if we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen.” He explained what he meant. “The fact is, there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results,” he said. “That’s true whether you’re talking about nuclear security, whether you’re talking about saving the world financial system, whether you’re talking about climate.”One day, over lunch in the Oval Office dining room, I asked the president how he thought his foreign policy might be understood by historians. He started by describing for me a four-box grid representing the main schools of American foreign-policy thought. One box he called isolationism, which he dismissed out of hand. “The world is ever-shrinking,” he said. “Withdrawal is untenable.” The other boxes he labeled realism, liberal interventionism, and internationalism. “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery,” he said. “We have to choose where we can make a real impact.” He also noted that he was quite obviously an internationalist, devoted as he is to strengthening multilateral organizations and international norms.I told him my impression was that the various traumas of the past seven years have, if anything, intensified his commitment to realist-driven restraint. Had nearly two full terms in the White House soured him on interventionism?“For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world,” he said. “If you compare us to previous superpowers, we act less on the basis of naked self-interest, and have been interested in establishing norms that benefit everyone. If it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it.”If a crisis, or a humanitarian catastrophe, does not meet his stringent standard for what constitutes a direct national-security threat, Obama said, he doesn’t believe that he should be forced into silence. He is not so much the realist, he suggested, that he won’t pass judgment on other leaders. Though he has so far ruled out the use of direct American power to depose Assad, he was not wrong, he argued, to call on Assad to go. “Oftentimes when you get critics of our Syria policy, one of the things that they’ll point out is ‘You called for Assad to go, but you didn’t force him to go. You did not invade.’ And the notion is that if you weren’t going to overthrow the regime, you shouldn’t have said anything. That’s a weird argument to me, the notion that if we use our moral authority to say ‘This is a brutal regime, and this is not how a leader should treat his people,’ once you do that, you are obliged to invade the country and install a government you prefer.”
“I am very much the internationalist,” Obama said in a later conversation. “And I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values, because not only do they serve our interests the more people adopt values that we share—in the same way that, economically, if people adopt rule of law and property rights and so forth, that is to our advantage—but because it makes the world a better place. And I’m willing to say that in a very corny way, and in a way that probably Brent Scowcroft would not say.“Having said that,” he continued, “I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”If Obama ever questioned whether America really is the world’s one indispensable nation, he no longer does so. But he is the rare president who seems at times to resent indispensability, rather than embrace it. “Free riders aggravate me,” he told me. Recently, Obama warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who subsequently met the 2 percent threshold.Part of his mission as president, Obama explained, is to spur other countries to take action for themselves, rather than wait for the U.S. to lead. The defense of the liberal international order against jihadist terror, Russian adventurism, and Chinese bullying depends in part, he believes, on the willingness of other nations to share the burden with the U.S. This is why the controversy surrounding the assertion—made by an anonymous administration official to The New Yorkerduring the Libya crisis of 2011—that his policy consisted of “leading from behind” perturbed him. “We don’t have to always be the ones who are up front,” he told me. “Sometimes we’re going to get what we want precisely because we are sharing in the agenda. The irony is that it was precisely in order to prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting that we, by design, insisted” that they lead during the mission to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power in Libya. “It was part of the anti–free rider campaign.”The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”
In his efforts to off-load some of America’s foreign-policy responsibilities to its allies, Obama appears to be a classic retrenchment president in the manner of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Retrenchment, in this context, is defined as “pulling back, spending less, cutting risk, and shifting burdens to allies,” Stephen Sestanovich, an expert on presidential foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained to me. “If John McCain had been elected in 2008, you would still have seen some degree of retrenchment,” Sestanovich said. “It’s what the country wanted. If you come into office in the middle of a war that is not going well, you’re convinced that the American people have hired you to do less.” One difference between Eisenhower and Nixon, on the one hand, and Obama, on the other, Sestanovich said, is that Obama “appears to have had a personal, ideological commitment to the idea that foreign policy had consumed too much of the nation’s attention and resources.”
I asked Obama about retrenchment. “Almost every great world power has succumbed” to overextension, he said. “What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that.”
But once he decides that a particular challenge represents a direct national-security threat, he has shown a willingness to act unilaterally. This is one of the larger ironies of the Obama presidency: He has relentlessly questioned the efficacy of force, but he has also become the most successful terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency, one who will hand to his successor a set of tools an accomplished assassin would envy. “He applies different standards to direct threats to the U.S.,” Ben Rhodes says. “For instance, despite his misgivings about Syria, he has not had a second thought about drones.” Some critics argue he should have had a few second thoughts about what they see as the overuse of drones. But John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, told me recently that he and the president “have similar views. One of them is that sometimes you have to take a life to save even more lives. We have a similar view of just-war theory. The president requires near-certainty of no collateral damage. But if he believes it is necessary to act, he doesn’t hesitate.”
Those who speak with Obama about jihadist thought say that he possesses a no-illusions understanding of the forces that drive apocalyptic violence among radical Muslims, but he has been careful about articulating that publicly, out of concern that he will exacerbate anti-Muslim xenophobia. He has a tragic realist’s understanding of sin, cowardice, and corruption, and a Hobbesian appreciation of how fear shapes human behavior. And yet he consistently, and with apparent sincerity, professes optimism that the world is bending toward justice. He is, in a way, a Hobbesian optimist.
The contradictions do not end there. Though he has a reputation for prudence, he has also been eager to question some of the long-standing assumptions undergirding traditional U.S. foreign-policy thinking. To a remarkable degree, he is willing to question why America’s enemies are its enemies, or why some of its friends are its friends. He overthrew half a century of bipartisan consensus in order to reestablish ties with Cuba. He questioned why the U.S. should avoid sending its forces into Pakistan to kill al-Qaeda leaders, and he privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a disastrously dysfunctional country, should be considered an ally of the U.S. at all. According to Leon Panetta, he has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies receive; but he has also questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism. He is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally. And of course he decided early on, in the face of great criticism, that he wanted to reach out to America’s most ardent Middle Eastern foe, Iran. The nuclear deal he struck with Iran proves, if nothing else, that Obama is not risk-averse. He has bet global security and his own legacy that one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism will adhere to an agreement to curtail its nuclear program.
It is assumed, at least among his critics, that Obama sought the Iran deal because he has a vision of a historic American-Persian rapprochement. But his desire for the nuclear agreement was born of pessimism as much as it was of optimism. “The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of relations between the U.S. and Iran,” Susan Rice told me. “It was far more pragmatic and minimalist. The aim was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.”
I once mentioned to obama a scene from The Godfather: Part III, in which Michael Corleone complains angrily about his failure to escape the grasp of organized crime. I told Obama that the Middle East is to his presidency what the Mob is to Corleone, and I started to quote the Al Pacino line: “Just when I thought I was out—”
“It pulls you back in,” Obama said, completing the thought.
The story of Obama’s encounter with the Middle East follows an arc of disenchantment. In his first extended spree of fame, as a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama often spoke with hope about the region. In Berlin that summer, in a speech to 200,000 adoring Germans, he said, “This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.”
The next year, as president, he gave a speech in Cairo meant to reset U.S. relations with the world’s Muslims. 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. What drew the most attention, though, was his promise to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was then thought to be the central animating concern of Arab Muslims. His sympathy for the Palestinians moved the audience, but complicated his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister—especially because Obama had also decided to bypass Jerusalem on his first presidential visit to the Middle East.
When I asked Obama recently what he had hoped to accomplish with his Cairo reset speech, he said that he had been trying—unsuccessfully, he acknowledged—to persuade Muslims to more closely examine the roots of their unhappiness.
“My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel,” he told me. “We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity. My thought was, I would communicate that the U.S. is not standing in the way of this progress, that we would help, in whatever way possible, to advance the goals of a practical, successful Arab agenda that provided a better life for ordinary people.”
Through the first flush of the Arab Spring, in 2011, Obama continued to speak optimistically about the Middle East’s future, coming as close as he ever would to embracing the so-called freedom agenda of George W. Bush, which was characterized in part by the belief that democratic values could be implanted in the Middle East. He equated protesters in Tunisia and Tahrir Square with Rosa Parks and the “patriots of Boston.”
“After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” he said in a speech at the time. “The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders … Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.”
But over the next three years, as the Arab Spring gave up its early promise, and brutality and dysfunction overwhelmed the Middle East, the president grew disillusioned. Some of his deepest disappointments concern Middle Eastern leaders themselves. Benjamin Netanyahu is in his own category: Obama has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so. Obama has also not had much patience for Netanyahu and other Middle Eastern leaders who question his understanding of the region. In one of Netanyahu’s meetings with the president, 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. Finally, the president interrupted the prime minister: “Bibi, you have to understand something,” he 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.” Other leaders also frustrate him immensely. Early on, Obama saw Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, as the sort of moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West—but Obama now considers him a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria. And on the sidelines of anato summit in Wales in 2014, Obama pulled aside King Abdullah II of Jordan. Obama said he had heard that Abdullah had complained to friends in the U.S. Congress about his leadership, and told the king that if he had complaints, he should raise them directly. The king denied that he had spoken ill of him.
In recent days, the president has taken to joking privately, “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.” Obama has always had a fondness for pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats, telling aides, “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.”
The unraveling of the Arab Spring darkened the president’s view of what the U.S. could achieve in the Middle East, and made him realize how much the chaos there was distracting from other priorities. “The president recognized during the course of the Arab Spring that the Middle East was consuming us,” John Brennan, who served in Obama’s first term as his chief counterterrorism adviser, told me recently.
But what sealed Obama’s fatalistic view was the failure of his administration’s intervention in Libya, in 2011. That intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do. Obama did not want to join the fight; he was counseled by Joe Biden and his first-term secretary of defense Robert Gates, among others, to steer clear. But a strong faction within the national-security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, along with Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national-security adviser—lobbied hard to protect Benghazi, and prevailed. (Biden, who is acerbic about Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, has said privately, “Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.”) American bombs fell, the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre, and Qaddafi was captured and executed.
But Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.
Why, given what seems to be the president’s natural reticence toward getting militarily ensnarled where American national security is not directly at stake, did he accept the recommendation of his more activist advisers to intervene?
“The social order in Libya has broken down,” Obama said, explaining his thinking at the time. “You have massive protests against Qaddafi. You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya. Benghazi is a focal point for the opposition regime. And Qaddafi is marching his army toward Benghazi, and he has said, ‘We will kill them like rats.’
“Now, option one would be to do nothing, and there were some in my administration who said, as tragic as the Libyan situation may be, it’s not our problem. The way I looked at it was that it would be our problem if, in fact, complete chaos and civil war broke out in Libya. But this is not so at the core of U.S. interests that it makes sense for us to unilaterally strike against the Qaddafi regime. At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
“Free riders?,” I interjected.
“Free riders,” he said, and continued. “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight. And we worked with our defense teams to ensure that we could execute a strategy without putting boots on the ground and without a long-term military commitment in Libya.
“So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”
Mess is the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a “shit show,” in part because it’s subsequently become an isis haven—one that he has already targeted with air strikes. It became a shit show, Obama believes, for reasons that had less to do with American incompetence than with the passivity of America’s allies and with the obdurate power of tribalism.
“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said. He noted that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, lost his job the following year. And he said that British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things.” Of France, he said, “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention. This sort of bragging was fine, Obama said, because it allowed the U.S. to “purchase France’s involvement in a way that made it less expensive for us and less risky for us.” In other words, giving France extra credit in exchange for less risk and cost to the United States was a useful trade-off—except that “from the perspective of a lot of the folks in the foreign-policy establishment, well, that was terrible. If we’re going to do something, obviously we’ve got to be up front, and nobody else is sharing in the spotlight.”
Obama also blamed internal Libyan dynamics. “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected. And our ability to have any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources broke down very quickly.”
Libya proved to him that the Middle East was best avoided. “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,” he recently told a former colleague from the Senate. “That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.”
President obama did not come into office preoccupied by the Middle East. He is the first child of the Pacific to become president—born in Hawaii, raised there and, for four years, in Indonesia—and he is fixated on turning America’s attention to Asia. For Obama, Asia represents the future. Africa and Latin America, in his view, deserve far more U.S. attention than they receive. Europe, about which he is unromantic, is a source of global stability that requires, to his occasional annoyance, American hand-holding. And the Middle East is a region to be avoided—one that, thanks to America’s energy revolution, will soon be of negligible relevance to the U.S. economy.
It is not oil but another of the Middle East’s exports, terrorism, that shapes Obama’s understanding of his responsibilities there. Early in 2014, Obama’s intelligence advisers told him that isis was of marginal importance. According to administration officials, General Lloyd Austin, then the commander of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the White House that the Islamic State was “a flash in the pan.” This analysis led Obama, in an interview with The New Yorker, to describe the constellation of jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria as terrorism’s “jayvee team.” (A spokesman for Austin told me, “At no time has General Austin ever considered isil a ‘flash in the pan’ phenomenon.”)
But by late spring of 2014, after isis took the northern-Iraq city of Mosul, he came to believe that U.S. intelligence had failed to appreciate the severity of the threat and the inadequacies of the Iraqi army, and his view shifted. After isisbeheaded three American civilians in Syria, it became obvious to Obama that defeating the group was of more immediate urgency to the U.S. than overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.
Advisers recall that Obama would cite a pivotal moment in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman movie, to help explain not only how he understood the role of isis, but how he understood the larger ecosystem in which it grew. “There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had his turf. And then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. isil is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”
The rise of the Islamic State deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.
On a rainy wednesday in mid-November, President Obama appeared on a stage at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (apec) summit in Manila with Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, and a 31-year-old Filipina inventor named Aisa Mijeno. The ballroom was crowded with Asian CEOs, American business leaders, and government officials from across the region. Obama, who was greeted warmly, first delivered informal remarks from behind a podium, mainly about the threat of climate change.
Obama made no mention of the subject preoccupying much of the rest of the world—the isis attacks in Paris five days earlier, which had killed 130 people. Obama had arrived in Manila the day before from a G20 summit held in Antalya, Turkey. The Paris attacks had been a main topic of conversation in Antalya, where Obama held a particularly contentious press conference on the subject.
The traveling White House press corps was unrelenting: “Isn’t it time for your strategy to change?” one reporter asked. This was followed by “Could I ask you to address your critics who say that your reluctance to enter another Middle East war, and your preference of diplomacy over using the military, makes the United States weaker and emboldens our enemies?” And then came this imperishable question, from a CNN reporter: “If you’ll forgive the language—why can’t we take out these bastards?” Which was followed by “Do you think you really understand this enemy well enough to defeat them and to protect the homeland?”
As the questions unspooled, Obama became progressively more irritated. He described his isis strategy at length, but the only time he exhibited an emotion other than disdain was when he addressed an emerging controversy about America’s refugee policy. Republican governors and presidential candidates had suddenly taken to demanding that the United States block Syrian refugees from coming to America. Ted Cruz had proposed accepting only Christian Syrians. Chris Christie had said that all refugees, including “orphans under 5,” should be banned from entry until proper vetting procedures had been put in place.
This rhetoric appeared to frustrate Obama immensely. “When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted,” Obama told the assembled reporters, “that’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
Air Force One departed Antalya and arrived 10 hours later in Manila. That’s when the president’s advisers came to understand, in the words of one official, that “everyone back home had lost their minds.” Susan Rice, trying to comprehend the rising anxiety, searched her hotel television in vain for CNN, finding only the BBC and Fox News. She toggled between the two, looking for the mean, she told people on the trip.
Later, the president would say that he had failed to fully appreciate the fear many Americans were experiencing about the possibility of a Paris-style attack in the U.S. Great distance, a frantic schedule, and the jet-lag haze that envelops a globe-spanning presidential trip were working against him. But he has never believed that terrorism poses a threat to America commensurate with the fear it generates. Even during the period in 2014 when isis was executing its American captives in Syria, his emotions were in check. Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s closest adviser, told him people were worried that the group would soon take its beheading campaign to the U.S. “They’re not coming here to chop our heads off,” he reassured her. Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do. Several years ago, he expressed to me his admiration for Israelis’ “resilience” in the face of constant terrorism, and it is clear that he would like to see resilience replace panic in American society. Nevertheless, his advisers are fighting a constant rearguard action to keep Obama from placing terrorism in what he considers its “proper” perspective, out of concern that he will seem insensitive to the fears of the American people.
The frustration among Obama’s advisers spills over into the Pentagon and the State Department. John Kerry, for one, seems more alarmed about isis than the president does. Recently, when I asked the secretary of state a general question—is the Middle East still important to the U.S.?—he answered by talking exclusively about isis. “This is a threat to everybody in the world,” he said, a group “overtly committed to destroying people in the West and in the Middle East. Imagine what would happen if we don’t stand and fight them, if we don’t lead a coalition—as we are doing, by the way. If we didn’t do that, you could have allies and friends of ours fall. You could have a massive migration into Europe that destroys Europe, leads to the pure destruction of Europe, ends the European project, and everyone runs for cover and you’ve got the 1930s all over again, with nationalism and fascism and other things breaking out. Of course we have an interest in this, a huge interest in this.”
When I noted to Kerry that the president’s rhetoric doesn’t match his, he said, “President Obama sees all of this, but he doesn’t gin it up into this kind of—he thinks we are on track. He has escalated his efforts. But he’s not trying to create hysteria … I think the president is always inclined to try to keep things on an appropriate equilibrium. I respect that.”
Obama modulates his discussion of terrorism for several reasons: He is, by nature, Spockian. And he believes that a misplaced word, or a frightened look, or an ill-considered hyperbolic claim, could tip the country into panic. The sort of panic he worries about most is the type that would manifest itself in anti-Muslim xenophobia or in a challenge to American openness and to the constitutional order.
The president also gets frustrated that terrorism keeps swamping his larger agenda, particularly as it relates to rebalancing America’s global priorities. For years, the “pivot to Asia” has been a paramount priority of his. America’s economic future lies in Asia, he believes, and the challenge posed by China’s rise requires constant attention. From his earliest days in office, Obama has been focused on rebuilding the sometimes-threadbare ties between the U.S. and its Asian treaty partners, and he is perpetually on the hunt for opportunities to draw other Asian nations into the U.S. orbit. His dramatic opening to Burma was one such opportunity; Vietnam and the entire constellation of Southeast Asian countries fearful of Chinese domination presented others.
In Manila, at apec, Obama was determined to keep the conversation focused on this agenda, and not on what he viewed as the containable challenge presented by isis. Obama’s secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, told me not long ago that Obama has maintained his focus on Asia even as Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts continue to flare. Obama believes, Carter said, that Asia “is the part of the world of greatest consequence to the American future, and that no president can take his eye off of this.” He added, “He consistently asks, even in the midst of everything else that’s going on, ‘Where are we in the Asia-Pacific rebalance? Where are we in terms of resources?’ He’s been extremely consistent about that, even in times of Middle East tension.”
After Obama finished his presentation on climate change, he joined Ma and Mijeno, who had seated themselves on nearby armchairs, where Obama was preparing to interview them in the manner of a daytime talk-show host—an approach that seemed to induce a momentary bout of status-inversion vertigo in an audience not accustomed to such behavior in their own leaders. Obama began by asking Ma a question about climate change. Ma, unsurprisingly, agreed with Obama that it was a very important issue. Then Obama turned to Mijeno. A laboratory operating in the hidden recesses of the West Wing could not have fashioned a person more expertly designed to appeal to Obama’s wonkish enthusiasms than Mijeno, a young engineer who, with her brother, had invented a lamp that is somehow powered by salt water.
“Just to be clear, Aisa, so with some salt water, the device that you’ve set up can provide—am I right?—about eight hours of lighting?,” Obama asked.
“Eight hours of lighting,” she responded.
Obama: “And the lamp is $20—”
Mijeno: “Around $20.”
“I think Aisa is a perfect example of what we’re seeing in a lot of countries—young entrepreneurs coming up with leapfrog technologies, in the same ways that in large portions of Asia and Africa, the old landline phones never got set up,” Obama said, because those areas jumped straight to mobile phones. Obama encouraged Jack Ma to fund her work. “She’s won, by the way, a lot of prizes and gotten a lot of attention, so this is not like one of those infomercials where you order it, and you can’t make the thing work,” he said, to laughter.
The next day, aboard Air Force One en route to Kuala Lumpur, I mentioned to Obama that he seemed genuinely happy to be onstage with Ma and Mijeno, and then I pivoted away from Asia, asking him if anything about the Middle East makes him happy.
“Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East,” he said. “You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You’ve got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”
He went on, “Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems—enormous poverty, corruption—but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark.”
In Asia, as well as in Latin America and Africa, Obama says, he sees young people yearning for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth.
“They are not thinking about how to kill Americans,” he says. “What they’re thinking about is How do I get a better education? How do I create something of value?”
He then made an observation that I came to realize was representative of his bleakest, most visceral understanding of the Middle East today—not the sort of understanding that a White House still oriented around themes of hope and change might choose to advertise. “If we’re not talking to them,” he said, referring to young Asians and Africans and Latin Americans, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”
Obama’s critics argue that he is ineffective in cordoning off the violent nihilists of radical Islam because he doesn’t understand the threat. He does resist refracting radical Islam through the “clash of civilizations” prism popularized by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington. But this is because, he and his advisers argue, he does not want to enlarge the ranks of the enemy. “The goal is not to force a Huntington template onto this conflict,” said John Brennan, the CIA director.
Both François Hollande and David Cameron have spoken about the threat of radical Islam in more Huntingtonesque terms, and I’ve heard that both men wish Obama would use more-direct language in discussing the threat. When I mentioned this to Obama he said, “Hollande and Cameron have used phrases, like radical Islam, that we have not used on a regular basis as our way of targeting terrorism. But I’ve never had a conversation when they said, ‘Man, how come you’re not using this phrase the way you hear Republicans say it?’ ” Obama says he has demanded that Muslim leaders do more to eliminate the threat of violent fundamentalism. “It is very clear what I mean,” he told me, “which is that there is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction—a tiny faction—within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.”
He then offered a critique that sounded more in line with the rhetoric of Cameron and Hollande. “There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society,” he said. But he added, “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.”
In private encounters with other world leaders, Obama has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity.
Though he has argued, controversially, that the Middle East’s conflicts “date back millennia,” he also believes that the intensified Muslim fury of recent years was encouraged by countries considered friends of the U.S. In a meeting duringapec with Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering.
Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening?
Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family, Obama told Turnbull. Today, Islam in Indonesia is much more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there, he said.
“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?,” Turnbull asked.
Obama smiled. “It’s complicated,” he said.
Obama’s patience with Saudi Arabia has always been limited. In his first foreign-policy commentary of note, that 2002 speech at the antiwar rally in Chicago, he said, “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East—the Saudis and the Egyptians—stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality.” In the White House these days, one occasionally hears Obama’s National Security Council officials pointedly reminding visitors that the large majority of 9/11 hijackers were not Iranian, but Saudi—and Obama himself rails against Saudi Arabia’s state-sanctioned misogyny, arguing in private that “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.” In meetings with foreign leaders, Obama has said, “You can gauge the success of a society by how it treats its women.”
His frustration with the Saudis informs his analysis of Middle Eastern power politics. At one point I observed to him that he is less likely than previous presidents to axiomatically side with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with its archrival, Iran. He didn’t disagree.
“Iran, since 1979, has been an enemy of the United States, and has engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, is a genuine threat to Israel and many of our allies, and engages in all kinds of destructive behavior,” the president said. “And my view has never been that we should throw our traditional allies”—the Saudis—“overboard in favor of Iran.”
But he went on to say that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he said. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”
One of the most destructive forces in the Middle East, Obama believes, is tribalism—a force no president can neutralize. Tribalism, made manifest in the reversion to sect, creed, clan, and village by the desperate citizens of failing states, is the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems, and it is another source of his fatalism. Obama has deep respect for the destructive resilience of tribalism—part of his memoir, Dreams From My Father, concerns the way in which tribalism in post-colonial Kenya helped ruin his father’s life—which goes some distance in explaining why he is so fastidious about avoiding entanglements in tribal conflicts.
“It is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism,” he told me. “I understand the tribal impulse, and acknowledge the power of tribal division. I’ve been navigating tribal divisions my whole life. In the end, it’s the source of a lot of destructive acts.”
While flying to Kuala Lumpur with the president, I recalled a passing reference he had once made to me about the Hobbesian argument for strong government as an antidote to the unforgiving state of nature. When Obama looks at swathes of the Middle East, Hobbes’s “war of all against all” is what he sees. “I have a recognition that us serving as the Leviathan clamps down and tames some of these impulses,” Obama had said. So I tried to reopen this conversation with an unfortunately prolix question about, among other things, “the Hobbesian notion that people organize themselves into collectives to stave off their supreme fear, which is death.”
Ben Rhodes and Joshua Earnest, the White House spokesman, who were seated on a couch to the side of Obama’s desk on Air Force One, could barely suppress their amusement at my discursiveness. I paused and said, “I bet if I asked that in a press conference my colleagues would just throw me out of the room.”
“I would be really into it,” Obama said, “but everybody else would be rolling their eyes.”
Rhodes interjected: “Why can’t we get the bastards?” That question, the one put to the president by the CNN reporter at the press conference in Turkey, had become a topic of sardonic conversation during the trip.
I turned to the president: “Well, yeah, and also, why can’t we get the bastards?”
He took the first question.
“Look, I am not of the view that human beings are inherently evil,” he said. “I believe that there’s more good than bad in humanity. And if you look at the trajectory of history, I am optimistic.
“I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference. But it’s hugely uneven. And what has been clear throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is that the progress we make in social order and taming our baser impulses and steadying our fears can be reversed very quickly. Social order starts breaking down if people are under profound stress. Then the default position is tribe—us/them, a hostility toward the unfamiliar or the unknown.”
He continued, “Right now, across the globe, you’re seeing places that are undergoing severe stress because of globalization, because of the collision of cultures brought about by the Internet and social media, because of scarcities—some of which will be attributable to climate change over the next several decades—because of population growth. And in those places, the Middle East being Exhibit A, the default position for a lot of folks is to organize tightly in the tribe and to push back or strike out against those who are different.
“A group like isil is the distillation of every worst impulse along these lines. The notion that we are a small group that defines ourselves primarily by the degree to which we can kill others who are not like us, and attempting to impose a rigid orthodoxy that produces nothing, that celebrates nothing, that really is contrary to every bit of human progress—it indicates the degree to which that kind of mentality can still take root and gain adherents in the 21st century.”
So your appreciation for tribalism’s power makes you want to stay away?, I asked. “In other words, when people say ‘Why don’t you just go get the bastards?,’ you step back?”
“We have to determine the best tools to roll back those kinds of attitudes,” he said. “There are going to be times where either because it’s not a direct threat to us or because we just don’t have the tools in our toolkit to have a huge impact that, tragically, we have to refrain from jumping in with both feet.”
I asked Obama whether he would have sent the Marines to Rwanda in 1994 to stop the genocide as it was happening, had he been president at the time. “Given the speed with which the killing took place, and how long it takes to crank up the machinery of the U.S. government, I understand why we did not act fast enough,” he said. “Now, we should learn from that. I actually think that Rwanda is an interesting test case because it’s possible—not guaranteed, but it’s possible—that this was a situation where the quick application of force might have been enough.”
He related this to Syria: “Ironically, it’s probably easier to make an argument that a relatively small force inserted quickly with international support would have resulted in averting genocide [more successfully in Rwanda] than in Syria right now, where the degree to which the various groups are armed and hardened fighters and are supported by a whole host of external actors with a lot of resources requires a much larger commitment of forces.”
Obama-administration officials argue that he has a comprehensible approach to fighting terrorism: a drone air force, Special Forces raids, a clandestine CIA-aided army of 10,000 rebels battling in Syria. So why does Obama stumble when explaining to the American people that he, too, cares about terrorism? The Turkey press conference, I told him, “was a moment for you as a politician to say, ‘Yeah, I hate the bastards too, and by the way, I am taking out the bastards.’ ” The easy thing to do would have been to reassure Americans in visceral terms that he will kill the people who want to kill them. Does he fear a knee-jerk reaction in the direction of another Middle East invasion? Or is he just inalterably Spockian?
“Every president has strengths and weaknesses,” he answered. “And there is no doubt that there are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
But for America to be successful in leading the world, he continued, “I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”
As Air Force One began its descent toward Kuala Lumpur, the president mentioned the successful U.S.-led effort to stop the Ebola epidemic in West Africa as a positive example of steady, nonhysterical management of a terrifying crisis.
“During the couple of months in which everybody was sure Ebola was going to destroy the Earth and there was 24/7 coverage of Ebola, if I had fed the panic or in any way strayed from ‘Here are the facts, here’s what needs to be done, here’s how we’re handling it, the likelihood of you getting Ebola is very slim, and here’s what we need to do both domestically and overseas to stamp out this epidemic,’ ” then “maybe people would have said ‘Obama is taking this as seriously as he needs to be.’ ” But feeding the panic by overreacting could have shut down travel to and from three African countries that were already cripplingly poor, in ways that might have destroyed their economies—which would likely have meant, among other things, a recurrence of Ebola. He added, “It would have also meant that we might have wasted a huge amount of resources in our public-health systems that need to be devoted to flu vaccinations and other things that actually kill people” in large numbers in America.
The plane landed. The president, leaning back in his office chair with his jacket off and his tie askew, did not seem to notice. Outside, on the tarmac, I could see that what appeared to be a large portion of the Malaysian Armed Forces had assembled to welcome him. As he continued talking, I began to worry that the waiting soldiers and dignitaries would get hot. “I think we’re in Malaysia,” I said. “It seems to be outside this plane.”
He conceded that this was true, but seemed to be in no rush, so I pressed him about his public reaction to terrorism: If he showed more emotion, wouldn’t that calm people down rather than rile them up?
“I have friends who have kids in Paris right now,” he said. “And you and I and a whole bunch of people who are writing about what happened in Paris have strolled along the same streets where people were gunned down. And it’s right to feel fearful. And it’s important for us not to ever get complacent. There’s a difference between resilience and complacency.” He went on to describe another difference—between making considered decisions and making rash, emotional ones. “What it means, actually, is that you care so much that you want to get it right and you’re not going to indulge in either impetuous or, in some cases, manufactured responses that make good sound bites but don’t produce results. The stakes are too high to play those games.”
With that, Obama stood up and said, “Okay, gotta go.” He headed out of his office and down the stairs, to the red carpet and the honor guard and the cluster of Malaysian officials waiting to greet him, and then to his armored limousine, flown to Kuala Lumpur ahead of him. (Early in his first term, still unaccustomed to the massive military operation it takes to move a president from one place to another, he noted ruefully to aides, “I have the world’s largest carbon footprint.”)
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.”
The resurgent popularity of America throughout Southeast Asia means that “we can do really big, important stuff—which, by the way, then has ramifications across the board,” he said, “because when Malaysia joins the anti-isil campaign, that helps us leverage resources and credibility in our fight against terrorism. When we have strong relations with Indonesia, that helps us when we are going to Paris and trying to negotiate a climate treaty, where the temptation of a Russia or some of these other countries may be to skew the deal in a way that is unhelpful.”
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.
One day in January, in Kerry’s office at the State Department, I expressed the obvious: He has more of a bias toward action than the president does.“I do, probably,” Kerry acknowledged. “Look, the final say on these things is in his hands … I’d say that I think we’ve had a very symbiotic, synergistic, whatever you call it, relationship, which works very effectively. Because I’ll come in with the bias toward ‘Let’s try to do this, let’s try to do that, let’s get this done.’ ”Obama’s caution on Syria has vexed those in the administration who have seen opportunities, at different moments over the past four years, to tilt the battlefield against Assad. Some thought that Putin’s decision to fight on behalf of Assad would prompt Obama to intensify American efforts to help anti-regime rebels. But Obama, at least as of this writing, would not be moved, in part because he believed that it was not his business to stop Russia from making what he thought was a terrible mistake. “They are overextended. They’re bleeding,” he told me. “And their economy has contracted for three years in a row, drastically.”
In recent National Security Council meetings, Obama’s strategy was occasionally referred to as the “Tom Sawyer approach.” Obama’s view was that if Putin wanted to expend his regime’s resources by painting the fence in Syria, the U.S. should let him. By late winter, though, when it appeared that Russia was making advances in its campaign to solidify Assad’s rule, the White House began discussing ways to deepen support for the rebels, though the president’s ambivalence about more-extensive engagement remained. In conversations I had with National Security Council officials over the past couple of months, I sensed a foreboding that an event—another San Bernardino–style attack, for instance—would compel the United States to take new and direct action in Syria. For Obama, this would be a nightmare.
If there had been no Iraq, no Afghanistan, and no Libya, Obama told me, he might be more apt to take risks in Syria. “A president does not make decisions in a vacuum. He does not have a blank slate. Any president who was thoughtful, I believe, would recognize that after over a decade of war, with obligations that are still to this day requiring great amounts of resources and attention in Afghanistan, with the experience of Iraq, with the strains that it’s placed on our military—any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.”
Are you too cautious?, I asked.
“No,” he said. “Do I think that had we not invaded Iraq and were we not still involved in sending billions of dollars and a number of military trainers and advisers into Afghanistan, would I potentially have thought about taking on some additional risk to help try to shape the Syria situation? I don’t know.”
What has struck me is that, even as his secretary of state warns about a dire, Syria-fueled European apocalypse, Obama has not recategorized the country’s civil war as a top-tier security threat.
Obama’s hesitation to join the battle for Syria is held out as proof by his critics that he is too naive; his decision in 2013 not to fire missiles is proof, they argue, that he is a bluffer.
This critique frustrates the president. “Nobody remembers bin Laden anymore,” he says. “Nobody talks about me ordering 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan.” The red-line crisis, he said, “is the point of the inverted pyramid upon which all other theories rest.”
One afternoon in late January, as I was leaving the Oval Office, I mentioned to Obama a moment from an interview in 2012 when he told me that he would not allow Iran to gain possession of a nuclear weapon. “You said, ‘I’m the president of the United States, I don’t bluff.’ ”
He said, “I don’t.”
Shortly after that interview four years ago, Ehud Barak, who was then the defense minister of Israel, asked me whether I thought Obama’s no-bluff promise was itself a bluff. I answered that I found it difficult to imagine that the leader of the United States would bluff about something so consequential. But Barak’s question had stayed with me. So as I stood in the doorway with the president, I asked: “Was it a bluff?” I told him that few people now believe he actually would have attacked Iran to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon.
“That’s interesting,” he said, noncommittally.
I started to talk: “Do you—”
He interrupted. “I actually would have,” he said, meaning that he would have struck Iran’s nuclear facilities. “If I saw them break out.”
He added, “Now, the argument that can’t be resolved, because it’s entirely situational, was what constitutes them getting” the bomb. “This was the argument I was having with Bibi Netanyahu.” Netanyahu wanted Obama to prevent Iran from being capable of building a bomb, not merely from possessing a bomb.
“You were right to believe it,” the president said. And then he made his key point. “This was in the category of an American interest.”
I was reminded then of something Derek Chollet, a former National Security Council official, told me: “Obama is a gambler, not a bluffer.”
The president has placed some huge bets. Last May, as he was trying to move the Iran nuclear deal through Congress, I told him that the agreement was making me nervous. His response was telling. “Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
In the matter of the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian sponsors, Obama has bet, and seems prepared to continue betting, that the price of direct U.S. action would be higher than the price of inaction. And he is sanguine enough to live with the perilous ambiguities of his decisions. Though in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009, Obama said, “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later,” today the opinions of humanitarian interventionists do not seem to move him, at least not publicly. He undoubtedly knows that a next-generation Samantha Power will write critically of his unwillingness to do more to prevent the continuing slaughter in Syria. (For that matter, Samantha Power will also be the subject of criticism from the next Samantha Power.) As he comes to the end of his presidency, Obama believes he has done his country a large favor by keeping it out of the maelstrom—and he believes, I suspect, that historians will one day judge him wise for having done so.
Inside the West Wing, officials say that Obama, as a president who inherited a financial crisis and two active wars from his predecessor, is keen to leave “a clean barn” to whoever succeeds him. This is why the fight against isis, a group he considers to be a direct, though not existential, threat to the U.S., is his most urgent priority for the remainder of his presidency; killing the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is one of the top goals of the American national-security apparatus in Obama’s last year.
Of course, isis was midwifed into existence, in part, by the Assad regime. Yet by Obama’s stringent standards, Assad’s continued rule for the moment still doesn’t rise to the level of direct challenge to America’s national security.
This is what is so controversial about the president’s approach, and what will be controversial for years to come—the standard he has used to define what, exactly, constitutes a direct threat.
Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power. Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. Obama believes that history has sides, and that America’s adversaries—and some of its putative allies—have situated themselves on the wrong one, a place where tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism still flourish. What they don’t understand is that history is bending in his direction.
“The central argument is that by keeping America from immersing itself in the crises of the Middle East, the foreign-policy establishment believes that the president is precipitating our decline,” Ben Rhodes told me. “But the president himself takes the opposite view, which is that overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.”
If you are a supporter of the president, his strategy makes eminent sense: Double down in those parts of the world where success is plausible, and limit America’s exposure to the rest. His critics believe, however, that problems like those presented by the Middle East don’t solve themselves—that, without American intervention, they metastasize.
At the moment, Syria, where history appears to be bending toward greater chaos, poses the most direct challenge to the president’s worldview.
George W. Bush was also a gambler, not a bluffer. He will be remembered harshly for the things he did in the Middle East. Barack Obama is gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.