Obama, the Butterfly Collector

‘If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.’ This is perhaps the most illuminating quote in The Atlantic’s engrossing profile/interview of Barack Obama as a foreign policy president. “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats,” the president adds. As the article’s author Jeffrey Goldberg succinctly puts it, ‘Obama has always had a fondness for pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats.’ Like, well, Obama.

Throughout the eight years of his presidency it has often felt like the current occupant of the White House has approached the rest of the world much as a lepidopterist views his butterfly collection: with cold, quasi-scientific, professorial interest, he peers through a magnifying glass, raises an eyebrow, prods and pokes a bit, scribbles a few notes and then shuts it away in a drawer for later. Perhaps he was awarded the wrong Nobel prize.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, or at least not always. Obama is the most analytical of presidents. He mixes intellectual confidence/arrogance with awesome coolness: the ability to cut dead Bibi Netanyahu with the capacity to stand at a microphone and spontaneously sing a snatch of Al Green. Whether you rate or hate him, he undeniably has the shoulders for the job.

Has any president thought more deeply about the nature of power, about the unique burden of the US presidency and its impact on the holder, about its limits and its evolution? He has the mind of a philosophical novelist. ‘You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,’ he once told the writer Michael Lewis. ‘I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’

Also, ‘it’s much harder to be surprised [when president]. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it — at least I don’t.’ This could be Nabokov or Roth.

As an X-ray of the inner workings of Obama’s mind, at least when it comes to foreign policy, I doubt Goldberg’s long article will be bettered. What emerges is a president with huge scepticism about, and perhaps even contempt for, Washington’s foreign policy establishment and its motivations — he has, in his way, stuck to the ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’ principle. He is willing to be the one guy in the room to think differently, to go against the experts, to trust his instinct and his judgement as The Decider. His motto, we learn, is ‘don’t do stupid shit’. In a time of seemingly endless, wildly unpredictable and radically diverse global tumult, there is something to be said for this.

Stripped of an ideological lens, there is something mightily impressive about this strength of mind. Take Syria. Having led the world to the brink of war on Assad after the regime’s use of chemical weapons, Obama suddenly turned round with hands in pockets and walked whistling back to base camp. Goldberg writes: ‘While the Pentagon and the White House’s national-security apparatuses were still moving toward war… 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… He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries.’

This sudden about-turn infuriated those of us who felt the case for action had been made and was compelling. But Obama justifies it as the moment he finally broke with the ‘Washington playbook’.

‘I’m very proud of this moment. 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.’

Has he been an overly cautious leader of the free world? Too high-minded for his own (and our) good? Too risk averse? Too naive? Has he undermined American’s reputation as the indispensable nation? Or has he simply understood the flow of history and its shifting geopolitical patterns better than others? Are there right and wrong decisions or simply some choices that are less bad than others — and how on earth do we tell which is which? The truth, of course, is that foreign policy makes hypocrites of us all. As we rampage thought a US election campaign that has been a shaming spectacle of rage, abuse and a terrifying anti-intellectualism, Obama’s Scandinavian restraint and belief in mental rigour has rarely held more appeal. There is a danger that we will miss his temperament, at least, once he is gone.