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'The Atlantic' Writer Argues Obama Confronted Pitfalls Of Fact-Based Foreign Policy

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

All this week, we've been taking a first pass at this question - what will Barack Obama's legacy be? We've heard opinions on the president's economic policies, his handling of race relations and the wars he leaves behind - today, foreign policy. My colleague Kelly McEvers spoke with a critic of the president's approach to Iran and Syria.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributor to The Atlantic magazine, where his latest piece is called "Obama And The Limits Of Fact-Based Foreign Policy." Welcome to the show.

SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So you write about how the Obama administration's foreign policy team, one full of academics and technocrats - basically lots of smart people - was a welcome change from the George W. Bush era. Why?

HAMID: So I think in 2009 - this was after eight years of someone - George W. Bush, who I think a lot of people saw as having a kind of anti-intellectual aspect - and I think one thing that I've learned over the past eight years is facts are necessary, but they're not sufficient. In other words, you can have smart people who know all the facts about a specific conflict or country, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they have good judgment or bold vision.

MCEVERS: I want to talk about some examples where you think the Obama team's foreign policy wasn't necessarily going in the right direction. And one problem you have, as you see it, is that the administration privileged the Iran nuclear deal above all other issues. Why did you see that as a problem?

HAMID: The problem is that came at the expense of a focus on the Syrian civil war because one concern the Obama administration had was that if they moved more aggressively against the Assad regime and its Iranian backers in Syria - that that could possibly undermine negotiations with the Iranians on their nuclear program.

MCEVERS: Yeah. Let's talk about that one for a second. I mean, it's 2013. It's the so-called red line moment, right? I mean, I think it's a moment a lot of people are going to look back and talk about. Obama says if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons on its own people, that his calculus would change. It was a strong hint that the U.S. was going to strike. The Syrian government does use chemical weapons. Obama decides not to strike, and instead there's this multilateral agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. I mean, the administration now calls that a victory. You say it's not a victory. Why?

HAMID: I think it's actually somewhat offensive that the Obama administration would refer to this as a victory. I mean, for the Syrian people that was really the turning point. Essentially, after Obama backed down from the red line, it sent a message to the Assad regime that they couldn't kill people with chemical weapons, but killing people through conventional means was pretty much going to be accepted.

MCEVERS: You know, a lot of people talk about Obama's optimism - you know, this quote that he always says - a quote of Martin Luther King Jr.'s - that the moral arc of history bends toward justice. People are awed, of course, by this optimism. But you say when it comes to the Middle East and foreign policy that that's kind of a problem. Why?

HAMID: Obama doesn't see the world as it actually is. He - he's full of this optimism about human nature, and that's what that quote captures - that the arc of history bends towards justice. But presumably, someone has to do the bending. And when America isn't interested in playing that role in the Middle East, then you're going to have an arc that bends in a very different direction. So if you're going into foreign policy with these assumptions about human nature, and those assumptions turn out to be mistaken, then you have a real problem.

MCEVERS: Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author most recently of "Islamic Exceptionalism: How The Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping The World." Thanks so much.

HAMID: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.