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New York Times Correspondent David Sanger Analyzes Obama

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David Sanger
  • David Sanger

Is there an “Obama Doctrine”?

That’s one of the questions David Sanger asks himself as chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. It’s also the title of his talk on Wednesday, December 7, at Essex High School.

Sanger is uniquely positioned to observe the 44th president, who, three-quarters of the way through what may turn out to be his sole term in office, remains an elusive, almost enigmatic, figure. Some say it’s not entirely clear what he believes in.

Just because he’s notched a series of big achievements overseas — killing Osama bin Laden, assisting in the removal of Muammar Qaddafi, negotiating nuclear cutbacks with Russia and drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq — doesn’t mean Obama is operating in accordance with some strategic template, or “doctrine,” as foreign-policy wonks put it. The president’s moves abroad can seem confusing at times, if not altogether contradictory.

But Sanger’s job is to make sense of them, and the 51-year-old reporter has plenty of experience from which to draw. His 25-year career at the Times includes a six-year stint as chief of the paper’s Tokyo bureau. He covered economics stories in Japan as well as in New York, while also writing on nuclear proliferation. Sanger was a member of two Times teams that won Pulitzer Prizes — the first for an investigation of the causes of the space shuttle Challenger disaster; the second for a series of stories on the Clinton administration’s efforts to control American businesses’ exports to China.

In Sanger’s view, Obama’s actions seem to point to an underlying doctrine: The president seeks to advance U.S. interests by attacking bothersome but comparatively weak antagonists from a safe distance — politically for him, and physically for American soldiers. This tactic was applied most clearly in Libya, where the U.S. led the overthrow of Qaddafi “from behind,” and more covertly in Iran, where the United States is believed to have joined Israel in launching a reportedly devastating cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program. The doctrine — if there is one — can also be discerned in the cases of Somalia and Yemen. Drone-fired missiles have been used in both those countries to kill individuals the United States identified as terrorist leaders.

Obama seems perplexed, however, about how to handle a foreign crisis in which even indirect U.S. force could have destabilizing consequences. Syria is currently the foremost example of a regional linchpin where the “doctrine” doesn’t apply.

In a phone interview, Sanger discussed these and other issues he’ll cover next week in Vermont.

Seven Days: You’re speaking in Vermont on the topic of an Obama Doctrine. So is there one?

David Sanger: While the president hasn’t articulated a doctrine, you can intuit one by piecing together what’s happened in the past three years.

If you look at what he said while campaigning, you’d think his approach would be one of engagement [with U.S. antagonists]. But he discovered pretty quickly that engagement doesn’t work too well — with North Korea and Iran, for instance.

Obama knew, however, that the country is in a time and in a political mood in which it’s not possible to keep fighting significant land-based conflicts around the world. The budget crunch, on top of everything else, means it’s really not an option.

And so he’s turned to low-casualty, effective technology options, of which drones are obviously one. Cyber warfare — like the Stuxnet virus used against Iran — is another, but Obama hasn’t discussed it much.

SD: Doesn’t this approach make it too easy for the United States to intervene around the world? Isn’t it too antiseptic?

DS: It is a very significant change from the way conflicts have been fought in the past. But you could say it’s also antiseptic to be dropping bombs from 30,000 feet. Obama’s approach can make low-level intervention easier, but it may not be useful in some cases.

Could you have defeated Saddam Hussein in this way? If you had done in Iraq what you did in Libya would that have worked? Maybe, maybe not.

SD: You’ve written in pieces for the Times that an Obama Doctrine doesn’t apply in certain situations.

DS: Syria is a good place to look now to see that. Obama hasn’t done what he did in Libya, even though the numbers being killed in Syria are much greater.

The approach he’s been taking has been successful in a narrow group of cases. But it hasn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program or North Korea’s.

SD: Obama’s foreign policy will probably be seen, on balance, as pretty successful, especially the killing of Bin Laden. Do you think that will be useful to him in his re-election campaign, or won’t it matter much?

DS: It will certainly be of some benefit to him, but not as much as he would hope. Will it be enough to turn the tide of an election that’s going to be decided mainly on economic issues? That’s hard to know.

SD: Do you think Obama will be reelected?

DS: I have no idea. It will primarily have to do with the performance of the economy.

However, I do think that in policy terms he’s done pretty well, while in communication terms he hasn’t mastered how to go out and make his case to the people, even though he can obviously be quite eloquent.

[George W.] Bush did go out and explain about the threats he saw. You can think of Bush what you want, but people throughout the country did at least understand where he wanted to go.

SD: Let me ask you about working at the Times. Is it as stressful now as in the recent documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times, which shows reporters anxious about their jobs due to the changes brought about by the internet?

DS: The demands of the Times’ web edition has completely changed the nature of what we do. The web edition is our primary edition these days, as it should be. We reach a much larger audience as a result.

It does speed up the tempo considerably. It can be harder to do analytical-type pieces when you’re constantly in the hour-to-hour cycle. It can also lead to a greater danger of inaccuracies, though we do have a system for preventing that.

SD: I’ve got a Vermont question. You’ve been watching Washington players for a long time, so what do you think of our two senators?

DS: I’ve got a house in Weston, so I actually come at this as a part-time Vermonter, not just a Washington reporter.

Bernie Sanders is certainly a unique figure, but I don’t know him well, so I can’t speak to his effectiveness.

Senator Leahy has taught me a lot, especially about the world of intelligence. He’s explained to me how the people in that world think about some of the issues I write about.

SD: So you see Leahy as a kind of wise statesman?

DS: Oh, yes. He’s an example of the old-school senator, a member of an institution that was very different in years past than it is today.

New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger will talk about President Obama’s foreign policy at Essex High School on December 7 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Info, 878-6955.