Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism

April 12, 2018

Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism

A survey by Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in ASEAN (HILL ASEAN) found that the middle class has been expanding rapidly in  ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In 1848, Karl Marx opened his manifesto with an eloquent sentence: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” One hundred and seventy years later, Laos,Cambodia, and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies of twenty-first century capitalism and the Chinese Communist Party plans to abandon the post-Mao doctrine of putting its assembly above any individual leader. Communism, which once materialised so prominently in East Asia, is little more than a faded ghost, haunting no one. Yet another spectre has taken its place in Asia—the spectre of authoritarianism.

Whether in terms of China’s attempts to establish a life-long chairmanship, Philippine’s systematic dismissal of habeas corpus or—as my work Owners of the Map analyses—Thailand’s new forms of constitutional dictatorship, a new wind of authoritarianism is blowing over East Asia. Contrary to existing theories of the “end of history” or of “democratic transition” this wind does not waft against the wish of the middle classes, but rather with their support, and it is not a temporary breeze, destined to died out, but rather a stable wind, one that carries forward an alternative system of governance.

Much has been written on this trend as the result of geo-political, military, and economic push and pull between the patronage of the United States and that of China. These explanations, while important, miss a central element evident to anyone who spends time with office managers, business executives, and traditional elites in Thailand: the growing popularity of authoritarian ideology among local middle class, a popularity that finds its roots in the shifting local meaning of words like corruption, good governance, and rule of law.

During the last decade, the understanding of corruption among Thai middle classes underwent a radical transformation. Corruption today does no longer refer to someone misusing public office for private gain. The word’s semantic universe has expanded to include three major components. Firstly, a traditional understanding of corruption as taking advantage of your position to steal money or gain. Secondly, an idea of moral corruption, related to the intrinsic immoral nature of one’s personality. And, thirdly, a vision of electoral corruption that reframes any redistributive policy favouring the working masses as a form of vote-buying. Under these new meanings, elections themselves become a corrupt practice, one that favours populist leaders who, through policies, gain popular support without necessarily producing “good governance.”

The discourse of good governance itself has become central to Thai middle classes’ ideological flirtations with authoritarianism. This mantra entered the country after the 1997 economic crisis, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions understood the concept as a technocratic category, one that mostly meant efficient and transparent governance. In Thailand, however, the concept was translated by conservative political ideologues as thammarat, the governance of Dhamma, transforming good governance into righteous governance, a governance that does not rely on electoral support but rather on alignment with the monarch, the thammaraja.

While these semantic shifts in ideological categories may take local forms, they do not occur in an international vacuum. Previous authoritarian phases in Thailand—particularly the period between 1945 and 1992—had been supported, both economically and ideologically, by the United States and its anti-communist rhetoric. Since the 2014 coup, the junta has been looking to China for similar patronage.

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Cambodia is experiencing a rising middle class which has fueled a boom in smart phone access, now the primary access point for the internet.Young Cambodians today are speaking English fluently. Photo/Ian Taylor

The alignment between the two governments has not just been the result of real politic and shifting international alliances but also rooted in parallel claims about the rule of law and corruption. In 2002, the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress endorsed a new rhetoric of legalism, as a more efficient system to deal with equal and fair participation. Political scientist Pan Wei, in a famous article that took the shape of a political manifesto for legalism stated that “rule of law directly answers the most urgent need of Chinese society—curbing corruption in times of market economy. Electoral competition for government offices is not an effective way of curbing corruption; it could well lead to the concentration of power in the hands of elected leaders.”

The middle class president

Jokowi’s developmentalist democracy goes beyond a simplistic personal attribute or set of beliefs: it is inherent to his class status.






While not as sophisticated as Professor Pan, and not with the same ability to govern as the Chinese Communist Party, the system emerging in Thailand since the 2014 coup looks quite similar: a legalistic system in which non-elected officers create and enforce the law, above and beyond the electoral will of their population. The Thai transition from a polity in which people make the rules through elected parliamentarians to one in which the rules are imposed from above for the people and parliament to follow, has been legitimised on a basic principle: the superiority of unelected “good people” over elected politicians in preventing corruption and establishing good governance.

It would be easy to dismiss these changes has temporary push backs. Yet, my work argues, something deeper is changing around Southeast Asia, something that we will not see or understand unless we stop working under preset theories of democratic transition and we engage ethnographically with the shifting landscapes of class alliances, everyday ideologies, and forms of governance. These transformations, in fact, are particularly resistant to quantitative analysis and questionnaires. Often they do not imply the emergence of new terminologies or ideological concepts but rather the re-signification of words like corruption, good governance or rule of law. It is only when we spend long stretch of time with people and participates to their lives that these new meanings emerge.

The risk of failing to see these transformations is a familiar one to people in the US: becoming aware of the emergence of a new political and social order when it is too late to do anything about it.

This post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

The Washington Post Editorial: Malaysia’s Fake News Bill is Censorship

March 31, 2018

The Washington Post Editorial: Malaysia’s Fake News Bill is Censorship

By Editorial Board

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All right-thinking Malaysians are one with Nazir in abhorring fake news, especially those based of lies and falsehoods maliciously aimed at inciting hatred or ill-will, but the Anti-Fake News Bill is not the answer to the problem of combating such fake news.–Lim Kit Siang

MALAYSIAN PRIME Minister Najib Razak is no stranger to muzzling free expression. His government has used existing laws to prosecute bloggers and journalists for satire and criticism of Mr. Najib, who has been embroiled in an epic corruption scandal. Now the Malaysian cabinet has gone a step further, proposing a law that would impose stiff fines and jail sentences on those who publish what it deems “fake news.” The proposed law is a warning of the danger when governments decide what is true and what is not.

Mr. Najib, seeking reelection to a third term, is being investigated by several countries, including the United States, on allegations that he and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund for their own use, including $730 million that ended up in accounts controlled by the Prime Minister. He has denied wrongdoing involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, known as 1MDB. But a surefire outcome of the law, should it be passed, would be to chill media discussion of the corruption scandal.

The legislation would define as fake news “any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” It would cover those who create, offer, circulate, print or publish fake news or publications containing fake news, and impose a 10-year jail term, a fine of up to $128,000, or both, at the whim of the government. The law would apply to those overseas as well as inside Malaysia. A fact sheet outlining hypothetical examples includes anyone who knowingly offers false information to a blogger, as well as cases that seem to encompass acts of slander or false advertising.

We don’t take lightly the problem of truth in today’s information whirlwind. But an open society must guarantee the right to express a wide range of views, including criticism of its leaders, with very few limitations, accompanied by due process and rule of law. The Malaysian proposal looks more like a tool of arbitrary government control and intimidation. Singapore is holding hearings on a similar scheme. Other closed systems, such as China, long ago perfected the art. It is called censorship.

President Trump has championed the moniker “fake news” to mean any news report he dislikes, and to undermine the legitimacy of the news media by creating confusion over whether news is true or false. An army of people on social media likewise muddy the waters, spreading reports that are corrosive and malicious. In this environment, a free society has to be dedicated to unfettered speech, allowing it to flourish and regulating it extremely carefully. Yes, publishers, platforms and people must be vigilant for garbage and pollution in the news stream. But imposing governmental controls will only yield one thing: real fake news.

Malaysia’s anti-fake news law raises media censorship fears

John “Walrus”Bolton is already a lame duck and he knows it too

March 28, 2018

John “Walrus”Bolton is already a lame duck and he knows it too

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The baffling decision by President Trump to select John Bolton as his next national security adviser is shaking the Washington foreign policy establishment on both sides of the aisle. Democrats are reacting furiously and Republicans are trying to remain calm, but there’s one person who already knows that he’s in trouble: John Bolton.

The choice of Bolton makes no sense for Trump, on several levels. First, Trump ran as an anti-war candidate and just picked the most pro-war national security adviser he could find. Second, Trump ran against the Washington swamp, yet picked a classic Republican foreign policy Washington insider, as Bolton has essentially spent his entire career in D.C. And third, Trump prides himself on being a success, yet he’s picked someone who has been at the heart of the greatest foreign policy failures of the past two decades.

John Bolton must know this, and he must be worried. The John Bolton we all thought we knew disappeared in front of our eyes when he was interviewed on FOX Thursday night after the announcement of his selection. Out was the bombast and in was the staffer-speak. Bolton waxed eloquent about process and about providing a variety of viewpoints to the President. This was a different John Bolton.

Expert in the classic D.C. maneuvering in order to get the job, Bolton must know that videotape is hard to completely erase. And he knows better than anyone else what he’s said and done both on video and in print — while it’s likely that Trump does not.

One of the more curious issues to think about regarding this choice is how Bolton, while being a neoconservative, didn’t become a never-Trumper during the 2016 presidential campaign like most of his cohort. Perhaps that’s because he was toying with becoming president himself, or because he was fundraising for his super PAC (now known to have been one of the first to hire Cambridge Analytica). How these items play out within the context of the Mueller investigation is anyone’s guess.

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Which brings us to the heart of the matter. In a mere couple of months, President Trump will have to decide about what to do with North Korea and Iran. He’s already committed to meeting with North Korea’s leader, yet Bolton just weeks ago called for American bombing of that country. And Bolton was behind the termination of the last nuclear deal we had with North Korea — the Agreed Framework — in 2002. That decision directly led to our rudderless policy on North Korea for the past 15 plus years.

It’s hard to imagine the North Koreans agreeing to a deal, as Trump would want, with Bolton sitting across the table.

And on Iran, if Trump were to pull out of the Iran deal at Bolton’s behest — as many in Washington now thinks he will — then he’ll be unleashing Iran’s nuclear program from the constraints it’s currently under. This would be an ironic outcome, as it took the latter years of the Bush administration (when Bolton was gone) and much of the Obama administration to restrain that program through tough, punishing sanctions. These were a reversal from the Bolton years, when there was minimal financial pressure on Iran due to American unilateralism.

Yet the biggest dissonance that the Trump-Bolton partnership may bring is on the question of war versus peace, as symbolized by Iraq. I was a career foreign affairs officer at the State Department when Bolton was the undersecretary for arms control and international security. I remember how Bolton helped lead us straight into that disaster — one that Trump rightly pointed out during the Republican primaries was a complete mistake.

Yet unlike Trump, after all the thousands dead, trillions spent, the unleashing of Iran across the Middle East and the destabilization of the Arab world, Bolton has never said such words, and still defends it as the right thing.

So John Bolton must know all this, and he must know that President Trump probably doesn’t know all the details yet. And he must be hoping that Trump won’t learn them any time soon, because if the past 14 months is prologue, Bolton must already know that time in this administration is not on his side.

Joel Rubin is a former deputy assistant secretary of state and was a foreign affairs officer at the State Department from 2002 – 2005.


The Walrus in The Trump White House

March 27, 2018

Hawks are  closing in on The White House

by Robin

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Hawks are closing in on the White House. John Bolton, arguably the most abrasive American diplomat of the twenty-first century, will soon assume the top foreign-policy job at the National Security Council. As is his wont, President Trump announced yet another shakeup of his inner circle in a tweet late on Thursday. He dismissed General H. R. McMaster, who couldn’t survive a testy relationship with the impatient President despite his battle-hardened career and three stars on his epaulets. Trump tapped Bolton to take over. A former U.N. Ambassador currently best known as a Fox News pundit, Bolton has advocated far harder positions than Trump, including bombing campaigns, wars, and regime change. The late-day news flash sent chills across Washington, even among some Republicans.

With Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, due to take over from the ousted Rex Tillerson at the State Department, the team deciding American actions across the globe will now be weighted by hard-liners and war advocates. Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired marine general, is the most pragmatic policymaker left. What an irony. (And how long will Mattis stay? He was photographed having dinner with Tillerson on Tuesday.)

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The Walrus in The White House–Yale-educated John Bolton

Bolton, a Yale-educated lawyer whose trademark is a white walrus mustache, championed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which produced chaos followed by waves of extremist violence in the region. He also advocated international intervention to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He has repeatedly urged military action in Iran and North Korea, which he has called “two sides of the same coin.”

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, written two months ago, Bolton condemned the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran as a “massive strategic blunder”—then went further. American policy, he wrote, “should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its fortieth anniversary,” next February. “Recognizing a new Iranian regime in 2019 would reverse the shame of once seeing our diplomats held hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. The former hostages can cut the ribbon to open the new U.S. Embassy in Tehran.”

Shortly before the Iran deal—brokered by the world’s six major powers—Bolton wrote a piece in the Times entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” In it, he predicted, “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” Three months later, Iran accepted the nuclear deal, the most significant nonproliferation treaty in more than a quarter century. The deal was endorsed unanimously in a U.N. resolution. Trump has vowed that he will withdraw from the deal without fixes by mid-May, a move that Bolton clearly supports.

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Bolton has also long backed a cultlike Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or M.E.K., which has been held responsible for the murder of multiple American military personnel, the attempted kidnapping of a U.S. Ambassador, and other violent attacks in Iran before the 1979 revolution. The M.E.K. was based in Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein, who provided arms, financial assistance, and political support. In 1997, it was among the first groups cited on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. It wasn’t removed until 2012. Bolton spoke at an M.E.K. rally last year—for the eighth time—in Paris. Other speakers at M.E.K. rallies have reportedly been paid tens of thousands of dollars for their appearances.

Bolton’s policy recommendations on North Korea are also militant, and they break with the man who just hired him. Earlier this month, Trump pledged to meet Kim Jong Un by May. “Talking to North Korea is worse than a mere waste of time,” Bolton wrote in The Hill, in August. “Negotiations legitimize the dictatorship, affording it more time to enhance its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities. Today, only one diplomatic option remains, and it does not involve talking to Pyongyang. Instead, President Trump should urge President Xi Jinping that reunifying the Korean Peninsula is in China’s national interest.”

The answer to China’s fear of an uncontrolled collapse, Bolton wrote, “is a jointly managed effort to dismantle North Korea’s government, effectively allowing the swift takeover of the North by the South.” Not even the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, supports that idea; he has been trying to broker a rapprochement with the North.

The deepest disagreement between Bolton and Trump may be over Russia—especially its President, Vladimir Putin. In an op-ed last July, Bolton wrote that undermining the U.S. Constitution “is far more than just a quotidian covert operation. It is in fact a casus belli, a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate.” He charged that Trump had been duped by Putin in their meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit last summer.

Bolton has worked for three Republican Presidents—Reagan and both Bushes. He gained his reputation as a feisty hawk after George W. Bush appointed him to be Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. By 2005, he was so controversial that his nomination to be U.N. Ambassador failed to win Senate approval, and Bush appointed him as a “recess appointment” when Congress was not in session.

The United Nations was an odd fit. In 1994, Bolton said, “There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along.” He later said about the world body, “The Secretariat Building in New York has thirty-eight stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

When I covered the George W. Bush Administration, I often heard grumbling about Bolton being irascible and argumentative. He had deep disagreements with both Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. He ultimately had a falling out with President Bush, who lamented his support for Bolton. “Let me just say from the outset that I don’t consider Bolton credible,” he said, according to an account in the Times, in 2008. The same year, Bolton countered in the Wall Street Journal, “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse.”

After Bolton’s appointment, on Thursday, I spoke to John B. Bellinger III, the former legal adviser to the N.S.C. and the State Department, who worked with Bolton for two years. “John may be the only senior person in the White House with significant diplomatic experience, both bilateral and multilateral,” Bellinger said. “He has negotiated with most of the governments in the world, which is helpful, given that Trump has not. John tends to annoy and frustrate and try to steamroll other countries. But at least he’s not ignorant of diplomatic relationships.”

Bolton negotiated strong U.N. resolutions on North Korea, Bellinger told me. “He also famously repudiated the U.S. signature to the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court. He’s not a fan of international law or international institutions, which he may think can challenge U.S. sovereignty.” Bellinger was more sanguine about how stubborn Bolton will be at the National Security Council. “We’ll have to hope that some of the aggressive actions John suggested when he was not in government—and more of a provocateur—may look a lot different to him when he’s responsible for the actions or advising the President on final decisions and he has other Cabinet secretaries telling him what the consequences will be.”

Although Bolton has experience in the White House Situation Room, navigating the interagency process may be challenging when he is surrounded by the many people with strong views in this Administration, Bellinger said. “John does not suffer fools gladly. He may have a challenging time as national-security adviser with a President who is not interested in facts or history.”

The Bolton nomination provoked strong reactions in Washington. On the Hill, the Democratic Senator Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, tweeted, “With the appointments of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, @realDonaldTrump is successfully lining up his war cabinet. Bolton played a key role in politicizing the intel that misled us into the Iraq War. We cannot let this extreme war hawk blunder us into another terrible conflict.”

Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairperson of VoteVets, the largest progressive veterans group, called Bolton’s appointment “downright frightening.” In a statement, he said, “A man who was key in sending me and thousands and thousands of my fellow troops to Iraq is now the National Security Adviser to Donald Trump. Let there be no mistake—there is no war for regime change, anywhere, that John Bolton wasn’t for. He sees troops not as human beings, with families, but as expendable resources, in his real-life game of Risk. We are undoubtedly closer to a war in Korea, now, and a war with Iran.”

Soltz added, “To the Trump voters out there we say: You were suckered. You were lied to, and now our troops are going to have to pay the price, for that.”


Fareed Zakaria on Mike Pompeo

March 19, 2018

On Mike Pompeo–The New Man in The State Department has to handle Iran and North Korea

By Dr.Fareed Zakaria
Mike Pompeo has a crisis to handle — even before the North Korea summit

Image result for Mike PompeoFareed Zakaria: Mr. Pompeo, repeat after me: “The Iran deal was bad, but now it’s good.”


If confirmed as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo will arrive at a State Department that has been battered by proposed budget cuts, hollowed out by resignations and vacancies, and neutered by President Trump’s impulsive and personal decision-making style. But Pompeo’s most immediate challenge will not be rebuilding the department and restoring morale; it will be dealing with an acute foreign policy crisis that is largely of the President’s own making — the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Pompeo will have to tackle a genuine foreign policy challenge soon. Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un before the end of May. This could be a promising development, defusing the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and across Asia. Yet before Trump even sits down with Kim at the negotiating table to discuss a nuclear deal, the administration will have to decide how to handle the preexisting deal with Tehran.

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Trump has already announced that the United States will no longer abide by the Iran nuclear pact unless European leaders agree to “fix the deal’s disastrous flaws.” (And from the outset, he has been cheered in his hard-line posturing by Pompeo.) European nations seem unwilling to endorse more than cosmetic changes, and Iran has flatly refused to renegotiate. That means by May 12 the United States is set to pull out of the agreement, which could lead Iran to do the same and restart its nuclear program. This would happen at the very same time as the summit with North Korea — when the United States will surely be trying to convince North Korea of the benefits of signing a similar agreement.

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To understand the virtues of the Iran deal, recall that a quarter-century ago, the United States was negotiating a nuclear accord with Pyongyang. At that point, North Korea had a nuclear program but no nuclear weapons. The Clinton administration was trying to get the regime to freeze its program, agree to some rollbacks and allow intrusive inspections. But the accord that was ultimately reached was far more limited than hoped for. The inspections process was weak, and the North Koreans cheated.

The Iranians in 2015 also did not have nuclear weapons (and insisted they had no intention of ever making them). Still, the nuclear deal required them to scale back significant aspects of their program, dismantling 13,000 centrifuges, giving up 98 percent of their enriched uranium and effectively shutting down their plutonium reactor at Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency has cameras and inspectors in Iran at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle — from mines to labs to enrichment facilities. The IAEA attests that Tehran has abided by its end of the deal. Even Pompeo himself has conceded as much.

The Iran accord is not perfect, but it has stabilized a dangerous and spiraling situation in the Middle East. Were the deal to unravel, an already simmering region would get much hotter. (The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, recently affirmed that his kingdom would go nuclear if Iran did.) And, again, this would all be happening just as the Trump administration would be trying to convince the North Koreans to agree to limits, freezes, rollbacks and inspections of its own nuclear program. Why would Kim sign a deal while he watches the United States renege on the last one it signed?

The tragedy here is that this is an entirely self-inflicted crisis. There was already enough instability in the world that the administration did not need to create more. Pompeo should recognize that his job as secretary of state will be to solve problems, not produce them, and he should preserve the Iran accord and spend his time on North Korea. But that would still leave a considerable challenge regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons. There, too, the administration’s position — and his — has been maximalist, vowing to accept nothing less than the total denuclearization of North Korea. But that’s a negotiating position that can and should be adjusted over time, depending on North Korean behavior.

Pompeo should take a page from his boss’s book. Trump has reversed course on issue after issue, often with little explanation. He declared that NATO was obsolete only to say later that it was not. He promised to label China a currency manipulator and then decided against it. He insisted that talking to North Korea would be a waste of time and then eagerly announced that he would. And who knows, maybe Trump understands the public’s inattention and mood better than most of us. In any case, whatever Pompeo said about the Iran deal months ago is now ancient history. He should simply declare that right now, under the circumstances, the deal is worth preserving.

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There are significant costs to America’s credibility and reputation if Washington keeps reversing its positions on core foreign policy issues. Yet there are greater costs to stubbornly persisting with the wrong policy. So, Mr. Pompeo, repeat after me: “The Iran deal was bad, but now it’s good.”

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


Foreign Policy:The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P.

March 2018

Foreign Policy:The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P.

President Barack Obama delivers a statement after meeting with the National Security Council at the State Department in Washington on February 25, 2016.
President Barack Obama delivers a statement after meeting with the National Security Council at the State Department in Washington on February 25, 2016. Carlos Barria / Reuters

President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, like many foreign policy doctrines, was contradictory at times, and it sometimes lacked coherence. Obama himself resisted the desire of others (including yours truly) to corral his various foreign policy and national security impulses into a comprehensive, globe-spanning, capital-D doctrine. But Obama possessed a number of well-developed foreign policy predispositions, and he exhibited, over time and under pressure, extraordinary fidelity to some of these views. One such view held that the U.S. has traditionally paid too much attention to the Middle East, and that, in any case, even concentrated American attention could not make the region a better place—and actually, in some instances, made it worse. Another of Obama’s salient foreign policy views held that the U.S., particularly in the Middle East, had traditionally been too quick to pursue military solutions to problems that neither represented core U.S. national security interests, nor were susceptible to amelioration by missile strike.

These two impulses, more than any of his other views, informed his decision, in 2013, to go back on his promise to punish the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians. Early in the Syrian civil war, Obama publicly drew a red line concerning Assad’s behavior, but later decided to forgo military strikes, even after being presented with near-definitive proof that Assad had crossed the red line in grotesque fashion. Obama was widely criticized at home and abroad—particularly by the leaders of many U.S.-allied nations—for behavior interpreted as feckless and weak, but he later told me, in one of the interviews I conducted with him for a 2016 article on his worldview, that he was “very proud of this moment.”

“The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake,” Obama explained. “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.”

Obama argued that, by going against the conventional wisdom, he was breaking the hold on American policymakers of what he called “the Washington playbook,” which he described this way: “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.”

In the matter of the vanishing red line, Obama claimed ultimate victory in large part because the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, offered him a way out—in exchange for forgoing strikes on Assad regime targets, the Russians would convince the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons stockpiles. Huge stockpiles of chemical agents would subsequently be shipped out of Syria for destruction, and Obama’s allies explained the sagacity of his approach by noting that President George W. Bush went to war in Iraq to neutralize weapons of mass destruction that no longer existed by the time of the 2003 invasion; Obama, on the other hand, avoided war in Syria while somehow managing to neutralize its chemical stockpiles.

The events of the past week, culminating in the decision by President Obama’s successor to launch a punitive strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons against civilians, prove a number of points, some that reflect well on Obama, and some that do not. The first is that the 2013 Obama-Putin deal to disarm Assad of his chemical weapons was a failure. It was not a complete failure, in that stockpiles were indeed removed, but Assad kept enough of these weapons to allow him to continue murdering civilians with sarin gas. The argument that Obama achieved comprehensive WMD disarmament without going to war is no longer, as they say in Washington, operative.

But what is not wholly novel about Trump is that he, and his top advisers, under pressure to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, reached for the same playbook that Obama resisted opening. This decision returns the U.S. to a historic norm. In other words, President Obama failed to convince Washington to put away the playbook permanently.

But now that the playbook is back off the shelf and in use, it is worth considering just why Obama was so hesitant to confront Syria, and its sponsors in Moscow and Tehran, militarily. In 2013, Obama feared, not without justification, the second- and third-order consequences of an American missile strike on the regime. Even before he became president, Obama worried greatly about slippery slopes in the Middle East. In Syria, he understood that Assad would most likely survive an American missile strike on his airbases; the day after such strikes ended, Assad, Obama believed, would have emerged from his hiding place, and declared victory: The greatest power in the world tried to destroy him, and failed. Obama was acutely aware that a one-off strike (a theoretical strike described as “unbelievably small” by his secretary of state, John Kerry), could possibly have served as a convincing brush-back pitch, but he was also aware that such a limited strike could have been wholly ineffectual, and even counterproductive. Assad and his allies, understanding that the appetite of average Americans for yet another Middle Eastern war was limited, could have tried to provoke Obama into escalation. An all-out war against the Syrian regime would have been, in many ways, Obama’s Iraq. And Obama wasn’t interested in having his own Iraq.

The curious thing is that Donald Trump is also not interested in having his own Iraq. And yet here he is. Obama was known for an overly cerebral commitment to the notion of strategic patience. Trump seems more committed to a policy of glandular, non-strategic impatience. Obama may have been paralyzed by a phobic reaction to the threat posed by the slippery slope. Donald Trump now finds himself dancing at the edge of the slippery slope his predecessor so assiduously avoided.

*Jeffrey Goldberg is the editor in chief of The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.