July 1, 2012 | Washington Monthly
Of the many surprises in President Obama’s first term—accomplishing health care reform, neglecting judicial nominations, appointing Hillary Clinton secretary of state—the most interesting may be the administration’s robust foreign policy. Democrats are supposed to be strong on domestic matters but weak on defense. The party seemed to have embraced that stereotype by nominating a community activist cum constitutional law professor who eats arugula salads and embraces gay marriage. Had the man even fired an assault weapon? Yet here we are, months before the November 2012 election, and we find that Republican nominee Mitt Romney strays into foreign affairs at his peril. Obama has an impressive trophy room: he tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, ended an unpopular war in Iraq, and ran a successful and limited one in Libya. Romney, by contrast, must shuffle guests into a den that mounts, at most, squirrels and rabbits. He briefly contended that anyone could have taken Obama’s prize buck: even Jimmy Carter, Romney said in April, would have ordered the assault that killed bin Laden. This fatuous claim was so silly and unfounded that Obama’s camp merely chuckled at it, and it went away.
Three and a half years is a long enough time to begin to generalize and draw conclusions.The Obamians, by former Los Angeles Times reporter James Mann, takes a careful look at Obama’s foreign policy and the people who run it. The book follows Mann’s successful 2004 study, Rise of the Vulcans, which chronicled Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and the other fearless bullies who jumped into the pool and splashed all the water right out of it. The Obamians has many strengths, although the pair of catchy titles that grace Mann’s last two books suggests a weakness: shaping complex events to a simple, pithy narrative. It is a very Washington way to tell a story. The generation of Democratic foreign policy leaders that preceded the Obamians and opposed the Vulcans, Mann says, are the Trout Fishers. This is their name because they like to fish for trout during the Aspen Strategy Group conference in Colorado. Perhaps the Democrats’ rising stars for 2016 will be known as the Golfers—or the Frisbee Golfers. Their opponents will break from the past and use clever methods; we will call them the Sneaky Bastards.
The cover of the book depicts Obama’s foreign policy cabinet: Vice President Joe Biden, flashing that ridiculous, toothy, baby-kissing smile; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Yet these luminaries are not the Obamians, and the book is not about them. Rather, Mann focuses on a handful of younger worthies who do not hold cabinet positions but nevertheless have the president’s ear. No one would recognize them if they were put on the cover of a book. They ran foreign policy for the Obama campaign in 2008 and now mainly work at the National Security Council. The principal Obamians are Ben Rhodes, Mark Lippert, Denis McDonough, and Samantha Power. The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is not, strictly speaking, an Obamian, but her philosophy aligns with theirs and she may be considered an honorary member.
That philosophy is, in a word, “rebalancing,” and its proponents’ main advantage is generational:
[T]he Obamians’ personal involvement in foreign policy began in a different era—in the 2000s, the decade of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. intervention in Iraq and, later, the international financial crisis of 2008. These events gave the Obamians a distinctly more modest and downbeat outlook on America’s role in the world. The United States no longer seemed like a hyperpower.
Yet Republicans eager to paint members of the administration as defeatist facilitators of American decline are incorrect. Mann’s analysis of this sensitive issue is nuanced and persuasive. Obamians, he contends, recognize that China, India, and Brazil are no longer rising powers; they are now powers. The United States’ reputation took a serious hit during the 2000s, its military is overextended, and its economy is in the toilet like Europe’s. Consequently, the United States cannot be complacent but must take affirmative steps to ensure its own leadership over the coming decades. This is cold realism in the face of conservatives’ woolly idealistic belief that America is inherently supreme and will remain so for all time. Mann is carefully nonpartisan in this book, and otherwise would have mentioned that one reason for the United States’ tenuous position in the world today is the disastrous adventurism and economic policy of the Bush administration.
Another characteristic of Obama’s foreign policy leaders is their lack of Vietnam-era angst and baggage. As Rice put it to Mann in a frank interview, “What frustrated me about the 2004 campaign was, there we were, re-litigating, ‘where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ . . . and I’m thinking, what the hell does this have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?” Rice, who was on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, was seared by a different formative experience: U.S. inaction during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Thus, when Richard Holbrooke, a loud and uneasy transplant from Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the Obama administration, gave an interview to the New Yorker comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam, he sealed his own fate. Mann reports that Obama’s senior staff were furious and marginalized Holbrooke as a “character actor,” keeping him on board merely because he would be noisier and more troublesome outside the administration. Holbrooke, who died of a heart attack in 2010, also appears on the cover of The Obamians, off to the side and facing away.
Mann describes an Obama foreign policy that was initially realist in the tradition of George H. W. Bush, despite the president’s soaring and idealistic speeches. Through the efforts of Clinton, Gates, and Biden, the administration declined to support the Green movement after Iran’s fraudulent 2009 election, and it pragmatically altered the missile defense plans that had needlessly strained relations with Russia. Obama fulfilled campaign promises by ending the war in Iraq and renewing focus on Afghanistan, sending a surge of tens of thousands of new troops to pursue a strategy of counterinsurgency. Wary of sounding like his predecessor, Obama shied away from promoting democracy around the world.
Yet the Obamians soon took over, and their defining issue was Libya. Here was a humanitarian war led by allies and launched in a country with few strategic interests. And yet for all that, the coalition succeeded. Mann represents Libya as a watershed moment in Obama’s foreign policy:
It showed, once again, that Obama was no pacifist; he was willing to use military power. It demonstrated for the first time that he was willing to put the American military to work on behalf of humanitarian goals, in a way that the realists he admired would not. Above all, it demonstrated the Obama administration’s intense commitment to multilateralism, having approached the use of military force only after the urging of his closest allies and only after getting formal approval from the Arab League and the UN Security Council.
But strains of realism continued to show through. The administration did not give blanket support to freedom movements in the Arab Spring, instead reacting according to U.S. interests and the precise circumstances of each teetering state. Egypt was not Syria and Tunisia was not Bahrain. Obama struggled to portray a coherent policy that was more inspiring than “acting according to our interests”—even though that is exactly what states do and must do.
Throughout his chapters on each of these issues, Mann presents sober, cogent strategic analysis. But Rice’s candor notwithstanding, Mann gives few new details that flesh out the personalities and decisions he discusses. This is surprising, because he interviewed some 125 people for the book. For instance, he contends that Power and Rice propelled the decision to use force in Libya, but does not show how they did so. Did they work over cabinet secretaries, canvas the Hill, or make their case directly to the president? What arguments did they use—did they appeal to moral obligations, strategic considerations, or both? Similar holes fill the chapter on the decision to strike at bin Laden. A paragraph notes the final meeting in which top aides gave their bottom line, but is silent on what they said. Mann tantalizingly mentions the president’s tense phone conversation with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan after the raid. Yet he merely records the fact of the call, rather than specifying what transpired. The Obamians could use more of the Woodwards.
Mann presents an administration whose foreign policy has succeeded in important but not all respects. Obama and his team understand the new limitations within which the United States must operate; their approach has been restrained but not defensive, coherent but not ideological, idealistic when it can be and realistic when it must be. Certainly not every problem has been solved: Iran and North Korea remain as intractable as ever. China continues to assert itself politically and economically. Success in Afghanistan is elusive. There is plenty, in other words, for a Romney administration to bungle should it get the chance.