This is a book review of The Obamians: the Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power by James Mann. It first appeared in The New Statesman
Shortly after his inauguration as president, Barack Obama was given a briefing by the CIA about the danger of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. “That’s scary,” said Obama, “but in the meeting I had before this one, the Treasury told me that every bank could fail before the end of the month. Now that’s really scary.” This anecdote shows the central point of James Mann’s book, which tries to paint a portrait of the 44th president’s foreign policy through the prism of his relationships with his closest advisers.
For Obama and the youthful “Obamians”, the world began in 2001 with 9/11, which was followed by the Iraq war and the financial crisis. For them, the events that traumatised most foreign policy professionals – Vietnam, the cold war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkan wars – are ancient history. The biggest worries for the Obamians are the fallout from the decision to go to war in Iraq and the shortage of money after the global financial crisis. As Mann states in his concluding sentence: “Obama’s time in office marked the beginning of a new era where American primacy is no longer taken for granted.”
The doctrine they seek to develop is one of “low-cost leadership”. This involves a mix of soft power (symbolised by Obama and his powerful speeches), smart sanctions (used against Libya, Iran and Syria), drones (which have stepped up the campaign in Pakistan) and “leading from behind” (allowing Europeans to take the lead on Libya and re-energising alliances in the Pacific), while trying to reset relations with China and Russia.
Mann describes Libya as the “apotheosis” of the Obama approach. The conflict revealed his willingness to use force and his commitment to humanitarian goals and multilateralism. Yet it also showed a new kind of American leadership – playing a supportive role, rather than leading from the front. According to Mann, the Libya operation cost US taxpayers between $1m and $3m a day – compared to $300m a day for the Afghan operation.
Another important part of the Obama strategy is his oratory. If you could fix the world with speeches alone, Obama’s first year would have bent the arc of history. He spent hours trying to craft the perfect words in a series of orations designed to restore US leadership. The results were so convincing that they were one of the main reasons cited by the Norwegian Nobel committee in its decision to award the president the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
The main pen behind the speeches belonged to a young man called Ben Rhodes, who joined the Obama campaign in 2007 and emerges as the key figure in Mann’s narrative. He is a sign of the extent to which the Obama revolution is above all generational. He also symbolises the distinction between the public and private faces of the administration.
According to Mann, Obama had two foreign policy teams: one, for public consumption, was the “team of rivals” that Obama appointed to cabinet-level positions. These grizzled war - horses gave the young president gravitas but they were kept away from the big decisions on foreign policy. They included figures such as Hillary Clinton at the state department, Robert Gates at the Pentagon, Richard Holbrooke as “AfPak” envoy, General James Jones as national security adviser and General David Petraeus, now director of the CIA. They were mainly people whose world-views had been shaped by the cold war. Yet the advisers who stayed behind after the intelligence briefings and helped Obama make his key decisions were younger, more political appointees who had worked on his campaign or made a career in the Senate rather than the national security apparatus.
As well as Rhodes, they included Tom Donilon (a Democratic political operative who eventually became national security adviser), Denis McDonough (a former aide to Tom Daschle), Susan Rice (an Africa expert who joined Obama’s campaign team), Michael Mc- Faul (an academic from Stanford who became point man on Russia) and Samantha Power (a campaigning academic, journalist and proponent of humanitarian intervention). One of the most poignant passages in the book is the description of Holbrooke’s funeral – almost a symbolic burial of the familiar view of the US’s role in the world. As the Obama team grew in confidence, many of the older advisers were sidelined or replaced by people closer to the president in age and world-view.
According to Mann, Obama’s Jekyll and Hyde persona extended to the level of ideas as he deliberately straddled the two main ideologies of US foreign policy: idealism and realism. As in domestic policy, he combined an unsentimental realism about the realities of power with progressive goals. On the one hand, he did not close Guantanamo and stepped up the policy of using drones to assassinate potential terrorists. On the other, he intervened in Libya to save lives and asked the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to resign.
Obama’s inner circle reflected the two sides of his brain. Rice, McFaul, Power and Rhodes stood for his idealism (Power describes herself as the administration’s “conscience mascot”). Meanwhile, power-brokers such as Donilon and McDonough saw themselves more in the realist tradition of the first President Bush.
Mann is a perceptive analyst who excels at placing events in their historical context. The brilliance of his earlier book The Rise of the Vulcans, a gripping group portrait of George W Bush’s foreign policy team, derived from his understanding of the relationships between Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger in the Nixon administration. The problem with The Obamians is that the foreign policy of this president is thin gruel compared to that of his predecessor; his principal advisers were chosen precisely because they had no past to weigh them down.
The result is that this book – like Obama’s policy record – feels transitional and incomplete. Most of Obama’s workload in the early days involved doing after-sales maintenance on Bush’s policies. His first two years were defined by an attempt to extend the hand of friendship to those whom Bush had alienated. His attempts to engage with China, Russia, Iran and the Muslim world and Europe had mixed results.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden gave Obama a second chance. It allowed him to declare victory in the war on terror and refocus his foreign policy on longer-term challenges. Mann’s narrative suggests that, in the long run, Obama may be remembered less as the presidential healer than as the man who cleared the way for America’s next confrontation – not with a shadowy group of terrorists this time but with a superpower that contains a fifth of the world’s population: China.
The book builds up to a description of a “pivot to Asia” that could be the beginning of a new era of bipolarity. If that is true, historians may see Obama and his youthful advisers playing a similar role to that played by Harry S Truman in the early stages of the cold war. In that case – like his predecessor – Obama may yet have a substantive doctrine named after him.
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