Murray Polner: Review of James Mann's "The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power" (Viking, 2012)


Murray Polner is a regular HNN book reviewer.

James Mann, formerly of the Los Angeles Times and now at Johns Hopkins University, wrote Rise of the Vulcans about George W. Bush’s efforts to reshape foreign policy by relying on six of his closest advisors. Mann has now moved on to the Obama administration with The Obamians, an intelligent and meticulous rendering of Barack Obama and his foreign policy staff. The Bush/Cheney legacy, drawing on neo-conservative fantasies and American exceptionalist dreams of liberating and democratizing real and imagined enemies -- by force, if necessary -- led us into Iraq and Afghanistan and gifted us with a legacy of torture, secret prisons and far too many military and civilian casualties.

Neither Bush nor Obama (nor Mitt Romney, for that matter) ever served on active military duty. Nor did (do) any of them know much about foreign affairs and national security when they ran for election. Obama was doubly handicapped because he inherited a badly mismanaged economy, two wars, and a nation dominated by the ultra-wealthy.

What Mann does best is take an unprejudiced look at our newest generation of the “Best and Brightest” that Obama recruited along with veterans of Washington’s bureaucratic and political wars Joe Biden, Richard Holbrook, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton. He also named General Jim Jones, onetime Marine commandant, as his national security advisor, and Admiral Dennis Blair director of national intelligence, both of whom were later pushed out. Gates was kept on to run the Pentagon and protect Obama’s right flank. The task for the new team was to manage an increasingly unmanageable world, fight terrorism, and rearrange relations with Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea while emphasizing human rights. He had no one to compare with “realists” Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, or Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the men and women who helped him win the presidency, notes Mann, “were virtually shut out of the top jobs.”

One observation by Mann runs like a thread through the entire book. His closest and younger foreign policy advisors -- Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, Susan Rice and Samantha Power -- were, like him, part of a generation who had not been seared by Vietnam. They were there to overhaul Bush’s approach to foreign policy. But only to a degree. One new aide, Greg Craig -- who later quit -- whose politics reflected the idealistic '60s and '70s, had little in common with his colleagues who “thought of themselves as a new generation completely removed from the Vietnam era, a generation with its own ideals but also a different, pragmatic perspective on defense and intelligence issues.” Craig was also in disfavor, Mann writes, because he supposedly fouled up Obama’s wish to close Guantanamo. He was, said an anonymous source, “put out to dry” because in truth he was pushing too hard for an investigation of CIA abuses.

Initially, Obama reached out to Pyongyang and Teheran only to be rebuffed. But as Mann shrewdly comments, the “real policy” adopted very early in his presidency “was to recognize that the current leadership in Pyongyang would never give up or bargain away the nuclear weapons it already had.” The same may well be true with Iran, given that without nukes it can never hope to fend off the U.S. and Israel. All the U.S. can do is hope their Chinese intermediary will one day prevail on North Korea to hold its fire and Russia can talk sense to Iran.

Mann astutely points out what should be obvious but generally isn’t, namely that China and the U.S. have “fundamentally different strategic objectives: China wants North Korea to survive, while the U.S. wants it to be reunited with South Korea” but to the Chinese that would mean just another U.S. military base on their borders. Obama’s latest reaction is to challenge China by asserting a major U.S. role in Asia. “The future of the United States is intimately intertwined with the future of Asia-Pacific” Hillary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy in late 2011 after 2,500 Marines were sent to northern Australia, “rotating them in and out every six months,” writes Mann, “so that there would be a permanent American presence.” This clearly means more military bases and naval stations near China to augment its hundred or so all over the globe. In the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson’s wonderfully evocative words, “The U.S. is to military bases as Heinz is to ketchup.” That's a sentiment Hillary Clinton would hardly accept given that she told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2010, “Let me say it clearly: The United States can, must and will lead in this new century,” which sounds an awful lot like Henry Luce’s jingoist American Century.

Suddenly, and surprisingly, at least to millions of voters who loathed Bush’s policies, the president's Nobel Peace Prize speech stated that future wars were possible -- though, he cautioned, only “just” wars -- in our never-ending struggle against evil. Still, his supporters hoped he would be different. Yet from the start, Obama has signaled he has no sympathy for McGovernite ideas of change in foreign policy, though he has ended torture and shut down the remaining secret prisons. While opposed to the Iraq War, he has always supported American intervention in Afghanistan. No one at the highest governmental levels has ever been held accountable for false WMD sightings, torture, and rendition. Obama has utilized portions of Bush’s counterterrorism program by keeping indefinite incarceration without trial. He has even signed (though promising never to rely on) legislation permitting the execution of American citizens -- suspected terrorists -- without judicial revue.

The Middle East was to be his major priority and after his eloquent and inspiring speech in Cairo he and his special advisors moved to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He sent George Mitchell to the region and confided in Dennis Ross but in the end he and they were stymied by Israel and its powerful American supporters. Mann never asks why they were so thwarted. Obama has also stressed human rights so long as valued allies, however authoritarian or dictatorial, are excluded. In sum, his has been a foreign policy that has disillusioned and effectively silenced antiwar Democrats.

Mann presents Obama as a centrist, at times “more hawkish” than Bush. More significantly, while willing to use force, he and future presidents will have to take into account “a [new] era when American primacy is no longer taken for granted.” In the end, Mann concludes with a fundamental truth of our times: “Sometimes, bringing about change takes more than a president.” Plus ça change.

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