This book gives us the story of the new Democratic foreign policy elite, mostly obscure Washingtonians raised up by President Obama to be his loyalists, along with a few luminaries to protect him politically. The people at the inner core need to be more widely known because they will hover for decades to tutor future Democratic leaders and hound Republicans. The most trusted of them occupy key slots on the National Security Council staff; the next tier fill top positions in the Defence and State Departments. They are centrists, not ideologues like the neoconservative Republicans who preceded them. Strikingly, however, they do not cling religiously to the middle ground come what may; they regard the centre as a jumping-off point for complicated and often contradictory positions. In The Obamians, James Mann tells us who they are, what they think and how they use power.
They could not have a better chronicler than Mr Mann, a longtime journalist at The Los Angeles Times who has written a similar book called Rise of the Vulcans about the conservatives and neoconservatives who surrounded President George W Bush. Like the best reporters, Mr Mann lets his subjects speak for themselves, then checks their fancies against the facts. He has given us a very good first cut at history.
In this account, Mr Obama’s national security orchestra sorts into three sections. First is the innermost circle, “the relatively youthful, politically attuned side of Barack Obama’s foreign policy”. Mostly lacking executive branch experience, they are tied almost entirely to the president. The important figures here are Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, and Ben Rhodes, the chief foreign policy speechwriter. Another is Mark Lippert, who, like Mr McDonough, helped Mr Obama in the last presidential campaign and was recently confirmed in a top Pentagon post.
Mr Obama coaxed a team of rivals into the Cabinet as protectors of his political flanks. To quash potential Democratic uprisings in the Senate, he tapped Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state. To dampen inevitable Republican attacks, he recruited James Jones, a retired Marine general, as his first national security adviser and retained the Republican Robert Gates as secretary of defence.
Mr Mann rightly notes the Obamians lack a philosophy and credits them with common-sense impulses. They initially set out to demonstrate to all that they were not Bush neoconservatives. To a world grown critical of Washington, they sought to prove they understood the ambitions and needs of other societies, and the limits of American power. To Americans tired of Democrats comparing everything to Vietnam, they anointed Iraq as their new intellectual touchstone. This refocus of historical analogies, as Mr Mann explains, was key to the Obamians’ rejection of Mr Holbrooke, who, to them, saw too many Vietnam lessons under too many Afghan rocks.
Mr Mann falls short, however, in elaborating on how the Obamians related Iraq’s lessons to Afghanistan. Why, for example, did they think victory was necessary, and possible, in Afghanistan and not Iraq? Mr Mann doesn’t dismiss the notion that Mr Obama escalated in Afghanistan to avoid being pegged as soft on terrorism, but finds it more likely that Mr Obama truly believed in the Afghan cause. In any event, Mr Obama has since soured on counterinsurgency warfare and apparently on Afghanistan itself. The message of Vietnam, which Mr Obama cast aside, would have been to avoid land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then Mr Mann turns to Libya, which he calls “the apotheosis of the Obamian approach to the world”. He claims that Libya marks Mr Obama’s new rules for American foreign policy: first, he’s not afraid to employ force and will use it to advance less than vital interests; second, he’ll always recognise the limits of American power and insist on multilateral action to achieve his goals. Mr Mann tells us that Mr Obama helped lead the intervention in Libya and then allowed America’s allies to take over.
But Mr Mann makes too much of this new Libyan standard. The humanitarian rationale for intervening in Libya certainly hasn’t extended to Syria and South Sudan, and it’s a myth that Nato allies took over operations. They depended on American precision munitions, refuelling aircraft and reconnaissance. Given these realities, it’s misleading to elevate Libya to doctrine, let alone an “apotheosis”.
Nor has Mr Obama gone further, as Mr Mann suggests in his subtitle, and redefined American power. The president rhetorically stresses rebuilding national power, but he shows little follow-through.
I don’t fault Mr Mann here. It’s hard to pin down the Obamians precisely because they are centrists who are constantly being pushed and pulled by events and politics. As Mr Mann correctly relates, the Obamians’ rhetoric can be quite lofty, but their actions flow less from what they say than from their reckonings of circumstances abroad and at home. From this centrist perch, they do not transfix the world’s youth or climb foreign policy Everests. However, as Mr Mann concludes, they have their creditable accomplishments and they have stayed out of trouble.
The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power
Viking; 392 pages; $26.95
©2012 The New York Times News Service