James Mann. The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power. Viking. 416 Pages. $26.95.
David E. Sanger. Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. Crown. 496 Pages. $28.
To paraphrase Mario Cuomo’s dictum about political campaigns, we debate foreign policy in poetry and implement it in prose. The political discourse on foreign policy wrestles with the big questions facing America as a global power. Campaigns serve as crucial settings for those debates, but not the only ones. The broader public square includes journals, op-ed pages, the blogosphere, Twitter — any arena where contrasting viewpoints contend with each other. For foreign policy’s prosaic side, the scene of the action is the governmental apparatus that the United States, as a global power, has developed for its dealings with the rest of the world.
The standard jaded view of the effect of politics on foreign policy bemoans its distorting influence, which can be counterproductive indeed. Yet politics, properly understood, is integral to the process. Foreign-policy-making is political to the extent that the issues are controversial either in domestic politics or the specialist debates that parallel governmental decisions. The large number of politically appointed officials in the American system, compared with other governments, is a nod to this reality. At the same time, the appointees who “serve at the pleasure of the president” work alongside career officers responsible for every aspect of diplomacy, development, warfare, and intelligence — and the bureaucracy’s levers for decision-making and implementation.
This foreign policy civics lesson is offered as background for a pair of election-year books about President Obama’s national security record thus far. James Mann and David Sanger are among the most sure-handed journalists on that particular beat. In their accounts of Obama foreign policy, they approach the subject from opposite sides of the political-technocratic divide.
The books’ subtitles hint at the authors’ shared questions of interest but also their divergent styles and methods. Sanger’s book is about Obama’s “surprising use of American power,” whereas Mann focuses on a struggle to “redefine American power.” Sanger, who is the New York Times chief Washington correspondent, takes readers more deeply into the workings of national security policy execution; he watches President Obama and his advisers preside over the machinery of statecraft. The revelations that have earned the book buzz as well as controversy — the cyberwarfare used to sabotage Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges — are the fruits of this method.
While Sanger delves into the Obama team’s exertion of American power to discern a policy style, James Mann is interested in their deliberate efforts to devise a foreign policy framework matching their view of 21st-century realities. He wants to know whether they could “bring about a new American relationship with the world, one that was less unilateral in approach and less reliant on American military power.” Applying the same approach as his earlier book about President George W. Bush’s foreign policy team (The Vulcans), Mann focuses on the perspectives and ideas that policymakers bring with them into government.
Mann sees Barack Obama as a president confronted with “the legacies of the two Georges.” He would inherit not only the problems left by his predecessor (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea), but also the lingering association of the Democratic Party’s brand with the antiwar constituency that gave George McGovern the nomination 35 years earlier. Rather than overcompensating for this stereotype with a me-too hawkish stance, Obama and the rising generation of Democratic foreign policy hands try to approach questions of military force with calm prudence — believing force should be used because of compelling circumstances, not strained arguments or figments.
President Obama’s prescient 2002 opposition to the Iraq War was an early instance of this instinct. While the eventual political payoff for this stance is well known, the speech Obama gave as an Illinois state senator is also interesting as a preview of his administration’s policy. The speech not only warns against invading Iraq as “dumb” and “rash,” but draws a contrast with Afghanistan and the need to keep pursuing Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Later during the presidential primaries, Obama used a policy address at the Wilson Center to pledge a shift of forces and focus away from Iraq, and instead “taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” But the candidate followed his own counterterror logic even farther than the conventional wisdom would go — unilaterally into Pakistani territory, without the consent or cooperation of its government. Four years before ordering the Navy seal mission to take out bin Laden, President Obama basically said how he would respond to such a situation.
Where Mann situates the “Obamians” within contemporary domestic politics, Sanger distills the president’s use of military into one pillar of an Obama doctrine:
When confronted with a direct threat to American security, Obama has shown he is willing to act unilaterally — in a targeted, get-in-and-get-out fashion, that avoids, at all costs, the kind of messy ground wars and lengthy occupations that have drained America’s treasury and spirit for the past decades.
By the time Obama took office, U.S. and other nato troops had been in Afghanistan for more than seven years — well past the point of surgically getting in and getting out. He was eager to give the Afghanistan effort the commitment and resources that for years had been shunted to Iraq, yet this raised the question of what could be achieved with those resources, and on what timeline?
In his administration’s first months, President Obama doubled the U.S. military presence from 34,000 to 68,000 troops. Even after these increases, though, he saw the need later that year for a three-month-long intensive policy review. The review was spurred by the debacle of Afghani President Hamid Karzai’s stolen election and a simmering internal debate over the administration’s strategy — with some favoring a counterinsurgency campaign to stabilize the country, others a more modest operation targeted against terrorist forces. The military doctrine of counterinsurgency aims to gain enough of local citizens’ trust that they will help find rebel fighters and build governance structures, especially security services, loyal to the central government. As it happened, two of the doctrine’s leading exponents, General David Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal, were Obama’s senior commanders at the time.
Sanger describes the policy review as focusing on the question of “what it would take to reverse the momentum [of Taliban gains] in Afghanistan and then get out — a strategy called ‘escalate and exit’ inside the White House.” While the president was keenly interested in whatever progress an enhanced nato operation could attain, he was also leery of letting it drag out for years on end. (Both Sanger and Mann note that in the summer of 2009 Obama and many of his aides had been reading Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam about the difficulty of trying to finely tailor wartime decisions.) Meanwhile, McChrystal amplified his views through press leaks and public remarks, basically angling for the largest and longest operation he could get.
At the conclusion of the review in late-2009, President Obama decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, thereby tripling the troop level he inherited. With an augmented force, military commanders said they could sweep Taliban insurgents from significant swaths of the country. To keep the operation from bogging down, nato would hand off responsibility for the areas they had taken to Afghan forces. And while the added troops would be put on the ground as quickly as possible, following the template of President Bush’s Iraq War surge, forces would be cut to pre-surge levels within two years. From the Afghan side, President Karzai announced that by 2014 his government would no longer need nato.
When the time came to start preparing the drawdown in detail, however, US military leaders clearly assumed they would work with the White House on revising the timeline rather than sticking to the agreed plan. This despite the clear commitment to the timetable the generals gave President Obama during the policy review. One administration official shared with Sanger the assessment he’d given the president: The Pentagon went along with the deadline believing they could ultimately get it extended. The official recalled the president responding, “Well, I’m not going to give them more time.” Nor did it help matters when a Rolling Stone profile on McChrystal reported an unconcealed disdain in his camp for its political masters; the disregard for the principle of civilian control of the military compelled Obama to remove McChrystal from his command. (Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings’s book on the war in Afghanistan, The Operators, is an important and troubling document of the sense of untouchability felt by some officers and the often Sisyphean nature of the mission.)
Rather than let the issue be reopened, Obama relied on a tight circle of close advisers to help orchestrate the drawdown of troops and prioritize achievable objectives — sharing the plan with the entire national security team once it was ready. Last May the administration concluded a partnership agreement as a roadmap for U.S.-Afghan cooperation extending at least ten years beyond the 2014 departure of the last American forces.
For some issues, the Sanger and Mann books complement one another by offering different pieces of the puzzle. Their accounts of the Iranian nuclear controversy mesh especially well. For the Obamians themselves, Iran was a challenge they anticipated during the 2008 campaign and recognized as a test of their approach. And since judgments of the administration’s national security record often hinge on its handling of Iran, the policy warrants a closer examination than the partisan debates give it.
One passage from Sanger’s book, quoting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gets to the heart of the Obama strategy of engaging Iran or any government with which the United States has serious problems:
Washington would no longer regard sitting down to talk with an adversary as a sign of national weakness. “Not because we thought it would necessarily work,” as Clinton later said, “but because we knew that without trying we’d never get the allies to sign on to a much, much tougher approach.”
Going the extra mile to seek an agreeable solution actually helps gain the upper hand. In terms of the substance of guaranteeing Iran does not conduct a military nuclear program, it tests the other side’s sincerity to see if there is a solid basis for negotiations. Yet there is value in probing for compromise even if nothing materializes because it shapes perceptions in the rest of the onlooking world.
Other nations are just as much the diplomatic targets as Iran itself. Their support is vital to keep pressure on Iran in between attempts at negotiation, and the key to winning that support is to show clearly which party is reasonable — and which is uncooperative. Therein lie some answers to Mann’s question about a new Obamian relationship with the rest of the world. The strategy says that trying engagement first can ultimately yield more pressure. It emphasizes the importance of other players — the swing voters of international politics — in exerting that pressure, whether the target is Iran or China. Think of it as diplomatic jiu-jitsu or the moral authority of the other guy looking like a jerk.
And the policy toward Iran has played out just as Clinton indicated. One pivotal moment came in October 2009 when Iranian and international negotiators sketched an agreement to remove the majority of Iran’s enriched uranium from the country in exchange for civilian nuclear fuel. Tehran’s abandonment of the deal — coming just weeks after President Obama’s news conference at a g-20 summit to uncloak a secret nuclear facility in Iran — made many key governments much less patient with Iranian leaders. Which is how the Obama administration built support, including from China and Russia, for a new un sanctions resolution several months later. Indeed, the inconvenient fact for critics of Obama’s Iran policy is that he has imposed much tougher sanctions on Iran than his predecessor.
But while the diplomatic success traces to the Obamian style of U.S. international leadership, the working level implementation of the sanctions has roots (and authorship) in the Bush administration. For the tactics of pressuring Iran, Mann explains, Obama owed thanks to a Republican lawyer who in 2000 worked on the Bush v. Gore case and the Florida recount. Stuart Levey is also a bureaucratic innovator who used the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, which he headed since its creation in 2004, to devise a new method of turning the financial screws on other countries. The key was the office’s access to information the intelligence community collected about financial transactions and flows. Armed with this information, Levey
would approach a particular bank and explain how the money that flowed through it was being used for illicit or improper activities — North Korean counterfeiting, for example, or Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. When bankers claimed, as they often did, that they had no knowledge of these activities, Levey would show them the detailed evidence. . . . The implicit threat was that if a bank continued to do business in the same way, its reputation was at risk. It might be publicly exposed. In the worst case, the bank might be subjected to further sanctions and lose its ability to operate in the United States or elsewhere around the world.
Since all routes of the international financial system run through the U.S., for a bank to be prohibited from doing business in America is a severe constraint. Last summer’s ratcheting up of sanctions on oil and gas imports from Iran works similarly, by clamping down on institutions conducting such transactions through the Central Bank of Iran. Other nations’ dependence on such imports — not only energy-hungry China but close America allies such as Japan and Korea — make a total cutoff impractical, but their reduced purchases have shown their good faith and pushed down the price of Iranian energy as well as the associated revenue. The other recent dynamic has been the threat of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the Sanger book details President Obama’s effort to avert a rush to war.
As Mann and Sanger try pick out the distinguishing features of Obama foreign policy, both portray the administration as recalculating American leverage and factoring constraints into the equation. This raises the issues of economic realities and the charge — popular among the president’s political opponents — that he views America as a declining power.
Mann recounted interviews in which administration officials spoke in identical terms about the investment and aid resources Saudi Arabia and China were both spreading around their regions: “they sure do have a lot of money to throw around.” Mann noted that it was an observation others used to make about the United States in decades past. In the same vein, the limits Obama put on the American role in nato’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya substantially reduced the cost to the U.S.
On the issue of American “decline,” Mann makes the essential point about how Bush foreign policy diminished U.S. influence:
The impact of the Iraq War had been such that foreign leaders in countries like France and Germany were unwilling to collaborate with the United States overseas — and found that even when they wanted to do so, they faced determined and vociferous opposition at home. That was the situation Obama’s less “arrogant” approach was designed to change — as a way of increasing America’s power, not reducing it.
Many parts of Mann’s books draw on his close and perceptive reading of President Obama’s key policy speeches (an interesting contrast with Sanger’s critique that Obama has lacked a consistent message). One theme he discerns is an appeal for other nations to shoulder greater international responsibilities, because the United States cannot keep doing it all. But there is another rationale — core to the Obamian outlook and under-noticed in analyses of Obama foreign policy — for wanting others to step up: The point is not merely to spread the burden but also the ownership.
One dimension of American exceptionalism is the claim that its foreign policy is less self-serving than the role traditional great powers have played. U.S. power has served as a foundation for a stable and relatively peaceful and prosperous international order. As President Obama put it in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” In essence, the fundamental aims of American foreign policy are universal rather than particular to our own country. Returning to the Iranian example, other nations should help bring pressure not because America asked them to or they could be cut off from the U.S. banking system, but because Tehran is flouting an essential international norm. The same goes for other global challenges like economic growth or climate change: They should share similar concerns because all of us will live with the consequences.
Now that President Obama has won re-election, these two excellent books will be especially useful for those seeking a deeper understanding of his approach to foreign policy in his second term.