The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Election year in America invariably sees a surge of books about the personalities vying for power. Some evaluate an incumbent president’s record in the White House. Others look ahead, comparing candidates and their prospects and offering detailed profiles of the contestants.
President Barack Obama has already been the subject of many books including a new biography by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, David Maraniss. Not all have painted a flattering picture. Still on America’s bestseller list, The Amateur by Edward Klein casts him as arrogant, inept in governance and inclined to repeat failed policies.
James Mann’s new book joins a different debate – whether Obama has a foreign policy that can be distinguished from his predecessors. Awkwardly called The Obamians, the book’s subtitle explains its main theme, ‘The Struggle inside the White House to Redefine American Power’. The author describes in much detail Obama’s foreign policy team and the interplay between diverse personalities, the president and their differing worldviews. According to him much of the early confusion and later contradictions in Obama’s policy can be explained by tensions within this disparate team rather than the complexity of dealing with a world of shifting power balances.
This book follows his previous work, ‘Rise of the Vulcans,’ which profiled President George Bush’s foreign policy advisers. It is just as readable and insightful about foreign policy making under Obama. He divides Obama’s motley foreign policy crew into three types of people. Younger, mostly inexperienced advisers appointed to the National Security Council, who have formed a small, informal circle around Obama. They include deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, his speechwriter Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power.
Mann calls these trusted and “politically attuned” advisers ‘Obamians.’ Their defining experience was the 2008 financial crisis and Iraq, not Vietnam, which influenced a different generation of Democrats. These insiders have been keen to redefine America’s global role, in acknowledgment of new global realities and the budget constraints under which America now has to conduct its foreign policy. The ultimate Obamian, says Mann, is Obama himself. His views of the world and of America’s role in it were largely shaped by his age and the era in which his career progressed.
The second group comprised experienced Democrats who practiced foreign policy during the Clinton administration in the 1990s. These ‘Centrist’ Democrats are less defensive about America’s use of power including military force. Although they had a less exaggerated view of US coercive power than Bush Republicans, there were several ‘liberal interventionists’ among them. Members of this group included Tom Donilon, national security adviser and Jim Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state.
The third group comprised former rivals – Hilary Clinton – old Washington hands and holdovers from the Bush era – such as Robert Gates and Jim Jones. Most were not close to Obama. Nor did they know much about where his foreign policy was headed.
Lack of coherence in Obama’s early foreign policy is ascribed by the author to internal rifts and the competing ideas of this disparate team. Mann sees Obama himself as “the true driver” and strategist of his foreign policy but as new to this game as his inner circle and as little influenced by previous Democratic administrations. Some of his views changed over time. A case in point was the initial rushed and poorly thought through review of Afghan policy. After embarking on the path of counterinsurgency, Obama later reversed course.
Mann argues that Obama’s overall strategy was influenced from the outset by the concept of “rebalancing”. This refers to many contexts: shifting priorities to domestic concerns, rebalancing from over reliance on the military towards diplomacy and switching focus to East Asia from the Middle East.
In pressing this point Mann attributes greater coherence to Obama’s policy than it has had. Elsewhere he suggests that the administration lacked any foreign policy philosophy. The shift in attention or resources impelled by circumstances doesn’t add up to an overarching framework or strategy. It is really a response to changing realities and developments. An imperative does not necessarily translate into a strategy. Often the administration struggled to keep pace up with global developments, such as the Arab spring, over which it had no control. Ad hoc responses to events did not add up to a ‘rebalancing of US power’.
Mann does however lay bare the gap between Obama’s declaratory policy (closing Guantanamo, ratifying CTBT) and actual conduct as well as his U-turns on Afghanistan by first embracing counterinsurgency and then abandoning it for a narrower counterterrorism mission. The administration played down the significance of this change of strategy because this “would have raised questions about whether he should have sent so many more American troops to Afghanistan in the first place.” Mann sees Obama’s 2009 decision on a troop surge mainly a consequence of being trapped by his campaign rhetoric that pledged to step up the ‘right’ war in Afghanistan. In this context Mann tends to support a popular view that Obama’s hardline on Afghanistan was aimed to offset his antiwar stance on Iraq.
In evaluating whether Obama departed from Bush era policies, Mann correctly states that the same counterterrorism policies have not only continued but Obama has intensified target killings by drones and stepped up military strikes into Pakistan to combat Al-Qaeda. He describes Obama’s views in this regard to be more hawkish than Bush’s. Obama not only vastly expanded the use of drones for targeted killings but also the areas for these drone killings. Moreover Obama “was less collaborative and more unilateral than Bush in dealing with Pakistan”. “Bush’s approach was to inform and work with Pakistani leaders; it was Obama who achieved the success of the Bin Laden raid.”
Mann’s account of this raid contains little that is new. What is revealing is his portrayal of Obama as personally and repeatedly choosing the riskiest option for relations with Pakistan during preparations for the covert raid. This meant the plan that was carried out included contingencies for direct military conflict with Pakistan’s forces.
The book says the Pentagon initially developed a plan for handling the situation if Pakistani forces detected the raid and resisted the American team. This option was called “Talk Your Way Out”. While US Special Forces would hold off any Pakistani counter response, diplomatic efforts would seek to persuade Pakistani leaders to let the US team go. But Obama rejected this in favour of the “Fight Your Way Out” option. This meant direct military engagement with Pakistan, if necessary, and planning for a second set of forces to go in to ensure that the Bin Laden operation succeeded.
In the event, American boots on the ground went undetected by Pakistan until the operation was virtually over. But Mann notes that America’s relationship with Pakistan never recovered from the Bin Laden raid. The fallout he says was much greater than Washington ever anticipated.
Mann cites Obama’s counterterrorism policy as the principal success of his foreign policy. He also refers in this regard to his first major foreign policy decision, made amid the financial crisis, to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. But he does not think Obama fared well on other issues including reorienting US policy towards Asia and restoring America’s diminished standing in the Muslim world. Among Obama’s notable failures, he cites the abortive efforts for a Middle East peace settlement, vain attempts to stop Iran’s nuclear programme and dissuade the North Koreans from the course they have followed.
The book closes with Mann’s conclusion that for all the claims made by both Democrats and Republicans during Presidential campaigns that their policies are sharply different from each other, the foreign policy pendulum doesn’t swing that much once they are in power. With the American election less than a hundred days away this is a useful perspective to keep in mind.
James Mann, The Obamians, The Struggle inside the White House to Redefine American Power, Viking, 2012.