On Political Books

July/August 2012 Young Guns

Obama’s surprisingly strong national security record owes much to a group of youthful aides few Americans have heard of.

By Michael O'Donnell

The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power
by James Mann
Viking Adult, 416 pp.

Of the many surprises in President Obama’s first term—accomplishing health care reform, neglecting judicial nominations, appointing Hillary Clinton secretary of state—the most interesting may be the administration’s robust foreign policy. Democrats are supposed to be strong on domestic matters but weak on defense. The party seemed to have embraced that stereotype by nominating a community activist cum constitutional law professor who eats arugula salads and embraces gay marriage. Had the man even fired an assault weapon? Yet here we are, months before the November 2012 election, and we find that Republican nominee Mitt Romney strays into foreign affairs at his peril. Obama has an impressive trophy room: he tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, ended an unpopular war in Iraq, and ran a successful and limited one in Libya. Romney, by contrast, must shuffle guests into a den that mounts, at most, squirrels and rabbits. He briefly contended that anyone could have taken Obama’s prize buck: even Jimmy Carter, Romney said in April, would have ordered the assault that killed bin Laden. This fatuous claim was so silly and unfounded that Obama’s camp merely chuckled at it, and it went away.

Three and a half years is a long enough time to begin to generalize and draw conclusions.The Obamians, by former Los Angeles Times reporter James Mann, takes a careful look at Obama’s foreign policy and the people who run it. The book follows Mann’s successful 2004 study, Rise of the Vulcans, which chronicled Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and the other fearless bullies who jumped into the pool and splashed all the water right out of it. The Obamians has many strengths, although the pair of catchy titles that grace Mann’s last two books suggests a weakness: shaping complex events to a simple, pithy narrative. It is a very Washington way to tell a story. The generation of Democratic foreign policy leaders that preceded the Obamians and opposed the Vulcans, Mann says, are the Trout Fishers. This is their name because they like to fish for trout during the Aspen Strategy Group conference in Colorado. Perhaps the Democrats’ rising stars for 2016 will be known as the Golfers—or the Frisbee Golfers. Their opponents will break from the past and use clever methods; we will call them the Sneaky Bastards.

The cover of the book depicts Obama’s foreign policy cabinet: Vice President Joe Biden, flashing that ridiculous, toothy, baby-kissing smile; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Yet these luminaries are not the Obamians, and the book is not about them. Rather, Mann focuses on a handful of younger worthies who do not hold cabinet positions but nevertheless have the president’s ear. No one would recognize them if they were put on the cover of a book. They ran foreign policy for the Obama campaign in 2008 and now mainly work at the National Security Council. The principal Obamians are Ben Rhodes, Mark Lippert, Denis McDonough, and Samantha Power. The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is not, strictly speaking, an Obamian, but her philosophy aligns with theirs and she may be considered an honorary member.

That philosophy is, in a word, “rebalancing,” and its proponents’ main advantage is generational:

[T]he Obamians’ personal involvement in foreign policy began in a different era—in the 2000s, the decade of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. intervention in Iraq and, later, the international financial crisis of 2008. These events gave the Obamians a distinctly more modest and downbeat outlook on America’s role in the world. The United States no longer seemed like a hyperpower.

Yet Republicans eager to paint members of the administration as defeatist facilitators of American decline are incorrect. Mann’s analysis of this sensitive issue is nuanced and persuasive. Obamians, he contends, recognize that China, India, and Brazil are no longer rising powers; they are now powers. The United States’ reputation took a serious hit during the 2000s, its military is overextended, and its economy is in the toilet like Europe’s. Consequently, the United States cannot be complacent but must take affirmative steps to ensure its own leadership over the coming decades. This is cold realism in the face of conservatives’ woolly idealistic belief that America is inherently supreme and will remain so for all time. Mann is carefully nonpartisan in this book, and otherwise would have mentioned that one reason for the United States’ tenuous position in the world today is the disastrous adventurism and economic policy of the Bush administration.

Another characteristic of Obama’s foreign policy leaders is their lack of Vietnam-era angst and baggage. As Rice put it to Mann in a frank interview, “What frustrated me about the 2004 campaign was, there we were, re-litigating, ‘where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ … and I’m thinking, what the hell does this have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?” Rice, who was on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, was seared by a different formative experience: U.S. inaction during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Thus, when Richard Holbrooke, a loud and uneasy transplant from Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the Obama administration, gave an interview to the New Yorker comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam, he sealed his own fate. Mann reports that Obama’s senior staff were furious and marginalized Holbrooke as a “character actor,” keeping him on board merely because he would be noisier and more troublesome outside the administration. Holbrooke, who died of a heart attack in 2010, also appears on the cover of The Obamians, off to the side and facing away.

Mann describes an Obama foreign policy that was initially realist in the tradition of George H. W. Bush, despite the president’s soaring and idealistic speeches. Through the efforts of Clinton, Gates, and Biden, the administration declined to support the Green movement after Iran’s fraudulent 2009 election, and it pragmatically altered the missile defense plans that had needlessly strained relations with Russia. Obama fulfilled campaign promises by ending the war in Iraq and renewing focus on Afghanistan, sending a surge of tens of thousands of new troops to pursue a strategy of counterinsurgency. Wary of sounding like his predecessor, Obama shied away from promoting democracy around the world.

Yet the Obamians soon took over, and their defining issue was Libya. Here was a humanitarian war led by allies and launched in a country with few strategic interests. And yet for all that, the coalition succeeded. Mann represents Libya as a watershed moment in Obama’s foreign policy:

It showed, once again, that Obama was no pacifist; he was willing to use military power. It demonstrated for the first time that he was willing to put the American military to work on behalf of humanitarian goals, in a way that the realists he admired would not. Above all, it demonstrated the Obama administration’s intense commitment to multilateralism, having approached the use of military force only after the urging of his closest allies and only after getting formal approval from the Arab League and the UN Security Council.
Michael O'Donnell , a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is a lawyer living in Chicago with his family.


  • Anonymous on August 02, 2012 10:48 AM:

    i think this is a bit simplistic analysis of obama's foreign policies.

    To seem to claim that obama, or USA for that matter, has control over what happens in Libya, for example, sound arrogant.

    Obama didn't "run" a war in Libya. people in that country started revolution and fought. the west gave them limited assistance because they acted. we simply reacted. what we did in Libya was successful but not so uniquely amazing. i think it was Libyans who were amazing.
    Words should be carefully considered when talking about other countries.

    I dont think Obama stopped talking about democracy because he just wanted to sound different from Bush, but he changed from Bush's unrealistic mission to impose democracy in Afghanistan to simply its stability and defeat of al quada.
    I believe Obama still tries to promote human rights and democracy in other parts of the world, especially in Asia.

    we blamed everything on Bush and it was wrong. we should not blame or credit Obama for everything.

  • Alan in SF on August 02, 2012 7:20 PM:

    The definition of "boldness" seems to be "killed lots of people" and the definition of a successful foreign policy seems to be "somewhat defused Republican criticism." Is the United States better off for all this? Are we better off in any proportion to the money spent and the lives lost? Who cares?

  • Anonymous on August 09, 2012 7:07 AM:

    The Foreign policy of the Barack Obama administration is the foreign policy of the United States from January 20, 2009 onward under the administration of President Barack Obama. Some of Obama's major foreign policy advisors include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice. buy the magic of making up

  • Martin on November 21, 2012 5:48 PM:

    I really don't think Hillary has been good for the USA Every time I see her face on T.V.I change the channel.I can't even imagine what those Muslim leaders in other parts of the world think,remember, we in the U.S.respect women in the Muslim countries the don't respect them at all!I really doubt they give her ear,they probably just give her lip service!