Obama’s surprisingly strong national security record owes much to a group of youthful aides few Americans have heard of.
But strains of realism continued to show through. The administration did not give blanket support to freedom movements in the Arab Spring, instead reacting according to U.S. interests and the precise circumstances of each teetering state. Egypt was not Syria and Tunisia was not Bahrain. Obama struggled to portray a coherent policy that was more inspiring than “acting according to our interests”—even though that is exactly what states do and must do.
Throughout his chapters on each of these issues, Mann presents sober, cogent strategic analysis. But Rice’s candor notwithstanding, Mann gives few new details that flesh out the personalities and decisions he discusses. This is surprising, because he interviewed some 125 people for the book. For instance, he contends that Power and Rice propelled the decision to use force in Libya, but does not show how they did so. Did they work over cabinet secretaries, canvas the Hill, or make their case directly to the president? What arguments did they use—did they appeal to moral obligations, strategic considerations, or both? Similar holes fill the chapter on the decision to strike at bin Laden. A paragraph notes the final meeting in which top aides gave their bottom line, but is silent on what they said. Mann tantalizingly mentions the president’s tense phone conversation with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan after the raid. Yet he merely records the fact of the call, rather than specifying what transpired. The Obamians could use more of the Woodwards.
Mann presents an administration whose foreign policy has succeeded in important but not all respects. Obama and his team understand the new limitations within which the United States must operate; their approach has been restrained but not defensive, coherent but not ideological, idealistic when it can be and realistic when it must be. Certainly not every problem has been solved: Iran and North Korea remain as intractable as ever. China continues to assert itself politically and economically. Success in Afghanistan is elusive. There is plenty, in other words, for a Romney administration to bungle should it get the chance.
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