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

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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Michael O'Donnell , a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is a lawyer living in Chicago with his family.

Comments

  • 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!