A review of Barack Obama's Post-American Foreign Policy: The Limits of Engagement, by Robert Singh; Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, David E. Sanger; Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy, by Martin S. Indyk, Kenneth G. Lieberthal, and Michael E. O'Hanlon; and The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power, by James Mann
Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!
A qual prezzo vendeste il mio bene?
Courtiers, vile damned race!
At what price did you sell out my worth?
—Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto
This cri de coeur from Verdi's opera expresses the common man's reaction to officials and hangers-on who toy for their own ends with the public's goods. This is, I submit, a proper reaction to the four books on Obama's foreign policy under review here, three of which are written by persons best understood as courtiers of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The fourth, by Robert Singh, a Brit and an intimate of that establishment, describes its members as: "intellectuals in research institutes and think tanks…so heavily, and persistently, involved and invested personally in partisan politics. Their career trajectories are married, at least to an extent, on whether the party they support is in power or not, and their prospects for government office…likewise hinge on brute party politics and election outcomes."
This from Verdi's opera expresses the common man's reaction to officials and hangers-on who toy for their own ends with the public's goods. This is, I submit, a proper reaction to the four books on Obama's foreign policy under review here, three of which are written by persons best understood as courtiers of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The fourth, by Robert Singh, a Brit and an intimate of that establishment, describes its members as: "intellectuals in research institutes and think tanks…so heavily, and persistently, involved and invested personally in partisan politics. Their career trajectories are married, at least to an extent, on whether the party they support is in power or not, and their prospects for government office…likewise hinge on brute party politics and election outcomes."
These very different books similarly ask: How different is the Obama Administration's foreign policy from that of its predecessors? They answer: not so different. How good for America and the world has it been? At best, not nearly as good as advertised. Anyone interested in just these questions would be well advised to avoid these books' 1,600-some pages, mostly boring. The reward for sifting them however is an understanding not so much of Obama's foreign policy as of the present foreign policy establishment—the latest crop of courtiers. Its differences from previous ones are slight, and for the worse. Statesmanship's natural goal—the tranquility that comes when foreign nations dare not breach it—seems to be the last thing in these courtiers' minds.
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Robert Singh's Barack Obama's Post–American Foreign Policy presents itself as a sequel to his After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy (2008), co-authored with Timothy Lynch, which argued that "the key principles and policies that had informed what had come to be known variously as the ‘Bush Doctrine' and the ‘war on terror' would, and should, continue to shape US foreign policy after January 2009." The present book argues that they did so under Obama, and implies that future presidents of either party will not and should not try to transcend them.
Singh argues that, rhetoric and intentions aside, George W. Bush's foreign policy was "post-American" because it fit the inescapable reality of the U.S.'s relative decline in the world and absolute decline at home. Writing for the Euro-American ruling class, Singh is careful to cosset his criticisms of Obama with ritual deprecations of American conservatives, especially in those awkward moments when his observations parallel theirs. Singh calls Obama's approach to foreign policy "careful and judicious—though not necessarily correct," and the conservatives' critique "unfair, excessive, and intemperate."
Singh's judgment on substance is that Obama assumed the existence of parallel interests among the world's governments, all of which, it turned out, "were simply not looking to Washington any longer for leadership, influence or even advice." That is why Obama foreign policy is likely to hasten a post-American era "where America can no longer entirely fulfill its traditional global responsibilities but from which it cannot fully extricate itself." Yet Singh does not think that this foreign policy is bad. By the standard of Washington's bipartisan foreign policy establishment, Obama failed only in the sense that Bush had failed: to ride America's receding wave as adroitly as possible. We glimpse that defeatist standard through the instances in which Singh pronounces Obama's policy pretty good.
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Consider U.S. relations with Russia and China. Neither Singh nor the establishment doubts that Russia is an ex-power on a steep downward trajectory. Its population is in free-fall, its teenagers' life expectancies are briefer than Somalis', its unproductive socio-political system is kleptocratic, and its foreign policy is a nasty attempt to recreate the Soviet empire by intimidating and subverting peoples from the Baltic to Central Asia. Russia made opposition to America's feeble attempts at missile defense the major issue in its relations with the U.S. Obama acquiesced in most of Russia's demands on missile defense, and was caught on an open mike implying that he would give in on the rest if re-elected. He entered into arms control agreements that are unnecessary, at best. He retreated from Bush's (very modest) support for the independence of a vast chunk of Eurasia. But Singh can call all that something of a success because his points of reference are precisely the "intellectuals in research institutes and think tanks…heavily, and persistently, involved and invested personally in partisan politics." They neither know nor care about the how and why of missile defense any more than they do about geopolitics.
Similarly, Singh judges Obama's approach to China a modest success while acknowledging that though his administration wished loudly that America remain a major power in the Western Pacific, it did not decide even in pectore what degree of independence from Chinese influence any of the Pacific islands ought to enjoy—never mind what means the U.S. should employ to ensure that independence. So Obama's big achievement, in Singh's view, was recalibrating his original unqualified faith that China's rise poses no problem.
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Slogging through these books, one is struck by their focus on the minutiae of policy-making and short-term goals, and above all on Obama's political merits in such matters, to the exclusion of consideration of America's long term interests. This is clearest in New York Times reporter David E. Sanger's Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power—famous from pre-publication leaks for its revelations of America's cyber war against Iran, for its portrait of Barack Obama choosing the targets of deadly drone strikes in Pakistan, and for a host of juicy inside stories. So juicy and so inside were they that Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee—from whom nothing, but nothing, is supposed to be secret—was shocked to learn new things with "every page I turn." So juicy were these stories that they prompted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to advise Thomas Donilon, the National Security Advisor, to "shut the f— up!"
Most remarkable to this reviewer are the accounts of Donilon & Co.'s relations with Pakistan's senior military leaders—the pro-Western backbone of a geopolitically essential nation. These men had acted on principle, staking their careers and lives on cooperating with America despite Pakistani public opinion's increasingly anti-American bent. The book simply blows their cover, scorns them, and accuses them of treason, thus accelerating nuclear-armed Pakistan's headlong rush into the camp of America's enemies. Similarly, the book's account of America's cyber war against Iran's enrichment of weapons-grade uranium is remarkable not so much for the details of the "malware" technology involved—it seems that the Iranians had already begun to figure these out. Rather, the book gratuitously reveals that the virus was introduced into Iranian computers by human agents…and in ways that give important clues to these agents' identities. The courtiers who thus threw America's allies to the wolves to advance their political patrons' fortunes (and their own) show their own shabby character as well as how little they and their patrons care for America.
Their care for Obama, by contrast, pervades the book. The world was surprised by the "Arab spring" of 2011, but Sanger tells us Obama "had, in fact, seen it coming." In Russia, "engagement with the regime allowed the United States to push along democratization." Obama personally re-established "the credibility of the tattered [United Nations'] Security Council" (as if it ever had any) just by sitting as its chairman. Sometimes the focus on the Chosen One's fortunes is clearer than may be intended, as when Sanger sums up his long description of Obama's agonizing over allowing the Osama kill mission: "He also knew that he could be betting his presidency"—not American lives and interests, mind you, but his electoral prospects.
Like Singh, however, Sanger occasionally steps outside his sources and expresses his own judgments. Obama made some "rookie mistakes," it seems. He focused on delaying Iran's nuclear program, for example, and on avoiding Israel's decision to attack it, obscuring the ultimate, never-answered question: would America itself attack to prevent a nuclear armed Iran, or not?
Sanger's discussion of Obama's reliance on drone strikes against suspected terrorists points out that such killings offer no prospect of ending or even ameliorating America's problem with terrorists. Obama defended his increasing use of this tool saying:
It's not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions. It's also part and parcel of our overall authority when it comes to battling al Qaeda…. This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.
But this reference to legal authority says nothing about the campaign's usefulness. Sanger writes: "As in the case [of Bush's decision to invade Iraq] the logic is only as good as the evidence."
In fact, the current campaign's criteria for who is to be killed, and the evidence for each case, are indeed the exclusive purview of "a bunch of folks in a room." How does anyone know that these folks know what they're doing, that their criteria and information make sense? Sanger mentions as a problem that seven Central Intelligence Agency employees in Khost, Afghanistan, were blown up by one of their sources in December 2009, but does not let on that the CIA had relied on this bomber to target U.S. drone strikes for a year and a half. Presumably, the bomber had not aimed those strikes at America's enemies. Sanger does not ask to what extent the drone campaign depends on such sources of information. But he writes that "every strike creates more and more public anger," and notes that Obama & Co. have not asked when any of this will end.
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The relationship between means and ends is barely perceptible in Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy, by Martin Indyk, Todd Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon, all of whom "have advised the Obama team on some aspect of its foreign policy." Their overall judgment is that bending "history in the direction of justice" is what this "deeply intelligent and deliberative individual" set out to do with his "sense of humility" and "balanced tone." Better still, Obama was able to make "meaningful progress" on his objectives: "a planet saved from famine, rising oceans, and carbon emissions; a world without nuclear weapons; and the redemption of those left behind by globalization through providing them with dignity, opportunity, and ‘simple justice.'" They also tell us, however, that Obama has been unable "to connect the day-to-day management of global affairs with his ambition to lead the country and world in a better direction." As the authors describe how Obama fared with China, the war on terror, the Middle East, etc., they argue that he did not make matters worse—except in the Middle East, where he made them much worse. The trio's brief for Obama demonstrates most persuasively the limits of their own imaginations.
Thus, Lieberthal's chapter on China is so rote in its adherence to establishment assumptions that it does not seem to notice their patent contradictions. We read, "North Korea's nuclear program works against China's interest on various levels." And yet, "Beijing's bottom line amounted to running international interference for deadly provocations committed by the North." Those provocations include the nuclear program, which exists strictly by Chinese sufferance, like everything else in North Korea.
Similarly, Lieberthal misses the point of the evidence he presents about the Obama Administration's "pivot" toward Asia. In 2011, as Team Obama resolved to leave Afghanistan to its fate, it publicized increased involvement in the Western Pacific, consisting of "more frequent personal trips to the region by ranking US officials, more robust relationships with friends and allies, more engagement in Asian regional organizations, and more attention to regional issues." There were also some token military deployments to the region, in response to pleas for increased American support by virtually every neighbor of China, from India around to Japan. Lieberthal writes that Beijing did not like the administration's new attention, but that it is "unlikely to ‘take on' the United States if America has adopted a strategically coherent Asia strategy that is widely respected and viewed as credible in the region." But Lieberthal knows that Obama's America is not credible:
[O]n their November 2011 trips, both President Obama and Secretary Clinton talked as if Asians did not view the global financial crisis as "made in America," as if the American system of democracy had recently been performing splendidly, and as if the American military had all the resources necessary to sustain any type of deployment Washington wishes across the vast Pacific region. But it is clear to all Asians that none of this is true.
In sum, Obama's China policy is based on "more than a little wishful thinking."
How fanciful are the Obamians' calculations about Asia may be seen in the Association of South East Asia Nations' (ASEAN) communiqué of November 20, 2012. The president had attended the ASEAN summit to encourage the formation of a vast Trans-Pacific partnership, excluding China. Instead ASEAN announced a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership including China, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand…but excluding the United States.
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O'Hanlon's stale, unreflective chapter on "War, Counterterrorism, and Homeland Protection" praises Obama's "thoughtful, careful…effective…smart" decisions. O'Hanlon argues that Obama capped a successful war in Iraq by withdrawing troops in 19 months rather than the 16 he had promised, concluding "Obama…has no choice but to maintain his administration's focus on this important country." He explains that Iraq had a "civil war," which the U.S. won when it reduced violence through a "surge" of troops that encouraged the several sides to turn against "extremists" in their own ranks—as if the pervasive violence came from "extremism" rather than from the clashing purposes of its Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish components. The reality of the surge was that the U.S. stopped resisting the Sunni insurgents' attempt to control their own areas, and thenceforth protected them against a Shia majority that, by 2006, had begun to kill Sunnis by the tens of thousands. American forces stood guard as each Iraq faction came under the iron hand of its most powerful component—from which emerged the present division of Iraq.
One would never know any of this from O'Hanlon, who writes further that Obama showed "considerable courage" in ordering the killing of Osama bin Laden, considering "the huge political cost to him personally if the operation had failed." Obama "fully debunked" the theory that he had supported greater military involvement in Afghanistan to cover his opposition to fighting in Iraq, by actually increasing forces in Afghanistan and manfully accepting the ensuing deaths and maiming of U.S. troops: "an indicator of commitment, especially by a commander in chief, who typically feels such losses personally and deeply in any war." O'Hanlon goes on to note, however, that Obama, "deeply conflicted about the war," compromised its success when he set a limit on deployment to "keep the country's political left supportive"—of himself. O'Hanlon's convoluted diction conveys embarrassment—as it should.
By contrast, Martin Indyk's chapters on the Middle East make little effort to disguise the Obama Administration's incompetence. Obama accepted the Arab world's veiled promise of peace in exchange for American pressure on Israel, only to find that the Arabs really meant that they might consider peace only after the U.S. had rendered Israel defenseless. Obama, forced to back off, ended up alienating both sides. Indyk's rendition of the administration's handling of the Arab spring is just as unsparing: ignorance and prejudice delivered Egypt, the region's most important power, into the hands of America's enemies.
The book's account of Obama's relationship with Iran, however, returns to type. The authors, along with the president, believe that Russia largely shares U.S. interests in keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran's hands—just as they believe that China opposes the North Korean nuclear program that it makes possible. Theirs is a peculiar planet.
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How did Obama's team come to think this way? Who are they, anyway? James Mann's The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power acquaints us with Obama's courtiers much as his 2004 bestseller The Rise of the Vulcans did with George W. Bush's. In sum, the team's headliners, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and National Security Advisor James Jones were less important than their titles, because lower-level officials who enjoy Obama's confidence set the substance of administration policy. These are former Senate staffers (Peter Rouse, Mark Lippert), speechwriters (Ben Rhodes), and soulmates (Susan Rice, etc.). These political operators "were less concerned with practical details of governance. They were, however, more adept at providing a determined opposition to the Republicans, and much better at figuring out what to say in public about foreign policy." It would be surprising if a president who, typical of "multiculturalists," knows no foreign languages or cultures and little history, chose advisors who do not mirror him.
The prevalence of Obamians in the Obama Administration explains much of what it has done and is likely to do, and places in context James Mann's interesting intellectual history of the Democratic wing of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. In John Kennedy's era, not so long ago, it consisted of such as McGeorge Bundy, Walter Rostow, and Dean Rusk—scions of Henry L. Stimson, who had served both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. But these "best and brightest" had alienated the Democratic Party's base by fighting the Vietnam war.
The next generation, who served Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, sought to channel the base's resentment of American power into commitment to "progressive action abroad" while retaining a taste for asserting American influence. Mann writes that Richard Holbrooke "boasted" of his ties to the old establishment. This generation included such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and William Odom, men of considerable learning who ran Carter's National Security Council. But among them was also Anthony Lake, the author of Carter's celebration of America's defeat in Vietnam, who was Clinton's national security adviser and Obama's first adviser on foreign affairs, for whom "progressive" foreign policy meant something closer to what William Appleman Williams had advocated in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959): America had been on the wrong side of the world's struggles. Indeed America was the wrong side. The U.S. government should switch sides.
By the 1990s another generation had come along, barely distinguishable from post-Reagan Republicans with whom they met yearly at Aspen, Colorado. These, including Thomas Donilon and James Steinberg (and supported editorially by the New York Times's Bill Keller), supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. But they repudiated their move even more quickly than their predecessors had done 40 years earlier with regard to Vietnam. Mann explains succinctly that they moved leftward. Whether principle drove their politics, or vice versa, is immaterial. Obama was already there, waiting for them.
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U.S. foreign policy under Obama results from the same progressive deformation that has affected the Republican no less than the Democratic side of the foreign policy establishment. However one may evaluate John Foster Dulles's 1953-59 tenure as secretary of state, no one may question that his knowledge and expertise were on a par with President Dwight Eisenhower's, who had gained them the hard way, waging World War II. In 1969, when Richard Nixon presented his foreign policy team by simultaneously raising the hands of Henry Kissinger and Richard Allen, he was tapping two separate sources of multilingual learned persons.
But in Ronald Reagan's presidency, political operatives such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane far outnumbered persons who had spent their lives preparing for such roles. Consider, then, George W. Bush's "Vulcans": pleasing the boss was Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's main expertise.
In sum, the foreign policy establishment's courtiers seem to differ primarily in party affiliation and age. Obama's Susan Rice, a decade younger than Bush's Condoleezza Rice, seems merely to have evolved further toward subordinating the substance of policy to the political fortunes of her employer, and of herself. Step by step, the two sets of courtiers tread the same path. Unless and until American foreign policy ceases to be the business of such bipartisan courtiers, hunting season on Americans around the globe will remain open.