European Affairs

"The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power" By James Mann     Print Email
Book Review by Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor, PBS NewsHour

theobamiansPoliticians and officials from parliamentary democracies never cease to be amazed how every four or eight years, U.S. presidential elections  cough up a group of young campaign aides who vault from near obscurity to positions of considerable power in the White House. Until 2008, most of these young men, and lately more women, ended up with authority over domestic policy. But the election of Barack Obama brought into the most inner circle of foreign policy advisors a clutch of aides who had not gone through the traditional training grounds of academia, the international conference circuit and authorship of learned journal articles that would make them familiar to European and other international counterparts.

This ascension from the campaign trail to the White House and National Security Council is one of the main themes in James Mann’s study of foreign-policy making in the first three years of the Obama administration. Mann is a veteran journalist and author of a well received comparable study of the George W. Bush team, Rise of the Vulcans.   He combines reportorial gifts with historical perspective, not only of American policy but of the Democratic Party’s often-tortured efforts to craft a coherent world view in the decades since the Vietnam War. That’s a lot to cram into one manageable and readable book, but he pulls it off.

When President-elect Obama unveiled his foreign policy team between the election and inauguration, the faces up front seemed familiar and seasoned, though in a couple of instances surprising: his main Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Bush holdover Robert Gates at the Pentagon, former Marine General James Jones as National Security Advisor and President Clinton’s former Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as CIA director.  And they all get their due in this book.

But for Mann, the critical players were those who rarely made the front pages or network broadcasts: Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon along with Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes and Michael Lippert. As this book spells out, these were the men whose connections with Obama were formed before and during the ‘08 campaign and they were the ones Mr. Obama turned to for support once the formal meetings with the bigger-name principals had concluded.  And eventually, Donilon and McDonough assumed the formal positions of National Security Advisor and Deputy that reflected their real power.

As Mann points out, their influence came as much from generational as physical proximity to the Oval Office. They, along with UN Ambassador Susan Rice and another NSC aide Samantha Power, were shaped by a new set of experiences. The older generation of office holders tended to see the world through either the prism of Vietnam or decisions taken during the Clinton Administration.  For the younger cohort, and most importantly for the President himself, the touchstones were 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq War and its aftermath.

On top of that was the President’s manner of decision-making and his role, rather than the Secretary of State or National Security Advisor, as the principal framer and conceptualizer of U.S. foreign policy.  Mann’s description of how the president reached his decision to intervene militarily in Libya is a dramatic example. Pressed by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to create a NATO no-fly zone to help protect the anti-Quadaffi  rebels under threat in Benghazi,  Obama asked the obvious question if  that would save a single Libyan life.  Instead the president both doubled down and then dialed back. He committed U.S. airpower to attacking government forces and targets in the first stages of the campaign, but then turned that job over to the British and French, while providing U.S. intelligence and logistical support. 

Much of Mann’s career and intellectual passion, including a reporting stint in Beijing for the Los Angeles Times, is focused on China. (Disclosure note:  I have known the author for twenty some years and with this review break a usual policy of not reviewing books by friends or acquaintances. This is important enough to merit an exception.)  And that overwhelming interest comes across in this book, with much attention devoted to policy twists and turns with that emerging superpower as well as Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East and the detainees at Guantanamo.  Getting much less mention are U.S. relations with Europe, which is a shame because we would like to have had his insider’s take on the White House reaction and response to the deepening euro crisis. All the more so since a new euro eruption this Fall could seriously dent the President’s re-election prospects. And as Mann points out in print, what others including some departed office holders have said privately: “Obama had what was probably the most politically attuned national security team in the modern era.”

But beyond the stories of policy-making, Mann is trying throughout  to address a bigger  issue: the power and role of the United States in a rapidly transforming world.

“…Predictions of American decline have repeatedly been wrong in the past, and the United States has often demonstrated an extraordinary ability to adapt and innovate. Still, that does not answer whether the United States will be able to revive itself and fortify its international position now as it has in the past. Those who argue that there was been no decline sometimes ignore or gloss over the objective fact of America’s diminishing economic power and resources, compared with other countries. The Obama administration has been able to demonstrate once again America’s military strengths and to increase its diplomatic influence, but it has far less in economic and financial clout than any administration for decades.

“There is one other striking difference from the past: Never before have America’s leaders found it so necessary to proclaim so often both at home and around the world, that America is not (underlined) in decline.”

And then there is a note that has to be poignant for Mann and any other old newspaperman, even those who later wandered into television. Assessing the new factors in foreign policy making, he quotes one official, Tony Blinken:

“In the Clinton administration, we basically stopped work every night at six thirty to watch the national network news. I don’t think many people do that anymore. And the other thing everyone did back then was, you got up in the morning and you rushed to see what was above the fold on a physical copy of The New York Times and The Washington Post and maybe the LA Times and Wall Street Journal, which no one does anymore, either. Instead, we’re on an intravenous feed of cable and the Internet and blogs, everything else.”

What remains to be seen, at least until November, is whether this important book will serve primarily as a history of the past four years or a guide to the next four. Whatever the election outcome, the big questions raised here will hardly be susceptible to campaign rhetoric.