Obama’s World

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

AS BARACK OBAMA’S first presidential term approaches its conclusion, the time for assessing his foreign policy in relation to that of his predecessors has arrived. Has Obama turned out to be “Bush Lite,” betraying his campaign promises in order to carry out what amounts, in foreign policy, to a third term for George W. Bush? That’s the claim from many of the president’s critics on the left, who have cited Obama’s failure to close the detention facility at Guantánamo and his prosecution of the Afghan war, together with his administration’s Bushian record on matters such as covert conflict and state secrecy.

Obama’s conservative opponents, meanwhile, stress discontinuity. Even if they do not join the lunatic fringe in portraying Obama as actively anti-American, candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, as well as other mainstream conservatives, have painted a picture of a weak president who apologizes for America and is content to manage the nation’s avoidable decline in power and influence. Obama’s centrist supporters, for their part, can point to foreign-policy successes, most notably the killing of Osama bin Laden. But if there is an Obama Doctrine, it is not clearly defined or generally understood.

In The Obamians, James Mann attempts to clarify these questions with a follow-up to his well-received study of George W. Bush’s foreign-policy team, Rise of the Vulcans. Like all first drafts of history written about administrations that are still in power, this account will need to be corrected in the future. But Mann is an experienced and judicious observer of both presidential policy making and the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment, and, as in the case of his earlier book, many of his initial judgments are likely to pass the test of time.

In laying out the main challenges of post-Bush policy making, Mann emphasizes the extent to which Obama, the relatively inexperienced junior senator who became president, relied on two groups of veterans from earlier administrations of both parties. One is a group of foreign-policy realists, symbolized by Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser for the first President Bush, and Robert Gates, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld as the head of the Defense Department in 2006 and served in the same post under Obama until he was replaced in 2011 by Leon Panetta. Although the realists are associated with the Nixon-Kissinger wing of the Republican Party, their allies include some whom Mann describes as “Scowcroft Democrats.”

Scowcroft’s influence over Obama’s foreign policy was evident even before the new administration took office,” Mann writes. “During his campaign in 2008, Obama spoke approvingly of ‘foreign policy realism’ and said he had ‘enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush.’ During the transition, Scowcroft had recommended former Marine Corps commandant James Jones as Obama’s national security adviser, and the president-elect, who hardly knew Jones, went ahead with the appointment.” Mann also observes: “The most powerful member of Obama’s cabinet, Robert Gates, was especially close to Scowcroft, in some ways also a protégé.”

Clinton-administration veterans, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, made up the other group of experienced policy makers recruited to Obama’s foreign-policy team. Many of these onetime Clinton advisers were liberal hawks, heirs to the enthusiasm for intervention to prevent massacres and promote human rights that began with the US-led NATO intervention in the Balkans and in some quarters endures to this day. Prominent liberal hawks, including some who served in the Obama administration, like former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, supported the invasion of Iraq. Many liberal interventionists reconsidered their views in light of the carnage and cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—but others maintained the belief that American power was benevolent and should be used for humanitarian goals beyond self-defense. In this camp Mann places National Security Council aide Samantha Power, United Nations ambassador Susan Rice, ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who headed policy planning at the State Department for a time.

So far, Mann reports, Obama has navigated comfortably between the agendas of the realists and the liberal hawks. One of Obama’s defining characteristics as a politician has been an unwillingness to be defined, a determination to play the role of the broker above the fray who can see the valid points on both sides in a debate and bring rivals to a consensus. “This search for underlying common ground,” Mann notes, “had worked extremely well for Obama in his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention about red states and blue states, and it became a framework he frequently applied as president to everything from taxes and budget negotiations to foreign policy.” But even though the president sought to blend “the realism of Kissinger and Scowcroft and the idealism of Woodrow Wilson,” Mann observes that Obama policy hands were dissatisfied with the idea of realism as an end in itself. “The prevailing attitude [in the White House] was that to be a realist, dismissing in advance the relevance of liberal values in foreign policy, was merely to be practical,” Mann writes. “When issues were framed in that skewed manner, thought one administration official, anybody would want to be a realist.”

On some issues, the realists and liberal internationalists were able to find consensus on their own. Mann writes: “When it came to India, the realists within the Obama administration and the proponents of democracy joined together. The realists saw India as a counterweight to China’s growing power, and the idealists saw India as a counterexample to China’s one-party state.”

However, on the subject of intervention in the Libyan civil war—a defining moment in what came to be known as the Obama team’s “lead from behind” approach to diplomacy—the two schools were at odds. Intervention in Libya was opposed by outgoing Defense Secretary Gates, who warned in a February 25, 2011, speech at West Point: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it” after the Korean War. According to Mann, Hillary Clinton sided with Power in favor of the intervention in Libya—the policy that the Obama administration ultimately pursued.

It is still far from clear, however, that the Libyan adventure was more than a temporary variation from Obamian realpolitik. The intervention was a genuine war, in spite of the administration’s pathetic claims that bombing a foreign government and attempting to overthrow its leader was something less than territorial aggression. Mann rightly dismisses such arguments as “hypocritical.” In 2007, after all, candidate Obama had declared: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

Even so, the Obama administration’s choice to “lead from behind,” supporting a coalition in which Britain, France, and other NATO allies took the principal roles, arguably was the operational corollary to a more restrained grand strategy. The Libya intervention certainly was no revival of the American triumphalism shared by the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush alike. “Obama . . . had, it turned out, a different definition of America’s leadership role than the one to which Americans had become accustomed,” Mann notes. “He worked out his deal with British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy under which the United States would help initiate the air campaign over Libya, and then, after a few days, let Britain, France, and other NATO allies and partners take over the work.”

Mann observes that this pivot into a more multilateral model of intervention reflected some deeper, longer-term shifts in the main currents of global power. “During the Cold War, the United States had been the leader of the free world; now, it was less so. After the Soviet collapse, America had been the world’s sole superpower, determining what it wanted and then consulting its allies. Now the dynamic was reversed: Its close allies made the initial decisions and then had to beseech the United States to join with them in military action. America would go along, as long as it didn’t have to carry the military burden on its own.”

At present, the Libyan intervention is considered a success—but Mann suggests that the precedent the Obamians have set in Libya may create some dire unintended consequences, by furnishing an incentive for other regimes to pursue more bellicose reactions to the power of America and its allies. “The events in Libya may well have taught the North Koreans and Iranians a very different lesson: If you give up your nuclear program, you are more vulnerable to military attack. It seems extremely unlikely that the United States and its allies would have bombed nuclear-armed North Korea the way they did Gaddafi’s denuclearized Libya, even if North Korea was threatening to kill more civilians than Gaddafi ever did.” If so, this would not be the first nor the last example of American policy makers creating ironic outcomes in the pursuit of a simple doctrine of expansive US power.

Such long-term risks aside, Mann makes a persuasive case that the Obama foreign-policy record has faithfully reflected the pragmatic, difference-trimming outlook of the president—which is one reason why it’s so far resisted any pat formulation as a clear doctrine or set of guiding axioms, along the lines of the neoconservative Bush White House’s belief in preventive war and the military-backed export of US democracy. “Americans tend to assume that a change in administration represents a wholesale change in personnel and viewpoints,” Mann writes. “But that is not always true, and especially not in the case of the Obama administration.” After Obama had continued the policy of the post-2006 Bush administration in the early years of his term, Mann argues that he “changed his military strategy in a fundamental way, so that the Obama of 2011 was not the same as the Obama of 2009.” Having begun by accepting the strategy of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan associated with General David Petraeus, Obama turned to the rival strategy of “counterterrorism,” effectively abandoning nation building for long-range drone strikes and occasional raids like the one that killed bin Laden as the primary American defense against jihadist terrorism. This tactical shift is, if anything, less dramatic than the recent reorientation of Pentagon strategy, away from a focus on the Middle East toward “offshore balancing” in Asia. This emerging doctrine repudiates both neoconservatism and liberal internationalism for a traditional kind of balance-of-power politics focused on potential great-power rivals—in this case, China.

It remains unclear whether the recent pivot in American defense policy represents a genuine acceptance of a multipolar world, or a determination to maintain American primacy indefinitely at lower cost—“hegemony on the cheap,” in the apt phrase of the international-relations scholar David Calleo. The danger of a focus on tactics, such as drone attacks and offshore naval rivalries, instead of nation building, is that it can spark a downsizing of resources without a commensurate downsizing of commitments. The result of this process could be a“hollowed-out” military. This outcome is made all the more likely by the certainty that the Right will attack any public discussion of reducing commitments or ceding responsibilities to regional allies as weakness, appeasement, or “declinism.”

For the most part, Mann’s account here is persuasive and well researched. But like other narratives that lean heavily on divisions of opinion within elites (an interpretive approach favored by the British historian Sir Lewis Namier), The Obamians tends to overlook the broader context of American politics and political culture.

Indeed, if the scope of analysis is widened beyond a comparison of the Obama administration to its two or three predecessors, it is clear that the grand strategies of the two parties have changed over time—in concert with key shifts in each major party’s central constituencies and geographic bases. White southerners are the most hawkish group in the United States, and the party in which they form a major constituency—the Democrats until Kennedy and Johnson, the Republicans today—tends to be the most bellicose. Today’s Democrats, based in the Northeast and in the Midwest and on the West Coast, are not so much the political heirs of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats, who had been skeptical of old-world diplomacy and the specter of imperial overreach; rather, today’s Democratic base shares the basic policy instincts of Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and “Modern Republicans” like Eisenhower and Nixon. If Obama is a Scowcroft Democrat in foreign policy, he is a Rockefeller Democrat in domestic policy.

The protean parties continue to evolve in new directions. One of the most interesting arguments Mann advances in The Obamians is that the Clintonites in the Obama administration were less prepared than the president himself to deal with the radical changes in the global scene that took shape during George W. Bush’s two terms. In the Clinton years, China had still been a relatively weak developing country, and Clinton-era liberals hoped for a rapid transition to open markets and democracy by the Chinese regime. But as Mann tells the story, Clinton veterans and others in the administration were shocked to discover that the cute panda cub of the 1990s had grown into a surly adolescent by the 2010s—increasingly assertive and arrogant in its treatment of the United States and other countries, while showing no signs of relaxing one-party rule, repression, and state-dominated capitalism.

In drawing forth this latest body of tensions on the foreign-policy horizon, Mann goes so far as to identify a third faction within the administration’s foreign-policy team that has become more attuned to them—newer advisers, some of them veterans of the Obama campaign, like Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough, two Obama campaign staffers who made the transition to the National Security Council.

According to Mann, younger staffers like these have been more comfortable in the emerging multipolar world of the early twenty-first century, with the new constraints on American freedom of action imposed by other powers and American finances, than aging Clintonites have proved to be. The old Clinton guard, Mann suggests, still insists that the United States is “the indispensable nation” (to use the words of former Clinton secretary of state Madeleine Albright) and feels it necessary to refight the battles of the post-Vietnam era by proving that Democrats are not soft on defense.

If a new outlook is indeed gaining traction amid the familiar quarrel between realists and interventionists, the Obama diplomatic legacy could well be a new brand of Democrat in the foreign-policy world. Even if there is not a second Obama term, these younger staffers are likely to play important roles in future Democratic administrations. Shaped by the experiences of our time, rather than the wars and political battles of a generation or two ago, this new cohort of foreign-policy makers could prove to be the true “Obamians,” long after Obama has left office.

Michael Lind is the policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and author of The American Way of Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2006) and the newly published Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (Harper).