In early 2011, when CIA intelligence suggested that Osama bin Laden might be in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, President Obama asked for specific military options to be developed. Though some members of his administration, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, were skeptical about striking the compound given the uncertainty about Bin Laden's presence there, Obama chose the most aggressive option, a special operations raid on the compound.
Obama not only chose the option that would most damage relations with Pakistan, he made sure that there were plans for military engagement with Pakistani forces if they confronted American soldiers during the operation.
The Pakistan raid is one of several events examined in James Mann’s book, The Obamians, which takes us behind the scenes to reveal the complex character and inner workings of Obama’s foreign policy team. It is the successor to “Rise of the Vulcans,” Mann’s 2004 profile of George W. Bush’s foreign policy advisers.
Mann, a former foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, describes the two central camps of the Obama team – the politically experienced members of his cabinet and the younger aides who form his inner circle of advisors. According to Mann, these less experienced aides entered the White House knowing “less about the nuances and subtleties of an issue, and they were less concerned with practical details of governance.” He is quick to note that they were “more adept at providing a determined opposition to Republicans, and much better at figuring out what to say in public about foreign policy.”
But they were not the only ones who had the president’s ear. Members of Obama’s team also included veterans of the Clinton and Bush administrations whose political skills were honed during the turmoil of the Vietnam War and the complexity of the Cold War. This intellectual diversity has led to a seemingly contradictory foreign policy.
For example, the Obama administration has preserved some policies it inherited from the Bush administration, including the CIA’s program of rendition and the practice of indefinite detention for prisoners believed to be terrorists. Obama even expanded the practice known as targeted killing, which allowed him to shift his strategy from counterinsurgency toward one of counterterrorism with a greater reliance on drones and special forces to kill al-Qaeda leaders.
With regard to the Arab Spring, Obama was cautious. He gave reluctant support to popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt but continued ties with undemocratic regimes in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Critics of Obama were also angered by his reluctance to emphasize human rights issues in China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was widely criticized for saying that differences over human rights should not hinder diplomacy before her first trip to Beijing in 2009. But this early approach of engagement and conciliation eventually gave way to a firmer approach when China was emboldened by what it perceived to be American weakness.
Yet Obama has broken new ground in showing a commitment to multilateralism and humanitarianism in Libya. In helping to initiate the air campaign and then allowing NATO allies to take over, he was outlining a new role for American leadership. This seems to mark a significant shift in Obama’s foreign policy away from realism and toward broader ideals. Mann emphasizes that “for his part, Obama did not see himself as siding with the realists or even gravitating toward their views. He followed the same approach in foreign policy he often did elsewhere, which was to detach himself from the two opposing camps or schools of thought, sympathize with each and insist the differences between them were less than believed. He sought to blend the two opposing perspectives, the realism of Kissinger and Scowcroft and the idealism of Woodrow Wilson.”
Mann notes that Obama is not simply choosing between two theories of international relations. A shift from America as the “indispensable” nation of the Clinton era to an embrace of multilateralism is the economic reality of an administration with diminishing resources. As Obama said in more than one speech, “the nation we care most about building is our own.”
One of the virtues of “The Obamians” is its inside look at the president’s relationship to his foreign policy team. Mann makes it clear that Obama listens to diverse perspectives, which makes his foreign policy seem confusingly inconsistent. In fact, Obama tends to maintain the status quo when it is prudent, but he does advance greater ideals when it is not in conflict with American interests. The reader, however, is left without a strong sense of whether there is an Obama doctrine.
Amy Rowland is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.