x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The Obamians: how hope and change got sidelined

As the Democrats prepare for their national convention, James Mann's new book on those who shaped Obama's 2008 campaign provides a fascinating insight into the president's kitchen cabinet.

The Obamians by James Mann.
The Obamians by James Mann.

The Obamians are US president Barack Obama's innermost circle of confidants on matters of foreign affairs. Not only did this young, precocious coterie help candidate Obama set the tone for his inspiring 2008 campaign, but as advisers and policymakers the early-fortysomethings represented a new generation of statesmen who accompanied him - and cemented their own standing - through four roller-coaster years in office.

According to the veteran US journalist James Mann in his excellent The Obamians, their voices were neither uncontested nor consistently dominant in a heterodox administration often at odds within itself. Nevertheless their signature is distinct on Obama's foreign policy today, which has gradually defined itself in response to the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, and the hunting down of Al Qaeda, among other key moments. While Obama's policies didn't mirror the Bush administration's, they strayed less than many, including the Obamians themselves, may have wished. "The people Obama appointed and the assumptions they carried with them into office," argues Mann forcefully, "were far less conducive to far-reaching change than the rhetoric of the Obama campaign had led people to believe."

The figures Obama gathered around him early in the campaign reflected a conscious break with the old guard of the Clinton White House, many of whom were already signed up to Hillary Clinton's campaign anyway. The Obama brat pack were all post-Vietnam, for example, just children when the war raged, and thus not among the combatants in the Democrats' traumatic battles over the lessons of Vietnam. The collapse of Eastern bloc communism, intervention in the Balkans, and the September 11 attacks were their key references. Like Obama himself, they were staunch critics of the Bush government's war in Iraq, regime change as such, human rights violations in the name of the war on terror, and the role of the US as a unilateralist hyperpower in the wider world.

Among these prodigies was Samantha Power, a journalist during the Bosnia war and Harvard-educated lawyer, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell exposed the timidity of past US administrations in the face of genocide. Another was the Rhodes scholar Susan Rice, who worked for the second Clinton administration on Africa, where she witnessed the 1994 Rwandan genocide first-hand. And there was Denis McDonough, a gifted Senate staffer and foreign policy aficionado, who had the candidate's full trust - as well as his ear. Ben Rhodes, an energetic speech writer for Senator Obama, wasn't even 30 years old when Obama announced his candidacy.

The note that his fresh-faced team helped Obama hit on the campaign trail was of an open-minded, inclusive approach to problems that had become stuck in old thinking. Rather than alienating or bombing difficult regimes, like those in North Korea or Iran, Obama said he would meet with and engage them. Innovative diplomacy and statecraft rather than military might would be the order of the day. But force of arms, such as transpired in Bosnia and Kosovo, would not be ruled out. Barack Obama was not a pacifist even if he was the "peace candidate" of 2008. Something many of his left-wing backers perhaps chose not to hear, he argued that the war in Afghanistan - the "right war" in contrast to Iraq, the "wrong war" - would be stepped up.

America still had a significant role to play in the world, said Obama, but it would do so together with allies, in mind of costs, with modesty, and not at the expense of pressing concerns at home. All in all, things were going to change: Guantanamo would be shut down, human rights bully China admonished and alliances repaired.

Yet, in the aftermath of Obama's victory, the president-elect signalled immediately that less would change than many had hoped. It wasn't the Obamians who landed the top, high-profile jobs in his cabinet but old Clinton administration hands no less prominent than Hillary Clinton herself and Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's chief of staff, who became CIA director. The long-time troubleshooter of Democratic presidents all the way back to Vietnam, namely Richard Holbrooke, was assigned Afghanistan and Pakistan. The four-star general James Jones, whom Obama had met only once, was an unexpected pick to head up the National Security Council (NSC). And the Bush-appointed defense secretary Robert Gates held his post. Rice was the only first-hour Obama cohort to snare a cabinet post, as ambassador to the UN.

The Obamians, like Powers, McDonough and others, wound up in the NSC with respectable but distinctly lower-profile positions. In the term's early years, they often found themselves and their ideas pushed aside - by the intelligence community, by their administration rivals, and by the president.

Obama, for instance, disappointed many of his left-wing Democratic followers by backing a massive troop surge in Afghanistan rather than scaling back and redefining the long, costly war. The closing of Guantanamo was first postponed and then put on ice indefinitely. (How could the US convince other countries to take prisoners when it refused to do so itself?) The Bush administration's interrogation policies were tweaked but not scrapped, while Obama himself rejected an investigation into Bush-era abuses. For the most dangerous prisoners linked to terrorism, the new president maintained the practice of indefinite detention without trial or sentencing. Any idea of tough talk to China also fell by the wayside, as did face-to-face negotiations with obstreperous regimes.

There were even policies that arguably went beyond those of the Bush administration. Obama expanded the tactic known as targeted killing - the use of armed drones to assassinate suspected terrorists in countries, like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, that were outside US combat zones. "Bush merely sent these guys to Guantanamo," mocked one observer, "Obama kills them." Even though the new administration abandoned its predecessor's rhetoric about "a global war on terror," Obama regularly began to talk about America's "war" with Al Qaeda.

The Obama administration's ad hoc (some say "incoherent") policymaking was nowhere more on display than in the Middle East. The president's lofty, forward-looking speech in Cairo in 2009 led many to believe that an entirely new era had dawned in the region. Certainly, Obama was reaching out to the Islamic world in a way unthinkable during the Bush years.

Yet when the Green Revolution broke out in Iran, Obama reacted with caution rather than enthusiasm. So, too, was the White House circumspect when the Arab Spring began to shake Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.

The administration's tone on Egypt changed when it became clear Mubarak was doomed, but before that its restraint signalled a go-slow approach to costly democracy promotion in instable regions.

Inside the administration, there was no one camp - the Obamians or another - that alone had the president's ear. "He followed the same approach in foreign policy he often did elsewhere," writes Mann, "which was to detach himself from two opposing camps or schools of thought, sympathise with each and insist the differences between them were less than believed." Obama distinguished himself as a pragmatist in his first term while at the same time with Osama Bin Laden's capture in 2011 and the targeted killings he parried the Republicans' charges that he, like all Democrats, was weak on national security.

The fact that there was basically no overarching policy toward the sweeping changes in the Arab world became unmistakable when Libya unravelled. But Obama's eventual response in Libya - military intervention to topple Qaddafi - would perhaps be the defining moment of his term's foreign policy résumé. "It was in Libya," argues Mann, "that the Obamians gave their clearest definition of themselves, of the ends and the means of American power."

For one, Obama signalled that the use of American military might could be justified for humanitarian ends. This was a staple conviction of his inner circle, above all the "liberal hawk" Samantha Power, whose nudging won the president over. Obama's decision flew in the face of administration realists, like Gates, who argued there was no US strategic interest at stake. Moreover, the Libya campaign demonstrated Obama's commitment to multilateralism as well as cost-conscious decision-making: the US encouraged allies France and the UK to do the heavy lifting, while the US chipped in when needed.

The Libya intervention marked the ascendancy of the Obamians in the first term - and perhaps presaged the profile of an Obama foreign policy in a second term, should there be one. While the Obamians haven't yet moved into the top cabinet positions, many of their rivals have moved on. Robert Gates stepped down, as he signalled he would. Hillary Clinton says she will not serve a second term. Richard Holbrooke passed away. James Jones was sidelined by the Obamians and then resigned.

This means a second term could well look more Obamian. They have their work cut out: Iran's and North Korea's nuclear weapons programs have to be checked. Syria is spinning out of control. A greater Middle East settlement appears as far off as ever. In the end though, the chief Obamian himself will have to decide whether the exalted language of the campaigns and conventions will be matched by policies that put it into practice.

Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.