Obama’s motley crew

Obama’s motley crew

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi
Election year in America invariably sees a surge of books about the personalities vying for power. Some evaluate an incumbent President’s record in the White House.

 Others compare candidates and their prospects in the race for the top. James Mann’s new book joins a different debate – whether Obama has a foreign policy that can be distinguished from his predecessors. Awkwardly called ‘The Obamians’, the book’s subtitle explains its main theme, ‘The Struggle inside the White House to Redefine American Power’.

The author offers a detailed profile of Obama’s foreign policy team and the interplay between diverse personalities, the President and their differing worldviews. According to him much of the early confusion and later contradictions in Obama’s policy can be explained by tensions within this disparate team.

The author divides Obama’s motley foreign policy crew into three groups of people. Younger, mostly inexperienced advisers who have formed a small, informal circle around Obama. They include deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough and his speechwriter Ben Rhodes.

Mann calls these trusted advisers ‘Obamians.’ Their defining experience was the 2008 financial crisis and Iraq, not Vietnam, which influenced a different generation of Democrats. They have been keen to redefine America’s global role, in recognition of new global realities and the budget constraints under which America now has to conduct its foreign policy. The ultimate Obamian, says Mann, is Obama himself.

The second group comprises experienced Democrats who practiced foreign policy during the 1990s. These ‘Centrist’ Democrats are less defensive about America’s use of power. Members of this group included Tom Donilon, national security adviser and Jim Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state.
The third group comprised former rivals – Hilary Clinton – old Washington hands and holdovers from the Bush era – such as Robert Gates. Most were not close to Obama. Nor did they know much about where his foreign policy was headed.

Lack of clarity in Obama’s early foreign policy is ascribed by the author to internal rifts and the competing ideas of this disparate team. Mann sees Obama himself as “the true driver” of his foreign policy but as new to this game as his inner circle. Some of his views changed over time. A case in point was the initial rushed and poorly thought review of Afghan policy. After embarking on the path of counterinsurgency, Obama later reversed course for a narrower counterterrorism mission.

Mann argues that Obama’s overall strategy was influenced from the outset by the concept of “rebalancing”. This refers to many contexts: shifting priorities to domestic concerns, rebalancing from over reliance on the military towards diplomacy and switching focus to East Asia from the Middle East.
In pressing this point Mann attributes greater coherence to Obama’s policy than it has had. Elsewhere he suggests that the administration lacked any foreign policy philosophy. The shift in attention or resources impelled by circumstances doesn’t add up to an overarching framework or strategy. It is really a response to changing realities and developments. An imperative does not necessarily translate into a strategy. Often the administration struggled to keep pace up with global developments, such as the Arab spring, over which it had no control. Ad hoc responses to events did not add up to a ‘rebalancing of U.S. power’.

Mann cites Obama’s counterterrorism policy as the principal success of his foreign policy. But he does not think Obama fared well on other issues including reorienting US policy towards Asia and restoring America’s diminished standing in the Muslim world. Among Obama’s notable failures, he cites the abortive efforts for a Middle East peace settlement and vain attempts to stop Iran’s nuclear programme.

The book closes with Mann’s conclusion that for all the claims made by both Democrats and Republicans during Presidential campaigns that their policies are sharply different from each other, the foreign policy pendulum doesn’t swing that much once they are in power. With the American election less than a hundred days away this is a useful perspective to keep in mind.

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. and U.K. This abridged article originally appeared on the Khaleej Times.