Monday, July 30, 2012

Confront and Conceal by David Sanger


This book clearly describes the internal debates that have dominated Pres. Obama's foreign policy, giving plenty of fodder for the President's enemies to accuse him of a "lack of leadership."  On the other hand, it also comes close to defining an "Obama Doctrine" of a limited American role in the world and describes how the President and his team have dealt with an unprecedented series of crises.  The book includes at least three key victories for the Obama team -- the killing of Osama bin Laden, the delaying of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons through a cyberattack called "Olympic Games," and its managing of the conflict in Libya.  However, none of these victories came without a cost, and the book outlines some of those dire side effects.  Overall, it is a well-researched, balanced look at the President's foreign policy, and it offers a good "rough draft of history," as all political journalism does.

The title of this book doesn't quite do justice to Pres. Obama's foreign policy, but it is apt enough.  The author himself doesn't use the phrase very much in the book, if at all, but it does describe Obama's strategy in some cases.  If there is an "Obama Doctrine," it could reasonably be described as "confront and conceal," meaning that the President is not afraid to confront American enemies through tough action, such as drone strikes and cyberattacks, but that he tends to keep those actions secret. While the author faults Pres. Obama for not communicating a grand strategy for American power in the world, he generally asserts that his problems in foreign policy arise from the world he inherited from Pres. Bush -- an involvement in two ground wars in the Middle East, the virtually unchecked rise of China as a global economic and political power, the lack of engagement with North Korea and Iran, which were labeled as part of the "axis of evil" by Pres. Bush, and so on.  The author asserts that Pres. Obama has adapted his foreign policy to events such as the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria -- the Arab Spring -- since taking office, but that the "big questions" in many cases remain unanswered.  That is probably true, given the way Pres. Obama has reacted to each revolution individually and was caught by surprise on numerous occasions -- how could the President define answers to the big questions given the fact that the world is continually bringing new challenges to his plate?

I don't have the expertise in foreign affairs to judge the accuracy of the author's conclusions, but I can say that the book seems well-researched and fairly well balanced.  The author clearly talked to several key administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pres. Obama, and he describes the internal debates in the administration with clarity and precision.  He tends to view the world through a Washington lens, which presumes that the U.S. ought to have a leading role in the world, but he is doing most of his reporting from Washington, so that kind of makes sense.  Perhaps the biggest "surprise" in the author's view is that Pres. Obama views the U.S.'s role as more limited than other Presidents have, and has fought to narrow the definition of American interests and wind down the wars.  In my view, though, the President deserves a little more blame for telegraphing the U.S.'s timetable for withdrawal in Afghanistan, which emboldened the Taliban and other enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The President wanted the world to know that the U.S.'s commitment to Afghanistan was not "open-ended," but in announcing a timetable for withdrawal, he pretty much gave the enemies of the U.S. a reason to think that we would simply walk away from whatever gains we have made in the country -- we became another occupying force that was not interested in remaking the Afghan society and that the Taliban could then claim victory over.

The book gave me a greater appreciation for the challenges facing the President in foreign affairs, and how much effort and debate goes into each international crisis.  The President's leadership in foreign affairs is under attack in the current election cycle, but he has done well, I think, overall, in trying to reduce expectations that the U.S. can continue to be the world's guarantor of security at any price.  However, there are some real problems with the President's approach, one of which is that the rest of the world really isn't ready to step up to solve some of these problems, such as Libya, and another is that commitments made in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, are going to have to be broken.  The author argues that we could leave Afghanistan in much the same condition as we found it, still a "petri dish for terrorism."  He also states that Pakistan is a much more important strategic problem than Afghanistan, and things haven't been going particularly well there since the bin Laden raid.  

I pretty much skipped the final chapter of the book on China and North Korea -- I think the author might have gotten too much detail from the Wikileaks release of secret diplomatic cables, so that chapter got a little too complex for me -- but I think the overall picture the author paints of Pres. Obama wanting to "pivot" toward East Asia but being frustrated by squabbling Chinese officials who always manage to deflect the blame or responsibility for any concerns the Americans might have seems accurate.  

The biggest victories of Pres. Obama's foreign policy -- the killing of Osama bin Laden, the largely successful cyberattack on Iran's centrifuges that delayed the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb, and the successful deposing of Qaddafi in Libya -- all have some negative side effects, and none of them are unqualified successes.  Perhaps that is the nature of foreign policy, that even the victories raise challenges, and nothing is as simple as it would seem.  I appreciate the book's perspective in raising some of those questions and shaping my understanding of how the President has handled these challenges.


Also, I noted this quote, that accurately describes "progressives" around the world, in the context of explaining how the Muslim Brotherhood was so successful electorally after the protests in Tahrir Square brought down Egypt's Hosni Mubarak: "One thing that most progressive political activists have in common, whether it was the McGovern campaign or Occupy Wall Street, is they don't really like politics and they somehow think that if they just show up and speak eternal truths, people will agree with them."  I found that observation particularly ironic right now.
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