The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power
The definitive analysis of the events, ideas, personalities, and conflicts that have defined Obama’s foreign policy—with a new afterword for his second term
When Barack Obama first took office, he brought with him a new group of foreign policy advisers intent on carving out a new global role for America in the wake of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. Now the acclaimed author of Rise of the Vulcans offers a definitive, even-handed account of the messier realities they’ve faced in implementing their policies and the challenges they will face going into the second term.
In The Obamians, prizewinning author and journalist James Mann tells the compelling story of the administration’s struggle to enact a coherent and effective set of policies in a time of global turmoil. At the heart of this struggle are the generational conflicts between the Democratic establishment—including Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden—and Obama and his inner circle of largely unknown, remarkably youthful advisers, who came of age after the Cold War had ended.
Written by a proven master at elucidating political underpinnings even to the politicians themselves, The Obamians is a pivotal reckoning of this historic president and his inner circle, and of how their policies may or may not continue to shape America and the world. This edition includes a new afterword by the author on how the Obamians’ foreign policy affected the 2012 election and what that means for the future.
The ultimate Obamian, of course, was Obama himself. Aides such as McDonough and Rhodes reflected the president’s own views. Obama was as new to foreign policy as they were, and as little influenced by previous Democratic administrations.
Over the years, far too much has been made of how Obama’s race and upbringing supposedly affected his thinking about the world. Political opponents, diplomats and journalists have sometimes speculated about the impact on Obama of his father’s roots in Kenya or of his childhood years in Indonesia. Some have theorized that Obama had somehow been imbued with an “anticolonial” perspective and was hostile, or at least unsympathetic, to British and European traditions.
There is little if any evidence to support this theory, and it represents an extremely selective interpretation of Obama’s youth. His postprimary education included a private college-prep school in Hawaii, private colleges in Los Angeles (Occidental College) and New York City (Columbia), and law school at Harvard. Obama’s secondary and higher education, in other words, was not radically different from that of, say, John F. Kennedy (prep school and Harvard), Franklin Roosevelt (prep school, Harvard and Columbia Law School), Richard Nixon (Whittier College and Duke Law School), Gerald Ford (University of Michigan and Yale Law School), George H. W. Bush (prep school and Yale), Bill Clinton (Georgetown and Yale Law School) or George W. Bush (prep school, Yale and Harvard Business School). If Obama’s worldview was influenced by his upbringing—and even this is an open question—then surely those long years of elite American schooling must have counted for far more than the father he barely knew or his four years in elementary school overseas.
Instead, Obama’s views of the world and of America’s role in it were shaped to a far greater extent by his age and by the times in which he came to national prominence. Obama was the first president since Vietnam whose personal life and career were utterly unaffected by that war. Every president since Gerald Ford had tried, in one fashion or another, to declare an end to the Vietnam War or to put to rest its continuing impact. Ford had ended the American presence in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had both proclaimed the end of the “Vietnam syndrome,” their term for the fear of military intervention and casualties. Bill Clinton had normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
The war had nevertheless retained its potency in American political life. When Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992, he had to explain why he hadn’t served in the military during Vietnam. When George W. Bush ran in 2000, his campaign was obliged to justify an assignment in the Texas Air National Guard that kept him out of Vietnam. In the 2004 presidential campaign, after the Democrats nominated a Vietnam veteran, the Republicans managed to raise questions about John Kerry’s service on a “swift boat” in that war.
In the election of 2008, however, Obama, who was only thirteen years old when the last American troops came home from Vietnam, defeated a Republican candidate who was a Vietnam War hero and former prisoner of war. Vietnam had finally vanished from American presidential politics.
Obama was also the first American president in the modern era who neither served in the military nor was subject to the draft. In this respect, he was a fair representative of most other Americans under the age of fifty-five. Knowing nothing else, Obama could take as a given the existence of the volunteer professional army; military service was a career, not an obligation. The military could be seen as simply a constituency in American society— another big, powerful group with which Obama could try to reach compromise, bridge differences or find a centrist position. “He’s not suspicious of the military, and he’s not scared of the military,” said Denis McDonough. “It’s a vitally important institution that’s part of this country and part of this government.”
Finally, Obama was the first president to come to the White House after George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq. The mere fact that he followed Bush provided Obama with considerable opportunity for improving America’s relations with the rest of the world. In this respect, Obama had considerable success. He sought to avoid the rancorous relations Bush had with the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and other countries. During his second term, Bush had himself tried to smooth over the frictions caused by the Iraq War, but he was so unpopular that these belated efforts didn’t have much impact; no elected president or prime minister in Western Europe could be seen as too close to Bush. After Obama’s election, European leaders once again wanted to have their pictures taken alongside an American president.
The 2008 financial crisis affected Obama’s foreign policy and America’s international standing at least as much as the Iraq War. The impact of the financial crisis went far beyond the mere lack of money. The United States had far greater difficulty holding itself up to the world as an economic model. In the countries that were harmed by the financial crisis, some of the blame was assigned to the United States—legitimately so. In those few countries where the financial crisis did not hit so hard, such as China and Germany, there was a newly acquired sense of superiority to the American economic system.
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