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Book review: 'The Obamians' examines a small, powerful inner circle

James Mann writes about President Barack Obama's young, relatively inexperienced foreign policy advisors.

July 31, 2012|By Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times
  • Ben Rhodes, left, and Denis McDonough work on the speech with President Obama on Air Force One en route to Cairo.
Ben Rhodes, left, and Denis McDonough work on the speech with President… (Pete Souza / The White House )

Back in 2004, when James Mann wrote "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet," he took full advantage of the sarcastic nickname that President George W. Bush's foreign policy advisors gave themselves. It not only captured their ideological zeal and outsized egos, but was an inside joke: the neo-cons liked the allusion to "Star Trek's" über-rational humanoids, and future Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had grown up near a statue of another Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

No such irony undergirds "The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power," Mann's compelling study of President Obama's tight inner circle of foreign policy advisors. No, not Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. None of the Obamians are Cabinet secretaries, or even well-known to the public. This time, Mann even had to gin up a nickname.

Unlike Bush's senior advisors, some of whom brought years of foreign policy and national security experience to the White House, Obama drew his closest foreign policy advisors from his 2008 presidential campaign. Like him, they were mostly young, relatively inexperienced and driven to undo the damage they believed Bush's policies at home and abroad had caused to America's reputation and security.

"The Obamians self-consciously thought of themselves as a new generation in American foreign policy, and indeed in many ways they were," Mann writes. They were post-baby boomers born in the 1960s and 1970s. Most were still in school when the Cold War ended. The Vietnam War was ancient history, and they viewed the elder statesmen of Washington's foreign policy establishment as wedded to that past, not looking to the future. Their formative experiences were the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Iraq invasion in 2003 and, ultimately, the 2008 financial meltdown.

Obama surrounded himself with acolytes rather than independent thinkers who would challenge his assumptions and ideas. This enabled him to become chief architect of his own evolving foreign policy, responsible more than anyone else for its successes and failures. Inside the White House, the objections along the way have come from the outer circle — the Washington veterans, the non-Obamians.

In Mann's telling, Clinton "chafed at the limits put on her" and battled with Obama's team over appointments. Obama overruled Gates on the decision to send U.S. warplanes to bomb Libya, and again on launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. He ignored Biden's warnings not to escalate U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. He kept his distance from Richard Holbrooke, a high-profile diplomat who represented "the ghosts of past Democratic administrations." Holbrooke wasn't derided. He was ignored, which is worse in Washington, and Mann finds sad new details of Holbrooke's fall from grace.

The pattern was set early on: Speechwriter Ben Rhodes, foreign policy aide Denis McDonough, former Democratic operative Thomas Donilon, advisors Mark Lippert, Michael McFaul and a handful of others often had more access to and influence with Obama than campaign officials with bigger titles and greater visibility. When they got to the White House, Obama conferred with his inner sanctum team before and after he met with Clinton, Gates and other key members of his Cabinet. The president then made his decisions with the "handful of aides closest to and most loyal to him," not the names in the headlines.

The results so far are decidedly mixed. Obama closed out the U.S. war in Iraq, and is on track to do the same in Afghanistan. His reluctant military intervention in Libya proved a success. But his "reset" of relations with Russia went nowhere. Ditto his attempts to restart Israeli-Arab negotiations and restrain China in the South China Sea. Was his inaction during the anti-regime Green Revolution movement in Iran in 2009 a sign of indifference, or a cold calculation that the United States had limited sway and Iran's leaders might ease back on nuclear development in gratitude? Either way, it failed.

Two years later, during the "Arab Spring,"Obama pushed longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak to step down in Egypt during a popular uprising but essentially gave a free pass to autocrats who sent armed troops against like-minded civilians in Bahrain and Syria. He continued most of Bush's most controversial counter-terrorism policies, including targeted killings, drone strikes and warrantless surveillance. His promise to close Guantanamo Bay quickly ran aground on congressional opposition.

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