European Affairs

Memoirs by cabinet secretaries after their departures are par for the course, and Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta have duly written their volumes, respectful but with some critiques.

More surprising is the still serving president's lengthy interview with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, which included critical comments about allied leaders usually made by former presidents, and the New York Times magazine takeout/interview on Ben Rhodes, the inner and outer international voice of Mr. Obama.

And now the first published book by a former Obama White House and administration staffer, Derek Chollet, who lays out the operating principles of the Obama foreign policy. It is a thoughtful presentation. As James Mann, chronicler par excellence of foreign policy movers and shakers, writes in a blurb, it serves as a stand-in until Obama pens his own memoirs.

But what the Obama-Goldberg interview, the Rhodes article and Chollet's book have curiously in common is a principal target ---not ISIS, Bashar Al Assad, Xi Jingping or Vladimir Putin but the Washington foreign policy establishment. It's the network of think tankers and former officials and wannabe officials and the punditocracy that Rhodes deliciously labeled "the blob." Any number of recent presidents from Nixon to Carter to Reagan came into the White House attacking Washington. Mr. Obama and his circle may be the first to lash at the capital city while in the process of leaving it.

It's hardly surprising that Obama came into office in a voter reaction to and at odds with an establishment that had largely supported the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. He had opposed it as an obscure Illinois state legislator and U.S. Senate candidate. Rhodes was a writer in Brooklyn before he was drawn to Washington after 9/11.

But Chollet is a two-decade member of that establishment, closely tied to an ultimate establishment figure, the late Richard Holbrooke. (Chollet asserts Obama and his circle mishandled the voluble and mercurial but highly talented Holbrooke, whose style was a total mis-match with the cool and detached president).

Chollet acknowledges the contradiction of his position both in the book, and he elaborated on it in an interview session at his new base at German Marshall Fund with another insider, columnist David Ignatius.

From the book and that insider event, what emerges is a combination of frustration and sorrow that the president and his circle have only partially pushed back on what they consider a misguided wave of insider criticism of their policies and actions.

In this crisply written and argued book, the author argues that the president in his now nearly eight years "re-defined the purpose and exercise of American power for a new era." Its ambition was based on bringing countries together to shape outcomes, set agendas and address problems in a sustainable way. That it is was based on restraint, as well as other qualities, is what put it at odds with the establishment that always wanted to "do more."

But to set goals and principles, however admirable, can run into the reality of international politics . And what shapes that reality? Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once gave the most succinct answer to an interviewer: "events.” my dear boy, events."

The defining before and after event for Chollet is the Arab Spring. And probably the major event of the Obama presidency that will bedevil historians for generations is Syria.

A key Mideast state was reduced to chaos and ruin, a pawn in the hands of neighbors and big powers as well as rival groups of thugs and terrorists including its own leaders, spewing millions of refugees to create chaos as far away as Europe.

Syria, above all other crises, put to the test the president's desire for restraint and recognition of limits, that the United States could not the be the cavalry riding again to the rescue in the Middle East. Chollet acknowledges the president never should have invoked, in an off the cuff comment, a "red line" for action in Syria. But he properly notes that once Obama put on Congress the onus for military action, there was no mood on Capitol Hill or in the wider public for deeper engagement, especially after the British parliament, weary of its country's wars, voted against intervention.

But there is one gnawing flaw in Chollet's recollection of the decision making process. He describes White House meetings before Labor Day 2013, which seemed to be gearing up for military action. He describes the one cautious, skeptical voice of chief of staff Denis McDonough. But he incorrectly compares McDonough's role in those meetings to that of George Ball, the lead dissenter in the Johnson Administration's Vietnam War deliberations.

The comparison is not apt. Ball was a State Department official who could be politely listened to and then easily ignored by President Johnson. McDonough worked next to Obama and was a long time intimate confidante. In a walk around the White House garden, the two of them determined the ploy of going to Congress before dispatching U.S. military power. Even Chollet acknowledges the awkward process that among other things left cabinet secretaries and French president Francois Hollande in the lurch.

Depending on how events unfold, Obama will likely get better historical reviews for the multi-national deal that seems to be delaying for at least a decade Iran's entry into the ranks of nuclear armed nations. The description of how this deal went from an idea to a reality is worthy reading for both supporters and the still fierce opponents of the accord.

This book also will serve as a first reference into a range of other policies. These include the re-balance to Asia, perhaps the policy that will longest endure, as well as an argument that Obama's dealings with Vladimir Putin were not the cause of Russian aggression. There is also a curious line of reasoning on the administration's stance to Europe. Chollet writes that President George W. Bush was so unpopular that European leaders were able to avoid hard choices. With Obama in the White House, in the initial days of his intense popularity and then as it waned, "many still proved unprepared to make tough choices to meet the challenges ahead."

The author served in both the National Security Council staff and Pentagon. He tries to shield the former from complaints and critiques that it is bloated and meddling, now at close to 400 staffers or ten times the size it was under the most power hungry National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. But ultimately he acknowledges "Obama never seemed to get his process to work as well as it could have."

Historians may well vindicate the author's assertion that Obama has redefined the purpose and exercise of American power for a new era. It's way too early for conclusive judgments, especially recalling how historians slapped low marks on departing presidents Truman and Eisenhower, only to upgrade them to the top ranks in decades since.

What remains to be seen, both for citizens and for leaders and officials in Washington and other capitals, is how long any era really lasts and how much events, as always, will be in the driver's seat for Barack Obama's successors.

The Long Game. How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America's Role in the World. By Derek Chollet. Public Affairs. 262 pages.

 

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