Obama’s Memoir Offers Insights Into Major Shortcomings

Photograph Source: J E Theriot – CC BY 2.0

We have a complicated country and Barack Obama was a complicated president.  In terms of presidential performance and temperament, Obama was one of our best.  His inheritance from the mediocre George W. Bush was wretched, and, in view of the ugly racist opposition that he faced, Obama played his political and economic hand better than could be expected.  The fact that this graceful and elegant man was succeeded by the loathsome and pathetic Donald J. Trump is the ugliest of ironies.

With the possible exception of the memoir of President Ulysses Grant, there has never been a presidential memoir as useful or insightful as Barack Obama’s “The Promised Land.”  There has never been one more gracefully written than Obama’s.  Interestingly, he provides clues to the shortcomings of his performance that was successful in many ways but nevertheless disappointing to his devoted following.  And I’m proud to be part of that following.

There’s a Sherlock Holmes’ novel that offers the clue of a dog that doesn’t bark.  Obama does the same in skirting those areas where he underperformed or even performed poorly.  His first cabinet selections in the field of national security was certainly one of those areas.  Obama offers one sentence on the selection of Marine general Jim Jones as a national security advisor, and another sentence on his resignation.  It would take an unusual general officer to perform the duties of national security adviser, and Jones was clearly not one of them.  One sentence is devoted to describing the appointment of Leon Panetta as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he was “captured” by the clandestine and operational personnel of the agency and performed poorly.  Therefore, it was surprising to find Panetta advancing to the more difficult position of secretary of defense in 2011, although unsurprising that he was similarly “captured” by the senior general officers of the Pentagon.

When Obama provides rhyme and verse of his reasons for selecting Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates as secretaries of state and defense, respectively, the explanations sound self-serving and superficial.  Obama merely states that Clinton was the “best person for the job.”  It is more likely, however, that Obama wanted the Clintons (both Bill and Hillary) inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in.  Obama is hard pressed to cite any of Clinton’s contributions but he does note, paraphrasing Woody Allen, that “80 percent of success is a matter of showing up” and that “Hillary…was a whirlwind.”  Obama concludes that “seeing the excitement her visits generated in foreign capitals, I felt vindicated in my decision to appoint her as America’s top diplomat.”  Yes, Hillary Clinton made herself America’s roving ambassador, but the position of secretary of state demands substantive accomplishment, and that was lacking.

Obama’s explanation for the reappointment of Bob Gates as secretary of defense is similarly inadequate. Obama states that he wanted Gates to remain at the Department of Defense in order to “end constant partisan rancor” and that he thought of Gates as a hard-nosed realist who would challenge the image of Obama as a “starry-eyed idealist who instinctively opposed military action.”  But Gates record at the CIA demonstrated that he was wrong about every major strategic challenge facing the United States in the 1980s, and we have a memoir from former secretary of state George Shultz documenting that view.  And, of course, we also have Gates’ politicization of intelligence.  The memoir of former secretary of state James Baker is similarly critical of Gates.  More likely, Obama was intimidated by the conservative military-industrial class, and left Gates in place to signal the absence of any challenge to their domination of decision making.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated in her glowing review in the New York Times,  Obama tends to give his critics and opponents the benefit of the doubt.  Well, he certainly gave  Gates the benefit of the doubt, particularly in view of Gates’ mean and gratuitous criticism of Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in his memoir “Duty.”  Gates charged that Obama didn’t have his “heart” in the Afghan war, which could only have had a devastating impact on the young men and women serving there.  Gates noted that Obama “can’t stand” Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which was similar devastating in view of Obama’s efforts to negotiate a Status-of-Forces Agreement with the Afghan government.  On one occasion, Gates instructed one of his senior generals to tell a senior member of Obama’s National Security Council to “go to hell,” which was typical of Gates’ ignorance of the need for civilian control over the military.

Gates’ memoir is even meaner toward Joe Biden because it was the vice president who warned Obama that Gates and the senior military leadership were undercutting the president’s efforts to draw down forces in Afghanistan. Gates was joined by senior generals such as David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, and even a former student of mine at the National War College, Mike Mullens in campaigning publicly and privately for more forces for Afghanistan than the president and vice president wanted to deploy. Obama realized that Afghanistan was not the “good war,” but Gates did not want to let go.  When Gates resigned in 2011, he couldn’t “imagine being part of a nation, part of a government” with a “smaller military” unable to “go fewer places and do fewer things.”  As far as Biden goes, Gates consistently used interviews to malign the man who wanted to change the national mindset on national security issues that has been dominated by Cold Warriors such as Bob Gates.

A major shortcoming of the Obama presidency, which gets no attention in the memoir, is Obama’s attack on oversight and accountability, particularly in the field of national security.  I apply the term “attack” pointedly because it is shocking that a graduate of Harvard Law School and a professor of constitutional law could be so cavalier and insufficiently scrupulous in enforcing political accountability.  Obama contends that his “highest priority was creating strong systems of transparency, accountability, and oversight,” but there is little discussion of the Central Intelligence Agency and no mention of the agency’s Inspector General (IG) who is responsible for accountability and oversight.  In fact, Obama made sure that there was no statutory IG in place at CIA during most of his eight-years in the White House, and he  acquiesced in Panetta’s neutralization of the CIA’s Office of the IG.  Moreover, Obama tolerated CIA director John Brennan’s interference with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s authoritative work on the CIA’s illegal and sadistic use of torture and abuse.

Obama’s administration also conducted a campaign against journalists and whistle-blowers that was unprecedented, using the one-hundred-year-old Espionage Act more often than all of his predecessors combined.  Leonard Downie, a former executive editor of the Washington Post, called Obama’s control of information the “most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”  The executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation concluded that Obama “laid all the groundwork Trump needs for an unprecedented crackdown on the press.”  In contributing to a culture of secrecy, Obama furthered the national security state.  I’m hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden will try to reduce and limit that state.

Next week Part II of the review of “The Promised Land” will deal with the memoir’s disappointing discussion of foreign and national security policy, particularly the overestimation of the Russian threat and the underestimation of the Chinese challenge.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.