The graceful and elegant writing of “The Promised Land” reflects the grace and elegance of its author: President Barack Obama. Unlike the current occupant of the White House, Obama, in his memoir, reveals his democratic principles, his willingness to give opponents the benefit of the doubt, and his pursuit of truth. Unlike so many presidential memoirs, there is a relative absence of self-promotion and an unusual admission of biases. Nevertheless, there are references that point to the mistakes of the Obama presidency that the man himself never explicitly acknowledges.
Less than one year into his presidency, Obama came to the conclusion that his key national security advisors, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and CIA director Leon Panetta would not be supportive of his foreign policy goals. Obama was more realist and less “starry-eyed idealist” than his critics contend. In realizing that Afghanistan was not the “good” or “essential war” that he described in his presidential campaign, Obama understood that Clinton and Panetta’s “hawkish instincts” would not help him with the withdrawal from the Afghan War. He understood that Bob Gates would not challenge the military commanders who supported the war and had captured their secretary of defense.
Obama needed to pay more attention to Ronald Reagan’s dictum that “personnel is policy.” Instead of appointing serious managers of national security policy who could think outside the box—perhaps audaciously—he filled his national security team with tired veterans of Cold War thinking. Obama’s national security adviser, moreover, was a retired Marine general who lacked the skill set to both coordinate policy and make sure his president had a choice of serious policy options, particularly regarding Russia and China.
Obama is neither explicitly critical of his national security managers nor critical of himself for naming those who failed to show audacity in reducing defense spending and limiting the use of military power. Like too many of our presidents, Obama entered the White House with little experience in national security and limited knowledge of the decision makers in previous administrations. Obama correctly perceived the Iraq War as the “wrong war,” but he misperceived the Afghan War as the “good war.” He soon realized that both wars were hurting U.S. interests and that his national security team—Obama’s team—would not stand up to the Pentagon’s powerful military commanders. He should have followed his vice president, Joe Biden, who warned that Secretary of Defense Gates and his senior military commanders would do their best to “box in” a new president in 2009 in order to put more forces in Afghanistan.
Having learned that his foreign policy establishment, the so-called foreign policy mandarins, were too quick to endorse military force, Obama nevertheless reluctantly agreed to the Libyan campaign of 2011, which he eventually termed a “shit show.” Obama deferred to Secretary of State Clinton; United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice; his idealistic foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power; and President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in approving a military operation that marked yet another U.S. failure in regime change. Obama implicitly agreed with his chief of staff (and former mayor of Chicago) Bill Daley, who “seemed bewildered that anyone was even entertaining the notion” of a military engagement in Libya. Obama fails to credit Biden with trying to dissuade him from using force in Libya.
The memoir helps us understand Obama’s contribution to the worsening of relations with Russia during his two-term presidency. Obama seems unaware that President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker guaranteed that the United States would not “leap frog” into East Europe if the Soviets pulled their forces out of East Germany. As a result, Obama doesn’t understand the depth of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s opposition to President Bill Clinton’s expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the 1990s.
Nor is Obama willing to credit Putin, in the wake of 9/11, for reaching out to President George W. Bush, even helping the United States to secure airbases in Central Asia for the military campaign in Afghanistan. Bush’s response to Putin was an abrupt abrogation of the important Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; a further expansion of NATO; and a mindless deployment of a missile defense system in East Europe to defend against an attack from Iran. Iran??!! Why would anyone in the U.S. national security community think that the Kremlin would believe the problem of Iran justified a sophisticated defensive missile system on its sensitive western border?
Obama ultimately reveals no understanding of the totality of Putin’s views on NATO expansion; the abrogation of the ABM Treaty; and U.S. interference in the domestic politics of Ukraine and Georgia, which ultimately led to Russian military intervention in both nations. In his first meeting with Putin, Obama strongly opposed Russia’s intervention in Georgia in the summer of 2008; referred to the missile system in Poland and Romania as a “limited defense system;” and dismissed the import of U.S. support for the so-called “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Obama’s senior adviser on Russia, Michael McFaul, who eventually became his ambassador to Russia, exceeded his diplomatic role in reaching out to Putin’s opponents, questioning the legitimacy of Russian elections, and endorsing the color revolutions in former Soviet republics.
Similarly, Obama doesn’t acknowledge the opposition of Clinton and Gates to dealing diplomatically with President Putin. Obama is quick to criticize the foreign policy mandarins of the think tank world—the “Blob”—but doesn’t acknowledge that he placed members of the “Blob” in his cabinet. Just imagine if President-elect Biden initiated a conversation with Putin and raised the possibility of restoring the ABM Treaty. Now that would be an example of the kind of audacity that Obama seemed to promise.
Although the first volume of “The Promised Land” takes us through 2011, there is no discussion of Obama’s worst strategic decision that year, the so-called “pivot” from the Middle East to the Pacific. In conducting the withdrawal from Iraq, which included the closing of the unfortunately named “Camp Victory,” Obama endorsed a shift of U.S. military resources from the Middle East to East Asia, the brainchild of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. Obama contends that the “overall goal of what we later called a ‘pivot to Asia’ wasn’t to contain China or stifle its growth.” But Obama, who prides himself on being able to stand in the other man’s shoes, never addressed Beijing’s view of the “pivot” as a policy of “containment.”
Containment of the Soviet Union arguably worked, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, but containment of China—a far more stable and powerful adversary—is a fool’s errand. We can only hope that Biden, unlike his immediate predecessors, learns that the opportunities for reengagement with China rest with the diplomacy of the Department of State and not the tactical maneuvers of the Department of Defense. Obama, moreover, ignores the geopolitical difficulty of moving major naval and naval air systems from the Middle East, our “Briar Patch,” to East Asia.
Obama proclaims that the Bush administration, particularly its hawkish members—Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—left behind “no coherent, effective strategies” on any of the major international problems. As his chief of staff Denis McDonough remarked, “Open any White House drawer and you’ll find another turd sandwich.” But Obama’s appointees were no different in their inability to present “coherent, effective strategies” for Russia and China. Unfortunately, the first volume of “The Promised Land” ends in 2011, and we will have to wait several years to glean Obama’s strategic thinking on the so-called “pivot” to the Pacific as well as the worsening bilateral relations with both Russia and China. Meanwhile, a new American president will have to deal with the “turd sandwiches” of the Trump administration.