Review: ‘The Obamians’ by James Mann
BY ZAY N. SMITH June 14, 2012 8:28PM
THE STRUGGLE INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE TO REDEFINE AMERICAN POWER
By James Mann
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:12AM
It is a presidential year, which means that almost no guest is introduced on CNN without having a new political book introduced as well.
We can now hold The Obamians up for the camera for everyone to see, and proceed.
James Mann’s book, which reports on the realm of President Obama’s foreign policy apparatus, is more or less a sequel to his Rise of the Vulcans, which did the same job on President George W. Bush.
It starts at a disadvantage because our 2012 politics is concerned more with matters here than matters over there.
But it still succeeds on a number of levels.
First, it is what book promoters adoringly call an “inside look.” And there is some good gossip to be had, such as the quiet daggers-drawn dispute between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over who should stand first in line to meet-and-greet with China.
The dispute was such that a lunch scheduled to soothe all involved quickly became a dispute over who should host the lunch. (Hillary won that one — and the larger dispute, as well, as time went on.)
So there is some fun here about the play and its players, enough to keep happy the general reader and especially those we call political junkies, who understand that politics is the second best spectator sport after baseball.
But as they say, or should say, it takes a heap of research to make a book a tome. And The Obamians succeeds, also, as a serious and — dare we say it? — scholarly book, a detailed chronicle and analysis of the formation of a foreign policy amid the swirling factions of a new presidential administration.
The Foreign Affairs Quarterly crowd will have no complaints.
Anyway, here is the gist: The book tells of Barack Obama, a president faced with a foreign policy that liked to push “the outer limits of the expansion of American power and ideals” (the author’s nice way of describing the shambles of unaccomplished missions that Cheney-Bush left behind) — all this in a world that was catching up in many ways with its lone hyperpower.
And Obama approached the shambles as he seemed to approach everything else, as a centrist and pragmatist, a mechanic calmly opening up the hood of a car to see what can be done. (It is no surprise that, among the advisers shoving and glad-handing for power, it is the centrist pragmatists who won.)
The mechanic’s work order, the book notes, has involved the swapping out of some worn parts, such as the Iraq war, and a brake job to slow all the wild banner-waving in favor of a little caution, moderation and multilateralism.
Except when it hasn’t.
Tell the caution-and-multilateralism bit to Pakistan and Osama bin Laden.
And don’t wave the Nobel Peace Prize in front of those who are fleeing increased drone attacks in other sovereign nations — and those still held in Guantanamo without trial.
Put it this way: The Obamians is a sometimes contradictory book about a sometimes contradictory foreign policy in a wildly contradictory world. (Yes, we won the Cold War, and it was worth the cheering, but sometimes don’t you pine for the simplicity of it?)
If there is an “ideology” for Obama at the moment, it seems to be this: Whatever Works, and Keep Tinkering.
There have been successes in Obama’s search for power and peace, and there have been rebuffs. But such is what is forced on us by a newly incoherent human race.
And the mechanic stays at work.
Free-lance writer Zay N. Smith writes the QT column for Chicago Public Media (wbez.org).