The officials who make foreign policy don’t have it easy. Trapped between the domestic political environment on one side and the international system on the other, they have modest freedom to choose a course of action. They need to weigh the relative merits of several policy options on a vast range of intricate and thorny issues, many of them interconnected. And every few years, the senior management of the operation is completely replaced, with the top jobs going to newcomers who often know little about the issues in question.
How those newcomers handle themselves in office is a perennially interesting question and one that the journalist James Mann has made something of a cottage industry. His 2004 book, “The Rise of the Vulcans,” chronicled the backgrounds and experiences of George W. Bush’s initial foreign policy team, and “The Obamians” does something similar for the current administration.
(Viking) - ’The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power’ by James Mann.
Mann is a good reporter. He writes clearly and accessibly, often with insight and sound judgment. There are gaps in the new book’s coverage (Israel, Europe, trade), but the subjects he does treat (national security, Afghanistan and Pakistan, China, the Arab Spring) are handled accurately and without ideological bias. And here, as before, Mann’s strength is his close attention to the political and professional backgrounds of key administration officials, many of whom he interviewed.
The portrait is mixed. Mann argues that President Obama himself dominates foreign policy, relying on a few close junior staffers in the White House to execute his will while more senior, high-profile figures in the Cabinet protect his political flanks. The president comes off as smart, disciplined and engaged, but also arrogant, controlling, thin-skinned and political. He gives big speeches filled with grand rhetoric and ambitious goals, but not much of that gets translated into policy or achievement. Obama tries to escape stark choices, preferring to reconcile seemingly opposed courses of action. The record includes some successes and some failures, some bullets dodged, and a lot of cans kicked down the road.
Little of this is wrong, but little is surprising, either. The book is a good representation of conventional Washington discussion about the subject — event-driven, superficial and solipsistic. There is a lot of America in these pages, but not much foreign or policy.
At one point, Mann distinguishes between the Obamians (who had backgrounds in Congress and became loyal White House aides) and a group of experienced Democratic foreign policy professionals he calls the Trout Fishers (because of their penchant for fishing excursions during meetings of the blue-ribbon Aspen Strategy Group). Compared with the Trout Fishers, the Obamians “tended to know less about the nuances and subtleties of an issue, and they were less concerned with the practical details of governance. They were, however, more adept at providing a determined opposition to the Republicans, and much better at figuring out what to say in public about foreign policy [during the 2008 campaign]. They found it easier to offer the broad perspective of outsiders.”