Rosa Brooks is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a former Pentagon official. Her next book, “How Everything Became War,” will be published in August.
Appalled by the trial and execution of his mentor Socrates in 399 B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato published his own remembered (or imagined) version of Socrates’ final speech to the citizens of Athens. Today, Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” stands as the most famous example of the literary form that came to be known as the apologia: a text that is not, in fact, an apology at all but rather an elaborate defense.
Though it is wholly without literary pretensions, Derek Chollet’s “The Long Game” stands squarely in the tradition of Plato’s “Apology.” Chollet’s measured prose doesn’t hide his passionate conviction that President Obama has been as much a victim of demagogic politics as Socrates ever was — though in Chollet’s narrative, the villains are Beltway insiders, the news media and other assorted (though mostly unnamed) critics, rather than the Athenian authorities.
Chollet, who served under Obama in several senior national security positions, is convinced that the president “has redefined the purpose and exercise of American power for a new era,” leaving “America stronger at home and abroad.” Yet his foreign policy has been “dismissed as a failure, not just by his political opponents, but also . . . by much of the Democratic foreign policy” establishment.
“The Long Game” is an extended but not wholly persuasive effort to prove the critics wrong. Obama’s foreign policy, Chollet argues, reflects a far-sighted understanding of the limits and possibilities of America’s role in a complex world. Chollet distills Obama’s strategic approach into a checklist consisting of eight criteria for evaluating decisions: “balance, sustainability, restraint, precision, patience, fallibility, skepticism and [American] exceptionalism.”
In Chollet’s sympathetic recounting, even many of Obama’s most seemingly glaring missteps take on the character of wise presidential efforts “to project global leadership in an era of seemingly infinite demands and finite resources.” Thus, Chollet devotes his first chapter to what many consider Obama’s worst foreign policy debacle: his 2012 declaration that the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s Assad regime would cross “a red line,” followed, when Assad’s forces used sarin nerve gas to attack a rebel-controlled area outside Damascus in August 2013, by a series of apparent volte-faces on whether, when and how the United States would respond.
Obama’s “red line” comment was a result of “thinking out loud,” Chollet acknowledges, and it forced the president’s staff to “scramble” for ways to make it meaningful. Ultimately, he argues, the president’s August 2013 decision to use limited, precision airstrikes to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles was the right move — but events soon took an odd twist.
First, Obama — shortly after announcing his decision to launch airstrikes imminently — developed a sudden determination to seek congressional approval before moving forward. But he accompanied his request for congressional approval with a statement that he planned to strike with or without it, which won him few allies on Capitol Hill. Indeed, it soon became apparent that Congress would probably vote against the planned airstrikes, putting the president in a bind: Was he truly prepared to launch unilateral U.S. airstrikes in the face of a congressional “no” vote?
Just when things looked most awkward, a deus ex machina arrived onstage in the surprising form of Russian President Vladimir Putin. To the White House’s astonishment, Putin’s government undertook to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to agree to the destruction of his chemical weapons stockpiles. This led Obama to announce that U.S. airstrikes were no longer necessary, and the Syrian civil war soon reverted to the status quo ante: Assad’s chemical arsenal was destroyed, but conventional weapons continued to cause mass carnage on all sides.
It is not easy to make lemonade out of this one, but Chollet does his best. Had Obama gone forward with his airstrikes, he declares, “the strikes would have only eliminated a small fraction” of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, Islamic State forces might have seized some of the remaining weapons, and “substantial numbers of American troops would have had to be deployed to Syria.” Instead, Syria was persuaded to give up its chemical weapons “without a bomb being dropped,” an “outcome that unquestionably made America safer.” Obama knew he would face a “barrage of criticism” for “defying . . . the ‘Washington playbook,’ ” but he “remains immensely proud” of this episode, which Chollet dubs “an incontrovertible if inelegant example of what academics call ‘coercive diplomacy,’ using the threat of force to achieve an outcome military power itself could not accomplish.”
Readers may be less satisfied. After all, if military force could not have eliminated the threat of Syrian chemical weapons and might in fact have had catastrophic results, it’s hard to see much wisdom in Obama’s initial plan to use airstrikes. Regardless, it seems rather strange to credit Obama with a purely accidental happy ending.
Chollet is an earnest and intelligent defender of the president he so clearly admires, but he doesn’t have much good material to work with. The ongoing Syrian war remains a “catastrophe,” and Afghanistan and Libya continue to unravel. Iraq is little better: While the White House “maintained a steady focus on events there,” the rapid rise of the Islamic State still “surprised” Obama’s team, as did “the rapid collapse of the Iraqi Army.”
Chollet is on firmest ground when he turns to Obama’s progress on climate change, his initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region and his nuclear deal with Iran, all compelling examples of far-sighted diplomacy. There are more achievements he could cite, as well: the diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba, better relations with India and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, to name but a few.
Ultimately, however, “The Long Game” is unconvincing. Too often, it reads rather like a White House news release. Chollet blames most criticism of Obama’s foreign policy on the shallowness of Beltway insiders — though he seems to forget that Obama swept into office in 2008 with the hearty support of most of those insiders and stocked his National Security Council with more, installing Hillary Clinton at the State Department and Robert Gates at the Pentagon.
Obama has made some mistakes, Chollet acknowledges, and his “conspicuously soaring rhetoric . . . sometimes left a gap between concept and action.” But Chollet never really grapples with the critiques of Obama’s foreign policy that come from within his own party: concerns about targeted killing, indefinite detention and the renewed drift toward U.S. military engagement in multiple Middle Eastern conflicts get virtually no mention.
All the same, there’s something rather poignant about “The Long Game,” which is imbued, like Plato’s “Apology,” with a subtle undertone of mourning.
At times, Chollet’s descriptions of Obama verge on the worshipful: As a “student of history,” Obama “is constantly aware of [the] tragic cycle” between U.S. ascendancy and U.S. decline, and while he “has tremendous faith in his convictions, he considers his accomplishments with a hint of . . . modesty.” Yet somehow this paragon of presidential virtue — this brilliant man who “prizes deliberation, is comfortable with complexity and nuance” and “resists knee-jerk responses” — ended up with precious few champions.
Chollet, loyal to the last, does his best to convince readers that Obama’s critics have gotten it all wrong — but much of the time, he seems most anxious to convince himself.
By Derek Chollet
PublicAffairs. 262 pp. $26.99