In The Obamians, American writer and political journalist James Mann dissects the Obama administration’s National Security Council, and gives readers a closer look at the men and women behind the thinking of the POTUS’s major foreign policy decisions thus far. And I mean really behind, as in never mind his more notable aides, or the big names holding the biggest seats in the NSC (e.g. Axelrod, Plouffe, and Emmanuel, or Biden, Clinton, and Panetta), for Mann puts the spotlight on Obama’s “inner circle” of foreign policy thinkers, some of whom were relatively young newbies with little to no experience in shaping major foreign policy prior to joining then Senator Obama’s campaign. Through Mann’s sharp sense of history and his engrossing storytelling, readers learn about the formation of the 44th president’s intellectual safety net, his collection of special aides who’ve not only shaped many if not all of his Obama’s personal views and major decisions thus far, but who’ve enabled him to be a “smarter” hawk.
It is this team of “Obamians” who in less than four years have taken great strides to alter the typically dovish reputation of Democrats in the realm of foreign policy.
The Obamians is a companion piece to Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans (2004, Viking) which provides the same sort of historical and biographical analyses as the former, except on Dubya’s intellectual safety net. The Obamians is thus a spiritual sequel—an antithetical analysis of an antithetical administration (antithetical in the sense that Bush is a dumbass when it comes to foreign policy, while Obama is not a dumbass when it comes to foreign policy—makes sense, right). My snarky parenthetical draws on a central theme of The Obamians that Mann clearly uses to differentiate Obama from his predecessor: that Obama actually intellectually involves himself in his administration and leads his team as a president should, unlike Bush who, in his almost self-admitted, royal ineptitude, had others like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice do all his thinking and leading for him. It’s a fact that is interestingly more directly implied in the fact that Bush isn’t even illustrated onto the cover of his corresponding book while Obama is. And not only is the latter on the cover, but his cartooned head is appropriately bigger than everyone else’s.
Long story short, The Obamians is, as with Mann’s effort with Vulcans, an important book for anyone interested in American foreign policy. It provides anecdotal histories of the formation of the “Obamians,” profiling the likes of Hillary Clinton, speechwriter Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and Special Assistant Samantha Power. And while there’s nothing too fascinating or surprising about these profiles, Mann compensates with his exceptional political journalism; he dissects everything in impressive detail, explaining, down to the tee, the causes and consequences of Obama and his team’s decisions (e.g., their policies towards Ahmadinejad’s Iran and Mubarak’s Egypt, the drone strikes on Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the unsanctioned raid in Pakistan that sacked Osama, the maneuver around the War Powers Act in order to intervene in Libya, and more).
We’re given a visceral portrait of a bold, Democrat commander-in-chief, a liberal man who is, on one hand, patriotically concerned with maintaining American power and “American Exceptionalism,” while, on the other hand, wisely aware of the dangers of idealism, or in being too dovish or too hawkish in foreign policy. In short, he’s a liberal who believes in realpolitik—enough to keep from being naively liberal.
Now, full disclosure before I get into the one big con of this book: I am a practical liberal and a Democrat—a proud one at that. I’ve been against Republicanism and conservatism since Cheney’s second term; I voted for Barack in ’08, I’ll vote for him again in November, and ifPolicyMic were kind enough to pay me for my Pulitzer-worthy weigh-ins, I’d be contributing to his campaign. He’s my president, and I absolutely love guy. But I’m certainly not in love with him—I’m just not into that sort of thing … but Mann is!
James Mann loooves Barack Obama; he wants to marry him, he wants his last name, he wants to honeymoon with him in Maui, he wants have his babies—alright, you get the idea …
Well, at least he writes this book like he’s head over heels in love: one cannot read The Obamianswithout feeling like we’re supposed to admire Obama. Mann can’t even be objective without rebutting his own criticisms of him by offering silver linings, or downright excuses. An excellent example starts with the excerpt below in which Mann compares Obama’s inaction regarding the Iranian Green Movement to his (verbal) proactive support for the Arab Spring up-risers in Egypt. After that relatively scathing criticism, he bails Obama out, justifying his contradictory actions towards Egypt and Iran by calling him a realist, simply taking after Brent Scowcroft (whom Mann conveniently identifies not only as a protégé of Henry Kissinger, “the modern-day apostle of realism,” but as a “veteran of three Republican administrations”).
I’m not saying Mann is wrong to do this. If his analysis is sound, it’s sound. The point is that his style doesn’t quite lend to objectivity. He could very well be an Obama supporter, and I know he’s trying to be objective—but it’s just not reading that way. And if that’s a blaring issue with me, an Obama fan, then Independents and moderates could possibly take issue with it; and you can forget about conservatives, whom I couldn’t imagine reading this without upchucking on every fifth page (or in the introduction, every fifth paragraph).
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Excerpt from “The Obamians“
“The circumstances in Egypt in 2011 and Iran in 2009 were different. In the two years since Obama had started diplomacy with Iran, the Ahmadinejad regime had repeatedly rebuffed his overtures and was still continuing its nuclear program. Egypt was a friend, not an adversary, the United States, with its military ties to Egypt and its huge aid program, possessed vastly more leverage in dealing with Mubarak than with Ahmadinejad. Nevertheless, the contrast between Obama’s approach to the protests in Ahmadinejad’s Iran and Mubarak’s Egypt was stark. The administration may very well have sent out an undesired message to Iran, North Korea, and other dictatorial regimes: If you want careful, respectful treatment from the United States, it helps to have a nuclear weapons program.” —James Mann
Originally published on PolicyMic.
Edited by Elena Sheppard.