The Man with Two Brains: Realism and Idealism in the Obama Presidency

New Statesman (1996), November 2, 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Man with Two Brains: Realism and Idealism in the Obama Presidency

The Obamians: the Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power

James Mann

Viking, 416pp, $26.9.5

Shortly after his inauguration as president, Barack Obama was given a briefing by the CIA about the danger of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. "That's scary," said Obama, "but in the meeting I had before this one, the Treasury told me that every bank could fail before the end of the month. Now that's really scary." This anecdote shows the central point of James Mann's book, which tries to paint a portrait of the 44th president's foreign policy through the prism of his relationships with his closest advisers.


For Obama and the youthful "Obamians", the world began in zooi with 9/11, which was followed by the Iraq war and the financial crisis. For them, the events that traumatised most foreign policy professionals--Vietnam, the cold war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkan wars--are ancient history. The biggest worries for the Obamians are the fallout from the decision to go to war in Iraq and the shortage of money after the global financial crisis. As Mann states in his concluding sentence: "Obama's time in office marked the beginning of a new era where American primacy is no longer taken for granted."

The doctrine they seek to develop is one of "low-cost leadership". This involves a mix of soft power (symbolised by Obama and his powerful speeches), smart sanctions (used against Libya, Iran and Syria), drones (which have stepped up the campaign in Pakistan) and "leading from behind" (allowing Europeans to take the lead on Libya and reenergising alliances in the Pacific), while trying to reset relations with China and Russia.

Mann describes Libya as the "apotheosis" of the Obama approach. The conflict revealed his willingness to use force and his commitment to humanitarian goals and multilateralism. Yet it also showed a new kind of American leadership--playing a supportive role, rather than leading from the front. According to Mann, the Libya operation cost US taxpayers between $1m and $3m a day--compared to $300m a day for the Afghan operation.

Another important part of the Obama strategy is his oratory. If you could fix the world with speeches alone, Obama's first year would have bent the arc of history. He spent hours trying to craft the perfect words in a series of oradons designed to restore US leadership. The results were so convincing that they were one of the main reasons cited by the Norwegian Nobel committee in its decision to award the president the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

The main pen behind the speeches belonged to a young man called Ben Rhodes, who joined the Obama campaign in 2007 and emerges as the key figure in Mann's narrative. He is a sign of the extent to which the Obama revolution is above all generational. He also symbolises the distinction between the public and private faces of the administration.

According to Mann, Obama had two foreign policy teams: one, for public consumption, was the "team of rivals" that Obama appointed to cabinet-level positions. These grizzled warhorses gave the young president gravitas but they were kept away from the big decisions on foreign policy. They included figures such as Hillary Clinton at the state department, Robert Gates at the Pentagon, Richard Holbrooke as "AfPak" envoy, General James Jones as national security adviser and General David Petraeus, now director of the CIA. They were mainly people whose world-views had been shaped by the cold war. Yet the advisers who stayed behind after the intelligence briefings and helped Obama make his key decisions were younger, more political appointees who had worked on his campaign or made a career in the Senate rather than the national security apparatus.

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