Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Obama's Hits and Misses in an Unstable World

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Obama's Hits and Misses in an Unstable World

Article excerpt

David E. Sanger's book "Confront and Conceal," offers a penetrating history of the president's effort to grapple with a world in flux.

Confront and Conceal Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. By David E. Sanger. Illustrated. 476 pages. Crown Publishers, $28; Pounds 18.99.

Two months into his presidency, Barack Obama announced he would defeat Al Qaeda by remaking Afghanistan. He would advance "opportunity and justice." He would send in "agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers" to fashion a new Afghan economy, train police officers and assist farmers. His goal was a level of societal coherence and government never before seen in that country.

At the end of 2010, Mr. Obama convened a committee charged with narrowing his Afghan mission to its essence and finding a quick exit. The committee called itself "Afghan Good Enough."

This transformation is one element of Mr. Obama's global "education" captured by David E. Sanger in his penetrating history of the president's effort to grapple with a world in flux.

"Confront and Conceal" depicts a president whose early months in office revealed inexperience internationally but whose adaptability produced what Mr. Sanger calls an "Obama doctrine." He explains: "When confronted with a direct threat to American security, Obama has shown he is willing to act unilaterally -- in a targeted, get- in-and-get-out fashion, that avoids, at all costs, the kind of messy ground wars and lengthy occupations that have drained America's treasury and spirit for the past decades."

Mr. Sanger cites the Obama-directed raid to kill Osama bin Laden, his expansion of drone strikes into an antiterrorism offensive and the Stuxnet cyberworm he sent to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. (Mr. Sanger, as the chief Washington correspondent for this newspaper, first revealed that the United States built and unleashed that cyberweapon, in collaboration with Israel.)

But while Mr. Obama seems untroubled by the use of force to protect American interests, he remains leery of military action when no national threat exists -- unless, as in Libya, he can get others to do the heavy lifting. "Obama has made the case for an America that can no longer do it all," Mr. Sanger writes.

Mr. Sanger traces the development of Mr. Obama's foreign policy architecture through a sprightly narrative of his decision making on treacherous challenges -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the Arab Awakening and a rising China. We see a man of considerable analytical skill.

But Mr. Obama abandoned Afghan nation-building without any discernible anguish when he saw that, while progress was possible, the pace was languid. The military sought to train Afghan officials so they could become a "government in a box," to be transported to areas of need. …

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