If journalism is history’s first draft, administration memoirs are its second.
Freed from the daily scrum that comes with being a high-ranking leader, officials use memoirs to justify their choices and, they hope, rewrite history from their point of view. Memoirs are thus not especially interesting for what they reveal about the goings-on of a particular administration — the truth won’t come out until the documents do — but for what they say about how a person hopes to be remembered.
And given the sheer number of memoirs released since they left office, the Obamanauts are anxious about how they’ll be remembered. You can read Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist; Valerie Jarrett’s Finding My Voice; Ben Rhodes’s The World as It Is; Susan Rice’s Tough Love; Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait; Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?; Dan Pfeiffer’s Yes We (Still) Can; or Pat Cunnane’s West Winging It. In various ways, these books retell stories from the Obama White House as they attempt to explain how an administration meant to augur a new type of post-partisan politics paved the way for Donald Trump.
But in the final analysis, these books are a sideshow — what everyone really wants to know is what the big kahuna himself thinks about things. Finally, after four years of waiting, we can start to answer that question by reading Barack Obama’s 768-page doorstop, A Promised Land, the first of a planned two-volume memoir for which the president received a $65 million advance, far eclipsing Bill Clinton’s record-setting $15 million payday for his 2004 autobiography.
For socialists, A Promised Land is undeniably frustrating. The book adopts a circular form: Obama claims his horizon is the left-wing position; details how any particular goal was impossible to achieve; and argues that his compromise solution was therefore a small but necessary victory on the road to progress.
As this suggests, Obama, who never lacked for confidence, is satisfied with his accomplishments in office. He’s certain that he did his “very best,” especially because he followed the process. And it is the process that provides the lodestar for Obama’s presidency.
With a sound process — one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and my principles — I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better.
For Obama, process is politics; he is the ultimate subject of the “end of history.” For him, and for the Obamanauts who served under him, the fundamental questions of modernity — How do we organize a society? What does democracy mean? What is the best system of political economy? Should the United States “lead” the world? — have been asked and answered. And this is why Obama believed his project was a restorationist one, in which his primary duty as president was to restore faith in an American system damaged by the failures of George W. Bush. Even the election of Donald J. Trump, whose victory was propelled by ordinary people disgusted with that very system, cannot compel him to ask fundamental questions about the polity he led for eight years.
This inability suggests that Obama’s presidency, initially identified as an example of liberalism’s efflorescence, actually signaled its decline. Liberals like Obama can no longer provide satisfactory solutions to the problems that bedevil Americans. After his two terms, the United States remains highly unequal; US troops are still mired in Afghanistan; and little has been done to arrest climate change. No amount of “process” will solve these problems — what is required is the political will to transform the system from which they emerged.
And it is precisely this will that Obama not only lacked but considered somewhat ridiculous.
The Idea of America
Obama believes in America. “The pride in being American, the notion that America was the greatest country on earth,” he affirms in no uncertain terms, “was always a given” to him.
There are personal reasons for his attachment to the United States. As the child of a white American woman and a black Kenyan man who spent his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama long felt “unsure of where [he] belonged.” It was only when he identified himself with the United States, essentially equating his own success with that of his nation’s, that he finally “locate[d] a community and purpose for [his] life.”
But how could a black man, well-versed in the crimes committed by Americans both at home abroad — in fact, he moved to Indonesia a year after a US-assisted genocide killed at least half a million people there — so fully identify with the United States? The answer is surprisingly simple: for Obama, “the idea of America, the promise of America,” was always more important than American realities.
Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of foreign policy. Similar to many liberal internationalists, Obama understands that recent US history is littered with mistakes that had disastrous effects on people’s lives. When recounting the history of the post–World War II period, for example, he admits that Americans “bent global institutions to serve Cold War imperatives or ignored them altogether; we meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results; our actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination, and human rights we professed to embody.” Nonetheless, and in contradiction with the story he just told, he affirms that the United States simultaneously embraced a “willingness to act on behalf of a common good.”
Obama doesn’t even attempt to square this circle. For him, the idea of America always triumphs over its reality. At least Trump admitted that the United States, like all great powers, was home to a fair number of “killers.”
And it is perhaps for this reason that Obama, who ran a campaign in which he promised to transform the United States, failed to seize the historical moment and change a system that had engendered two catastrophic foreign interventions and the worst economic depression since the 1930s. Certain that the arc of American history bends toward justice, he was satisfied with pursuing ameliorative programs that preserved the structures that had failed so many.
Hope, Not Change
It’s therefore unsurprising that, by the end of Obama’s time in office, the United States’ foreign policy remained relatively unchanged. Though he successfully withdrew troops from Iraq, the nation retained thousands of troops in Afghanistan; led a disastrous intervention in Libya; sold weapons and provided intelligence to Saudi Arabia to support its intervention in Yemen; gave support to Syrian rebels and sent special operations forces to the country; and failed to attenuate tensions with China and Russia.
Most important, the structure of US empire endured: the nation still maintained hundreds of foreign military bases; still spent hundreds of billions of dollars on its military; and still had hundreds of thousands of troops deployed abroad. For all of Obama’s talk about “hope and change,” he was far more interested in the former than the latter.
When Obama first burst onto the national scene, it didn’t necessarily look like he would be a politician of the status quo. The first prominent speech of his career was delivered in 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq War. The then-state-senator criticized the “dumb” and “rash” invasion being planned by “weekend warriors” like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, presciently predicting that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”
But even in this early speech, the seeds that would germinate into Obama’s static foreign policy were present. He made clear, for instance, that he endorsed wars “in defense of our freedom” (a vague phrase if ever there was one) and that, though he believed Iraq was a dumb war of choice, Afghanistan and the war on terror were righteous wars of necessity.
Even when he ran for president on an anti–Iraq War platform, Obama took pains to illustrate his embrace of the foreign policy status quo. He refused to sign a pledge that committed him to reducing the defense budget, and he publicly stated that he was willing to violate other nations’ sovereignty if it meant the United States would capture Osama bin Laden.
Nevertheless, Obama did differ from 2008 primary contenders like Hillary Clinton in one crucial respect: he vigorously endorsed diplomacy. During one primary debate, he declared that, unlike his opponents, he was prepared to sit down and negotiate with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. Though excoriated for this rather quotidian position — an example of the derangement of US national security discourse in the years after the September 11 attacks — Obama held firm. Indeed, the president’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment, the diplomatic opening to Cuba, stemmed from this early willingness to engage with US adversaries.
The Anti-Establishment in Power
Besides his commitment to withdraw troops from Iraq, Obama’s embrace of diplomacy was his most significant departure from the Bush administration’s foreign policy. In most other ways, he remained tied to the status quo of an increasingly delegitimized empire. This is why Obama’s initial national security picks read like a who’s who of the foreign policy establishment. He asked Robert Gates, “a Republican, a Cold War hawk, [and] a card-carrying member of the national security establishment” to remain on as secretary of defense; he appointed James L. Jones, a retired Marine Corps general who had previously led the European Command, to be his national security advisor; he installed Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and he asked Hillary Clinton to become his secretary of state. All of these people, Obama notes, “believed that American leadership” — i.e., US hegemony — “was necessary to keep the world moving in a better direction.”
Obama defends these choices in terms of their supposed practicality. While explaining why he requested that Gates stay on as defense secretary, for example, he declares that “any wholesale turnover in the Defense Department seemed fraught with risk.” This is no doubt true. But if Obama was serious about “moving America’s national security apparatus in a new direction,” it’s strange to appoint one of the most establishmentarian figures possible to one of the most important positions in his administration.
He also claims that people like Gates (and Jones, and Panetta, and Clinton) allowed him to oversee a more effective national security process, in which he was forced to “hear a broad range of perspectives” and “continually test even my deepest assumptions against people who had the stature and confidence to tell me when I was wrong.” (Obama, of course, appointed no anti-imperialists, or even heterodox foreign policy thinkers, to his national security team, despite the fact that they, too, would’ve tested his “deepest assumptions.”)
Obama’s choices were the correct ones for him. After becoming president, he quickly discovered that he “was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision.” And predictably, the national security debates in the White House ran the gamut from A to B, with Obama proudly noting that “even the more liberal members of my team . . . had no qualms about the use of ‘hard power’ to go after terrorists and were scornful of leftist critics who made a living blaming the United States for every problem around the globe.” Within the first months of his presidency, it was obvious that no genuine strategic change in the US approach to the world was going to emanate from the Obama White House.
Partially for this reason, the anti-establishment energies that engendered Obama’s election either went nowhere or migrated to the right wing, helping prepare the path for another Washington outsider to win the presidency in 2016.
Commander in Chief?
So, what did Obama do while in office? Ironically, given that he was elected on an anti–Iraq War platform, very little of A Promised Land is devoted to explaining the president’s decision to remove most troops from that country. In Obama’s telling, this choice was a no-brainer, and he rapidly approved a plan to withdraw the majority of troops within nineteen months (though many Americans stayed in the country for years; today, a few thousand troops remain, as US diplomats traipse around an embassy that cost $750 million).
Afghanistan presented a more significant problem. According to Obama, it was critical for the United States to prevent Hamid Karzai’s government from falling to the Taliban, as this was the only way to ensure that Afghanistan would stop serving as a “terrorist” safe haven. At the same time, Obama avows that he had little desire to transform the country into a functioning democracy, which he believed would take years, if it was ever accomplished.
Military leaders, however, disagreed, maintaining that if they had enough resources, they could accomplish the nation-building mission that George W. Bush had assigned them. Furthermore, many high-ranking officers didn’t believe that a civilian who had never served in uniform knew how to conduct a war better than them.
The stage was thus set for a confrontation between the White House and the military.
Soon after Obama entered office, the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked him to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Though he refused to deploy that high a number, in mid-February of 2009, he agreed to send 17,000 troops and 4,000 military trainers to the country.
One month later, Obama received a report on Afghanistan that argued in favor of adopting a policy centered on nation-building. While the president claims he didn’t want to approve this plan, “the alternatives were worse. The stakes involved — the risks of a possible collapse of the Afghan government or the Taliban gaining footholds in major cities — were simply too high for us not to act.” As such, in late March, he announced the adoption of this new strategy.
Soon thereafter, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of military forces in Afghanistan, advocated an even more expansive counterinsurgency program. In this, the general had the full support of the military. Though Obama again affirms that he was reticent to embrace McChrystal’s strategy, he simultaneously argues that he just “couldn’t ignore the unanimous recommendation of experienced generals.” To determine what to do, Obama retreated into the process, holding a series of National Security Council meetings to “methodically work through the details of McChrystal’s proposal.”
The military wasn’t having any of it. To circumvent Obama’s process, David Petraeus (commander of Central Command), Mike Mullen (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and McChrystal all gave public statements endorsing the latter’s strategy, which engendered a flurry of media coverage and impelled Republicans to come out in favor of the military’s preferred approach.
This was a serious challenge to Obama, an obvious attempt by the military to undermine the will of the constitutionally mandated commander in chief. To his credit, Obama quickly nipped the mutiny in the bud, summoning Gates and Mullen to his office, dressing them down, and forcing them to promise that the military wouldn’t undercut him in the future. (He later dismissed McChrystal for insulting members of his administration in an article printed in Rolling Stone.)
Though Obama disciplined the generals, their insouciance reveals that the military has become far too emboldened. As the president highlights, when he entered office, he learned that “basic policy decisions — about war and peace, but also about America’s budget priorities, diplomatic goals, and the possible trade-offs between security and other values — had been steadily farmed out to the Pentagon and the CIA.” This is a serious problem for a civilian-run society and should become a major focus of criticism for the American left, especially given that, like Trump, Joe Biden decided to nominate a retired military officer as his secretary of defense.
Ironically, and tragically, the generals needn’t have worried: in the end, Obama decided to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. As usual, all the searching questions Obama asked himself during the process — e.g., “Does anyone think that spinning our wheels in Afghanistan for another ten years will impress our allies and strike fear in our enemies?” — didn’t change the final decision to deploy more and more troops. In the end, Obama trusted the experts, and as a matter of course, the foreign policy status quo endured.
Today, thousands of US troops remain deployed in Afghanistan, and it was recently revealed by the Intercept that the CIA trained death squads that murdered at least fifty-one civilians, including children as young as eight.
On the World Stage
Surprisingly for someone who spent his youth on the peripheries of the American empire in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama displays a remarkably dismissive view of countries and leaders outside the North Atlantic. In particular, he suggests that it’s ridiculous to imagine that the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are ready to exert significant influence on the global stage. Most insultingly (at least from Obama’s perspective), he says that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president who is perhaps the most successful center-left politician in modern history, has “the scruples of a Tammany Hall boss.”
If only Obama had the scruples of a Tammany Hall boss — then he might have rewarded the millions of workers who voted for him with some semblance of patronage to improve their lot in life.
In addition to criticizing Lula, Obama remarks that Vladimir Putin leads a regime that “resembled a criminal syndicate as much as it did a traditional government”; laments the “corruption and incompetence” of South Africa’s African National Congress; and describes India as “a chaotic and impoverished place.” Without denying the elements of truth in these descriptions, it’s not as if the United States doesn’t have its own inequities and problems that, under Obama’s framework, should prevent it from “leading” the world. The truth is that Obama simply thinks it’s the United States’ right and duty to enjoy its imperial privileges.
Indeed, Obama affirms that, for all their complaining, the world’s countries actually desire US hegemony. What struck him most, he avows, is that “at every international forum I attended . . . even those who complained about America’s role in the world still relied on us to keep the system afloat.” For Obama, the United States remains the indispensable nation, the only country willing “to act beyond narrow self-interest.” In contrast, he argues that the BRICS, and presumably other nations in the Global South, “abided by the established rules only insofar as their own interests were advanced . . . and they appeared happy to violate them when they thought they could get away with it.”
After all, it’s not as if the United States has ever disregarded international law by overthrowing democratically elected foreign governments.
As this suggests, Obama devoted himself to “putting out fires that predated [his] presidency” and restoring confidence in a “damaged U.S. leadership.” If he failed to achieve these goals, he worried that the “older, darker forces [that] were gathering strength” and replacing “the hopeful tide of democratization, liberalization, and integration that had swept the globe after the end of the Cold War” would ultimately triumph. Tragically, he couldn’t see that the exact opposite was true: restoring the pre-Bush ancien régime only heightened the contradictions that engendered Bush’s presidency in the first place — contradictions that later impelled Trump’s victory. What was needed was a revolution that Obama refused to lead.
Though he barely mentions drones in A Promised Land, Obama does address the fact that, under his leadership, thousands of people in the Global South, especially young men, were murdered. Dispiritingly, if predictably, all he can do by way of explanation — and, one assumes, expiation — is offer his thoughts and prayers.
I wanted somehow to save them — send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.
This statement is typical of A Promised Land. On the surface, it appears rather searching: Has any other president been so open about articulating the tensions of being the head of the world’s most powerful empire? But in actuality, this soliloquy ends precisely where policymaking should begin. Obama never seriously considers how he could alter the structures of exchange and distribution, the structures of the empire he leads, that “warped and stunted” the minds of the young men in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia he claims to care about. Instead, his ultimate faith in the American idea allows him to do nothing but feel bad. While he “took no joy” in targeting “terrorists,” in the end, “the work was necessary,” and that was that.
In fact, Obama didn’t really disagree with Bush’s anti-terrorism strategy. “Unlike some on the left,” he affirms, he had “never engaged in wholesale condemnation of the Bush administration’s approach to counterterrorism (CT).” His intent while in office was merely “to fix those aspects of our CT effort that needed fixing, rather than tearing it out root and branch to start over.” It’s thus not especially surprising that Obama named John Brennan, a former member of the CIA who had served as acting director of Bush’s National Counterterrorism Center, as his counterterrorism head. As with Gates, Jones, Panetta, and Clinton, this was about as establishment a pick as one could have possibly made.
Indeed, a little more than two years after assuming the presidency, Obama committed the military to a new regime change effort, this time in Libya. As usual, Obama avows that he “found the idea of waging a new war in a distant country with no strategic importance to the United States to be less than prudent.” And, as usual, he made the militarist choice anyway.
Obama provides humanitarian, multilateralist, and pragmatic explanations for his decision to topple the government of Muammar Gaddafi: Gaddafi was set to massacre innocents in Benghazi; the Arab League had voted to support an international intervention; and he had developed a plan that he believed would engender regime change “swiftly, with the support of allies, and with the parameters of our mission clearly spelled out.” Of course, we all know how the story ended: today, Libya is mired in chaos, home to incredible violence and suffering.
Waiting in the Wings
Obama ran for office claiming to be an Abraham Lincoln or a Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In actuality, he governed like a Bill Clinton, confining himself to the politics of earlier generations. His administration remained tied to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other despotic governments; dismissed Putin’s worries about NATO and European Union expansion; did almost nothing to democratize international governing organizations; violated Pakistan’s sovereignty to assassinate bin Laden; and paid embarrassing obeisance to Israel. While Obama defends these and other positions by claiming they were the only “realistic” options, for him, “realism” seems to mean doing nothing to upend the traditional US approach to the world.
It’s for this reason that it’s impossible to believe Obama’s assertion that he “was determined to shift a certain mindset that had gripped not just the Bush administration but much of Washington — one that saw threats around every corner, took a perverse pride in acting unilaterally, and considered military action as an almost routine means of addressing foreign policy challenges.” Though the tone of foreign policy did genuinely change under Obama — unlike Bush, he was willing to express humility — this is cold comfort for those who continue to labor under the boot of American empire. When it came down to it, the military bases remained; the budget remained; and the violence remained.
On a visit to India, Obama offered a comment about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that reflected his own blinkered approach to governance. “Like me,” Obama remarks, Singh
had come to believe that [slow, painstaking reform] was all any of us could expect from democracy. . . . Not revolutionary leaps or major cultural overhauls; not a fix for every social pathology or lasting answers for those in search of purpose and meaning in their lives. Just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.
According to Obama, the best a president could do was tinker at the margins.
But what Trump’s election demonstrated was that tinkering was not, and will never be, enough. When a system fails its people, the people will demand something different. And this is precisely what Obama was congenitally unable to offer, to which the numerous districts that flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016 testify. Ordinary Americans know that the system isn’t working for them, and when transformation is on the ballot, they will vote for it, whether it’s Obama-style “hope and change” or Trump-style “America first.”
Ultimately, Obama cannot admit his own failures. At one point in A Promised Land, he goes so far as to ask himself whether it was
possible that abstract principles and high-minded ideals were and always would be nothing more than a pretense, a palliative, a way to beat back despair, but no match for the more primal urges that really moved us, so that no matter what we said or did, history was sure to run along its predetermined course, an endless cycle of fear, hunger and conflict, dominance and weakness?
Obama seems to think that the answer to this question is “yes”; that there is little anyone can do to really change the world. This is a nihilistic approach to governance that denies the very real power of the president of the United States. It’s also ahistorical, as the manifold revolutionary transformations that have occurred in the last century demonstrate.
In retrospect, it appears that Obama was the exact wrong president for the exact right time. Now, we can only hope that a genuinely visionary leader, aligned with grassroots movements and dedicated to pushing politics in a more progressive direction, one day becomes president.
Unfortunately, if recent history has revealed anything, it is that we may be waiting quite a while.