Barack Obama is a paradox. This has never been as clear to me as while reading David Sanger's Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. The book is a timely, gripping read that offers insights into some of the most surprising, most closely guarded dimensions of the Obama presidency. Early excerpts from his book that have already appeared in the New York Times have sent competitors scrambling and governments from Washington to Tel Aviv to Tehran to Islamabad into closed-door sessions to determine how to deal with his uncomfortable revelations. When it comes to ongoing conflicts between America and her perceived enemies (and friends) around the world, Sanger is a one-man WikiLeaks and Confront and Conceal is a glimpse into a world until now shrouded in secrecy.
A cynical observer might wonder why, at this particular moment, there have been a spate of books and articles like Sanger's, revealing Barack Obama to be the Great and Powerful Oz of 21st-century white-collar warfare, a president with his hands on the joystick of American power, directing drones, computer worms, special-operations units, and covert actors in the kinds of shadow wars that offer a cheaper, lower-risk alternative to those unlamented days of shock and awe and trillion-dollar wars to nowhere. You might conclude that some in the administration were orchestrating the serial violation of its own secrecy laws to achieve a politically desirable image for its candidate-commander-in-chief. But whether that's really the case is one of the few aspects of this White House onto which Sanger does not shed a direct light. As for the rest of what is going on in the Obama national security apparatus, Confront and Conceal is jam-packed with news, gripping anecdotes, stories of triumph, and stories of hubris.
A measure of the book's success is that by the time I was done with it, I was more confused than when I had begun -- about how to feel about Obama's approach to war and about the president himself. Sanger, the New York Times's chief Washington correspondent, sets out to dissect the Obama doctrine and ends up instead revealing the Obama paradox. There is a bold, thoughtful, serious man in the Oval Office. And an arrogant, cautious, calculating one, too. There is one seeking to undo the wrongs of America's recent past. And there is one committing a whole new set of wrongs, sometimes on a whole new scale. And of course, as with every really good paradoxical figure, every paradox contains paradoxes. When I was done with the book, I concluded this might be a uniquely complex and enigmatic president -- or perhaps one that was precisely as he appeared: an ambitious, intelligent, well-intentioned, self-invested lawyer who has great confidence in his own ability to manage America's (and the world's) problems, is a learning-on-the-job manager who is in many respects more distant from his cabinet than any president since Richard Nixon, and who is trying to do the best he can, succeeding sometimes and failing at others. But the jury about Obama is very much out.
The following conversation with Sanger took place a couple of days before the June 5 publication date of Confront and Conceal. Interview by David Rothkopf:
Foreign Policy: Why is this book different from all the other books?
David Sanger: When Barack Obama came into office, there were many liberals and other supporters of the new president who were so ready for the end of the Bush era that they gave little thought to what "hard power" techniques were likely to be necessary -- and so they were surprised about the hard edge to much of the Obama approach to foreign policy. At the same time, there were many conservatives who thought that he was naïve in his approach to "engagement." And they were surprised, too, about the new president's decision to double down on some of the Bush-era initiatives.
When I set out on the reporting of Confront and Conceal, what struck me the most was how surprising the Obama approach to foreign policy has been compared to what we expected coming out of the 2008 campaign. So this is a book about the surprises. And it's a book that tries to take seriously the thought that there may be an Obama doctrine -- even if the president has deliberately avoided that phrase. And I wanted to examine whether it works, where it works, and where it doesn't work.
If I had to summarize the doctrine, it's got two parts. When there is a direct threat to the United States, Obama has shown himself to be very willing to use unilateral force, even if it violates a country's sovereignty, and even if it angers the allies. Think of the [Osama] bin Laden raid. Think of the drone strikes over Pakistan. Think of Olympic Games [the code name for the cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear program], which is one of the largest covert programs the United States has run in recent years and is a clear violation of the sovereignty of Iran.
When there are cases where the United States does not have direct interests at stake, when there was just sort of a global good out there, which may well include something like the responsibility to protect populations from brutal dictators -- think Libya, Syria, so forth -- President Obama has been very willing to say we're not going to take the lead here; we're going to force others to both pay for it and to man up to it according to their own interests. And this has left many allies pretty disturbed, because they have wondered whether or not the traditional United States leadership role is being abandoned. It's also created some political vulnerability for the president. At moments, it has worked, as in Libya. At other moments, it has not. The paralysis over Syria happened because when the United States hasn't taken the lead, and no one else has either. So the Obama doctrine gives us sort of a new lens on how the U.S. exercises power, and this book is an examination of what's worked and what hasn't. Not surprisingly, it's a mixed record.
FP: According to your book, many of the big, moving parts of the Obama doctrine were inherited from Bush, including both drones and the cyber war against Iran. How much credit do you think George Bush and his team deserve for what is now being characterized as the Obama doctrine?