Their predecessors were steeped in the lessons of World War II, convinced of the indispensability of the United States, scarred by the experience of Vietnam. But they were different. They were younger, to be sure. For some, their formative experiences were the Iraq War and the financial crash of 2008. And when they took power, a scant three years ago, they were determined to remake American foreign policy, if not the world.
James Mann, a former Los Angeles Times Washington reporter and foreign correspondent, calls them the Obamians, and their impulses, visions, and frustrations have played out in the capital and across the globe, evident most visibly in the American role in Libya but leaving traces in every aspect of the national-security debate, making the United States at once more willing to intervene overseas and less ambitious about the scale of US operations. Mann’s “Obamians” is the successor volume to “Rise of the Vulcans,” his sketch of the foreign-policy worldview of those surrounding George W. Bush, and it is a portrait of a Democratic generation’s effort to declare its independence from past doctrines and shibboleths, for at the heart of this thesis is the president’s “continuing effort to recast the United States’ role in the world in a way that fits America’s more limited resources.”
Though Obama won his party’s nomination and then the presidency in part on an antiwar profile that had Vietnam overtones, he and his foreign-policy team resolutely resist Vietnam metaphors. The president has almost no recollections of the tumult that war prompted, and many of his aides have even less. What marked them was the debate that followed and that has dominated American foreign-policy conversation for decades: whether the nation was a force for good or for evil in the world, whether or when it should project its force, how it should intervene with others militarily or diplomatically, whether it was possible to be strong abroad when weak and divided at home.
The Obamians’ identity was post-Vietnam, even post post-Vietnam, and their search, in the years shaped by Bush’s Iraq invasion and the economic crash at the end of his administration, was for a policy to match it, so much so that, once in power, they repelled Richard C. Holbrooke, arguably the most experienced and accomplished diplomat of his time, from the inner circle, in large measure because of his insistence on Vietnam analogies.
The Obamians’ search for a new foreign-policy worldview was complicated by the two-front political war Democrats were fighting, the first against their Republican rivals, the second along the axis that split the Democrats between the doves and those congenial to the use of American power in some circumstances, particularly for humanitarian purposes.
With strong roots on Capitol Hill, particularly the office of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, the Obamians were marked by the years 2001-2002, when so many Democrats lined up behind Bush on Iraq to prove they weren’t captives or carbons of George McGovern on Vietnam.
“The Obamians viewed themselves as dealing with new realities and a different world from their predecessors,” Mann writes. “They scoffed at some of the reigning clichés, the stale language in which China and India were regularly termed ‘rising powers.’ ’’
Obama himself, the first modern president not involved in the military nor subject to the draft, was a different foreign-policy creature. As candidate he was comfortable demeaning the “foreign policy elite” and “conventional thinking in Washington.”
But this was more than a matter of campaign-trail imagery and posturing. It was his identity, as strong a part of him as his multiracial ethnicity and his international rearing. “Every president since Gerald Ford had tried, in one fashion or another, to declare an end to the Vietnam War or to put to rest its continuing impact.” To employ a poignant New Frontier idiom, Obama did not bear that burden, nor feel he had to pay that price.
It is possible to argue that the Obama administration didn’t behave all that differently from the way Senator Hillary Clinton signaled she might have behaved, or indeed the way the Bush administration did, especially on terrorism, where Obama employed vast numbers of drones, failed to close Guantanamo, and killed Osama bin Laden. And simply rejecting Vietnam as a model or a lesson didn’t supply lessons or models for a new order or answer, for example, whether what was needed in Afghanistan was counterterrorism or counterinsurgency.
But, as Mann deftly demonstrates in an often-riveting insiders’ account of the making of American foreign policy in the time of Obama, this is a different time, a different generation, and a different crowd, and it has a different outlook, evident in the president’s Nobel acceptance speech, where he spoke of war in accepting a prize for peace and spoke of change as he rejected much of the Democratic left wing’s Vietnam hangover by explicitly crediting the United States for helping to “underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”
All of the tensions that contribute to the Obamians’ weltanschauung became acute in the Arab Spring, when the administration had to choose between longtime American allies and long-held American values — and ended up pressuring autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt while leaving those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan alone. “At times,” Mann writes, “the Obamians simply abandoned the search for a rationale and acknowledged that the principles underlying what they were doing varied from country to country.” In that, at least, the Obamians were part of a long American foreign-policy tradition.David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.