Saturday, May 13, 2017

Confront and Conceal

Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of Power
496 pages
© 2012 David E. Sanger

Barack Obama may have been the only Nobel Peace Prize winner in history to order lethal force used on a regular basis, but things could have been worse. Confront and Conceal attempts to make a case for an "Obama Doctrine", one which avoids epic disasters like the destruction of Iraq, but still asserts American influence via surgical operations and international organizations.  Sanger reviews the actions of the Obama White House regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, China and Iran, with a special section on drones and cyberwarfare. He relies on extensive interviews with administration officials, including then-secretary of State, Clinton, as well as State Department cables which were made available via Wikileaks.  He creates a picture of an Obama who -- though mocked for his weakness or aggression, depending on the mocker --  attempted a cautious but efficacious approach  to foreign policy.  Considering Sanger's access -- interviewing heap-big chiefs  as high as as the secretary of state- -   it is perhaps no surprise that the representation rendered here is admiring, on the whole.

Obama encountered no shortage of foreign policy crises during his first time. He began it faced with the deathly tar pit of Afghanistan,  further complicated by the amount of trouble-makers hiding in the western fringes of Pakistan.  Excising the United States from Afghanistan wasn't as simple a matter as cutting losses and leaving, for neither the DC nor Pakistan desired a power vacuum between Pakistan and Iran.  The Arab spring, which forced DC to choose between its interests and its proclaimed values, further muddied the waters. The cascade of populist revolts took everyone by surprise, including the President who was determined to restore the American reputation in the middle east.  To avoid messes like Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama  preferred to use a light footprint approach: if American interests were at risk, then action must be taken --but the action should be swift and precise, using new tools like drones and cyberwarfare.   Diplomacy was preferable to brute force, however: Obama was also a genuine internationalist, who preferred using global organizations to apply pressure to ne'er do wells like Qaddafi, and to effect change.  This was not always possible;  the Iranians didn't trust his intentions and regarded him as timid; the international community remains divided over Syria, with some supporting Assad and others supporting the rebels and ISIS.   Ditto for North Korea: as vexsome as they are to all of their neighbors, China included, they won't just go away. Leaving the north in the hands of the Kim family cult isn't an attractive option for China, but it's more attractive than millions of malnourished and uneducated refugees streaming into China.

Anyone who has followed my reading for any length of time may have picked up on the fact that I am not a fan of DC, in any administration.  I did have a grudging respect for much of  Obama's foreign policy, however,  at least until he began getting the country more entangled with Syria and resurrecting Cold War tensions.   That respect was validated here, as Obama seems to have approached DC's expanse of empire with the desire to do as little damage as possible. I don't know how strong willed and idealistic someone would have to be to sit in the One Chair of the west wing, surrounded by the whispering host of the DC establishment,  faced with a neverending series of crises and commitments, and say "To hell with you, I'm not playing this game", and start manipulating the Titanic of state  away from its inevitable course of empire.  Obama seems to have resisted it for several years: agreeing to escalate in Afghanistan, but only with a pre-determined date to cut losses and run;  continuing Bush's development of the Olympic Games project, which would give him  more options in Iran;  and using drones instead of conventional bombing and strike team, because those were the only options DC produced. (The targets were 'terrorists', of course.  DC wouldn't casually assassinate just any reichsfeinde. That would never happen, no sir.)

Cantankerous sarcasm aside,  Confront and Conceal was a varied and endlessly fascinating history given the range of topics and their (unfortunately) continued relevance.  The Kims are even more problematic now than they were;  Syria continues to exact a morbid fascination for the establishment, and China...well, it's still there. So too are the opportunities for mischief the digital world has opened, as this weekend's crippling wave of digital attacks (chiefly in Britain) have shown all too well.   I would take its general admiration for the establishment with no small level of salt, however.  Foreign-policy wise, I think it's especially helpful for the material on the US-Pakistan relationship.

Playing to the Edge, Michael Hayden. Another keyhole light inside  the establishment.


  1. Sounds like a well thought out treatise. Outsiders(most of us) know so little of what actually goes on.... Tx for the illumination...

  2. US foreign policy is my equivalent of staring at car wrecks, I'm afraid. It's grisly but I can't help it!

  3. I understand... As a geologist I'm drawn over strongly to volcanic explosions and related disasters...


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