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4.0 out of 5 stars Confronting the Obama Doctrine, June 12, 2012
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This review is from: Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (Hardcover)
Confront and Conceal is, in many ways, the sequel to The Inheritance. The Inheritance was about the foreign policy challenges Obama inherited from Bush. In Confront and Conceal, Sanger examines how Obama has faced those changes and attempts to pin down an "Obama Doctrine." In Inheritance, Sanger presented America's foreign policy challenges as almost siloed. Here, he makes clear that our continued presence in Afghanistan is largely driven by our strategic interests in Pakistan, and those strategic interests are amplified by our interest in not leaving Pakistan with the alternative of China as their major ally and benefactor. And the money to pay for it all comes from the same place. Everything is linked.

Confront and Conceal is organized into five parts, covering: Afghanistan & Pakistan, Iran, drones & cyber warfare, the Arab Spring, and China & North Korea. The section on Afghanistan & Pakistan is the longest by a fair margin, taking up almost one third of the book. China & North Korea, by comparison, is given short shrift. In my mind, it's hard to argue that the Arab Spring deserves twice the space as China & North Korea.

A renewed exuberance for the Afghan war (reflecting Obama's campaign rhetoric) soon faded under sober inspection. Transforming Afghanistan into a modern nation was not and never had been feasible. There is simply no way to replace the development aid and military spending that accounted for the vast majority of Afghanistan's GDP. So our focus shifted to warily watching Pakistan and (rightly) putting our pursuit of al-Qaeda first, even if it means jeopardizing our relationship with Pakistan, as the mission to kill Osama bin Laden did. In the end, we will likely leave Afghanistan little better off than it was (although we lasted longer there than the Soviets), our relationship with Pakistan will remain fraught (but we can never end it lest China fill our void), and al-Qaeda may eventually be able to rebuild, but there is no doubt that we have dealt al-Qaeda a mighty blow. It is the one true success of the last three years.

Iran is one of two instances where Obama's policy of more open engagement backfired on us. It soured our relationship with Israel (with settlements already a sore spot), and we wound up reacting to them instead of being proactive. We launched America's first major cyber attack, dubbed Olympic Games, in conjunction with the Israelis in part to prevent them from preemptively bombing Iran. It was enormously successful on one level. We set Iran's nuclear program back years. But we also inadvertently released a virus into the "wild," and we have merely delayed, not stopped, Iran's progress. Perhaps most disconcerting about this section is an apparent acquiescence to an eventual nuclear Iran on the part of members of the Obama administration (Israel understandably feels different; this is their Cuban Missile Crisis).

Drones and cyber warfare of course get ample attention in the first two parts, but Sanger devotes a (short) section entirely to them as well. They have become integral to American strategy. They were the two covert programs Bush urged Obama to preserve. Obama has not only preserved, but greatly expanded, our efforts on both fronts. And he has been deeply involved; "[p]erhaps not since Lyndon Johnson had sat in the same room, more than four decades before, picking bombing targets in North Vietnam, had a president of the United States been so intimately involved in the step-by-step escalation of an attack on a foreign nation's infrastructure." With cyber warfare, for now all the advantages lay with the attacker: they can wait for just the right moment to strike, the victim won't know who hit him for far too long, and there is no effective deterrence. These are more disconcerting when we consider our own vulnerabilities. The attacks on Iran also showed that cyber attacks can cause physical damage.

The Arab Spring caught the administration flat-footed. But who could have ever predicted something like that? The better measure is how we reacted. Obama bumbled with Egypt, hit all the right notes in Lebanon (where Sanger sees American interests as small), and has been helpless to prevent the slaughter Syria (which Sanger sees as much more important to American interests). But for all its greater strategic importance, Syria is challenging in all the ways Lebanon was not, as Sanger takes pains to show.

The label `China and North Korea' is a bit of a misnomer. It's really a section on China with a few mentions of North Korea. But only because there isn't much to say. How could we have learned so little in the past three years about a country that we once called part of an axis of evil? Sanger has little to nothing new to say about new North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Open engagement hurt us in China too--many Chinese leaders saw it as weakness. Americans often view China as monolithic and under the utter control of Hu Jintao, but Sanger explains that efforts to decentralize eroded the power of the central government, and American intelligence officers now recognize three factions: isolationists, those who see us as a friendly rival, and those who see us as a less-than-friendly rival.

Sanger's primary goal is to pin down an Obama Doctrine (words the administration adamantly refuses to utter). He ultimately boils it down to a strategy of confrontation and concealment. Obama is no less likely than Bush to order a preemptive strike. He is far more likely to do it with drones, cyber weapons, or special forces. Ground wars are to be avoided at all costs. It's too early to judge Obama's presidency, though. Early on, Sanger points out that at this point in their presidencies, Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't look like debacles, Nixon hadn't gone to China, and Truman's policy of containment was still an experiment.

Where I think Sanger (and Obama) get it wrong is in the idea of a "new" military. A smaller, more flexible military that can strike but isn't built to wage wars of occupation. But we thought much the same in the 90s. We will, at some point, feel we need to go into a country and wage war on the ground, and we will need ground troops to do it. And that ability gives us no small measure of "soft power."

This review is of the Kindle edition. Photos are in the middle, as is most common in a traditional book, instead of at the end as is most common in Kindle books in my experience. Reference material begins at the 86% mark. It consists of Acknowledgements, A Note on Sources, and Endnotes (linked both ways).
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 16, 2012 11:18:27 PM PDT
S. P. Hoyt says:
Who could have expected the Arab Spring?....How about Code Pink, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohern who were there to insight the riots?

Obama knew all about it. He wasn't caught flatfooted...he wanted it.

I read Ayer's brother's post about Bernadine and Bill being in Egypt stirring up the people on Ayer's blogspot...which he has since removed...that January 2010 spot has been removed.

But others recorded what happened in Egypt when Bill and Bernadine went there in early 2010:

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 4, 2012 8:50:12 AM PDT
Lee L. says:
How's that tin foil hat fitting these days Hoyt?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 21, 2012 5:10:22 AM PDT
Took a look at your link. Independent sources? Foot notes? Comparisons? Can't be convinced without some more information and from a broader view.

Posted on Jul 28, 2012 7:09:34 PM PDT
Tracy says:
@Laura Kondrick: These, I'm afraid, are things S. P. Hoyt can't provide. Not if s/he's getting this information from WND, because they only use their own reporting as sources, for example, "In a widely circulated article [the preceding three words link to another WND page], WND first reported Obama served on the board of the Wood's Fund...", or, if they do use an external source, it's something like this:

Obama's 2000 reference to his role on the CAC contrasts sharply with multiple interviews as a presidential candidate in which he has sought to downplay his relationship with Ayers.
In an interview broadcast on the Fox News Channel last week [the preceding text is a link to a WND article containing a YouTube video, presumably of the Fox interview, but it is no longer available "because the YouTube account... has been terminated"], for example, Obama characterized Ayers as "somebody who worked on education issues in Chicago that I know."

Clearly, a smoking gun! Obama admits that he and Ayers (whose terrorist activities in NY and DC took place in the early 70s when Obama was a pre-teen in Hawaii) worked for the same educational reform organization in the mid-90s. See how he "downplays" this relationship, by carefully avoiding any mention of his involvement in Ayers' Weather Underground when he was 10, as well as by insinuating that their involvement Woods Fund (, where they both served as directors, was coincidental, when it couldn't possibly be. (Because, as we know from an anonymous poster ( at the extremely credible website Godlike Productions, "We can suspect these two organizations [the Woods Fund and another local charity, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge] are communist sympathetic if not straightout communist".) If it weren't for the fact that so many people really take this stuff seriously, it would be downright hilarious.

Anyhoo.... back on topic. Thanks for a good overview of the book. "Confront and Conceal" was fascinating.

While it didn't work, I do believe Obama did the right thing by attempting diplomacy with Iran. One of my next books may be "The Twilight War" - the Fresh Air interview with the author, David Crist, intrigued me ( Crist sounds like a bit of a hard-liner at times ("And by backing down, essentially, what we do is we acquiesce to the Iranian military..."), but he also talks, with real regret, about a missed opportunity for dialogue with Khatami right after 9/11.

The ability to fight a war, ground or not, is considered "hard power". I suppose that in the right circumstances it could translate to "soft power" (i.e, by joining a coalition of countries to stop a genocide, perhaps?), but soft power generally comes from many other sources (trade, material and cultural exports, foreign aid, international cooperation, etc.). In fact, the use of hard power more often damages the soft power. I'm not saying we don't need to maintain our "occupation strength" military, but I sure hope we never use it.
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