Losing the Game

Review: Derek Chollet, ‘The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World’

Barack Obama
• September 9, 2016 4:59 am


To draft an apologia for Barack Obama’s foreign policy might seem like a thankless task. The problem is obvious: things don’t appear to be going very well. Let’s accept for purposes of argument that the administration has enjoyed some progress on international cooperation with fighting climate change (I said for purposes of argument!) and warmed up a few previously chilly relationships with Vietnam, Laos, Burma—and, heck, we’re being generous, so why not throw Cuba in there as well? Still, what about the big stuff, the major global flash points Obama inherited from Bush in January of 2009?

In Afghanistan, the Bush White House handed Obama a country in bad shape that was getting worse. As of September 2016, Afghanistan is in bad shape and getting worse. In Iraq, affairs in 2009 were on the upswing after years of grievous errors and unnecessary violence. Today, the country is again in a civil war, and its collapse has contributed to the rise of the Islamic State, which plagues Syria—also obviously in much worse shape than in 2009. Ditto Libya. North Korea is, on balance, about the same as it was, give or take (okay, give) a few nukes.

With Russia, things took a dangerous turn just as Bush was leaving office with Putin’s seizure of terrain in Georgia. After much effort at a "reset," today Putin owns a fair chunk of Ukraine too, a strategically important portion of which he has formally annexed—and our allies in Eastern Europe are understandably worried about where he is planning to stop. In the Pacific, towards which Obama has somewhat noisily "rebalanced" our military and diplomatic focus, the Chinese have grown openly belligerent, preferring the seizure and militarization of disputed terrain to any sort of cooperation with their neighbors. In Iran, things were touchy in 2009, and they are touchy today, despite the fact that we’ve given them a lot of money and the go-ahead to get nuclear weapons after waiting a few years for decorum’s sake.

Considering the circumstances, you could predict that any defense of the administration’s efforts would start off on the back foot—and that’s exactly the sense you get from Derek Chollet’s The Long Game, written after six years of high-level service in the administration at the State Department, White House, and Pentagon. Considering his intent to mount a vigorous defense of Obama, Chollet’s options are limited. He could deny things are as bad as they seem. He could concede that they are, in fact, pretty bad, but that it doesn’t matter. He could concede that things are, in fact, pretty bad, and that it does matter, but that nothing else could have been done. In fact, perhaps inspired by his boss, Chollet recognizes that such options represent a false choice, and as he surveys the post-Obama world, he takes a bit from each as he finds convenient—his own version of the "innovative hybrid approach" (Chollet’s words) that Obama developed for intervening in Libya.

In fairness to Chollet—not that he would offer much in the way of fairness to a conservative like me, inasmuch as "partisans" are "unwilling to give Obama credit for any success," blinkered as we conservatives are by an "us versus them" worldview, as opposed to the more enlightened "us and them" approach shared by liberals—he does at times concede that Obama failed, that it mattered, and that more could have been done. But you do have to go hunting for such concessions, and when you find them, you also have to pierce the thick bureaucratese that descends like a blackout curtain over Chollet’s otherwise relatively clear prose. On Obama’s creeping approach to fighting ISIS, Chollet writes:

…it is important always to interrogate the assumption of time, especially as ISIS evolves and finds other havens to operate from. Time is required for balance and sustainability, but time can also allow things to get worse and make the problem harder to solve…This does not mean throwing out the strategy for a new one, but it raises the question of whether the US should accelerate its inputs…

Mea maxima culpa—but this sort of concession is the exception. In general, Chollet sees Obama as someone who assumed office at a time when by "nearly every measure, the US … was a declining power, dangerously close to strategic insolvency," and who has largely righted the ship. The country in 2008 had been brought to the brink by the financial crisis and what preceded it, but also by its misdeeds abroad: the ruinous invasion of Iraq, and a foreign policy that was too unilateral, too wrapped up with macho notions of "strength," and had too much focus on terrorism and the Middle East at the expense of other priorities, especially domestic priorities—as the president put it, there was a need for "nation building at home." Coming into office, the president "believed the country needed to embrace a different narrative of what it means to be ‘strong,’" and thought that "the future of American power was very much in question, and the priority was to save the country from itself."

Not everything that was wrong was the fault of a "neocon cabal," as Chollet describes Bush’s more hawkish advisers. (This is not the only indelicate choice of words in the book. Chollet keeps using the word "calibration" in a positive way, apparently unaware of its association with the Vietnam War—which also, you know, didn’t go well.) The bipartisan Washington foreign policy establishment was itself broken. When Obama brought in its leading lights, including, mensch that he is, critics of his policies, "he was usually left underwhelmed by what they recommended he do differently." This contributed to his determination "to expose those elements of the foreign policy debate he considered to be the most preening."

If improving the quality of a policy debate in Washington seems like an oddly limited goal, I won’t be the first to observe that Obama is—and Chollet won’t be the first aide to unwittingly portray—a president who would clearly be much better suited to be a journalist or academic commentator than president. Indeed, in a meeting set up to prepare for a speech about the Arab Spring, Chollet relays that Obama "mused (with a wry hint of sarcasm) about what he would say if he were writing an essay about these events in the New York Review of Books or the Financial Times." Of taking moral stands without following through, Chollet reports that Obama finds "the idea that ‘if you weren’t going to overthrow the regime, you shouldn’t have said anything’" to be a "‘weird argument.’" The nation’s highest office can be a frustrating place for a man with so much to say.

If the Bush administration was too wrapped up in the notion of "strength," the establishment had an additional hang-up over the notion of "credibility." Obama has not been a weak leader who lacks credibility, but has been engaged in a gonzo battle against the Washington foreign policy elite to redefine what these words actually mean. Chollet’s book, which offers little in the way of new information about the crises the Obama team faced, and obviously isn’t intended to persuade conservatives, is meant as a summary justification of Obama’s "Long Game" approach and aimed squarely at the establishment, which Chollet hopes will conclude that it’s been wrong all along.

As the title suggests, Chollet wants members of this establishment to realize that the negative consequences of this or that policy error pale in comparison to the benefits of the much needed Long Game approach—the reorientation of the conversation about strength and credibility, the prevention of America becoming bogged down and overextended in countries where it has only limited interests, the "rejuvenation" of our strength at home. But the record—indeed, the evidence that Chollet himself presents in frequent moments of humorously unreliable narration—suggests a less admirable pattern: of indecision that prefers to call itself "deliberation"; of ambivalence that prefers to be understood as "restraint"; and finally, of a weird spectator complex, in which the truism that there are limits to American power becomes a catch-all justification for setting such limits and then watching as ambivalently executed, tardy decisions go down in flames—almost literally, in many cases.

Chollet, like scores of apologists before him, chalks up the fateful decision to abandon Iraq as due to Iraqi unwillingness to sign a new Status of Forces Agreement—but fails to acknowledge the role that Obama’s lack of passion for leaving troops in Baghdad played in this lack of will. He presents "leading from behind" in Libya as "a new model that differed from the typical post-Cold War military interventions … in which America’s allies often seemed like little more than window-dressing on a US-dominated operation." But failure there curiously seems to have little to do with the policy Obama pursued:

The Libya intervention does not undermine Obama’s Long Game approach, but it does expose its inherent limits. More of a tragedy than a policy failure, Libya shows that while the United States can act to address some problems, it cannot solve all of them, and often the best one can hope for is incremental progress.

Well, these things happen. In Syria, Obama may have boxed himself in with his red line ad-lib, but seeking (legally unnecessary, Chollet concedes) approval from Congress for military action was a great move, because Congress unexpectedly "proved strongly opposed to the use of force." This despite the fact that Chollet and his colleagues spent many long days on the Hill, "selling" the proposal but being sure to stipulate that there were no sure answers or outcomes the president could promise. "Despite our efforts, the president’s case was losing momentum." Despite? Chollet genuinely doesn’t seem to realize that the lack of support had as much, or more, to do with confidence in Obama the man and the ambivalence of his administration’s sales job than any other factor.

It’s okay that Putin has seized territory and bolstered influence, because he’s not playing the Long Game very well. Ditto Iran and China, more or less. Taking a more aggressive approach with these adversaries and competitors would damage America by lowering us to their level, and making us "more like Putin," the kind of thing macho conservatives are liable to do when they are trying to be all credible and strong. We must avoid temptation and stay true to our principles, and let the evildoers destroy themselves, as evildoers inevitably will. There is somehow a strongly Christian element to all of this—that despite the blows and indignities we might suffer here, today, in the fallen world, none of it matters, because our faith and works ensure that a better world awaits us at some point in the future.

Meanwhile, down here in the valley of the shadow of death, Putin, Xi, Khamenei, Assad, Castro, Maduro, and the rest must be astonished at their good fortune.