James Mann analyzes the work of a new generation of foreign policymakers in The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power.
How did your experience charting the Obama administration’s foreign policy differ from doing the same with the Bush administration in Rise of the Vulcans?
Bush’s foreign policy team had worked together over the course of several administrations. The Obamians hadn’t, but what they had in common was a desire to provide a foreign policy that was different from that of the neoconservatives.
What did you think of the dynamics of the multigenerational heritage of the Obama team, from Vietnam era figures like the late Richard Holbrooke, to core figures from Bill Clinton’s administration, to the younger staffers you call “the true Obamians”?
I wasn’t raising those generational issues—the people in the administration were. What struck me was that they really had no relationship to Vietnam. During the Clinton years, the Democrats liked to say that theirs was the first generation not influenced by Vietnam, but they still had to react against the Vietnam era doves to prove they weren’t a bunch of pacifists. The youngest generation in the Obama administration doesn’t care about the Vietnam legacy one way or another.
Who is the most influential foreign policy person in the background of the administration that nobody outside the Beltway knows?
In the book, I focused on the more obscure people around Obama, those closest to him, as a way to get at his own thinking. (Deputy national security adviser) Denis McDonough is Obama’s guy. He really is the executor of Obama’s policy, and in decision making he is closer to Obama than anyone else. Ben Rhodes is in charge of developing the president’s ideas and message.
What would be the major foreign policy challenges for a second Obama term?
He’s going to have to deal with Iran and nuclear weapons. I also think we’ll see more effort toward multilateralism and efforts to develop a new institutional basis for it, such as United Nations reform, though that’s been a losing cause for presidents of both parties. He’ll have to decide at the very beginning of a second term whether he wants to devote the term to trying to obtain a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He can’t just fritter away time on it as a side issue. As far as China is concerned, he now sees it as a sort of management issue. Despite all the talk about cooperation, it will never be a “kumbaya” friendship, and he’s become a hawk on economic issues with China.