Differing worldviews: Obama, Clinton and US foreign policy (Book Review)

Title: Alter Egos – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, And the Twilight Struggle over American Power; Author: Mark Landler; Publisher: WH Allen/Penguin Random House; Pages: 433; Price: Rs 699

For a US President who promised not to entangle his country in any more foreign military adventures, Barack Obama mostly kept his word. But while the wars and crises he inherited defied resolution, newer conflicts emerged. As America gears up to chose his successor, assessing his foreign policy record is all the more vital given one of the contenders had been his chief diplomat.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee in 2016 but Obama’s opponent in 2008, was chosen by him as his first Secretary of State. Her tenure proved to be eventful as the US, already grappling with the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, soon faced the challenges of the ‘Arab Spring’, especially as it played out in Egypt, Libya and Syria, a resurgent Russia, and what to do about Osama Bin Laden after locating him, among other issues.

While it was Obama took the final decisions, Clinton’s influence and suggestions carried weight, and it was their “fraught and fascinating relationship that has shaped American foreign policy for the past decade”, contends veteran New York Times journalist Mark Landler.

And in this riveting book, he tells the inside story of this relationship right from when Clinton joined the Obama administration in 2008 to the run-up to 2016 elections.

Landler, a NYT journalist for nearly a quarter century and its White House correspondent since 2011, however begins his account with a telling anecdote about Obama, at a time when his international credibility was at its lowest especially after he failed to act against Syria for crossing his own declared ‘red line’, seeking to justify his foreign policy record, and its pithy (and earthy) creed.

As he recounts, he was part of a presidential trip to Asia in 2014, when Obama unexpectedly turned up unexpectedly in Air Force One’s press section, greeted most journalists except him (a snub he understood when the President took exception to two recent NYT articles including one he had co-written) and then announced that he could sum up in his foreign policy philosophy in one line: “Don’t do stupid shit”.

Terming Obama and Clinton “protagonists in a great debate over American power – one that will decide not only who sits in the Oval Office but the direction she or he will take a nation that faces a new twilight struggle against the forces of disorder”, he shows how their competing visions of America’s global role influenced major foreign policy debates, might shape Obama’s legacy and a Clinton presidency. Also “what it means for a nation exhausted after more than a decade of war yet facing a cascade of new threats, from the medieval jihad of the Islamic State, to the nineteenth-century nationalism of Russia to the twenty-first-century muscle flexing of China”.

For this purpose, he not only goes “behind the speeches and press conferences to the Situation Room meetings and Oval Office huddles, the phone calls and emails, in which Clinton and Obama wrestled with their operations, bringing their different worldviews to bear on an often uncooperative world” but also “to their roots, to the different worlds in which they grew up and the different worldviews they acquired there”.

Based on six years of coverage of Clinton and Obama for NYT and original reporting including 142 interviews with 127 key figures including Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his successors Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, top soldier and CIA Director David Petraeus and many others. Though neither Obama and Clinton agreed to be interviewed, their senior advisers “cooperated and did not block my access to friends or former staffers”.

Combining intricate detail and the big picture, Landler’s book also has juicy anecdotes and information (the Indian-origin White House staffer closely involved in secret talks with Iran), the stories behind the headlines (Clinton and Obama’s gatecrashing of a BRICS meet at the Copenhagen climate summit) and vivid descriptions (Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu as “a bare-knuckles bargainer with a cast-iron backside”). It also offers a valuable look at Obama’s foreign record or what might ensue if Clinton wins on November 8 but also on the making of a foreign policy, and the limitations of power – even for a superpower.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)