Book Review: The Promised Land – I
by Michael Brenner on 17 Jan 2021 2 Comments

Picking up Barack Obama’s The Promised Land, one’s first impression is of its heft. It is 750 pages long despite covering the period only through 2011. It is highly detailed and comprehensive in scope. Key elements are left out, though. The book manages to trek through the calendar methodically while remaining neither wholly candid nor seriously reflective. It contains little in the way of probing analysis into the issues recounted or the policy process. As a result, the copious smorgasbord spread before the reader still leaves you feeling strangely undernourished. 


Plowing through the narrative, one also gets the impression that the book is a team product. We might recall the image of a dying Ulysses S. Grant sitting hunched over a tablet, pencil in hand and wrapped in a blanket, exerting every last fiber of his being to complete what would be a best-selling autobiography before departing from his widow-to-be and children. The Obama opus conjures up something vastly different. It is the end-product of a project. Hence, it reads as such. There is much about Obama the President, but the near total absence of personal touches means that one gets little sense of the inner man (if there is an inner Obama). 


There are a number of reasons why an autobiographer may be so verbose. A belief that one has a lot to say and all of it is important (Gustav Mahler’s interminable symphonies, too, fit this model). Pride in accomplishments and conduct that should be fully recorded. A desire to colonize the future of commentary about your tenure in office by establishing an authoritative account. To use the dense cover of prolixity and detail to mask individual points that could be the object of negative criticism. Or, a literary tactic for providing an exhaustive treatment of each tree in the forest in order to distract from the unhealthy condition of the forest ecosystem itself. Likely, Obama was motivated by a combination of these.


I have jotted down some impressions. They address only foreign affairs, and concentrate on persons and behavior.



All hope rooted in self-delusion is fantasy’ - Stefan Zweig

If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize” - Voltaire

Be not intimidated… nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberties by any pretense of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice” - John Adams




Award of the Nobel Peace Prize just a few months after Obama’s ascent to the Oval Office is like a parable of his rise to prominence amidst unearned accolades. The story was related to me by a Norwegian oilman whom I ran into at a Houston hotel. He learned how it had happened from his brother-in-law who was a member of the award committee. In preliminary conversations about possible candidates, several members waxed ecstatic about the person and promise of the new American President. They longed to meet him. They likely would have the chance were he to make a state visit to Oslo. However, that was not in the cards. Well then, suggested one of the grandees who had the habit of thinking outside the box, let’s extend the Nobel to him; it would be impossible for him to turn it down. “What a great idea” was the near unanimous reaction. So....


The key to comprehending Obama’s conduct of foreign policy is a searching look at the people he appointed to high positions and listened to. All senior foreign policy positions were filled with representatives of the Washington consensus whose foundational precepts about the United States’ position in the world they shared. Moreover, they all were of hawkish inclination – beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Small variations in the placement of stresses and accents, or on tactics, were eclipsed by a convergence of thinking about aims and purposes.


As in regard to the financial crisis, the freshman President instinctively looked to known personalities in the Establishment who presented neither the challenge nor the opportunity for a critical review of existing policies. Obama respected the known, relied on it, and never deviated from it. So, too, for the institutions that served as cynosures for those “gospel truths.” Simply put, Obama can imagine a healthy America without self-avowed progressives. He can’t imagine a healthy America without sturdy Establishment institutions buttressing the edifice – whatever their flaws.


Furthermore, throughout his adult life, Obama has shown an admiration for persons who represent the classier side of the Establishment – their success, their wealth, their easy self-assurance, the cut of their haberdashery, their country club golf (a game he never played until entering the White House; 333 rounds while there). Obama’s rather naïve, uncritical view of Establishments suggests that he hasn’t thought long or hard about how concentrated power centers committed to advancing their own interest could jeopardize the national welfare. That is all the more striking since he came to the Presidency at the height of two major crises caused by the abuse of Establishment power and their self-serving warping of public discourse: the financial meltdown, and the endless Middle East wars stemming from an unbridled, mindless GWOT.


A noteworthy example of Obama’s uncritically adopting the Established ‘unwisdom’ was his casual conviction that Russia was a threat to American interests and Putin’s strategic objectives antithetical to ours. For Hillary Clinton, Putin was a hostile leader whom she later characterized as “another Hitler.” Robert Gates was such a congenital anti-Russian that he was expressing the view that Gorbachev was a phony, a dyed-in-the-wool Bolshie, not to be trusted as late as January 1991 – post-independence of Eastern European states, post-German unification. (Reference: Zelikow & Rice, 1997)


CIA Director Leon Panetta and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice were cut from the same Cold War cloth. So, too, John Brennan – for 6 years Obama’s in-house Intelligence/Counter-terrorism adviser and then acting CIA Director – whose hands were on every CIA abuse, deceit and illegal act of the War On Terror era. Brennan was a highly influential counselor whose proximity gave him the ear of the President. Yet, the documented truth is that Brennan is one of the last people in the Intelligence-security world a responsible leader should rely on for dispassionate, honest assessments of any situation.


The record is clear on Saddam’s WMD, on Iran’s nuclear program, on clandestine American aid to al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Syria, on the capture of Osama bin-Laden, on alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s government, on Saudi/Qatari/Turkish backing of ISIS, on the Agency’s black sites, on institutionalizing the Agency’s reliance on unaccountable hired guns as mercenaries; on extraterritorial rendition and murder; on illegal surveillance of American citizens; on persecuting Assange and Snowden; on hyping the fable about massive Russian election interference - among others. I personally heard him lie outright in public on a factual matter that had been reported just a few hours earlier in the media.


In his memoir, Obama goes out of his way to heap praise on Brennan for his sterling character was well as his brains. (p. 355) This glowing treatment is matched only by his exaltation of Hillary Clinton.


Subordinate advisers like Michael McFaul at the NSC and Victoria Nuland as spokesperson for Hillary at State and then as Assistant Secretary were aggressive advocates of a confrontational approach toward the Kremlin and all its works. The arrival of the latter two in Obama’s inner circle of foreign policy officials says much about how the Obama administration worked. Both had come through the Brookings pipeline opened by Susan Rice who had inveigled her way into the position of Obama’s chief adviser on international issues early in the primary campaign when most of the heavy hitters were lining up behind Hillary Clinton.


Hence, her Obama Party membership card was numbered in the single digits. At Brookings she had fostered a close relationship with its President Strobe Talbot who was well versed on Russian affairs, experienced and widely respected. In earlier incarnations very much a pro-détente man who made his reputation in the arms control field, he had become progressively more hawkish – in part due to his institution’s growing reliance on corporate and government financing. He served to facilitate the Rice network’s move into the Obama administration. 


Victoria Nuland was a member of this cadre – and a dedicated neo-Con. Her husband is Robert Kagan – Apostle and senior cleric of the neo-Con sect. During the Bill Clinton presidency, Nuland was Talbott’s chief of staff, then Deputy Secretary of State, before moving on to serve as deputy director for former Soviet Union affairs. When Bush arrived on the scene, she made a swift transition to be the principal deputy foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and then US ambassador to NATO.


Come the Obama administration, Nuland was at Hillary Clinton’s right hand. That jump owed to Talbott who had made telephone calls to Clinton strongly urging the appointment. There, she went from chief spokesman and informal counselor to Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs.  It was from that position that she spearheaded the Kiev coup d’état in March 2014. Perhaps it was that feat which earned Nuland her present academic position as Brady-Johnson Distinguished Practitioner in Grand Strategy at Yale University. (There, contrary to rumored reports, she is not organizing a color revolution - Yale blue - against Connecticut’s Democratic Governor).


Biden is about to nominate Nuland for the influential position of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. The two had collaborated closely on Ukraine. Between 2014 and 2017, Biden as Vice-President was in charge of all Washington’s dealing with the US installed government. He visited Kiev periodically, spoke with President Poroshenko multiple times each week, and orchestrated the latter’s economic and diplomatic policies – including dealings with Moscow. Biden, in effect, acted as an absentee Viceroy. Nuland was his first lieutenant. They squeezed out Germany, France and the EU - in the process, ignoring the Minsk Accords agreed among Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Kiev.


Nuland’s dizzying career trajectory is indicative of how Washington works. It also evinces how wide is the consensus of thinking within the country’s foreign affairs community. Talbott, Cheney, Clinton, Obama and Biden were as one in relying on her in sensitive positions. Indeed, the last gave her free rein to topple a democratically elected government in a geopolitically critical state. Handing out home-baked, gluten-free cookies to neo-Nazis (among others) in Independence Square is not a role performed in a bureaucratic cubby hole.


That consensus is grounded on three imperatives: (1) To isolate, stifle and eventually overturn Iran’s current regime. (2) To isolate, permanently restrict Russia and to replace Vladimir Putin with a more pliable leader. (3) To resist by all means short of outright force China’s ambition to match the United States as a global super-power.


McFaul gained similar sponsorship thanks to sabbaticals from Stanford spent at Brookings where he became a charter member of the Rice coterie and a devout neo-Con. How he got to Stanford is a story in itself. McFaul received his PhD from Berkeley’s Political Science Department. An old friend of mine on its faculty at the time, and a member of McFaul’s dissertation committee, recounts with bafflement the man’s rise to position and power. He was generally viewed as a mediocre student of no great promise – also, a highly disagreeable person. McFaul’s understanding of Russia was spotty and his atrocious accent in flawed spoken Russian was painful to listen to. Nobody imagined his getting a job at Stanford down the peninsula or any top-quality school. He succeeded thanks to the intervention of then Provost Condoleezza Rice.


Rice herself was no giant in the field of Russian studies – her scholarly specialty. With a doctorate from Denver University (its Korbel School named after Madeleine Albright’s father), she was spurned for a teaching position by a number of places, including the University of Washington at Seattle, before landing that plum job at Stanford. She met George Bush while serving on the NSC staff in his father’s administration. They became buddies in good part (professional ambition aside) by their shared passion for professional sports – football in particular.


Her long-time partner has been Gene Washington, a star player at Stanford and then with the San Francisco 49ers who became Director of Football Operations for the NFL. In the 1980s and 1990s, millions of Americans would have much preferred having a beer with Washington than with the anonymous son of the President. They all would want to hear about the dramatic 81-yard touchdown pass from John Brodie on a slant pattern over the middle (beating Pat Fischer) that gave the 49ers a playoff victory over the Washington Redskins in 1971. So, accompanying George to games, Condi could regale him with such tales as well as being one of the 7 people on planet Earth who was able to explain football’s recondite pass interference rule.


Against this background, it was only natural that Rice should support McFaul’s appointment as her Stanford successor. He invited no invidious intellectual comparison, was reliably hostile to Putin and to Russia, would be in her debt, and just might have the “right stuff” to make it in the Washington snake pit. He did – well beyond her expectations, if not his. Aggressive, self-important and blood brother of the most abrasive neo-Cons, he swept into the Obama administration with the likes of Victoria Nuland. As an NSC staffer, McFaul somehow won the President’s confidence to the point of becoming his trusted senior adviser on Russia and then Ambassador to Moscow. His now legendary first act upon arrival was to meet with leaders of the anti-Putin movement to offer encouragement and plot strategy to get rid of Putin. It is hard to imagine his being so audacious without the tacit approval, at least, of Obama.


(To be concluded …) 

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