While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis. Robert C. O'Brien. New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2016.
The books lamenting American foreign policy under the Obama administration are plentiful. Robert C. O’Brien’s collection of essays, While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis, is no different. O’Brien, a lawyer who served as a senior foreign policy adviser to both Governor Scott Walker and Senator Ted Cruz during the 2016 presidential campaign, believes the foreign policy choice in the election was between Obama’s “lead from behind” approach or a more Reagan-inspired “peace through strength” strategy. O’Brien sides with the Reagan model, claiming that Obama has ultimately been a worse president for the world than Jimmy Carter.
Honestly, that is all you need to know. O’Brien comes at Obama with partisan rancor that pervades through the entire anthology, clearly aiming his prose toward a more conservative audience. It is not that he needs to be nice to the president if he does not feel that way, but rather that all the critiques fall into the usual Republican talking points. After the Carter broadside, he says the Iran Deal on its nuclear program is the worst international negotiation since Munich. He says Obama has let the military go to waste. O’Brien believes Obama has made it so America’s closest allies no longer believe in it. More than anything, he claims America is in retreat (hence the book’s title).
Here is the worst part: each of these points has truth to them. What makes them fall flat is the framing in anti-Obama rhetoric as opposed to serious, sober analysis. There is absolutely no doubt that allies are more worried about America’s reliability. But, who is afraid? And are they afraid because Obama is “weak,” for whatever reason? There is absolutely no doubt that questions are to be asked about the Iran Deal. Will Iran comply? Could Secretary of State Kerry have negotiated a better outcome? Either way, is it as bad as appeasing Adolf Hitler, effectively giving him the Sudetenland? There is absolutely no doubt that Ukraine feels abandoned by the United States due to Russia’s belligerence. Is Ukraine’s safety in America’s national interest? If so, why? Is military force the only way to constrain further Russian aggression? Maybe, but the ultimate democratic vs. authoritarian fight is not taking place in Kiev.
O’Brien’s book is frustrating because it starts with the assumption that all of Obama’s foreign policy choices are bad and assumes the reader believes this as well. It is not difficult to make a dispassionate case for O’Brien’s view point, but the writing is so full of partisan passion the arguments ring hollow.
The book’s other failure is the premise that America was sleeping and ignoring its global commitments during all of Obama’s presidency. But the mantra that Obama has no foreign policy strategy is absurd. He and his team obviously do have a strategy; the problem is O’Brien and his Republican brethren do not like it. And, of course, that is their right and it is a completely acceptable viewpoint. But under no circumstances can serious analysis claim that America has “slept” from 2009 to the present day. After all, the Obama administration negotiated a global climate change agreement, tried to pass global trade deals for Europe and Asia, and even signed one of the biggest military budgets ever. The Obama administration did not sit the last eight years out.
O’Brien’s argument would be more powerful if he reframed his central critique. It is not that America has been asleep, but rather that it has been sleepwalking through Obama’s presidency. By this, I mean that if O’Brien focused on why he thought Obama’s strategy as out of touch and wrong for the geopolitical moment, then it would be more powerful. But his analysis, while passionately and decently argued, missed the bigger picture through the partisan fog. If O’Brien did not like Obama’s global engagement taken as a whole because he thought the emphasis or strategy as wrong, then that is fair—claim America was sleepwalking throughout the world. But has America been asleep? Absolutely not.
The book does have one redeeming quality: it is a good articulation of the massive partisan differences on foreign policy. Where Obama lays out a fairly progressive foreign policy case, O’Brien has the conservative side covered. It may not add much to the academic or policy debate, but it does add to the greater literature on political foreign policy differences. His book may soon become obsolete, though, as the new administration blurs party preferences on foreign policy, especially on Russia.
This book had a lot of promise. If O’Brien had taken a more serious look at Obama’s engagement with the world—explaining why he thought it was wrong instead of presupposing it was—it could have been great. Still, this book can serve as an interesting read for people on the Hill, historians, and foreign policy partisans. Its great contribution is the exposition of political differences in foreign policy, but it will not help solve many of the world’s problems.
Frankly, I could have slept through it.
Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. He focuses on US foreign policy and military strategy. He tweets at @alexwardb.
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Header Image: President Barack Obama speaks at the end of the G20 Summit in 2009. (Richard Lewis/AP Photo)