In his 1995 memoir Dreams from my Father, former president of the United States, Barack Obama — an ambitious political campaigner in Chicago at the time — was serious about contesting a “dual sense of individual advancement and collective decline” in the US.
He had discovered this resolve in the midst of unplanned migrations, racial exigencies and deep-seated personal loss. Several decades and two presidential tenures later, Obama revisits that pursuit as an accomplished statesman, preparing to bite the bullet on national advancement and decline, both within and beyond America’s borders.
A Promised Land — the first of a planned two-volume series — is a memoir by Obama during his time as the 44th president of the US (2009-2017). The memoir, written with admirable foresight, takes a close look at the evolution of identity politics in a changing America and the limits of US influence-building across military interventions, counterterrorism imperatives and diplomatic power plays. Obama backs his panoramic inquiry with the time-tested rapport of his wife, Michelle, and offers the view of a world where the future of American leadership is constantly in flux.
In the first half of the book, Obama takes a deep dive into the role of identity politics in American foreign policy projection, high-stakes military interventions, and the need to move in synchrony with the country’s national security status quo.
“Having the son of a black African with a Muslim name and socialist ideas ... with the full force of the US government under his command was precisely the thing they [fellow American citizens] wanted to be defended against,” recalls Obama of his time in power.
Barack Obama reflects on his and America’s journey during his presidential tenure, in the first part of a two-volume memoir
Scores of Asian and Latin American countries, in his own telling, have also baulked at American democratic exceptionalism for years, tracing the rise of ruthless military dictatorships and environmental abandon within their own borders to the US. Addressing this discord — which Obama calls the US foreign policy “dual vision”— requires a sober embrace of key election realities at home.
Obama extends a vital hint from his own presidential tenure, admitting that some of his staunchest supporters helped rationalise the American dual vision as a “defining foreign policy strength”, while his critics, reading it as evidence of his weakness, sought to pick on Obama’s loyalty to the country.
The underlying truth of Obama’s cautionary note is amply evident in the election triumph of Joe Biden, the 46th president of the US, and the violence that ensued thereafter. In the wake of the deadly Capitol riots in January this year, Biden sought to distinguish between constitutionally linked freedoms of expression in America and violent brands of resistance that promote subversion of the American election system.
The gist of the Obama-Biden libertarian experiment is simple: as long as the domestic determinants of peaceful coexistence remain out of sync in the US, foreign scepticism of American “influence-building” is bound to self-sustain.
On the question of armed intervention — particularly in Afghanistan — Obama is all for minimising the risks of militancy, if it means keeping the spotlight on Al Qaeda. “Though the Taliban’s ambitions were confined to Afghanistan, their leadership remained loosely allied to Al Qaeda, and their return to power could result in the country once again serving as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against the [US] and its allies,” warns Obama.
This observation rings true today more than ever: Al Qaeda’s leverage over contending Taliban factions has ended up influencing the latter’s peace posture towards the US, and many of its operatives cultivate an enduring interest in attacking US-led forces in present-day Afghanistan.
Obama’s historical focus and repeated insistence on “destroying Al Qaeda” indicates a tactical shift in current US foreign policy towards Kabul — a reluctant suggestion at best. Courtesy of the Trump administration’s strongman posturing, Washington failed to capture Al Qaeda’s emerging role as an interlocutor for Taliban factions — a lapse in scrutiny that has hurt a superpower’s severance of ties between Taliban insurgents and Al Qaeda operatives.
However, Obama’s ‘risk minimisation’ appetite appears to die out on several other foreign policy fronts. These include diplomatic escalations with China, and Israel’s renewed annexation momentum.
On China, Obama writes: “I didn’t share my union supporters’ instinctive opposition to free trade, and I didn’t believe we could fully reverse globalisation”, adding that he considered China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty to be “a towering human achievement.”
Yet, even by Obama’s own narration, his views on China earned minimal traction in American policy camps, bringing to memory Washington’s well-established threat calculus on Beijing, in which China’s rise on the world stage will unquestionably arrive at America’s expense, period.
For all of the Obama administration’s demonstrated diplomatic tact, particularly in “avoiding a public confrontation” with Beijing when most likely, it is surprising to see Obama steer clear of potential options to cooperate beyond ideological ‘containment.’ More importantly, for what is arguably the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship at present, such an omission gives strength to Trump-style diplomatic provocations with Beijing — infinitely self-destructive, but easily identifiable.
On Israel, Obama’s assessments signal low optimism for a two-state solution on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He points to September 2000, when a top Israeli politician (and later the prime minister) led a “deliberately provocative and highly publicised visit” to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — one of Islam’s holiest sites — to flaunt Israeli control over the wider territory, for election leverage. “Israeli attitudes toward peace talks had hardened,” Obama recalls.
This is an important geopolitical reminder. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is again pushing settlement plans in occupied West Bank for re-election leverage in March, having incentivised compliant Arab heavyweights into muting their activism on Palestine overnight.
In a sign that US peacemaking may induce no miracles under Biden either, Obama argues in Israel’s defence with the same spirit as his successor: that the United Nations General Assembly has periodically “devolved into a forum for posturing, hypocrisy and one-sided condemnations of Israel.” In recent years, it is US officials that have sought to engineer the United Nations’s neutrality towards Israel, and undercut broad-based opposition within the body.
Be reminded that Obama is not just a seasoned politician. He is a prolific writer and celebrated public speaker, who attributes his interiority and leadership charisma to a strong emotional centre. Nowhere is this more evident than in his enduring association with wife Michelle. In the powerful confines of the Oval Office, Michelle shows Obama the art of starting “from the heart and not the head; from experience rather than abstractions.” This is a lesson in consensus-building which Obama, on his presidential journey to the Congress, would will into action.
Similarly, when Michelle refuses to get drafted as a symbol in America’s ongoing gender wars — much to the dismay of a predatory press hounding the first lady — Obama learns to internalise Michelle’s discipline and perseverance when entering and exiting public scrutiny.
As he eventually discovers during the full course of his presidential tenure, there was a political premium attached to such dependable emotional support. For one, a strong centre helped Obama synthesise ambitious national leadership instincts with the desire to entertain pluralistic council at length. Second, he was better able to gauge opposition rationales to key party-backed policy imperatives, welcoming top members into his administration ranks from across party lines, including the very opposition he aims to placate.
In effect, high quality introspection in A Promised Land enables readers to learn about the value of personal association in defining an entire presidency’s signature policy achievements — the Affordable Care Act, the Paris Accord negotiations, the Iran nuclear deal build-up and gender-inclusive constitutional rulings.
But when the same specificity of purpose is located elsewhere — within Obama’s foreign policy recollections, diplomatic perspectives and national identity tussles — the answers in the 700-plus page memoir are less forthcoming.
The reviewer is a columnist and author
A Promised Land
By Barack Obama
Crown Publishing Group, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 21st, 2021