June 25, 2018
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Deciphering the thinkers behind Obama’s words

By Fred Hill

President Barack Obama did not quote any books in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech last week. But he might well have mentioned one or two in particular.

Several pundits heard the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr in his eloquent defense of “just war,” whether facing the onslaught of Nazi Germany or the mindless violence of al-Qaida. But to my thinking, reflecting his cautious, so far pragmatic foreign policy, Obama took a page or two from “Power Rules,” a book by Leslie Gelb, a practitioner of the realist school of the likes of Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger.

In his 2009 book, subtitled “How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy,” Gelb rejects the arguments of both neoconservatives and liberals while calling for a hard-nosed application of power and diplomacy in the advancement of national interests.

A straightforward, plainly Machiavellian recipe for combining key values and strategic objectives, Gelb says foreign policy is nothing more than “the use of power to get people (other nations) to do what they don’t want to do.” While it is absolutely crucial to revive the American economy, the basis of legitimate power, America must establish key objectives, prioritize them, devote great effort to “shaping” conditions and to use smart power more often than soft or hard to achieve successful outcomes.

At the heart of President Obama’s speech in Oslo, you could hear a Gelb-like endorsement of American leadership and a willingness to confront evil without veering into the self-righteous, strategically blind unilateralism of George W. Bush.

“Whatever mistakes we have made,” President Obama said, defending his decisions on Afghanistan, “the plain fact is this: the United States has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”

Gelb’s book is one of my top baker’s dozen on foreign affairs this year. Each December since I began writing, this column has been an occasion to recommend books on foreign affairs. So herewith, a list of volumes you may find provocative and instructive.

“Security First,” by Amitai Etzioni, argues that the new president should place security way ahead of democratization in U.S. policy. Etzioni believes that U.S. policy needs to focus much more on Russia and Pakistan than the Middle East, not because of potential aggression on their part but because of instability that could heighten the threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

A more critical assessment of President Obama’s policies will be found in Andrew Bacevich’s “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran who wrote an excellent book on “American Militarism,” lambastes both the Bush war in Iraq and Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan.

Two books on Afghanistan and Pakistan – the focus of the next Camden Conference, Feb. 19-21, 2010: “Descent into Chaos,” an account of how the Bush administration bungled its initial success in Afghanistan, was written by Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, who will be the keynote speaker at the conference. Another book is “In the Graveyard of Empires,” by Seth Jones, currently an adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan.

Any one of three books on Iran – to my mind still the most complex challenge for President Obama due to its strategic importance and the threat of nuclear proliferation: The most readable is “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ,” by Hooman Majd, an engaging book that explains the Iranian psyche. A second is “Guardians of the Revolution,” by Ray Takeyh. The third is “Treacherous Alliance,” by Trita Parsi.

Two books on Iraq by Washington Post reporters: Thomas Ricks’ “The Gamble,” on the relative success of the surge and David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers,” a searing account of the brutal costs of war. At least one book on terrorism: A leading expert, Bruce Hoffman, recommends Christopher Dickey’s “Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counter-Terrorist Force – NYPD.”

And lastly, academic colleagues swear by Jeffrey Mankoff’s “Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics” to explain the resurgence of Putin’s Russia, and Rob Gifford’s “China Road.”

Not enough? Check Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site, http://www.foreignpolicy.com, for favorite books of 100 leading global thinkers – including many on climate change and global economic challenges. With that, happy holidays!

Fred Hill of Arrowsic served as a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the Department of State. He is a member of the board of the Camden Conference and may be reached at hill207@juno.com. For information on the Camden Conference, held at the Camden Opera House and simulcast in Belfast and Rockland, call 207-236-1034 or e-mail info@camdenconference.org.

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