War Stories

The Uncertainties of Barack Obama

The former president’s remarkable memoir reveals how he grasped, and struggled with, the ambiguities of a complex world.

Obama speaks, sitting at the end of a conference table with advisers including Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton
Then-President Barack Obama chairing a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23, 2009. Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

Barack Obama’s A Promised Land is as extraordinary and unusual as the man himself. Like most presidential memoirs, it offers up a brief for the decisions he made; but unlike any that I know of, it also fairly lays out the case of his critics (and sometimes acknowledges their points), plumbs his own doubts and uncertainties about his actions, and, even while recalling his most shining hours, muses about the limits on his—or any one nation’s or person’s—power to alter the course of a complicated world.

The sections dealing with national security—which account for a bit less than half of the book’s 701 pages—recount most of the triumphs, calamities, and byzantine maneuvers of his first two years and two months in the White House: from the strategic reboot of the Afghanistan war, which got underway two days after his inauguration, to the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. (A second volume will presumably cover the rest, though, given all that happened over the subsequent six years, I wouldn’t be surprised if a third tome proved necessary.)

Aficionados of foreign and military policy won’t find much news in these pages. But they will get a clear, deep view of what was going through the president’s mind when he learned of some new threat or opportunity, how he thought through his options, and how he sized up key advisers, allies, and adversaries, foreign and domestic.

He writes in his introduction, “I wanted to offer readers a sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States … to pull the curtain back a bit and remind people that, for all its power and pomp, the presidency is still just a job”—and he does just that. He captures the sheer strangeness of first approaching the rituals and theatrics of the office, spending his breakfasts reading the intelligence community’s President’s Daily Brief (which Michelle called “The Death, Destruction, and Horrible Things Book”), nodding through the mundanities of international summits, and then, all of a sudden, being roused by the life-and-death stakes of a crisis, an attack, or war. Slowly, he writes, he “grew more comfortable—and efficient—in my role as commander-in-chief,” coming “to experience my responsibilities the way I imagine a bomb-disposal expert feels about clipping a wire or a tightrope walker feels as she steps off the platform, having learned to shed excess fear for the sake of focus—while trying not to get so relaxed that I made sloppy mistakes.”

Obama won the 2008 election in good part because of his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq. But, he writes, “The image of me that had emerged from the campaign—the starry-eyed idealist who instinctively opposed military action and believed that every problem on the international stage could be solved through high-minded dialogue—had never been entirely accurate.” His views on foreign policy—including his opposition to the invasion—were heavily influenced by the “realist” school of international relations, embodied by President George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft.

Obama recognized the great hopes that many pinned on him—the first Black president, the first international president (having spent much of his childhood in the “underdeveloped” world)—and the influence that those hopes could wield. There’s a poignant moment in the book when he meets one of his political heroes, Vaclav Havel, the great Czech playwright, essayist, and activist who was jailed by the Communist regime, then elected the Czech Republic’s first president after the Soviet empire fell. “You’ve been cursed with people’s high expectations,” Havel tells him. “Because it means they are also easily disappointed. It’s something I’m familiar with. I fear it can be a trap.”

Obama knew that “there were limits to what a diplomatic charm offensive could accomplish. At the end of the day, each nation’s foreign policy remained driven by its own economic interests, geography, ethnic and religious schisms, territorial disputes. … It was the rare foreign leader who was susceptible to moral suasion alone. … To make progress on the thorniest foreign policy issues, I needed a second kind of diplomacy, one of concrete rewards and punishments designed to alter the calculations of hard, ruthless leaders.”

One measure of his presidency is how well he grappled with this more calculating side of diplomacy. Though Obama’s instinctive grasp of ambiguity sharpened his analysis of problems, it also made it harder to reach conclusions.

When his generals proposed sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Obama felt like they’d boxed him in with a “bait and switch,” a plan with “staggering” costs and “no clear exit strategy.” And yet, he writes, “some hard truths prevented me from rejecting [the] plan out of hand.” It took nine National Security Council meetings, each two to three hours long, for him to hammer out a coherent compromise.

Around the same time that he decided to send 30,000 troops and set a timetable on how long they could stay there, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—an honor he recognized as a bit absurd. (“For what?” he asks the aide who informed him.) He’d come to the presidency, he writes, “determined to shift a certain mindset” away from “one that saw threats around every corner … and considered military action as an almost routine means of addressing foreign policy challenges.” He won the prize because of this promise. Yet here he was, escalating a war. He muses on all this while looking at the crowds, holding candles in the night, across from his hotel in Oslo, Norway. He writes:

The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable; on some level, the crowds below were cheering illusion. And yet, in the flickering of those candles, I saw something else…

Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.

Try anyway.

There’s hope in Obama’s ambivalence, but also ambivalence in his hopes. He describes in vivid detail how he pressured the Chinese foreign minister to accept limits on carbon emissions at a conference in Copenhagen near the end of his first year. It was a daring crash of protocol, the stuff of high-five and popped-cork aftermaths. Back on the plane, his assistant, Reggie Love, tells him, “I gotta say, boss, that was some real gangster shit back there.” But then, Obama writes, “I was overtaken by more sobering thoughts. I thought about how much work we’d had to put in … for an interim agreement that—even if it worked entirely as planned—would be at best a preliminary, halting step … a pail of water thrown on a raging fire.”

By the spring of 2010, Obama writes, he felt “pretty encouraged” by the results of some of his “major diplomatic initiatives”—getting China to stop manipulating its currency, signing the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, pushing through a U.N. Security Council resolution that imposed sanctions on Iran (a move that would eventually lead to the Iran nuclear deal, which will no doubt be a big part of Volume 2).

Then came his crowning achievement—the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan, an operation that turns out to have been an even bigger gamble than I’d thought. It was widely reported afterward that the CIA thought there was a 60 to 80 percent chance that the tall man seen in the compound was the leader of al-Qaida; but Obama writes that a SEAL team review of the assessment put the odds at just 40 to 60 percent. He reflects on the tremendous effort, across many agencies, to nab the man who planned the attack on the Twin Towers—but then, even here, adds:

With these thoughts came another: Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? The question nagged at me. … I took [it] as a measure of how far my presidency still fell short of what I wanted it to be—and how much work I had left to do.

The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci wrote, in his Prison Letters, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned. … I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but am an optimist because of will.” I don’t know if Obama has ever read Gramsci, but he’d surely recognize himself in the reflection.

It’s a fair question whether this frame of mind is suitable for presidents. It probably wards them away from acting impulsively (Obama once summed up his foreign policy doctrine as “Don’t do stupid shit”), but it might also impede them from acting, period.

The risks he took in not acting—most notably in Syria during the early days of that country’s civil war, the rise of ISIS, and the migration tragedy—await him, and us, in Volume 2.

Even at its length, Volume 1 is not a comprehensive account of his early dealings with the world. He says little about the nuclear arms talks with Russia and nothing about the internal debates over nuclear weapons policy. (For that, you’ll have to read Chapter 10 of my book.) Nor does he chronicle the rise of cyberwar, even though he approved many cyberattacks. (You will look in vain for a mention of Stuxnet—the U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities—or anything else like it, probably because details about such operations, even those described at length in books and news articles, remain highly classified.) He doesn’t mention, perhaps out of delicacy, officials who did little but annoy him (R.I.P. Richard Holbrooke). He does, however, skewer some of his political foes. My favorite is his line about Lindsey Graham: “You know how in the spy thriller of the heist movie, you’re introduced to the crew at the beginning. Lindsey’s the guy who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.”

That’s another unusual thing about this presidential memoir (though it shouldn’t be too surprising for those who read his earlier autobiography, Dreams From My Father): Obama is a fine writer—graceful, evocative, breezily literary without being the slightest bit twee. He could be a good novelist, if he wanted. Meanwhile, he has much to explain in Volume 2. Then he should write thoughtful essays and books about the world as it is and as he would like it to be.

Read Slate book critic Laura Miller’s review of A Promised Land.