Skip to content

Book Review: Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David E. Sanger

Published by Crown (2012)
Reviewed by Amy Sennett
Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 10:50 PM

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger (Crown 2012)

Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, by Daniel Klaidman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012)

Published against the backdrop of Obama’s current reelection campaign, David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal and Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture depict a president with a foreign policy record that has surprised both his supporters and critics from the campaign four years ago.  The books have received considerable attention for their reporting on classified drone attacks and cyberwarfare activities – so much so that after their publication, the Obama administration opened a leak investigation.  But taken as a whole, these books are most useful for their assessment of what Sanger titles the Obama Doctrine – a “light footprint” strategy epitomized by a willingness to use unilateral, targeted force to protect America’s vital national security interests, while avoiding “protracted ground wars that drained American blood and treasure for ten years.”

For his supporters in 2008, Obama was supposed to be the anti-George W. Bush, an idealistic diplomat who would close Guantánamo, end preventative detention, bring terrorists to justice in civilian courts and reengage with the rest of the world.  For his detractors, Obama threated to make Americans less safe by criminalizing the war on terror, apologizing for American intervention abroad, and abandoning of the efforts to build democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, both camps stand corrected.  Obama certainly has gone out of his way to repudiate and disassociate himself with the Bush foreign policy legacy – by, for example, ordering a complete policy review on Guantánamo and addressing the Muslim world from Cairo.  But Sanger and Klaidman both identify Obama’s greatest foreign policy legacy as the dramatic expansion of drone strikes to kill terrorist targets.  Klaidman reports that by 2011, Obama had approved the killings of twice as many suspected terrorists as had ever been imprisoned at Guantánamo.  Sanger emphasizes, however, that while Obama may be ready to use targeted weapons technology, he is no longer willing to be the world’s peacekeeper – particularly where there is no direct threat to the U.S.  The lessons learned in Afghanistan over the first year of his presidency informed Obama’s “light footprint” strategy and have shaped his thinking on the challenges that followed — Iran, Libya, and Syria.

Sanger’s book examines each of these challenges more closely in an attempt to more precisely define the Obama Doctrine.  As a result of its broad scope, the book covers some topics on more superficial level and will not offer much new in those areas to a well-read audience.  Sanger summarizes much of the prior coverage of subjects like the Arab Spring, offering a nice synopsis of where the region stands today and then interspersing his reporting where he was able to find sources.  This occasionally becomes awkward when he jumps into the first person to describe his interviews.  Additionally, Sanger’s disappointment with some of the Obama administration’s policy decisions is palpable, and he frequently offers policy prescriptions or exhortations at the end of his chapters.

For Sanger, a key first step in the making of the Obama Doctrine is the change in Obama’s thinking on the war in Afghanistan — a war he once called “a war of necessity.”  In late 2009, after an intense debate within his cabinet between a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency approach to Afghanistan, Obama reluctantly decided to order a surge of more than 30,000 troops — but only after military leaders had agreed to begin withdrawing those troops just 18 months later.  Within just a few months of that decision, however, Obama concluded that the Bush-era dream of remaking Afghanistan was a fantasy, and that the far greater threat to the United States was an unstable, nuclear Pakistan.   By the end of 2010, a group of presidential aides with the informal name “Afghan Good Enough” was meeting on the weekends to redefine and narrow the mission there so that the U.S. could still walk away with a credible result.  When military commanders came to him 18 months later asking for more time to let the surge take effect, Obama and his aides had already completed plans for a full withdrawal.

Sanger is disappointed by Obama’s decision to focus on destroying al-Qaeda through drone strikes rather than keeping a presence on the ground to fulfill the promise to rebuild Afghanistan.  In a reversal of the strategic calculus, the enduring U.S. presence in Afghanistan now allows American Special Operations Forces and drones to go elsewhere in the region – including Pakistan.  But the way Sanger’s book is written – devoting much of the chapters on Afghanistan to the administration’s concerns about the ineffectiveness of the Pakistani military, the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, and risk of dirty bomb falling into the hands of Pakistani Taliban – suggests that Obama was right to insist that Pakistan is of greater national security concern.

Obama’s dramatic expansion of the use of drone attacks, what Sanger calls “the dark side of the light footprint,” has decimated much of the top al-Qaeda and Taliban ranks, particularly in Pakistan.  But success has come at the price of significant anger over the violation of Pakistani sovereignty and the perceived level of collateral damage.   Sanger criticizes Obama’s failure to explain the use of this offensive capability and suggests that it is hard distinguish drone attacks from Israel’s assassination attempts on Iranian nuclear scientists.  Although top administration officials like State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh have defended the legality of strikes even outside the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in practice, targeting decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis and most decisions ultimately land on the President’s desk.

The headline from Sanger’s book is Obama’s decision to accelerate the use of cyberattacks — begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games — even after an element of the program, a worm named Stuxnet, accidentally became public in the summer of 2010.  Shortly thereafter, cyberattacks took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 operational Iranian centrifuges, the first time the U.S. had used cyberweapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure. Sanger notes, “Iran dominated Obama’s first efforts to recalibrate American foreign policy,” but suggests that the development of U.S. cyberwarfare capabilities was as much about showing the Israelis that they had an option other than bombing Iranian nuclear facilities as it was about stopping Iran.

As with drone strikes, Sanger paints a picture of Obama deeply engaged in planning these covert cyberattacks.  Sanger reports that not since President Johnson selected bombing targets in North Vietnam has a president been so “intimately involved in a step-by-step escalation of an attack on a foreign nation’s infrastructure.”  Obama remained equally concerned, however, about the implications of this new weapon and recognized that he was unleashing a technology that could someday be turned against the U.S.  He also believed that U.S.’s use of cyberattacks could create a pretext for other countries, terrorists, or teenage hackers to justify their own attacks.  As a result, Obama has not acknowledged using offensive cyberwarfare capabilities out of fear of losing the moral high ground.

In the case of the Arab Spring, however, it was Obama’s team that was caught by surprise, and Sanger calls the administration’s response to the escalating protests in Egypt was “hesitant and confused.”  Sanger suggests that Egypt, more than any other episode, exposed the continuing rift in the administration over how to balance American values with its interests in the Middle East.  Obama was torn between standing with the protestors on the side of freedom and democracy and sharing Secretary Clinton and Gates’ instinct to preserve the status quo.  Ultimately his cautious approach pleased neither side.  By the time Obama called for Mubarak to step aside, other leaders in the region saw it as a sign that the president would willingly abandon a long-time ally, but the protestors in Tahrir Square were unimpressed.

Libya and Syria more seriously put the Obama Doctrine to the test.  Was the purpose of American power to protect those around the world who could not protect themselves?  Or was it to be used only in defense of critical American national security interests?  Obama’s choices in Libya reflect both a tentative embrace of the notion of responsibility to protect – although Sanger notes that White House officials were careful not to use that term for fear that it would constrain their future actions – while at the same displaying classic Obama caution and making it evident that he was not going to send troops into a third conflict.  In a subsequent speech at the National Defense University, he made the subtle argument that the U.S. did not always have to be “all in” – there was some form of military engagement between inaction and full scale deployment of boots on the ground.

In addition, Sanger argues that the Obama Doctrine emphasizes leading from behind, particularly where vital national security interests are not at stake.  In the case of Libya, the U.S. mobilized the U.N. Security Council to pass a forceful resolution and NATO allies began enforcing it in days.  Obama also made it clear that for the U.S. to participate, the Arab states had to have their own planes in the air.  Reflecting on the post-war occupation and rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama refused the Pentagon’s follow-on request for 100,000 American troops on call for “stability operations.”  Sanger warns that there is a risk of overlearning the lessons of those wars.

But if Libya is a “unique alignment of the stars,” Syria is what a top military commander described to Sanger as “a laboratory experiment in the limits of our power to intervene.”  Sanger notes that the U.S. has far greater interests at stake in Syria, but it is harder to bomb, Assad possesses a real military, and the opposition is a “fractious group of rivals.”

For Klaidman, however, domestic politics are key to explaining Obama’s foreign policy, particularly in tough cases like Syria.  The strain of the recession and the focus on health care reform consumed much of Obama’s political capital.  In his view, “Obama’s idealism about what he could accomplish has run headlong into the more craven instincts of electoral politics,” and his efforts to explain how domestic politics has shaped Obama’s foreign policy creates the more gripping narrative.

Students of politics and policy-making will also find Klaidman’s book more fascinating for its description of the “acrimony and dysfunction” at play on Obama’s team of rivals.  Klaidman describes Obama’s cabinet as battle between “liberal ideals and populist realpolitik.”  The major protagonists in this fight are Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first Chief of Staff, and Eric Holder, Attorney General and Obama’s longtime personal friend.  Emanuel himself characterized the internal war in the White House as “Tammany Hall” versus “the Aspen Institute.”  According to Klaidman, the Tammany Hall faction “came to believe that many of the president’s promises to reform the war on terror were simply out of step with the American people.”  The idealists, as Klaidman describes, believed that “Tammany’s eagerness to appease Republicans in Congress at the expense of core principles was self-fulfilling: the less the White House was willing to take on the right, the more it rolled.” But Klaidman wisely notes, “Within his own administration, the president’s elusiveness created confusion about who was in control of policy, what strategy should be pursued, and ultimately, what Obama really wanted or believed.”

Klaidman’s book is most notable for its revelations regarding Obama’s exponential expansion of the use of drones to kill terrorist targets.  Klaidman says that Obama was under no illusion that drones would win the war on al-Qaeda but he was convinced of their power against an individual terrorist who directly threatened the homeland.  This was true even when the target was American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.  But Obama has not deployed this drone technology lightly, struggling to maintain a policy that the U.S. could defend as legitimate in international legal circles.  Early in his term, Obama became incensed upon learning about “signature strikes”—the practice of eliminating targets that bore the characteristics of terrorists but about whom there was little other information.  “That’s not good enough for me,” Obama said when the practice was explained to him.  Yet the practice continues today, and indeed more than ever – essentially because, at least to judge by some recent reportage, signature strikes are not so much about relaxing the terms of “personality strikes” against known terrorist individuals as using drones to attack groups of fighters in what amounts to air power in conventional conflict. The difficulty in saying this directly – though John Brennan, White House counterterrorism adviser, came close in a recent appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations — however, is that in Yemen, at least, this might be thought to say that the Obama administration is using drones to take the government side in a conventional civil war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters who fight the government while establishing safe havens for its transnational operations division.

Klaidman’s book has also drawn attention because its title – “Kill or Capture” – may present a false choice.  The phrase comes not from law, but from the U.S. military’s rules of engagement for special operations, and it both provokes and obscures because it often suggests to the nonspecialist that there is requirement of law to seek capture over kill.  Whereas as a matter of law, those on the kill-or-capture lists have already been determined to be lawfully targetable with lethal force; a decision to seek capture over kill is a policy decision, not a legal requirement.  Klaidman’s descriptions of the killing of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior member of al-Qaeda’s East Africa branch, and the capture of Ahmed Warsame, a Somali al-Qaeda operative, suggest that it is easier to reach a decision kill rather than attempt to capture targets because so much confusion remains around the legality of the U.S. terrorist detention scheme.   But the American officials who spoke with Klaidman tried to emphasize that kills are not incentivized over captures, and that the governing policy is pragmatic feasibility, including risk to civilians and to US forces, as well as risks related to missing the target with a capture operation, whereupon the target goes to ground and disappears.  At a pragmatic policy level, Tom Donilon, Deputy National Security Advisor, noted, “We can’t be left in a situation where the only option for someone who has valuable intelligence is to kill him.  It’s just unacceptable to be left with the idea that that’s lawful but that a lesser step is not.” For many critics on the right and left, however, this is precisely the situation, no more and no less; killing is necessarily incentivized over capture if there is no mechanism by which to interrogate and no place to detain, Guantánamo particularly having been ruled off the table.

Ahmed Warsame, the first significant terrorist captured alive during Obama’s presidency, presented “a chance for the administration to thread the needle of law, security and politics.  Obama wanted to prove he could capture high-value terrorists and lawfully extract the kind of intelligence needed to prevail in the war on terror.”  In a handling of the case that Klaidman calls “textbook Obama,” Warsame was captured by military special ops forces aboard a vessel in the Indian Ocean and detained under the laws of war; the government conducted a thorough intelligence investigation over two months on a Navy ship in international waters.  Only then was Warsame brought to the United States to stand trial in a civilian court.  “Nuanced and lawyerly,” Klaidman writes, “it was a classic split-the-difference approach that sought to balance all of the competing interests.”

In his National Archives Address in 2009, Obama attempted to articulate more publicly how America could fight a war on potential terrorist threats without sacrificing the rule of law.  He emphasized the possibility of terrorist prosecutions in civilian courts.    Throughout the speech, Obama expressed a consciousness that he would not be president forever and emphasized restraint before any expansion of executive power.  In an Obama administration, the chief executive would not be the sole arbiter of who could be detained without trial.  “In our constitutional system,” he said, “prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man.” 

But closing Guantánamo, where Obama’s predecessor had detained individuals indefinitely, proved a much more difficult task that expected.  Although just after Obama’s inauguration a member of the Justice Department had been assigned to review the status of the remaining detainees, Emanuel decided less than six months later that it was time to negotiate a deal with Senate Democrats.  Congress agreed to lift the total ban on transfers from Guantánamo, but Emanuel essentially foreclosed further resettlements or domestic trials by promising to give Congress 45 days notice before any prisoner could be moved.

In at least one instance, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rebuked high-ranking national security officials for waivering on the President’s pledge to close Guantánamo and to try suspects, whenever possible, in civilian trials.  “We would be throwing the president’s commitment to close Guantánamo into the trash bin,” she said at a White House meeting on the handling the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (known simply as KSM), the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks and a Guantánamo detainee. “We are doing him a disservice by not working harder on this,” according to Klaidman’s reporting.

But Holder and his Justice Department were fighting a losing battle against political minds on Capitol Hill and in the White House who were “far more attuned to the beating heart of the country on the issue, and far more willing to exploit citizens’ fears,”  Emanuel, convinced that trying KSM in a civilian court would have “huge negative implications for the president’s agenda,” enlisted Republican Senator Lindsay Graham to threaten to blow up the Holder plan to hold the trial in Manhattan.  Shortly thereafter, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters that a trial for KSM would be too costly and too disruptive for the city to handle.  In January 2012, Obama reluctantly signed 2011 National Defense Authorizations Act, stripping away any remaining legal authority the administration had to try detainees in civilian courts.  At the same time, he issued a statement that the detainee measures represented “a dangerous and unprecedented challenge to critical executive branch authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantánamo detainees.”

In the 2008 campaign, Obama suggested U.S. foreign policy should be judged by whether people in impoverished places around the world feel hope or hate when they see American military helicopters overhead.  However, once in office with the responsibility for preventing the next terrorist attack, he has been guided by a different metric: the number of terrorists killed or captured compared with those threatening the homeland. Klaidman describes Obama supporters as appalled by his aggressive expansion of drone strikes, despite the undeniable fact that he has succeeded in crippling the al-Qaeda network and protecting the U.S. from another attack.  Summing up the Obama Doctrine, Sanger writes, “Obama has shown he will not hesitate to use military force in defense of America’s direct interests – the bin Laden raid is the boldest example – but that he will use it in the most sparing way when those interests are indirect.”  Obama’s “light footprint” strategy exploits technological advances in drones and cyberwarfare in an effort to keep the U.S. and its troops out of the costly regime-change, occupation, nation-building exercises that drained resources for the last decade.  Where humanitarian intervention is required, the Obama Doctrine says that the U.S. will lead from behind and require those with greater interests at stake to commit more of their own resources.

But when every decision from the next drone target to the next discussion with an Arab dictator requires such nuanced policy analysis, most of the decisions will eventually end up on the President’s desk.  This is perhaps why both books feature descriptions of Obama intimately involved in tactical decision-making.   His failure to lay out his foreign policy principles has other consequences.  When his advisors are never sure which way he is leaning on a close call, there is a greater likelihood that someone in the White House will be off-message.  And as is so often the case it is left for others to craft the media message, Obama gets no political credit from either side of the aisle for threading the middle line.

Perhaps most importantly, however, when Obama and his administration fail to discuss his policies, they miss an opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of those around the world.  American officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been particularly frustrated by the refusal of the Obama administration to discuss the drone program, leaving it to local media to report, often falsely, on raids that eliminate dangerous terrorist cells.  In addition, the failure to engage with the international legal community to establish the legitimate boundaries for the use of drones and cyberwarfare forgoes a means of ensuring that the same tools are not turned against the U.S. in the future. Both Sanger and Klaidman have been criticized for a lack of sources from the military in their narratives.  But the challenge of 21st century American foreign policy seems to be less the ability of the U.S. military to achieve tactical goals and more about the ability of the U.S. legal and political system to adapt to changing realities.  In a discussion with Sanger, Legal Adviser Koh posed the hypothetical question: “If someone sitting in a room in one country types something into a keyboard and something happens elsewhere, is it subject to the laws of armed conflict?”  Answering his own question, he said, “To the extent that we have articulated principles, we have made it clear that we think that the laws of armed conflict in fact apply to cyber operations in war and we have to do a translation exercise of how they apply.  But this translation exercise is really at a nascent stage.”

For a president so concerned with crafting his own legacy, this lack of transparency is perhaps the most surprising element of his foreign policy.  Obama did not want to inherit Bush policies and has been careful not to make certain of them his own, such as enhanced interrogation, while embracing and ramping up others, notably drone strikes.  But he is also forward looking, weighing the power of his precedent in a new administration. In a 2009 meeting with advisers, Obama voiced concerns about what a future president may do with the power to indefinitely detain suspected terrorists.  “You never know who is going to be president four years from now,” Obama said. “I have to think about how Mitt Romney would use that power.”

(Amy Sennett is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School and a litigation associate at Arnold & Porter LLP in Washington, DC.)

Share on Facebook0Share on Google+3Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter7Print this pageShare on Reddit3

Filed under: Book Reviews