Derek Chollet’s The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington & Redefined America’s Role in the World, a spirited defense of President Obama’s foreign policy, is the victim of a cruel coincidence: the book’s title matches that of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s autobiography, released the same month. Once again, Obama’s Congressional nemesis would seem to be frustrating attempts to seal his legacy.
The coincidence, however, may not be as unfortunate as it seems. For one, as Chollet humbly admits, his book’s sales probably benefit more from the confusion than McConnell’s. After serving at the highest levels in the Obama Administration, holding senior positions at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House, Chollet is among the most informed and influential national security experts practicing today. His book, which masterfully surveys world events and policy debates of the past eight years, reflects this expertise. But his is not a household name like McConnell’s. Yet.
The coincidence is also fortunate because it helps clarify, by comparison, Chollet’s meaning for the book’s central metaphor. For Kentucky’s senior senator, the long game describes his own political career, as well as the founding fathers’ design for the more deliberative chamber of Congress he leads. Chollet’s meaning is more expansive. Playing the long game in foreign policy, he argues, is considering “the totality of American interests—foreign and domestic—to project global leadership in an era of seemingly infinite demands and finite resources.” His use of the sports analogy is more philosophical, less personal or political.
One of the many strengths of Chollet’s account is, indeed, its inductive power: from the administration’s varied approach to a diverse set of international challenges, he abstracts principles that capture the president’s worldview. Obama’s long game, Chollet posits, is defined by eight features: balance, sustainability, restraint, precision, patience, fallibility, skepticism, and exceptionalism. These are evidenced in the Administration’s pivot to Asia (balance), handling of Afghanistan (sustainability), war against terrorism (precision), response to Russian aggression (patience), and so on. His analysis helps stitch together a coherent strategy from these disparate situations.
The “long game checklist,” as Chollet refers to it, is revealing not only for what it includes, but also for what it does not. Largely absent from Obama’s foreign policy has been a priority on the promotion of democracy, human rights, rule of law, and other progressive ideals. The author channels Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism and William James’ pragmatism in describing the president’s innate skepticism towards pursuing an ambitious values agenda. Obama’s long game connotes realism and, as Chollet implies, an introspective realism focused on the means of exercising American power more than on the ends. Unlike his predecessors, Obama’s legacy is not a vision of new world order, a bridge to a better future, or a struggle against an axis of evil, but a new understanding of America’s potential and limits on the world stage.
While the book lives up to its goal of illuminating the “intellectual foundations” of Obama’s foreign policy, it also confronts the hard cases in detail. Indeed, the first chapter is devoted to the Syria crisis, seen by many as Obama’s norte mare. As Marc LiVecche and I argued in dueling essays in the spring issue of Providence, the red-line episode displayed the Obama doctrine’s moral feebleness (my words) and bungling failure (LiVecche’s). Chollet disarms our critiques—literally—by recalling a manifestly positive outcome of the tortured diplomatic episode: Assad’s total and unconditional abandonment of his formidable chemical weapons arsenal. Even Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, a thorn in the president’s side, readily acknowledges his nation and the world are safer as a result of Syria’s chemical disarmament, however feeble and bungling the administration’s rhetoric during the crisis. Advantage Chollet.
Chollet is less persuasive, however, in arguing that Obama’s “unique style of foreign policy… is best suited to leadership in the twenty-first century.” The surprising parallels he draws with the foreign policies of Republican predecessors Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush 41 beg the question of whether the long game is a grand strategy more fit for containing rival superpowers, such as during the Cold War, than for managing asymmetric threats from rogue regimes and non-state actors, such as the United States and its allies face today.
The author betrays ambivalence on this point in his frank discussion of the administration’s response to the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS. The president, he argues, believes the “greatest threat that ISIS poses” is not a direct one to our national security, but to our “values and civil liberties here at home.” He fears responding too hastily to the terrorist regime would cause Americans to “lose sight of the Long Game,” and insists that “time is on our side.” This faith, however, seems utopian, as Niebuhr might argue. In raising Niebuhr’s influence on Obama’s worldview, Chollet correctly cites the theologian’s jeremiads against nations’ “spiritual vanity.” The long game guards against this vice. But Niebuhr also condemned “ignoble prudence” and undue restraint in the face of manifest evil. The influence of this timeless truth is less apparent.
The subtitle of Chollet’s book reads “How Obama Redefined America’s Role in the World.” By embedding in U.S. foreign policy a necessary and healthy skepticism and a realistic understanding of the limits of American power, the president has indeed redefined our role. But, with his long game, has Obama changed the game? Has his eight years in office helped shape the international political landscape in such a way as to ensure, in our newly redefined role, the United States can lead successfully? That question this book leaves unanswered. Nevertheless, in the parlor game underway now to assess the 44th president’s legacy, Chollet’s bold defense of his foreign policy deserves a long look.
Matt Gobush served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He also served as chairman of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and three internationally adopted children.
Photo Credit: President Barack Obama confers Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, while attending the G-8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, July 8, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, via Flickr.