Confront, Conceal, Leak

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

David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal is best used as a Rosetta stone for deciphering DC discourse. Its true utility lies not in its uneven discussion of Barack Obama’s national security decisions, but in the way it reveals both mundane and alarming traits of American foreign policy debate. Sanger’s obsession with a supposed “split” between values and interests, mistaken belief that international security should be conducted according to the Golden Rule, and exposure of sensitive leaks all tell a story about the state of national security debate in 21st century Washington. Although the message is muddied and the narrator unreliable, Confront and Conceal is gripping reading.

Sanger’s self-designated task is to illuminate, through judicious research and both on and off the record interviews, the Obama administration’s struggle to operationalise its new vision of foreign policy. Sanger is at his best when exploring the way high-level officials engage in bureaucratic judo. His Obama is a canny political operator that compensates for relative inexperience with self-awareness and vigor. Even in the face of strategic surprise and bureaucratic infighting, Obama keeps a firm hand on the steering wheel. Sanger aggressively promotes a reading of Obama as driven operator rather than spectator, a portrayal that rings true when compared to other popular accounts of Obama’s foreign policy leadership style.

Of particular value is Sanger’s account of Obama’s decision making on Afghanistan, which bats away stereotypes of passivity encouraged by other popular accounts. Here, Obama refuses to let himself be driven by bureaucratic interest and slowly learns from painful experience about the limits of American power. Sanger thoughtfully discusses the enduring dilemma that Pakistan poses for American policy in a manner often unmatched by other commentators, and provides nuanced discussion of the diplomatic tension between China and the United States in East Asia.

Less insightful is Sanger’s choice to cast the administration’s foreign policy evolution as a shedding of illusions about an impure world. Sanger’s analysis repeats the tired DC narrative (dutifully fictionalized in the West Wing episodes so beloved by District residents) of presidents that make moderate, sensible and quasi-Solomonic compromises between the twin poles of interest and idealism. But what if the problem is that the United States has too broad a conception of both? Sanger wrings his hands over the strategic consequences of America’ new tactics of standoff warfare, which he at times both positively and negatively contrasts with nation-building, and argues that the US has over-learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan in its reliance on low-footprint security policy.

But both counterinsurgency and drones serve the same policy goals of political engagement in another state’s internal politics. Confront and Conceal’s theme of idealistic American politicians frustrated by messy reality is itself revealing of bipartisan consensus over the idea that United States’ ideological and practical interests necessitate the ordering of internal political spaces. Sanger dimly grasps America’s limited ability to create durable outcomes over the long term absent massive political and military engagement, referring favorably to US efforts in postwar Asia and Europe without much contextualisation as to why those efforts might be viewed more favorably than the enrichment of corrupt Afghan and Pakistani elites.

While Sanger’s revelations about cyber weapons and covert action are undeniably provocative, his analytical conclusions are less compelling. Sanger questions whether Washington’s embrace of the drone and the cyber weapon will boomerang against it, but his discussion of blowback owes much to an implicit assumption that states experience bad karma for morally ambiguous deeds. Nowhere is Sanger’s idea of international relations as karma more clear than in his discussion of cyber weapons post-Stuxnet, which reflects Beltway nightmares of cyber-doom instead of more complex technical debates in academia, policy, and industry circles. Readers looking for plausible blowback scenarios instead of fear, uncertainty, and doubt will be disappointed.

Sanger’s discussion of drone and cyber weapons also reveals a puzzling disconnect between his analysis and larger American domestic politics. As Daniel Trombly has often written, American covert action is driven by popular desire for robust action and bipartisan consensus over strong, but limited action against al-Qaeda. Cyber attacks also fit with a similar consensus that war with Iran was undesirable, but sanctions and covert action were permissible to foil its nuclear program. Yet Sanger does not highlight the degree to which actions occurred within a larger American political context of consensus, instead choosing to emphasise the Obama administration’s difficulties convincing global audiences and a small (but vocal) set of domestic critics. But when has either group swayed a President with the public and lawmakers on his side?

Pakistanis, Yemenis, and Somalis are not crucial blocs in the 2012 election. Neither is the American Civil Liberties Union. To be sure, popular approval and consensus among political elites does not make a strategy correct or coherent. It does not even guarantee that it will be politically sustainable. But Sanger’s criticisms would have greater weight if they took into account that covert operations occur on a major scale because they are popular.

Finally, Sanger’s ability to publish a book full of detailed revelations on US cyber attacks against Iranian critical infrastructure suggests that operational secrecy is becoming a casualty of American bureaucratic politics and the political press’ relentless search for leaks. Sanger criticises the White House secrecy, but there is nothing transparent about his reliance on officials speaking off the record. The reader is simply asked to trust that Sanger’s sources are reliable.

Confront and Conceal is just as multidimensional as the world events it portrays. It is a serious and sober look at Obama’s decision making style that nonetheless also plays to its primary audience: gossip-hungry DC political junkies. It examines serious strategic quandaries, but is stunted by a lack of reflectiveness about the way unexamined assumptions exacerbate them.  And while it seeks to start a conversation about secrecy, national security, and foreign policy, its leaks will likely lead to more onerous stove piping. Sanger’s book is instant history marred by flawed analysis. But it is still compelling reading for anyone interested in American strategy.