- Burns, William J. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal. New York: Random House 2019, 501 pages.
- Obama, Barrack. A Promised Land. New York: Viking, Penguin Books, 2020, 751 pages.
- Power, Samantha. The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir. New York: Dey St., Harper Collins, 2019, 580 pages.
- Rice, Susan. Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting for. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019, 531 pages.
More than a few commentators and researchers have been quick to say that the new American president Joe Biden will return to the path forged by President Barack Obama in his foreign policy. Some suggest his desire to negotiate with Iran is a significant indicator of this, or claim that recent and senior appointments to his administration of persons who served in the eight years of the Obama presidency demonstrate his faithfulness to the legacy of the former president he worked with as a loyal vice-president. Hence, they tend to read Obama’s lengthy memoir, and other less lengthy memoirs penned by his prominent aides, as if in their pages they might identify the principles and policies that President Biden will uphold and carry out from the earliest days of his presidency. A careful reading might dissuade from this hasty assumption. Like all memoirs, they are replete with personal stories and subjective perspectives that influence visions and decisions, while at the same time presenting rich — albeit preliminary — material for understanding the contemporary political history of the United States of America.
Notwithstanding their admission that the United States and the world have changed in the last four years of, or due to, former president Donald Trump’s positions, they are not attentive enough to transformations in the relationship of domestic and foreign policy which invite a measure of caution when making sweeping affirmations regarding a Biden discontinuity with Trump and continuity with Obama. In the past, in more than one domain, the distinction between domestic and foreign policy and the precedence of the former over the latter led to greater divisions and political conflicts on national affairs, while policy options on international issues garnered more cross-party or bipartisan support. Today however, the domestic disagreement over the identity of the United States seems to dominate both domestic and foreign policies, diminishing at least to some extent the possibility of treading in Obama’s footsteps. The former president had concentrated on unity among Americans transcending their factional interests in obtaining their approval of his foreign policy directions, which turned away from unilateralism and interventionism that was typical of the preceding administration. His focus on encouraging this unity was also a response to the propensity observed in most Americans to retreat from the world’s conflicts and raging wars, and especially those led by their country. It may well be that such unity is likely to be a compensation for the failure to overcome the country’s political and cultural divide over critical domestic issues, whether political or social.
Obama’s rationalization for this tendency becomes clear in the first part of his memoir,
A Promised Land, canvassed in a manner rarely matched in the memoirs of high-ranking decision makers customarily written upon their departure from office, in the United States or elsewhere. It is true that Obama recounts his life and the circumstances that formed his intellectual and political character, although to a lesser extent than others often have done (covered already in such detail in his earlier memoirs), as well as the most important things he strove to achieve and achieved. It is also true that what we learn about his composure, modesty, patience, thoughtfulness and civility – may evoke, though semi-consciously or unconsciously, a comparison with Trump’s recklessness, narcissism, belligerence and vulgarity. But in elaborating upon his political philosophy in its interaction with political and social reality, he goes further than customary among other authors of memoirs. He effectively narrates and interprets recent American history with his eye on questions of the present day, as would any historian, no matter if contemporary issues are noticeable or dissimulated under the tangled thread of memory or obscured by the normal inclination towards selectivity. He succeeds in evoking the concerns of the present day without a trace of artificiality or premeditation. For example, although he finished writing his book before the November 2020 presidential elections, we glimpse his anxiety over the vulnerability of American democratic institutions, while at the same time remaining confident of their strength and of their firmly guiding principles engrained in the collective memory or rather in the “civil religion”, abandoned by the insurrectionists who, following Trump’s electoral defeat, on 6 January 2021 went as far as violating the capitol building, one of its “sacred” places.
Clearly, one of the most troubling questions for him, even if not divulged openly, relates to the traditional notion of “American Exceptionalism”. Transformed with Trump’s assistance into a resurgent isolationism renouncing a United States mission or role in the world, it swelled full of the outrageous verbiage of recapturing greatness and paraded the arrogance of power. Obama supposes that the United States, if not always loved throughout the world, was always respected. This respect was not owed to being feared, but rather to America’s profuse capacities, virtues and successes. That said, notwithstanding occasionally extreme pride in his American identity and affirmation of his deep-rooted convictions regarding the excellence of the American system, Obama shuns the exaggerated glorification of American unicity widespread among Americans. He warns against going along with those who say that the United States is “the indispensable nation” or “city on a hill”, the gospel metaphor used in upholding the “American exception”. At one point he ventures to consider this idea of exception to be simply a synonym of particularity or originality, avowing that he believes in it just as others might believe in the distinctiveness of being British, Russian or Greek. Unsurprisingly at the time, this statement provoked shrill contention that he was unable to easily suppress without a retreat – to the point on many occasions of refraining to object, or even agreeing with his senior aides’ affirmations that the United States led the world towards its betterment.
In many other instances we are faced with a person who hesitates long before taking a stand or a decision, allowing time to ponder issues and hold consultations, time and again, with officials in his administration. This hesitancy does not seem to be simply a character trait, to the extent that he reveals ambivalence in some of his opinions and an inclination to synthesize two opposing policy understandings, recognizing the stressful tension inherent in such an approach whether adopted by choice or obligation. On more than one occasion Obama portrays himself as perplexed, wavering between adopting the capitalist model of policies and power relations with an emphasis on defense of American national interests, and determinedly adhering to universal values and principles, as exemplified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, insistent on respecting them in all circumstances. But, save in a few instances, he dissipates this perplexity by acquiescing to the dictates of realism in most prominent domestic and foreign affairs. For example, he details for us efforts he made during the financial crisis of 2008 to ward off disaster, preserve the financial and economic systems, and instill capitalism with a breath of the humanitarian spirit. On the other hand, when considering the crisis as an opportunity to reduce the enormity of social disparity, his longing for justice is overcome by worry over disrupting the social system. He chooses to follow the footsteps of one of his predecessors, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is reputed to have saved capitalism from itself.
He speaks of his hesitation when asked to confront regimes committing atrocities against their peoples. On one sole occasion — in the case of Libya — he displays a clear sympathy for the principle of “the responsibility to protect” civilians and accepts the idea and legitimacy of military intervention in keeping with the principle. In other instances, he harbors reservations over it in the name of realism. Along with other realists he finds himself only marginally embarrassed by those who hold the United States accountable for the results of its policies supporting tyrannical regimes across the world, regimes that remain US allies no matter how much they violate their people’s rights. Generally, we find him sidestepping any suggestion of discomfort in preferring to resort to diplomatic persuasion, enticement and pressure, and to exhaust these before considering any use of force. Diplomacy nearly turns into an exercise of justification when dealing with certain regimes, as in the case of Egypt, where he affirms the defense of America’s strategic interests and those of her major allies. He seems to suggest that this choice of patient diplomacy originates in the high ranking his character accords to style of diplomacy, as much as content. He also considers it as having been in fulfillment of his electoral promises to turn the page on previous wars, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, and take on board the advice of the senior military command he consulted, who had seen the heat of battle and knew full well the limits and human cost of military power.
On the other hand, Obama acknowledges that political plans and decisions are not born of diplomacy. Perhaps his 2009 speech in Cairo is testimony to that; he concurs that what he had to say was less ambitious than many had thought. He did not lay down a new policy to establish a different relationship between the United States, Muslims and Arabs; many were disappointed by the absence of purposeful effort towards this end. But he avers that he sought no more than to dispel what he refers to as a misunderstanding and signal that the war against terror was not the exclusive governing principle for a new relationship. His speech did not derive from a deep understanding of Islam or the Muslim world and Obama does not claim otherwise. He does repeatedly mention the Indonesian experience of his youth, through which he was able to get to know the diversity, tolerance and openness of a society whose religiosity was imprinted with Sufism. He compares such religiosity with what he knows of the practice of Islam in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, viewing them as opposites. He also speaks of contemporary Turkey as an example of the accommodation of Islam with democracy and secularism. His enthusiasm is diminished after a meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but this does not alter his opinion that this experience should be supported in its promise of bolstering what “moderate Islam” is calling for, without explaining what this term means with his usual precision. He barely mentions the Muslim Brotherhood, and when his first cautious position on the Arab revolutions becomes clear to us, he does not bring up the question of the admissibility of their coming to power. When he amends his stance and overcomes his initial caution, influenced by give and take among his younger and older “internationalist” advisors, he does not in the least convey the impression that he wishes to give the Brotherhood a chance to lead a transitional period. On the contrary, he recollects instructing his aides and his envoy to Cairo on the need to form a government that is not controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. He therewith disproves the claims of some in Egypt, Libya and Syria that the United States worked, openly and secretly, to bring the Islamists to power.
Obama is not kin to those whose American nationalism is tarnished with hatred of Islam and obsession with Muslims, and he does not go along with those who highlight, and exaggerate, cultural differences, upon which they base their explanation for tempestuous relations between the United States and the Islamic world. He recognizes the importance of historical and political problems in the formation of perceptions and feelings on either side, and in the fabrication of fear and enmity. In this context it is clear in his Cairo speech that he did not evade mentioning the humiliation to which the Palestinians have been subjected. Over and above that, Obama delves into the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict with the language of someone informed of the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause; although, on the other hand, he avoids departing from the general character of the historical relationship between the United States and Israel. In his stand on a vital issue such as the continuation of settlement activity, he relies on the traditional American position of denying its legitimacy. But as is typical in American practice, he fails to affirm unequivocally the illegality of what Israel is undertaking. In other words, he rejects settlements yet applies no pressure to stop them, not differing greatly in this regard from his predecessors. His caution remained notable, despite Israelis and their American advocates dealing with him in a less reverent and friendly way than customary in relations with American presidents, the most excessive manifestation being Benjamin Netanyahu’s shameless provocations. It is no surprise then that President Obama waited until the last year of his second term to declare his opposition to Israeli settlement-building, thereby abandoning the familiar American tradition of defying any Security Council intervention that seeks to debate issues of Israeli occupation and ways of bringing it to an end, and of vetoing any decision involving a whiff of condemnation of Israel.
Naturally the first volume of the memoirs in our hands does not discuss the motivations for this symbolically significant if weakly impactful change, or of the circumstances surrounding it. We will have to wait for the second volume in which we might encounter his explanation or justification. For her part, Samantha Power, despite being directly concerned with this issue (she was the US Representative to the United Nations at the time of the 23 December Security Council Resolution 2334), paid it no attention, and for unknown reasons. This diplomat, recently appointed Director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) by President Biden, had been ardent in her support of oppressed peoples. She had served in the US National Security Council and assigned to work on preventing atrocities and large-scale violations of human rights. She was close to Obama and often praised. However, their actual relationship had noticeable vicissitudes. He likens her to his “conscience thermometer” when matters relate to crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass violations of human rights. Elsewhere he says that she irritated him with her fanatically idealistic penchant for forcing moral standards into every political matter. He mentions that he rejected her suggestion, during her participation in drafting his speech on the occasion of his 2009 Oslo Nobel Peace Prize, that he should stress his endorsement of the principle of the “Responsibility to Protect” civilians against their governments.
In contrast to Samantha Power’s silence on the issue of Israeli settlements in her memoirs, Susan Rice, her predecessor representing the United States in the United Nations, recalls the circumstances of her using the United States’ power of veto against the 2011 draft UN Security Council Resolution that affirms the illegality of Israeli settlements and reiterates the foundations of the two-state solution. She indicates that she had been dismayed by the Israeli reaction criticizing her comment that that the veto did
not imply that the United States considers the settlements
legal. From her memoirs it appears that her irritation stemmed from what she regarded as the misunderstanding of, or disregard for, her record in favor of Israel, a record she recounts in detail. She takes pride in her strong relationship with Shimon Perez, whom she considers to be her “friend and hero”. She highlights her support to Israel during the four years she spent in New York at the UN. She was responsible for the United States withdrawal from the International Conference on Racism by claiming it to be biased against Israel. She led the efforts opposing an early admission of Palestine into the United Nations. She defended Israel from criticism at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Beyond all of this, she recounts that in more than one stage of her professional and political life Rice was bent on demonstrating her support of the American elite’s dominant inclinations of sympathy, albeit of varying degrees, with Israel. This zeal may suggest that she strove as much as Obama did to refute stereotypes held by a large sector of this elite regarding both of them. This may explain why her alignment with the American mainstream seems to be demonstrated more markedly than a community identity important in the eyes of African Americans and influential on their political attitudes — with whom she, like Obama, is affiliated — without sharing in their memoirs strong affinity with aspects of African America culture and sentiments. All in all, her personal and political biography as reflected in her memoirs point to the impact of domestic turbulence on understanding her foreign relations roles, — to a greater extent than is seen among typical diplomats. This reduces any surprise in her taking up the Directorship of the United States Domestic Policy Council in Biden’s first days in office.
William (Bill) Burns, Deputy Secretary of State (2011-2014), links the limitations of work aimed at resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the decline in Obama’s attention to the Middle East and the pivot towards Asia. He writes in polite terms of the rise in Arab and Islamic expectations with the Cairo speech and of the deepening disappointment brought about. When this highly professional and cultured diplomat speaks of the Arab revolutions and United States policy towards them, he gives the impression that the latter was circumstantial and fluctuated between hasty value judgment and short-term calculation. In implicit comparison with previous presidential terms, he brings us to the observation that, with Obama, in dealing with the Middle East there was no coherent policy alternative to the preceding administration’s policy. That said, he naturally excludes Iraq, where he had previously opposed the war and from which he had promised military withdrawal. And he also excludes Iran, with the president seeking to banish the specter of military adventures and achieve a major diplomatic success. Burns, who is fluent in Arabic, knows the Arab world, and strives to fathom its issues, inclines towards excusing Obama’s reluctance to seriously continue the floundering diplomatic effort made by his Middle East envoy George Mitchell. He attributes this reluctance to Netanyahu’s zealous intransigence and capacity to apply pressure within the United States. He also points to what he terms the weakness of the Palestinian leadership and the decline of Arab interest in the Palestinian cause. Without criticizing Obama and his aides for timidity and hesitation in confronting Netanyahu, he recalls the stern solidity of James Baker, the former Secretary of State who banned Netanyahu from entering the State Department for eight months after he had accused the American government of lying.
Burns speaks in glowing terms of Obama’s masterful handling of pressures from the Israeli Prime Minister aimed at promoting the military option in confronting Iran. He also points, if circuitously, to his personal defiance in the face of Netanyahu’s bluster and browbeating when he was entrusted in October 2015 with secret negotiations that paved the way for the public negotiations that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program. He elaborates on these secret talks, the Omani role in them and the discussions around restricting pre-negotiations to the nuclear issue. Perhaps his focus on a successful outcome, the chance of which Obama had not estimated to be greater than 50 percent, was the primary driver limiting any expansion of the agenda to include other vital issues. The American diplomat mentions another reason, namely the request of US allies in the Gulf not to discuss any of Iran’s other policies in their absence. Although at the end of the long chapter on the “Back Channel” that he chose to be the title of his book, he admits having missed the opportunity of doing better in confronting the problems caused by Iran’s policy in the region, or at least emphasizing that the nuclear agreement was but a preliminary to a more resolute Iran policy. Of course, it is difficult to predict the scope of the role he will play in this respect as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Biden administration. But his knowledge of Iran and experience in tough negotiations with its representatives and negotiating team will bear fruit in some way upon the resumption of negotiations with Iran, or rather the return to them in a new form, with new conditions. One can add here that his aides in the Iran negotiations Jake Sullivan and Wendy Sherman were appointed respectively by Biden as National Security Advisor and Deputy Secretary of State.
Burns recounts, in discussing the Iran negotiations, that it would have been good for the United States to risk taking a better stand against the regime of Bashar al-Assad that would at the same time be a stand against Iranian interventions in Syria and contribute to dispelling some of the Arab worries they caused. The author of the carefully written memoir does not conceal his opposition, and regret, regarding the United States’ abstention in 2013 from responding to the Damascus regime’s use of Sarin gas against civilians and crossing of the “red line” that President Obama had drawn in 2012. More than that, he makes clear his conviction that the Syrian disaster is a huge failure of American policy, affirming that, by not taking a decisive stand at more than a few junctures of the Syrian catastrophe, Obama missed chances to make a real difference in its trajectory. This absence of a stand was not simply a matter of avoiding military engagement, viewed by Obama as an entanglement. It also appears in the strict limitations, against advice he had received from military staff in his administration, that he placed on arming the opposition, in failing to consent to the call to establish “safe zones” in northern Syria and in failing to negotiate with Russia in a way that would achieve cooperation and greater balance, to prevent Russia’s alignment with Damascus from developing into a military intervention in support of the regime. He explains the American president’s position, careful to avoid justification of it, telling of his painstaking decision-making in view of his limited knowledge of Syria, and of his prolonged consultations with an expanding circle of participants, questioning them and seeking clarifications on expectations, achievement of which they were in no position to assure. He notes that Obama sometimes viewed the role of the United States in Syria from the standpoint of its faltering experience in Afghanistan: from supporting armed opposition to reinforcing its military presence and noting the difficulty and potential ramifications of hasty withdrawal. He adds that the slow pace of decision-making coincided with domestic problems and divisions that crippled relations between the president and Congress with its domestic agenda, which he had to consider in order to obtain Congressional approval for any military operation in Syria.
Susan Rice and Samantha Power’s arguments were not far from the position on Syria advanced by Burns. However, their motivations and influencing factors differed with their differing personal histories. The bitter memory of America’s lack of a decision on intervention to prevent or halt the crime of genocide in Rwanda weighed heavily in Rice’s heart. At the time, when she worked in the National Security Council, she failed to push Bill Clinton and his administration towards an effective decision. Power by contrast had an unshakeable belief in the necessity of intervention to protect civilians, dating from the formation of her internationalist political consciousness working as a young journalist and witnessing the crimes committed against Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, after which she authored a book that garnered the attention of senior diplomats titled
"A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (2002).
Before recounting details of the disagreement over the Obama administration’s stand on Syria, Rice describes a chasm between two generations of officials and presidential aides regarding the revolution against the Egyptian regime. Those senior in age, as well as standing, opposed pressuring Mubarak to resign, while others, including herself, considered that the United States had a duty to side with the democratic aspirations of Egyptian and the Arab world’s youth. She states that the same gap appeared over the Syrian issue, but her perception of what she felt to be a real dilemma prevented her from joining those who called upon the United States to establish safe zones for civilians and strike the regime militarily to lend greater support to the opposition. Obama’s logic convinced her, and although she did not accept all its suppositions, she came to a greater appreciation of his envisaging of all possibilities, most notably that of the escalating military involvement he was keen to avoid. She was not supportive, however, of the absence of a response to the regime’s crossing the red line that he had drawn. In any case, she sees Obama’s choices as having been the correct ones, despite her awareness that the abstention from intervention in Syria is morally questionable and, as some see it, runs counter to American values. She adds though, that if she were to have made the decisions, she would not have done differently than Obama, apart from his uselessly calling for Assad’s departure and announcing red lines, neither of which made any difference. She concludes by saying that her heart and conscience grieve over Syria, and that since Rwanda, she has always supported intervention to halt atrocities committed against civilians on the condition that it not jeopardize major United States’ interests, suggesting implicitly perhaps that a Syrian intervention would have put such interests at risk.
Assessing interests is not a major concern for Samantha Power. She rarely looks at American policy from such a standpoint, or this is what she would have us understand. She emphasizes America’s moral obligation, considering implicitly that it is called upon and qualified to be a force for good in the world. Ethical imperatives, which she sometimes phrases in political terms, are inseparable from her repeated emphasis on the priority of credibility and legitimacy over circumstantial analysis of costs and benefits, including those that relate to the need for politicians to always respect their voters’ inclinations. This is clearly manifested in her defense of the principle of intervention in Syria, above and beyond the specific issue of red lines, before Obama and his administration’s aides and officials, and over their communications with Congress, from whom Obama had decided to seek approval for intervention. It is also seen in the practice of her diplomatic functions in the United Nations, and in her lengthy explanation of the twists and turns of the American and presidential position with respect to dealing resolutely with the Syrian regime’s war crimes against civilians. The credibility of her preoccupation here is enhanced by the relationships she forged from the outset of the Syrian revolution with opposition figures and civilian groups, through her engagement with the testimonies of victims, and through her assisting some of these people upon their exit from their country. There can be no doubt that Power’s perspective on civilians was shaped by the persons she met, and that this contributed to her mounting a stand favoring intervention — by different means at different stages — and even to her obstinate refutation of the arguments of the hesitant and cautious; this is exemplified in invoking international law and the principle of civilian protection undergirding NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, without having obtained the impossible Security Council decision. She illustrates the way this persistence went as far as arguing with the president himself, to the point of provoking his anger on more than one occasion. She discloses that the excuses made against intervention reminded her of those used by the Clinton administration in justifying its neglect to bring a halt to the genocide in Rwanda. She suggests that from the beginning she could sense that Obama’s limited enthusiasm for intervention in Syria was in part derived from that of the American public opinion and in part due to his comparing, at times, the chance of entanglement there with US entanglements in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he had opposed. On the other hand, she observed that at the time he did change course and use the option of punitive military strikes, surprising her once again with changing his stance, swinging from confusion and uncertainty to decisiveness.
Power agrees with both Burns and Rice in the assessment that the deterioration of the situation in Libya brought many in the United States greater doubts regarding the likelihood of
any military intervention achieving its declared goals. From their own perspectives, each of the three Obama diplomats give the example of Russia, repeatedly citing what they describe as the Western failure in Libya being made use of to argue against any international action against the Syrian regime, or even against its condemnation, lest that should be a preliminary to military action. Moreover, Obama turns to compare Syria with Libya upon pondering the general issue of the utility or otherwise of military operations against regimes committing large-scale violations of human rights. Before, in the lead up to investigating what the international community could do to protect civilians being threatened by Gaddafi’s advancing army, he had not been ready unequivocally to intervene, but rather was content to call upon the Libyan president to resign, since he had lost any legitimacy to govern, and to call to impose economic sanctions and freeze Libyan assets in American banks. He strongly supported the UN Security Council’s decision to impose an embargo on weapons and to refer leaders of the Tripoli regime to the International Criminal Court. When voices were raised calling for military action against Gaddafi, he saw this as evidence of moral headway in the United States, countering its long history of indifference to what its allied authoritarian regimes do against their people. But he added that as much as he shared their motives of those calling to save innocent people from tyrants, he worried about launching any military operation against Libya and was unsure regarding the limits of US responsibility to protect civilians. He was also wary of forcing the United States into war in a distant country in which it has no strategic interest, citing one of his aides who told him the American public does not care about Libya and that nine out of ten citizens do not know where that country is. When he consulted the military, they recalled the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Vice President Joe Biden supported their opposition to participating in a military campaign, whatever the justifications. As usual, Obama oscillated between this opinion and his sympathy for what he heard from his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the need to support the Libyan opposition, hearing the same from Rice and Power, and along with them Burns and Antony Blinken who became Secretary of State under Biden. All advocated a consistent policy in support of popular movements calling for democracy in the Arab world and agreed upon the US responsibility to protect civilians. After intense discussion and reflection, he arrived at a viable intervention plan. He decided that the United States would participate in the military operation, with prior agreement of European and Arab countries on the distribution of tasks, leaving the responsibility for rebuilding Libya and helping it in its transition to democracy to the Europeans.
It goes without saying that the implementation of the plan was not politically easy, as Susan Rice elaborated in her explanation of what she did at the United Nations and her role in drafting Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized member states under Chapter Seven to take all necessary measures for the protection of civilians and populated areas. Given her responsibility in the UN, she did not play a large role in ensuring the division of labor in Libya that Obama had wanted. But neither did she exert a noticeable effort to confirm an American withdrawal after the ending of military operations, even after the attack she was subjected to in Congress in the wake of her statement to the media regarding the spontaneous September 2012 outbreak of demonstrations in Benghazi, which resulted in the killing of the American ambassador and three other staff members. When she moved to the White House as a National Security Advisor, her successor in New York, Samantha Power, revealed no inclination in support of the American retreat, and went even further, to slightly criticize Obama for relying on Europe to continue working to assist Libya following the military intervention, and to express the wish that the United States had played a greater role in this regard, when it became clear that Europe did not fulfill the mission to the extent required. As for Burns, after stressing the need to recognize the limits of American influence and its impact on the outcomes of the Arab revolutions, he acknowledged the mistakes committed in Libya. Like Rice and Power, he does not discuss how justified was Obama’s hesitation and the conditions for his subsequent decision to intervene in Libya. However, he speaks candidly of the failure to create a coherent and sustainable policy after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, as well of the miscalculation of the role of Egypt and the Gulf — the United States' Arab allies — and the underestimation of the forces of counterrevolution these allies took part in unleashing.
The three memoirs do not conceal disagreements, to varying degrees, each may have had with Obama's vision, feelings, and interior reckonings on the issues of Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Libya and so forth. Whatever reflections and appraisals I heard from them personally, or cautious murmurings I perceived as a UN envoy to Libya, the margins for difference these three diplomats enjoyed was always narrow. This is not only because of the duty to listen to their president and follow his instructions, but more, in relation to the force of his character, rationality, breadth of knowledge and his acute awareness of what the domestic balance of power renders feasible. Will this then be any different with the new president?