Jun 242012

Title: Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
Author: Sanger, David

It is a common misconception that presidents that are consistently “pragmatic” do not simultaneously have a more general doctrine guiding their policy decisions. However, as is made amply clear in David Sanger’s new book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, pragmatism is more a matter of knowing when and how much to follow your principles, and when the needs of the moment must prevail.

In Confront and Conceal, Sanger follows up on his last book, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power by  outlining the path that President Obama has followed in confronting the many  national security policy questions that a US president must face.

Typically characterized as following a pragmatict approach, the Obama administration actually does follow a very clear set of guidelines in all of its foreign policy. Indeed, the Obama Doctrine could be described as “don’t appear to act unilaterally.” That is, it generally attempts to use multilateral, diplomatic processes to achieve its foreign policy goals. When a threat arrises that appears to require the use of force, it therefore prefers to employ others in the international community, and aid them in the pursuit. This can be seen in its “leading from behind” in Libya and its generally hands-off approach in the rest of the Arab Spring. However, when it perceives a direct threat to US interests, it is not opposed to acting unilaterally and forcefully, as it has done in Pakistan, and generally prefers to keep the action as quiet as possible.

The most interesting example of this preference for unilateral action to remain secret is brought to light by Sanger’s chapter on the US operation known as Olympic Games, in which the US and Israel created and deployed a worm into the computers controlling Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. As noted in the New York Times, “This is an account that long will be consulted by anyone trying to understand not just Iran but warfare in the 21st century. It alone is worth the price of the book.”

Of course, the book covers an array of other national security issues, ranging from the surge in Iraq, to Pakistan, to North Korea. It is a worthy book by any measure, but for those interested in the understanding the strategic approach of the president to national security issues, Confront and Conceal should be on the top of the must-read list.