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Obama's Inheritance

By Jim Miles

30 July, 2009

Book Review: "The Inheritance – The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power". David E. Sanger. Harmony Books (Random House), New York. 2009.

David Sanger makes it clear what his book, “The Inheritance”, is all about. Simply stated in the first line of the preface he says, “This book looks backward at the seismic events that led America to lose so much standing and leverage in the world and looks forward to reimagine ways we can rebuild our influence and power.” While the book itself makes for an interesting – but not enlightening – read, it does not do well with either looking backward or looking forward.


The look backward is essentially a look back at the Bush years, a commentary on current events as seen as a newspaper correspondent who has some kind of access, direct or indirect, to many of the higher officials in the administration. It does not go back far enough to cover important aspects of the pre-Bush history – a history that served as Bush’s “Inheritance” as well. In other words, U.S. history cannot be isolated to one era without fitting it into the overall context of its foreign and domestic policies that are intertwined into a much longer string of history. Certainly references are made to earlier historical moments, but there is little analysis, little context, and as with many U.S. writers, the context of “blowback” from previous negative U.S. policies is not truly accounted for. There is little acceptance of U.S. foreign policy practices that over the decades have helped shape the mess they currently find themselves in.


The problem with Sanger’s look forward is that there really is not one, certainly not on the scale of Stern’s “The Global Deal” or Starobin’s “After America”[1]. While I am not always a fan of conjecture into the future, as unintended and unexpected consequences tend to be the norm, there should be more room given to developing more ideas on how Obama could move forward to help untangle the current foreign policy difficulties. His look forward consists mainly of three short items, all really one and the same thing – a terrorist attack of some sort on the homeland, and one piece of advice.

The three items are familiar to anyone who reads any kind of newspaper or internet site with news on it: rogue nuclear weapons; chemical weapons in the form of plagues, toxins or poisons; and computer cyber-attack. This look forward occupies the last ninth of the book and consists mainly of scary scenarios from think tanks and the poor job the administration is doing to prevent any of them.

When Sanger talks about Obama in the Epilogue “Obama’s Challenge,” a meagre ten pages is devoted to Obama’s prospects for ‘change’. He quotes Rahm Emanuel who said, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste; they are opportunities to do big things.” The intent is to spur Obama to action. Unfortunately it fits into the general trend of U.S. history that a “crisis” includes the context of history, it also includes the creating and fomenting of a crisis that can be taken advantage of, a strong point of the CIA and special ops teams. Pakistan/Afghanistan and Iran are the current crises, treated by Sanger as special developments of the Bush era.


Four illusions from the Bush era face Obama, according to Sanger. The first is the shift of global power – more economic than military, but also including the latter - is heading east. The second illusion is that the rest of the world “will naturally seek to emulate the American model.” The other two illusions are smaller in scale. Free trade is not primarily responsible for job loss. The U.S. will no longer use the “Big Stick and no longer threaten force to contains some of the world’s biggest perils.”

These are not just Bush illusions, they are U.S. illusions and can be writ boldly. And illusory or not, Obama has not done much to dispel them and if he follows Sanger’s main line of advice, will only affirm the “illusions” in the minds of the citizens:

“Marry the use of force to a comprehensive plan to build up states, pursued with the same gusto and resources as Bush used to pursue al Queda cells.”

That about sums up the proposals for the future – marry force with state building plans and dispel a few illusions! Sounds pretty much like the same old Bush program, but as with all things Obama, it will probably be carried out with much finer sounding rhetoric than the gunslinger lingo that Bush employed.

Missing in action

A reader interested in current events would do well with this work as it contains much of the history of the Bush administration, although without any great insights into any of it. What is missing for the reader is that historical string that entwines itself around all presidencies, as U.S. foreign policy, and while it may receive a different tone and timbre from one president to the next, always sings the same song.

The U.S. faces crises with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran for sure, crises that have a great deal to do with previous U.S. policies towards the region. Israel is mentioned within the context of Iran, but no mention of Palestine occurs. If the Middle East is to be “solved”, Palestine/Israel must be solved. If the Middle East is to be solved, the U.S. needs to account for much of its covert and overt operations there since essentially taking over from the British Empire.

Other omissions from action especially looking towards the future concern two major global crises, the economic meltdown and global climate change, neither of which receive any serious consideration. For that matter, it seems that the only seriousness about the solutions is the line about “force” and “gusto.”

If any of this is to be solved, not only the linear integration of historical information needs to be considered, but the multi-dimensional integration of a variety of concepts needs to be included. That includes the global and domestic economies, climate change, the role of international law and international institutions, the settlement of international disputes by applying international law and human rights agreements, the pervasiveness of U.S. military bases globally and its dominant nuclear weapons base, the many diverging foreign policy views from China, Russia, Japan, the Koreas and others, and especially the ongoing tactic of “force” and “gusto” used to ‘promote’ U.S. foreign policy – the hidden (not so hidden really) fist that supports the U.S. accumulation of wealth and power to the homeland.

Some Inheritance

Admittedly, Obama “inherited” a mess, but it is not a mess that he was unfamiliar with. Nor can anyone be elected president in the U.S. if they do not fit the general conforming modes of acceptable presidential practices. Nor should any reader be under any illusion that the mess was a result of the Bush administration, but is the ongoing familiar territory of U.S. foreign policy. Only six months into the Obama tenure, and there are very few signs of “hope” and “audacity” (attacking Pakistan and increasingly using Ms Clinton to spread U.S. threats around counts for neither).

All the same, “The Inheritance” provides a good enough read for a non-academic, not too critical audience to pick up on some current events information they may have missed out on during the Bush years. Just don’t expect any great pronouncements of solutions for the future.

[1] see Paul Starobin, “After America”, at
/view_article_details.php?id=15273; Nicholas Stern's book, "The Global Deal" (Public Affairs, Perseus, New York. 2009) is a flawed discussion of climate change and the economy.

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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