Book Review : Sanger D. E., Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (NY: Crown Publishers, 2012) pp. 476

As Americans are voting today, one of the things that is worthy asking is if the US as a global hegemony (if still is) is able to maintain the status quo and for how long.  What is intriguing, for me, is the reasoning behind this debate- whether the hegemony is on the decline or not. David Sanger, in his detailed yet easy to grasp book, Confront and Conceal, successfully presents key areas that I think they have led to emergence of such debates and whether the US can keep sustaining its global power.  These areas include the baffling Afghanistan War, the ambivalent relations with Pakistan, Iran Nuclear issues, Drones and Cyber attacks, the Arab Spring, and finally China and North Korea.  Although Sanger focuses on the period of Obama’s administration, he does it within the context of US’ foreign policy in the last 10 or so years.

With the exception of the chapter on cyber attacks on Iranian Nuclear programme, which I must admit is an intensive chapter with sensitive intelligence information, the book is mostly an expanded analysis of what had been reported in international news. Sanger himself is honest about this, as in the ‘notes about sources’ he acknowledges that this is a reporting book.  Nevertheless, this should not demean the book. Sanger tried to put into context the reasoning behind key foreign policy decisions that Obama and his different teams made concerning Afghanistan, Iran, Arab Spring, and US’ relations with China.  This he did through gathering information from different reliable sources that are primary. He, for example, interviewed a number of policy makers in the inner circle of foreign policy making in the White House and State Department. In addition, Sanger did a fieldwork such as going to Egypt after the revolution and interviewed activists. As a person who believes in academic research, I am impressed with the Sanger’s incorporation of academic analysis of some of the issues pertaining US’ foreign policy.

 Throughout the book Sanger consistently maintains the main theme of the book – which I think is to explain Obama’s doctrine- throughout all chapters. The book tries to elaborate Obama’s doctrine, which is for the US to have ‘a lighter footprint around the world and a reliance on coalitions to deal with global problems that do not directly threaten American security’. The goal is to enhance and preserve American power. This is further simplified by the title of the book ‘Confront and Conceal’.  In the book it is clear that Obama is a pragmatic realist leader. He critically analyses situations with adequate information, evidence, and advice before he makes decisions. Sanger cleverly illustrates this by highlighting the key questions behind Obama’s decisions- can we afford this? What is the price tag?  This may partly explain what I term ‘double-sided’ response to the Arab Spring, in particular when we compare Libya and Syria. At least the book gave me some relief when it exposes the awareness in the side foreign policy decision makers of the US’ double standards when dealt with the Arab Springs.

Due to his pragmatism and realistic view of the status of the US power as probably best fit into ‘first among equals’ rather than sole superpower, Obama is trying to shift emphasis from long-term wars and tensions in Middle East to focus more on ‘pivot’ Asia.  The aim of Obama, opposed to what many may think, is to enhance US’ power in a changing world.

Obama is rational about the status of American power in a changing world especially considering the nascent Chinese economic prowess.  In respect to that Obama is trying to refocus on Asia partly as an effort to rebalance and constrain Chinese influence.  The (unexpected) rise of Chinese power is probably a single main factor that has facilitated the discourse and the debates on the US hegemonic status quo.  Academicians, politicians, and journalists have debated on the rise of China and its impact in the US superpower ability with varying conclusions. Whether the US is still stronger than China or not, it cannot afford to keep fighting and intervening in every situation as an all-powerful global police. It has to calculate. Sanger, despite his analysis, he is still optimistic about American power. In his acknowledgement, which is at the end of the book, he says the following about his research assistants ‘ anyone worried that America is in decline would be disabused of the notion after a day of working this assemblage of young intellect and energy’. This is good but the truth remains that the hegemonic status can no more be taken for granted.

 As Americans are voting today, it’s my hope that they will make a right decision to choose a leader who is realistic about America’s power. If America does not play its cards right it might start witnessing an uncontrollable diminishing of its power and remain only with the history…once a superpower.

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