The extraordinary story about the Obama administration’s decision to launch a supersecret cyber operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities is the centerpiece of New York Times correspondent David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (Crown, $28). But this well-sourced and vividly written book also provides informative accounts of the handling of other key national security challenges, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab Spring, China and North Korea. President Obama is portrayed as both idealist and pragmatist. On the one hand, he’s wary of military action when no national threat exists and rejects the neoconservative notion of the United States as “indispensable nation.” On the other hand, he’s depicted as firmly willing to use force to protect U.S. interests, as when he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, expanded drone strikes into an antiterrorism offensive, and authorized use of the Stuxnet cyberworm to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
His 2004 book, The Rise of the Vulcans, about the backgrounds and experiences of George W. Bush’s foreign policy team, established James Mann as an insightful and balanced chronicler of the personalities who shape foreign policy. In The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power (Viking, $26.95), Mann offers a complex portrait of the foreign policy- making apparatus around President Obama. He describes how Obama and his team in some ways have followed through on their initial pledges to break with the policies of the Bush administration, but how in other ways they have accommodated themselves to the preexisting order. Obama is portrayed as the master of his own foreign policy. But the book also highlights the influence of two main groups around the president—the older, experienced Washington hands including Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, and Leon Panetta, and a younger, very politically attuned group closer to Obama that includes Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice.