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Barack Obama: The man with two brains

The Obamians - review.

The Obamians: the Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power
James Mann
Viking, 416pp, $26.95

Shortly after his inauguration as president, Barack Obama was given a briefing by the CIA about the danger of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. “That’s scary,” said Obama, “but in the meeting I had before this one, the Treasury told me that every bank could fail before the end of the month. Now that’s really scary.” This anecdote shows the central point of James Mann’s book, which tries to paint a portrait of the 44th president’s foreign policy through the prism of his relationships with his closest advisers.

For Obama and the youthful “Obamians”, the world began in 2001 with 9/11, which was followed by the Iraq war and the financial crisis. For them, the events that traumatised most foreign policy professionals – Vietnam, the cold war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkan wars – are ancient history. The biggest worries for the Obamians are the fallout from the decision to go to war in Iraq and the shortage of money after the global financial crisis. As Mann states in his concluding sentence: “Obama’s time in office marked the beginning of a new era where American primacy is no longer taken for granted.”

The doctrine they seek to develop is one of “low-cost leadership”. This involves a mix of soft power (symbolised by Obama and his powerful speeches), smart sanctions (used against Libya, Iran and Syria), drones (which have stepped up the campaign in Pakistan) and “leading from behind” (allowing Europeans to take the lead on Libya and re-energising alliances in the Pacific), while trying to reset relations with China and Russia.

Mann describes Libya as the “apotheosis” of the Obama approach. The conflict revealed his willingness to use force and his commitment to humanitarian goals and multilateralism. Yet it also showed a new kind of American leadership – playing a supportive role, rather than leading from the front. According to Mann, the Libya operation cost US taxpayers between $1m and $3m a day – compared to $300m a day for the Afghan operation.

Another important part of the Obama strategy is his oratory. If you could fix the world with speeches alone, Obama’s first year would have bent the arc of history. He spent hours trying to craft the perfect words in a series of orations designed to restore US leadership. The results were so convincing that they were one of the main reasons cited by the Norwegian Nobel committee in its decision to award the president the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

The main pen behind the speeches belonged to a young man called Ben Rhodes, who joined the Obama campaign in 2007 and emerges as the key figure in Mann’s narrative. He is a sign of the extent to which the Obama revolution is above all generational. He also symbolises the distinction between the public and private faces of the administration.

According to Mann, Obama had two foreign policy teams: one, for public consumption, was the “team of rivals” that Obama appointed to cabinet-level positions. These grizzled war - horses gave the young president gravitas but they were kept away from the big decisions on foreign policy. They included figures such as Hillary Clinton at the state department, Robert Gates at the Pentagon, Richard Holbrooke as “AfPak” envoy, General James Jones as national security adviser and General David Petraeus, now director of the CIA. They were mainly people whose world-views had been shaped by the cold war. Yet the advisers who stayed behind after the intelligence briefings and helped Obama make his key decisions were younger, more political appointees who had worked on his campaign or made a career in the Senate rather than the national security apparatus.

As well as Rhodes, they included Tom Donilon (a Democratic political operative who eventually became national security adviser), Denis McDonough (a former aide to Tom Daschle), Susan Rice (an Africa expert who joined Obama’s campaign team), Michael Mc- Faul (an academic from Stanford who became point man on Russia) and Samantha Power (a campaigning academic, journalist and proponent of humanitarian intervention). One of the most poignant passages in the book is the description of Holbrooke’s funeral – almost a symbolic burial of the familiar view of the US’s role in the world. As the Obama team grew in confidence, many of the older advisers were sidelined or replaced by people closer to the president in age and world-view.

According to Mann, Obama’s Jekyll and Hyde persona extended to the level of ideas as he deliberately straddled the two main ideologies of US foreign policy: idealism and realism. As in domestic policy, he combined an unsentimental realism about the realities of power with progressive goals. On the one hand, he did not close Guantanamo and stepped up the policy of using drones to assassinate potential terrorists. On the other, he intervened in Libya to save lives and asked the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to resign.

Obama’s inner circle reflected the two sides of his brain. Rice, McFaul, Power and Rhodes stood for his idealism (Power describes herself as the administration’s “conscience mascot”). Meanwhile, power-brokers such as Donilon and McDonough saw themselves more in the realist tradition of the first President Bush.

Mann is a perceptive analyst who excels at placing events in their historical context. The brilliance of his earlier book The Rise of the Vulcans, a gripping group portrait of George W Bush’s foreign policy team, derived from his understanding of the relationships between Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger in the Nixon administration. The problem with The Obamians is that the foreign policy of this president is thin gruel compared to that of his predecessor; his principal advisers were chosen precisely because they had no past to weigh them down.

The result is that this book – like Obama’s policy record – feels transitional and incomplete. Most of Obama’s workload in the early days involved doing after-sales maintenance on Bush’s policies. His first two years were defined by an attempt to extend the hand of friendship to those whom Bush had alienated. His attempts to engage with China, Russia, Iran and the Muslim world and Europe had mixed results.

The killing of Osama Bin Laden gave Obama a second chance. It allowed him to declare victory in the war on terror and refocus his foreign policy on longer-term challenges. Mann’s narrative suggests that, in the long run, Obama may be remembered less as the presidential healer than as the man who cleared the way for America’s next confrontation – not with a shadowy group of terrorists this time but with a superpower that contains a fifth of the world’s population: China.

The book builds up to a description of a “pivot to Asia” that could be the beginning of a new era of bipolarity. If that is true, historians may see Obama and his youthful advisers playing a similar role to that played by Harry S Truman in the early stages of the cold war. In that case – like his predecessor – Obama may yet have a substantive doctrine named after him.

Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of “What Does China Think?” (Fourth Estate, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.