Book review: 'A Promised Land' by Barack Obama reflects on first years of presidency

The memoir reveals insights that underpinned Obama's first two years as US president, and is one of three volumes he plans to publish

CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4:  U.S. President Barack Obama makes his key Middle East speech at  Cairo University June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. In his speech, President Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims", declaring that "this cycle of suspicion and discord must end".  (Photo by Getty Images)
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The insights provided by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, in advising the Obama administration during the political turbulence generated by the 2011 uprisings have come to light, following the publication of former US president Barack Obama's latest memoir, A Promised Land.

In the book, the first of three volumes Obama intends to publish about his eight-year tenure as president, he writes about the insights he had from Sheikh Mohamed over the role the US played in Egypt and its relationship with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at the start of the uprisings in 2011.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama published by Crown. Courtesy Penguin Random House
'A Promised Land' by Barack Obama published by Crown. Courtesy Penguin Random House

Obama was one of several western leaders who called for Mubarak's removal from office after tens of thousands of Egyptian people took to the streets in a wave of anti-government protests.

As he vividly recalls in his memoir, Obama regarded the Egyptian president’s removal as “the beginning of a struggle for the soul of the Arab world”.

Obama clearly has a high regard for Sheikh Mohamed, whom he describes as being "young, sophisticated ... and perhaps the savviest leader in the Gulf". And Obama recalls the Emirati leader did not mince his words when describing how Mubarak's removal from office was being received in the region.

Sheikh Mohamed, by contrast, sought to caution the American leader on his enthusiasm for regime change in Cairo, especially as it raised the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood seizing power.

Sheikh Mohamed informed Obama that Washington's statements on Egypt were being followed in the Gulf closely. The Crown Prince warned him that if Egypt collapsed and the Muslim Brotherhood took control, then it could have disastrous implications for the rest of the region, and would raise questions about whether the US was a reliable partner.

It is one of a number of fascinating revelations in the book that form the impression that, despite being the head of the world's leading military superpower, Obama never felt entirely at ease fulfilling his role as America's commander-in-chief.

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - April 21, 2016: HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (L), speaks with Barack Obama, President of the United States of America (R), during the GCC-US Summit opening session. 
( Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi ) *** Local Caption ***  20160421RC_C5_0473.jpg
Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed speaks with Obama during the GCC-US Summit in 2016. Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court

While well aware that Islamist organisations such as Al Qaeda and its affiliates were, as he recalls, “continuously plotting horrific crimes against innocent people”, Obama’s natural instinct was instead to consider the circumstances that had led radicalised young men to become terrorists in the first place.

Obama recalls that he took "no joy" from overseeing America's brutal, but effective, response to combatting the modern curse of Islamist-inspired terrorism. His mixed feelings "that part of my job involved ordering people to be killed" were clearly evident in the first major terrorist incident he faced in April 2009, when Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a cargo vessel commanded by American Capt Richard Phillips, off the coast of Somalia.

I wanted somehow to save them ... drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead

After Phillips had been taken hostage by the hijackers, who demanded a $2 million ransom for his release, Obama issued a standing order to fire on the Somali pirates if Phillips appeared to be in any imminent danger. This resulted in three of the hijackers being shot dead by US Navy Seal snipers after they were spotted holding a gun to the captain.

But while the US mission, which resulted in Phillips being freed and reunited with his family, won Obama many plaudits, with the Washington Post declaring on its front page, "An Early Military Victory for Obama", the president himself "wasn't inclined to beat my chest over the episode".

Partly this was because, as with all Special Forces operations, the margins between success and failure are extremely fine. But Obama’s disinclination to celebrate the mission’s success was also born of his innate compassion for the three young men who had died.

In one of the book’s more powerful passages, Obama writes, “I also realised that around the world, in places like Yemen and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, the lives of millions of young men like the three dead Somalis had been warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings, or the schemes of older men.

“I wanted somehow to save them, send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.”

Obama’s thoughtful response to the Capt Phillips incident so early in his presidency – he had only been in the White House for three months – is fascinating because it helps to explain the thinking that underpinned the rest of his presidency, especially in terms of overseeing Washington’s counter-terrorism policy.

While Obama did not shy away from hard decisions, such as authorising the daring mission to assassinate Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideaway in 2011, the president's main priority was to find a way to heal the divisions between the West and the Muslim world.

To this end, Obama relates how he invested much political capital during his first term in making changes to the more controversial counter-terrorism policies, such as seeking to close the Guantanamo Detention facility in Cuba, and making all of America's security apparatus fully accountable under the law. The other key element of this approach was to deliver what he describes as his "Muslim speech" before a select audience in Cairo that sought to "squarely address the sources of tension between the West and the Muslim world, and describe what peaceful co-existence might look like".

The impact of that speech was overshadowed by the eruption of anti-government protests throughout the Arab world. Nor were Obama's attempts to improve relations with Arab leaders helped by his near obsession with negotiating a deal with Tehran to limit Iran's nuclear activities.

Obama is a fluent and entertaining writer and the book – which covers his rise to the White House and the first two years of his presidency – also touches on more personal moments concerning his relationship with his wife and two daughters.

One of the more touching anecdotes, for example, concerns how he gave up smoking after his daughter Malia detected cigarettes on his breath.

“Faced with the prospect of lying to my daughter or setting a bad example, I called the White House doctor and asked him to send me a box of nicotine gum.”

If the tone of Obama’s 750-page book can, at times, come across as self-righteous, this initial offering of his early years in office provides an important insight into the thinking that defined the Obama presidency.