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The World Obama Tried to Make

Following Obama and his team, “The Final Year” pays homage to a measured approach to foreign policy.

Magnolia Pictures

The key shot in The Final Year, the new documentary by Greg Barker about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy team in 2016, is an image of despair. It’s election night, and Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been hosting a party at her Manhattan apartment, attended by Madeleine Albright, Gloria Steinem, and the 37 women ambassadors to the U.N. Her six-year-old daughter is lying prone across her lap, exhausted and asleep. Everyone in the room looks shattered. The evening’s surprise—Trump’s win—means the potential undoing of everything Power and her colleagues have been working for to that point is now in jeopardy: a more secure liberal international order, but especially the thawing of relations with Cuba, the Paris accords on climate change, the nuclear deal with Iran. The worldwide refugee crisis—65 million people, the most since World War II—will only get worse.

The Final Year follows Power, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications who was said to be engaged in a “mind meld” with Obama. There are cameo appearances by Obama himself and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Within this team there’s a split over America’s role in the world, which comes to light over the issue of the Syrian Civil War. On the one hand, there are the frustrated diplomats, Kerry and Power, who favor intervention; on the other, the contingent from the West Wing, Obama and Rhodes, wary of overextension after the Bush invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There was a similar divide over Obama’s optimistic final speech to the United Nations as president, in which he argued for “global integration” in spite of the “disruptions” that came with it. Of America, he said, “I believe we have been a force for good.” Trump was elected 49 days later.

Before the fall, we see Kerry getting on and off of planes several times and watch those planes taking off, as he makes his way to and from Vienna, where he negotiates fitful ceasefires in Syria and closes the nuclear deal with Iran. We see him riding at the bow of a boat on a river in Vietnam, and are reminded of his past as a veteran of and protestor against the Vietnam War. On a boat in the Arctic, he surveys the melting ice cap and multitasking about some minor crisis in Libya. He represents the United States’s conflicted link with the past and its steely resolve to go on making mistakes in the name of its ideals.

Power represents the alternately empathetic and moralistic humanitarian element. She forged her career as a journalist in the Balkan Wars and gained Obama’s attention with her Pulitzer-winning 2002 book on genocide, A Problem from Hell. We see her traveling in truck convoys in Cameroon. One of the trucks, we’re told, struck and killed an eager village boy, a nifty reminder of the potential human costs of America’s presence abroad anywhere. Power sits with villagers whose children have been kidnapped by Boko Haram, lets them tell their stories and cry to her. America, she tells them, will do whatever it takes to get their daughters back, the sort of open-ended commitment you sense she’d like to make to the whole world in her self-declared mission of “atrocity prevention.”

Back home, she enters a virtual reality pavilion outside the U.N. where users can experience a Syrian refugee camp—a gee-wiz fundraising tool. Inside the General Assembly, after a strike on a humanitarian convoy in Syria in a zone where only Russian and Syrian planes fly, she asks her Russian counterpart, “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there nothing that can shame you?” In a calmer moment, Power, who herself immigrated from Ireland at age 8, leads a citizenship ceremony for a group of immigrants including her nanny Maria. In the case of Syria she says, there was “no issue where my thoughts and my ideals and my feelings had such a marginal impact.” Rhodes counters that he and the president believed that in Syria “you don’t have anything that allows a foreign intervention to succeed,” such as coalition partners and a coherent opposition to back in pursuit of regime change. So much for Ambassador Power’s feelings.  

Rhodes is a creature of windowless offices who writes presidential speeches in frantic last-minute all-nighter sessions the same way he operated in college. He stares out the windows of planes at clouds, thoughtfully. He gazes out at the sea in Cuba, where he’s led negotiations for the thaw of relations between the island and the superpower, an initiative that began in 2014 and culminated with Obama’s visit to Havana in March 2016. What we get little sense of from The Final Year is the substance of such deals and their negotiations, though we’re told, by Rhodes, that these negotiations take place at the tables of windowless hotel conference rooms full of unappetizing looking sandwiches.

It would be difficult to address the substance of the Obama administration’s foreign policy achievements in 2016 simply because the deals it struck were complicated and contentious. And many parts of the world—Israel, Yemen, Libya, most of Africa, all of Latin America—are simply left out of this documentary. Don’t go looking to The Final Year for a critique of American power or the future of relations with China. Rhodes describes the dilemma of dealing with reporters who ask: Which is the higher priority, the bigger threat, “ISIL or climate change”? The honest answer—that climate change is an existential threat to the entire planet and therefore a greater threat and higher priority than the terrorist state in Iraq and Syria (which was anyway then in the process of being defeated)—would only serve to give Fox News a talking point that the Obama administration was soft on terrorism.  

No wonder someone in Rhodes’s position would develop contempt for the simple-minded establishment and the simpler-minded press. Rhodes, who is now 40, became famous in the spring of 2016 after a profile of him by David Samuels ran in the New York Times Magazine. He drew a lot of fire for his habit of referring to the liberal interventionist foreign policy establishment as “the Blob.” Of reporters who cover U.S. foreign policy, he said they were typically 27 years old and only experienced in covering political campaigns: “They literally know nothing.” The fallout from the profile, he tells Barker, was “pretty terrible,” and we see him apologizing to the White House press corps. The episode showed he knew less than he thought about manipulating the media. It’s also a reason why he and Power, both writers first and not immune to the charms of fame, were willing to give Barker access to make a film that often feels like a soft-focus celebrity portrait.  

In his early twenties, Rhodes was an aspiring novelist pursuing an MFA in creative writing when he had a conversion experience watching the September 11 attacks occur from a polling station in Brooklyn. He reveres Don DeLillo, the novelist who’s done the most to portray “the individual who finds himself negotiating both the vast currents of history and a very specific kind of power dynamics”—someone like any of the characters in The Final Year. Although The Final Year is alive to the quotidian details of its characters’ lives—all those windowless rooms, all those planes, the overstuffed backpack Rhodes seems to lug everywhere, at home and abroad—it isn’t otherwise much like a DeLillo novel. It isn’t, like his novels, paranoid or funny or, despite its tragic surprise ending, full of dread. It is, like Obama himself, optimistic about the state of the world. History, the president tells us, “zigs and zags” but “the trendlines” move in direction of progress. “Trendlines”—one of those professional-elite, management-consultant-speak words that had a habit of creeping into the semi-poetic voice he and Rhodes crafted. It’s certainly preferable to “shithole.”

Pursuing the trendlines of progress was a consensus goal for Obama and his diplomats, but the new regime is the zag to to their zig. In recent interviews Power has said she’s seen little of coherence coming out of Rex Tillerson’s State Department besides an effort to cut jobs and gut the sort of programs she, Rhodes, Rice, and Kerry worked to build. Trump’s own foreign policy principles consist of little more than cartoonish nuclear brinkmanship, in the manner of a Twitter flame war with Kim Jong Un and derogatory remarks about half the world behind or outside of closed doors. 

The ending of The Final Year bears a resemblance to a recent blockbuster: The Last Jedi. The film’s heroes have been vanquished, but President Obama assures us that he’s inspired the hopes of a new generation. Perhaps it’s the children and “the policies they’re gonna implement” that will save the republic from the damage Trump is doing. It’s hard to imagine them doing worse. Leave that to the next Don DeLillo.