Entry 27: One Chapter on Obama Begets Two

January 19, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 27th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


I wrote 1,300 words today, but a good chunk of that was footnotes and quotes. As I’ve started actually writing chapter four on the Obama era (and stacking ammo) my early imprecise notions have come into clearer focus. I thought I could cover those eight years in one chapter, but I’m definitely going to need two.

I was part of the Obama administration, and a staunch supporter of the president. While he got plenty right on foreign policy, I’ve also been a vocal critic of some of his administration’s decisions. I think we should’ve pulled ground troops out of Afghanistan in 2009. We should’ve been skeptical about the Arab Spring. We should’ve intervened in Syria, especially after it violated the infamous “red line” against chemical weapons use. And we should’ve taken a harder line on China generally while also deemphasizing the importance of the South China Sea. I’m a hawk and a dove, depending on what the situation demands.

I reserve my biggest criticisms for Obama’s Korea policy (North and South), which I had a hand in making and largely supported at the time. I’ve left an extensive paper trail criticizing virtually every aspect of the Obama administration’s North Korea policy. But for all my sniping, I knew that Obama had been dealt a pretty bad hand himself. There was no “good” set of options on North Korea. Even my recommendations were mostly about making marginal improvements rather than breakthroughs or revolutionary change.

So when I wrote up the book proposal, I knew the terrible situation that President Trump inherited would flow from the words and deeds of the Obama administration, but I knew the Obama team had been boxed into a pretty limited set of bad choices too. So the proposal had some placeholder language presenting a brief paragraph-long narrative for the Obama chapter. But I hadn’t outlined what would actually go in the chapter in any detail, and what should receive greater or lesser emphasis.

I have a much better sense of that now, and will preview some of it as I write later #NukeYourDarlings entries. For now, it’s enough to note that parsing the consequential Obama-era decisions from the trivial ones, and tying all that back to the Trump-era nuclear crisis, will take a hell of a lot more than 10,000 words (the length of a typical chapter).


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.