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Review: “While America Slept”

Thought Leader: Robert O’Brien
September 16, 2016
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Robert O’Brien’s While America Slept is the 2016 equivalent of Richard Nixon’s The Real War (ghostwritten by Ray Price and Hugh Hewitt in 1980). While America Slept is an important book and should be “required reading” for Shadow Government readers and serious students of foreign policy.

I met Hugh Hewitt, the talk radio personality, through O’Brien (Hewitt provides an excellent introduction to the book). Hewitt told me the story about The Real War that he alludes to in his introduction. The Real War was a foreign policy blueprint — a book meant to influence the 1980 campaign, the discourse, and the advisors around then Governor Ronald Reagan. Hewitt recalled that Reagan was photographed with The Real War under his arm during the 1980 campaign. At a cocktail party last year, Hewitt asked rhetorically, “What is the equivalent of The Real War for 2016?” It is clear that O’Brien took Hewitt up on this challenge. It would be great if Donald Trump or Mike Pence were photographed with a copy of While America Slept under their arm.

Robert and I both served in the George W. Bush administration, but our paths did not cross there. I met O’Brien through the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign. Our paths crossed again this cycle when we were both senior foreign policy advisors to Governor Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. Robert may not be a household name, but he is very well known and very respected in foreign policy and national security circles. Like the late Rich Williamson in Chicago, Robert has built a career and a life far from D.C. and New York. Robert is a very respected lawyer in Los Angeles who has just opened a new and rapidly growing law firm. If I ever needed legal advice, I would call Robert — he is smart, hardworking, has high integrity, and he is totally loyal to his friends and clients. He also served as a major in the Army reserve JAG Corps.

Robert writes from a series of beliefs and assumptions that I also hold: a deep belief in American Exceptionalism, that peace comes through strength, that the United States is stronger when it partners with its allies and when America is a reliable friend to its allies, that the greatness of America comes from a people that respect tradition and the rule of law, and that (yes) we are the good guys and there are some bad guys out there.

While America Slept plays off of the title of John F. Kennedy’s 1940 book, While England Slept, which told the story of the events of the 1930s leading up to World War II. Kennedy’s book helped shoot JFK to fame, and was reprinted when he became president. Robert’s book is a series of essays written over the last five years detailing where we have come up short and what fixes we need to make. His book warns of the dangers of a hollow military force, especially a numerically short navy, the dangers posed by a resurgent China, and the dangers of Islamic extremism. The next administration should take heed.

Robert also took on a semi-public role in the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan and visited the country many times in that capacity, which brought him into the larger conversation about the global war on terror. He has a fascinating essay about rule of law in Afghanistan and a separate essay on a trip to Guantanamo that he took as an observer to the military tribunals.

I have one quibble with the book: Robert had a senior role representing the United States at the United Nations under the Bush administration. My (minor) complaint is that he does not offer us some roles for the U.N., and what the United States should seek to get out of the U.N. I am guessing the answer is not “get completely out of the U.N.,” so if that is the case, then what are the roles and where should we draw the line with our engagement? I do believe there are many uses for multilateral organizations and I thought this was one area that would be interesting for Robert to pursue.

There will come a time when Robert will return to public service, and the book reminds me of all the reasons why I think he is someone who should be entrusted with great responsibilities. In my mind, it cannot come too soon.

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