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Picking Up the Pieces, Sanger's The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power

David E. Sanger, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power (Harmony, 2009)

In the final month of his presidency, George W. Bush asserted more than once that “history would be the judge of [his] decisions.” His implication, one assumes, is that such far-reaching, courageous, and unpopular leadership as his can only be properly recognized in the fullness of time, when a seemingly disastrous and wrong-headed war and seemingly belligerent and stubborn diplomatic strategies will bear glorious fruit: A safer, more prosperous world with the U.S. at the helm once again.

For those who would prefer not to wait, history has begun returning verdicts. As far as our foreign policy misadventures are concerned, one of our best resources is New York Times chief Washington correspondent David E. Sanger, and specifically his new book The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power. This is not to say that Sanger’s astute and dispassionate analysis of the Bush administration's doings over the past decade can be used as a partisan cudgel. The Inheritance is no polemic, and that is one of its major strengths. Instead, Sanger is able to rely on his extensive, high-level sources within the administration as well as the intelligence, diplomatic, and military communities to paint a factual and fair—if at times despairing—portrait of U.S.’s leadership over the past eight years. Bush’s was an administration stymied by infighting, a disregard for diplomacy that bordered on contempt, and the well-documented, monumental failings leading up to and continuing in the Iraq war, which siphoned away resources from far more pressing situations (not just in Afghanistan) and hamstrung our intelligence operatives and diplomats all over the world.

The Inheritance is organized by nation, in six parts: Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, China, and a chilling final section outlining the US’s three major vulnerabilities to outside attack. Iraq presumably has no stand-alone section of its own, partly because so many recent books have been published on the subject, and partly because Iraq haunts the rest of The Inheritance, and Sanger never gets very far afield without raising the spectre of the problems created there. Similarly, though Sanger focuses on his chosen countries one by one, the challenges they present are hopelessly entangled with each other.

Iran, for instance, began its nuclear program with assistance from A.Q. Khan, the notorious mastermind of Pakistan's nuclear program, recently freed after four years of house arrest, who sold nuclear secrets and equipment all over the world, including to North Korea. And while the U.S. was busy fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran saw an opportunity to ramp up its uranium enrichment program. The Bush administration found itself in a tight spot—it had neither the resources, will, nor political capital to take substantive action against a new country in the Middle East, and after years of taking a hard-line stance could not accept a nuclear Iran.

This left an option that should have been taken years ago, if not for the strong opposition of Vice President Cheney and others: direct negotiations with Iran, including offers to begin talks if Iran would halt its enrichment program. Such an overture was made too late, in 2006, and was ignored by Iran. The U.S. began covert efforts to sabotage Iran's program, which Sanger lays out in enthralling, spy-novel fashion in The Inheritance. The recent news that Iran suddenly seems to have enough fuel for a bomb will not help matters, but it seems clear that negotiations must be part of the solution.

Nowhere are the linkages between problem nations more evident than in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and indeed most policymakers no longer recognize the porous border between those two countries as a meaningful dividing line. The Taliban and al Qaeda members that live and operate out of the tribal areas and Northwest territory certainly do not recognize it as such either. As Sanger recounts, Pakistan’s Musharaf, as well as the ISI, spent the past eight years offering support to U.S. forces that was ineffectual at best and interfering at worst, while with the other hand aiding the Taliban. (The delicate balance Pakistan has been trying to strike became all too evident when in mid-February it signed a truce with the Taliban in the Northwest territory’s Swat district implementing Islamic law, drawing concerned remarks from Secretary of State Clinton and others.) Pakistan’s nominal status as an ally has prevented the U.S. from conducting effective missions to weed out al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in its sovereign territory.

In one alarming chapter, Sanger reveals that the U.S. does not know where Pakistan stores its nuclear weapons, or if their security is adequate. International law forbids our providing the Pakistani government with simple and essential code-based safeguards, as it is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan is unstable. Militant Islamists arrayed along its borders view it as ripe for a takeover, so the security of its small nuclear arsenal is particularly crucial. And it remains to be seen whether any positive effects from the 17,000 additional U.S. troops Obama has dedicated to Afghanistan will spill over the border. It seems unlikely unless a new understanding with the Pakistani government is reached.

Sanger is not an emotionally demonstrative writer, but one senses frustration and bewilderment as he picks through the wreckage of Afghanistan. He has a host of generals and diplomats to express the same frustration resulting from the U.S.’s one-sided policy of combating al Qaeda and the Taliban without remaining to rebuild infrastructure and secure the country against the Taliban’s resurgence. This is also a source of discord in the international community, where such reconstruction projects are a priority and, according to sources in the U.S. military, combat is generally not. Sanger makes particular mention of a 2002 speech in which Bush referenced the Marshall Plan in connection with Afghanistan. By now it is clear that reference was an empty rhetorical flourish, like the “Mission Accomplished” banner, only not as well known. The administration had overcome its aversion to ‘nation-building’ far too late, and maintained its risible stance that Iraq was the main front in the war on terror into 2008, leaving Afghanistan to devolve into violence and chaos. As Sanger writes, “It took years before it was clear to many in Washington that the premature declaration of victory over the Taliban, and the subsequent decision to move on to Iraq without looking back, amounted to one of the biggest miscalculations by the country’s leadership in modern military history. Washington had it backward.”

The Inheritance is animated by Sanger’s gift for the economical, insightful profile. When he spends a good deal of time with a subject, it’s usually because he or she represents some circumstance or set of problems writ large. This is true of Christopher R. Hill, the ambassador to the Republic of Korea. Hill’s work with North Korea demonstrates both the difficulties that country presents to the world—in particular to a U.S. reluctant to engage in direct diplomacy—and the possibilities ahead. Present at the Six Party Talks, Hill was instructed by his superiors not to smile, shake hands, or join in any toasts with the North Koreans. Hill eventually broke these rules, and with Secretary of State Rice’s assistance was able to accomplish much more by circumventing the resistance to bilateral talks with North Korea—resistance that came principally from Vice President Cheney’s office. The discussions that followed led to North Korea shutting down its nuclear plant, a considerable achievement even taking into account its dilapidated condition and the unfortunate probability that it had already served its purpose.

The Inheritance is a book one reads to understand what’s going on out there, and in that it succeeds admirably. Sanger tells a complicated story simply, alternately letting the facts speak for themselves and providing welcome analysis. That the Bush administration comes off poorly in the telling seems less an aim of the author’s than the inevitable result of letting the facts add up. If there is a pattern to Sanger’s recommendations, it is that diplomacy must be part of the U.S.’s approach to the world again, even where the most odious regimes are concerned. Nobody who encounters the tough-minded diplomats in the pages of The Inheritance would consider negotiation a kind of weakness, as Cheney et al. see it. That said, this is a useful book not only for pointing out blunders but also for tempering the zeal of some of Obama’s supporters who may be expecting miracles. The kind of reversals the U.S. needs to see cannot happen overnight in a world as problematic as ours is now.


Tom Bouman


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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