The Way of the World

by Mark Lovett on November 18, 2008

by Ron Suskind – Book Review

A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism

Ron Suskind is a noted author, journalist, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  His latest book, The Way of the World is a complex tale.  Touching on the past, focused on recent history, and reaching out into the future, multiple story lines are woven together in a way that allows the lives of people who have never met to touch in a very personal and profound way.

There is much ground covered, from the damaged presidency of George W. Bush and the struggles within our intelligence community, to the status of prisoners still held at Guantanamo Bay and the attempt of Benazir Bhutto to regain power in Pakistan, as well as the threat of terrorists possessing nuclear material and the crippling of America’s reputation throughout the world.

It’s a intricate story, told not just from a perspective of people and events – dates, times, actions, reactions – but from inside the minds and souls of the players as they navigate through uncharted waters.  In the end, however, it is very much a brave story of hope, and of the need for connection and understanding across the boundaries of country and faith and ideology.

The White House

White House at Night

The Bush Paradigm

Much is written about the style, personality and decisions made by president George W. Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney.  This is largely due to the unique nature of an administration that chose to operate outside the revered separation of powers, and instead made unilateral decisions based on the perceived knowledge that they knew what was best, not only for America, but for the planet.

Teamwork, consensus building and the exploration of alternate solutions were not on the agenda.  Rather, their style was to avoid ideas that conflicted with their views or might prevent them from attaining their predetermined goals.  Foreign governments, and even those within their own intelligence community, were routinely ignored or marginalized.

The issue of plausible deniability was another factor to consider in the Bush White House strategy.   As Suskind explains, Cheney had worked in the Nixon White House and believed the undoing of his presidency was not due to the Watergate break-in, or even the subsequent cover-up, but rather caused by the fact that Nixon knew too much.  In short, Cheney firmly believed that there are things the president shouldn’t know. This prevents illegal acts from compromising the president.

Whereas in an honorable democracy the concept of accountability is looked upon as a virtue, Cheney looked upon accountability as a liability – something that might come back to haunt you.

A man who trusts only what he can touch

placed in a realm where nothing he touches is authentic.”

The Central Intelligence Agency

Entering the CIA

The Damage to Intelligence

One of the most problematic shifts in the intelligence community that occurred after 9/11 involves the further consolidation of both the budget and execution under the Department of Defense.

“CIA, as America’s primary intelligence agency, doesn’t exist as it once did.  It now lies beneath the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a fast-growing, thousand-plus-employee agency, and is ever more insubstantial beside the growing intelligence division of the Department of Defense, which controls 80 percent of America’s $50 billion annual budget for intelligence.”

He goes on to explain that many intelligence agents and managers left the agency, opting for work in the private sector.  And though new recruits were hired to fill the gaps, the agency’s current workforce has just five years’ experience – or less.  In a time when the threat of terrorism is so great, the power plays of Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have seriously damaged our ability to see, hear and act.

Image of Nuclear Test at Bikini Atoll

Nuclear Test at Bikini Atoll

The Uranium + Terrorist Threat

A key component of Suskind’s narrative speaks to the unknown threat of nuclear terrorism.  Uranium smuggling networks are known to exist in Russia, and from their hidden sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda is known to be shopping.  The conundrum is that while ruling the United States from within the gated confines of the presidency may be effective in calling the shots close to home, that strategy fails to engage the rest of the world in a way that can seek to understand and prevent terrorist acts.

So what are the options?  Based on the experiences of Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who spent time with the CIA, and more recently at the Department of Energy, Suskind illustrates the difficulties of getting the government to act in a meaningful way.  Contacts, conversations, meetings, papers, reports, proposals, and even a few agreements play a part in the drama, yet there never seems to be a cohesive plot emerge with an intended outcome.

Rolf’s plan is to dive into the underground uranium market, looking for buyers, sellers, radioactive material, valuable information – whatever can be uncovered.  A dangerous game, to be sure, but the reality of our present situation is something along the lines of, “we don’t know what we don’t know.”  Not the best strategy when it comes to the threat of nuclear terrorism.  But throughout the story Rolf has difficulties getting traction with his idea and spends much of his time swimming upstream in a river of bureaucratic mediocrity.

Map of United States Invading Iraq

The Lead Up to Invasion of Iraq

Traversing a spiderweb of people, dates, beliefs and intelligence reports it takes time for the true story of what happened to reveal itself.  But the story actually begins before 9/11, during the first meeting of the National Security Council in January of 2001.  In that meeting, the goal of ousting Saddam Hussein was discussed in detail, as were justifications involving weapons of mass destruction.  There seemed to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that a way would be found to remove Saddam from power during the Bush administration.  It was never about having a legitimate reason, or having hard evidence that would support an invasion, it was about the goal of regime change.

Fast forward to September.  According to Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism coordinator at the time, during a meeting held the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks Donald Rumsfeld was promoting the idea of bombing Iraq, even though there was no known connection between Saddam and al Qaeda and no known connection between Saddam and 9/11.

As events unfolded, with all evidence pointing to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, Afghanistan was invaded.  Soon after, however, the drumbeat of Iraq was renewed, with impassioned claims that Saddam possessed WMDs.  But he didn’t, and the Bush administration had no evidence that he did.  In fact, months before the invasion was launched the British had discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction remaining in Iraq.  They informed Bush and Cheney, but to no avail.

But the view, at day’s end, was that the United States was like a runaway train.

There was nothing that was going to stop this.”

So why did the invasion occur anyway?

Clearly, a major reason the United States invaded Iraq was to compel “rogue states” who support terrorism – or, for that matter, those who support extremism or regional interests that undermine U.S. authority – to change their behavior.  The central idea was that Saddam Hussein, largely defanged but still petulant, was an easy mark, and ideal candidate to be a “demonstration model” to alter the behavior of other regimes that might consider opposing the United States.”

This view, as presented by Ron Suskind, is widely held, both within our own government as well as most intelligence agencies and foreign governments.

What is not mentioned is oil.  Might it be that the reason the U.S. really wanted other countries in the Middle East to ‘change their behavior’ was to ensure the uninterrupted supply of oil from the region?  Many who understand the nature of the world’s depleting stocks of oil feel that this was the real message.  A message sent to both Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

The Sad but True Consequences

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism Law Enforcement Conference, a week long event held in Miami in June of 2007, was sponsored by the FBI for the world’s police and intelligence elite.  The objective of the conference was to share best practices, make connections with key individuals from other countries, and begin the dialogue on how to cope with the threat of nuclear terrorism.

One evening an FBI agent, a conservative Republican, who had spent years in Russia, the Balkans and the ‘Stans, commented:

“People don’t realize in American how little underlying credibility the United States now has in the world, especially on this matter of WMD, which, of course, has been driving everything.  We went to war – the most important thing a country does – based on WMD, and we were wrong.

“That means either we’re amazingly incompetent or we lied.  Take your pick.  Now, I think we lied – most people do – because no one could be that incompetent.  But until we come clean – and here we are years later and we don’t even care enough as a country to figure out what really happened – we’re sunk.

“Every time there’s some media report about Iraq, which is every day, people all over the world say, ‘right’ – lied or incompetent.  That leaves us reduced.  And it’s sad.”

Is There Hope?

Wendy Chamberlin, head of the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, makes a keen observation after a long career in service to this country:

What I’ve learned – and this is hard for me to say after twenty-eight years at the State Department – is that the answers will probably come from people-to-people contact, rather than from government-to-government.”

Further reflecting on the Marshall Plan, an ambitious ideal designed to rebuild the war-ravaged countries of Western Europe after WWII, she offers that it worked because it was:

the right thing to do, and when you do the right thing, you don’t ask for anything in return.  You do it because it’s right, and because you can.”

That line of reasoning is very much in sync with Global Patriot and the desire to serve the planet; not to get something back, but do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Suskind eloquently concludes:

What’s clear is that the human capacity for survival is asserting itself with some ingenuity.  When people are tested – just as they are now by collisions of haves and have-nots, by destructive capacity and faith-driven violence – they often manage to discover saving truths.

It is to these ‘saving truths’ that we should all be dedicated to – the world depends on it.

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