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June 13, 2017

13 good recent books about American foreign policy

good recent booksIn recent years I’ve read and reviewed 13 nonfiction books published in the 21st Century about aspects of American foreign policy. I’m listing them here, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each title is linked to my longer review.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass

Though little known outside the realm of specialists, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger collaborated with the Pakistani government in murdering hundreds of thousands of people in 1971 in what today is Bangladesh. Their complicity in that genocidal event has finally come to light in Gary J. Bass’ outstanding work of modern history, The Blood Telegram. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, makes effective use of newly opened secret archives and other primary sources as well as interviews with many of the surviving players in the drama.

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley

Racist attitudes were so prevalent and unchallenged in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century that the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the founder of anthropology in the country—could observe, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth.” In hindsight, then, it should be no surprise that such celebrated figures as President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, would speak openly about America’s “destiny” to dominate Asia and the Pacific, imposing the benefits of Aryan civilization on the “Pacific niggers” (their term for Filipinos) and “Chinks.” This is the persistent theme of best-selling author James Bradley’s portrayal of Roosevelt and Taft in The Imperial Cruise.

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, by James Bradley

James Bradley argues in The China Mirage that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to U.S. involvement in World War II but, by extension, in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well. Bradley regards all three wars as having been unnecessary. While his argument may be overextended, the book is filled with fascinating accounts of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the China Lobby, the rise of the Soong family to power in China, the origins of the oil embargo that triggered Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Chinese Revolution.

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

When it comes to Iran, the purveyors of news have done an especially poor job of keeping us informed. As David Crist makes clear in this illuminating report on the three decades of conflict, tension, miscalculation, and profound misunderstanding that have characterized our two countries’ relationship, we have indeed engaged in what can only be described as war for several extended periods. And when I say war, I mean soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots shooting at one another, laying mines, launching missiles at ships and ground facilities, and generally forcing one or both of the two governments to decide between escalation and retreat. The book is full of surprises.

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

Though the U.S., Great Britain, and France all withheld support for the Spanish Republic, three other leading powers of the day plunged into the conflict with enthusiasm: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini regarded the war in Spain as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflict to follow. Their lavish support for Generalissimo Franco in the form of airplanes, tanks, rifles, artillery, and some 100,000 soldiers and airmen was decisive (80,000 from Italy, 19,000 from Germany, in addition to 20,000 from Portugal). Only the USSR faced off against the Nazis and Fascists, supplying weapons and ammunition, and its support was a mixed blessing: Stalin sold Spain ancient weapons at inflated prices. He also dispatched hardline political commissars to weed out anyone who didn’t rigidly follow the Party line, and their ruthless behavior was surely a factor in the defeat of the Republic. Some 2,500 American volunteers and a passel of American reporters (including many famous names) waded into the midst of this maelstrom. Adam Hochschild does a brilliant job bringing the era and the people of the time back to life.

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

Award-winning journalist Stephen Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up in opposition to each other before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House. Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th Century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Kinzer makes abundantly clear that this was not the case.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

In the years 1933-41, a passion for isolationism and growing anti-Semitism gripped the American psyche, keeping President Roosevelt from speaking out against the growth of Nazism and the ever-tightening vise of oppression and violence directed at Germany’s tiny Jewish minority (about one percent of the population). In the Garden of Beasts, a finely-crafted and exhaustively researched little book, casts a considerable amount of light on the reasons underlying this shameful episode in American history. It’s the story of Professor William Dodd and his family, beginning in the year 1933 when Roosevelt appointed him Ambassador to Germany. In an admirably restrained manner, Erik Larson portrays their initial sympathy and support for the Nazi regime, turning gradually to revulsion and leading eventually to Dodd’s becoming one of the most prominent anti-Nazi lecturers in the United States.

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry

It seems exceedingly unlikely that President James K. Polk would come to many minds as an example of the most important men who have served in the office. Yet a very strong case could be made that Polk’s single four-year term (1845-49) was, indeed, among the most consequential times in U.S. history—and that Polk himself was the prime mover. Robert W. Merry powerfully advances that argument in A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. It was Polk who transformed the United States into a continental power. Earlier presidents—Thomas Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase), James Monroe (acquisition of Florida), Andrew Johnson (purchase of Alaska), and William McKinley (Gadsden Purchase)—indeed added considerable swaths of territory to the nation. But James K. Polk added all the rest, including nearly all the Southwest and all the Northwest of today’s United States. He led the country into a brutal, lopsided war with Mexico and negotiated with England over the northwest boundary of the U.S.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, by John Pomfret

Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. As Pomfret writes, “America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s.” And American missionaries began arriving in the 1830s. Pomfret surveys the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since English-turned-American traders first visited China. In fact, trade between the U.S. and China is one of the dominant themes of Pomfret’s analysis. Two other themes emerge clearly in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: the disproportionately large role played by American Protestant missionaries, and the importance of U.S. influence both in building China’s educational system and in educating millions of Chinese in American universities. This is a fascinating book about a topic that few Americans understand clearly.

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, by Eric Rauchway

Call it selective memory: we tend to forget that the survival of our democratic system was by no means assured on March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as president. With the country paralyzed by twenty-five percent unemployment, shuttered factories, insolvent banks, and rapidly falling prices for farm commodities and consumer goods alike, both Communism on the Left and fascism on the Right were rapidly gaining adherents. It was far from clear that a catastrophic clash of the extremes could be prevented. Contemporary events in Europe suggested that even the best-educated and most sophisticated societies could all too easily turn dangerously radical: barely more than a month earlier, Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany. In The Money Makers, historian Eric Rauchway reviews the economic policies that FDR deployed to rescue the nation from a similar fate, steering the country on a moderate course through the years of the Depression and the world war that followed.

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker

One of democracy’s most remarkable characteristics is the sheer volume of closely guarded information that can be reported and published without resulting in jail time or torture for the authors. Counterstrike, a remarkable bit of longitudinal reporting by two veterans of the New York Times, brings to light a host of insights and behind-the-scene details about America’s decade-long campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators. The principal theme of Counterstrike is how in the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process. However, the overarching theme of Counterstrike is the gradual maturation of American counterterrorist policy in the opening decade of the 21st Century, shifting gradually from one bent simply on using brute force to kill or capture terrorists to a much more sophisticated and broad-based policy of deterrence drawn from the playbook of the Cold War.

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse

The sheer scope of the Vietnam War was far greater than that of the U.S. military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 10 times as many Americans died in Vietnam than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Even more significantly, some 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that conflict, according to the best available estimate, while Iraqi and Afghan casualties are measured in hundreds of thousands. In Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse exposes the grim reality of the U.S. role in that war: the infamous My Lai Massacre was merely one of thousands of incidents in which American troops indiscriminately killed Vietnamese civilians.

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, by Jay Winik

Hitler and the SS became truly frenzied about exterminating the Jews of Europe only in the final stages of the war, when it was obvious to anyone (except perhaps Hitler himself) that Nazi Germany had lost. In 1944, Jay Winik brings to light how the U.S. State Department, many of whose officials were overtly anti-Semitic, took deliberate steps to sabotage any action by FDR’s White House to save at least some of the Jews. Winik recounts this story in excruciating detail: “the State Department was now using the machinery of government to prevent, rather than facilitate, the rescue of the Jews,” he writes. “The fear seemed to be, not that the Jews would be marched to their deaths, but that they would be sent to the Allied nations.” The Department has the blood of more than a million people staining its already sad record of amorality.

Historical background

From the earliest days of the republic, the United States has been deeply engaged with other countries, despite George Washington’s famous admonition in his Farewell Address not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.” (Contrary to accepted opinion, he didn’t use the term foreign entanglements.) France intervened in the American Revolution—in fact, our country might well not have gained its independence otherwise. During the presidencies of Washington and John Adams, New England merchantmen carried on a lively trade with China. When Jefferson was in office, he sent the U.S. Navy and a detachment of Marines to battle the Barbary Pirates. In 1812-14, during the administration of James Madison, the U.S. was at war with Great Britain—again. Later that decade, under the presidency of James Monroe, American troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson seized key settlements in Florida, forcing Spain to cede the territory to the U.S. Throughout the 19th Century, the U.S. Army and American settlers collaborated in a continuing campaign to annex the territory of more than 600 Indian nations. In mid-century, when James K. Polk lived in the White House, the U.S. grabbed more than 500,000 square miles of territory from Mexico. The trade in cotton with Great Britain made many Southerners rich and provided them with a “justification” to enslave African-Americans by the millions. During the latter half of the 19th Century, foreign investment in American railroads, the bonds of state governments, and manufacturing played a central role in financing the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The country was “the world’s largest recipient of foreign capital,” and thus the world’s greatest debtor nation. Then William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the age of American imperialism—and the country has never since stopped entangling itself in foreign affairs, despite recurring bouts of isolationism.



Going undercover for the CIA in ISIS

ISISThe Prisoner (John Wells #11) by Alex Berenson

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

To uncover the identity of a mole in the CIA, John Wells must go undercover again. A long time earlier, he had spent years with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the time, he was the CIA’s only source of first-hand information from the scene. This time, the plan is for him to revert to his terrorist identity, contrive to be captured by American forces in Afghanistan, and then rendered by the CIA to a black prison site in Bulgaria. There, his assignment is to befriend a fellow prisoner, a senior officer in ISIS. The agency believes that this man can identify the mole.

Meanwhile, a potentially catastrophic terrorist operation is being planned in Syria. ISIS is attempting to produce a large quantity of the nerve agent sarin. We can be sure that this plot will intersect with the story of the CIA mole—and that John Wells will become involved in thwarting it.

Wells is uniquely well suited for this assignment. He is fluent in Arabic and the southern Afghanistan dialect of Pashto. He is a Muslim, having converted from Christianity while embedded in Al Qaeda. A former Special Forces soldier and CIA officer, Wells is as tough as they come, even now that he is past 40 years of age. And his handler, Ellis Shafer, is brilliant—and he has the President of the United States on the latter-day equivalent of speed-dial.

Despite his unwavering commitment to protect his native country, Wells is reluctant to confront ISIS. He is long retired from the CIA. He has a two-year-old daughter, who is living with his ex-girlfriend. She has refused to let him move in with them, but he has rented a small home near hers in the hills of New Hampshire. Wells wants nothing more than to bury himself in the northern woods and the love of his family. Still, when he learns of the mole from an old friend in the Bulgarian intelligence service, he feels he has no choice but to help.

Working with Shafer and directly with the President, former CIA Director Vinny Duto, Wells sets out for Afghanistan and another perilous and punishing job for the agency. This is the set-up in The Prisoner, the 11th thriller in Alex Berenson’s extraordinary series of spy novels.

The John Wells novels invariably build suspense to the very end, with surprises around every corner. However, what sets them so far apart from other spy stories is the intimate knowledge Berenson has gained about his subject matter. He covered the occupation of Iraq for the New York Times in 2003-4, and his research skills are obviously considerable. The Prisoner is an excellent example of fiction grounded in fact.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

espionage - top secret america - dana priestFor good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read seventeen such books. I recommend them highly.

The most remarkable of these books are David Talbot‘s revisionist biography of Allen Dulles, The Devil’s Chessboard; Dana Priest and William Arkin’s extraordinary expose of the military-intelligence complex, Top Secret; and Max Hastings’ revisionist history of secret intelligence in World War II, The Secret War.

Each of the seventeen titles below is linked to my review of the book.

Espionage before and during World War II

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller—One remarkable man and the origins of the CIA

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre—A new spin on why the Normandy Invasion succeeded

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory, by Ben McIntyre—Finally declassified, the true story of “the man who never was”

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings—A revisionist view of intelligence in World War II, questioning the value of “humint”

Cold War espionage

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot—When America’s secret government ran amok

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre—Was Kim Philby the greatest spy ever (as far as we know)?

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World Warby Stephen Kinzer—They shaped US foreign policy for decades to come

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird—A true story of the PLO, Miss Universe, and the CIA

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, by David E. Hoffman—Spycraft as it was actually practiced in this true-life tale of Cold War espionage

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget—Revealed: another sordid CIA scandal

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney—The CIA, the mistress, and JFK’s assassination: an astonishing but true story

Espionage since 1989

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister—A truly amazing story about Al Qaeda, and it’s real

Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting, by John Shiffman—How the Department of Homeland Security went abroad to capture an Iranian arms dealer

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti—Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new strategy of the CIA

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin—The shocking reality behind America’s war on “terror”

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, by Fred Kaplan—A story that stretches over five decades

The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, by Uri Bar-Joseph—The amazing tale of Gamal Nasser’s son-in-law, who spied for Israel for many years

This post was updated on May 27, 2017.

December 15, 2015

A well-informed history of ISIS

ISISBlack Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

One thing is unmistakably clear nearly from the outset of this outstanding inquiry into the history of ISIS: the bombings, the beheadings, the execution of hundreds of people at a time — we brought it all on ourselves with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Black Flags, the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick, may not be the final word on today’s leading terrorist scourge but it’s a great start at understanding how the so-called Islamic State came into being.

Heroes and villains in the story of ISIS

There are heroes as well as villains in Black Flags. Jordan’s King, Abdullah II, is at the top of the list of heroes for his prescience in foreseeing the inevitable consequences of the Iraq invasion and his ongoing pleas to the U.S. government to avoid the great mistakes it made there. Joining the King on the list are a gifted CIA analyst named Nada Bakos; Robert Ford, a heroic former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and other countries;  and Abu Haytham, a senior Jordanian counter-terrorism official.

The villains stand out, too. Principal among them was the terrorist known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the uneducated street thug who founded what for a time was called Al Qaeda in Iraq and later morphed into ISIS. Along with Zarqawi near the top of the list of sociopaths is the self-appointed “caliph” of the Islamic State, Abu Makr al-Baghdadi, once an intellectual cleric who was radicalized by his experience in an Iraqi prison and rose to the leadership of the terrorist movement.

Given the author’s perspective on the root cause of the rise of ISIS, I would have to add Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush to the list of villains in this story. Cheney and Rumsfeld simply had to understand that they were acting on false intelligence, and Bush couldn’t possibly have been so ignorant as to be unaware of the enmity between Sunni and Shi’a. (Reportedly, Bush didn’t know there were “two kinds of Muslims.”) Together, these three and their many acolytes conspired to commit the greatest blunder in the history of U.S. foreign and military policy, and we’ve all been paying the price for that ever since.

About the author

Joby Warrick is an investigative reporter for the Washington Post who has covered  the intelligence community, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and other topics for the paper. Black Flags is his second book. The first, in 2011, was The Triple Agent, which recounted the story of the grisly attack on a U.S. Army base in Afghanistan in which six CIA officers were killed.

August 24, 2015

A truly amazing story about Al Qaeda, and it’s real

al qaedaAgent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Forget James Bond. Six-foot-one, 250 pounds, with flaming red hair, Morten Storm is the real deal. This guy really did infiltrate al-Qaeda and operate at the highest levels of the network for many years. And, apparently, he’s still alive (somewhere) to tell the tale.

If Agent Storm were a novel, you wouldn’t believe a word of it. It’s not. The co-authors wrote the book based on weeks of interviews and months of documentary research to confirm what they learned. In an author’s note that prefaces the text, they write that “What makes Morten Storm’s story unique is the extraordinary amount of audiovisual evidence and electronic communications he collected during his time as a spy, which both corroborate his story and enrich his account.”

Much later, in Storm’s acknowledgment at the conclusion of the book, we learn that co-author Paul Cruickshank, a British journalist, “is now CNN’s terrorism analyst and the editor of a recent five-volume collection of scholarship on al-Qaeda.” Like Cruickshank, co-author Tim Lister had “reported on al-Qaeda terrorism and international security for many years.” And the book includes snapshots of much of the documentation that Storm so carefully collected over the years, which help to confirm the context surrounding the clandestine recordings of his conversations with his Western handlers.

So much for any doubts about the credibility of this astonishing tale.

Written as a first-person account, Agent Storm relates the experiences over a decade of a young Danish man who describes himself as, early in life, a “biker, boozer, and boxer.” Raised in a violent, alcohol-fueled home and a veteran of criminal gangs in adolescence, Morten Storm turned to Islam at the age of twenty-one and made his way with the fierce and sudden conviction of a convert into radical jihadist circles. Gradually drifting into the heart of al-Qaeda in Yemen in the late 1990s, Storm was seen as a valuable asset by the terrorist network and eventually given an audience with Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki was the radical American Muslim cleric who rose to head what became the most powerful arm of al-Qaeda following the death of Osama bin Laden many years later; he was widely considered to be the successor to Ayman al-Zawahari, the man who took over following bin Laden’s death. Eventually, Storm became a close and trusted aide to Awlaki. The cleric even entrusted him with the job of recruiting his third wife, a blonde Westerner, as well as funneling money and supplies to him and his followers (as directed by Western intelligence agencies). Awlaki, you may recall, was the first American to be targeted and killed by a US drone strike — and the authors make a very good case for demonstrating that Morten Storm provided the crucial link that led to the cleric’s assassination.

This account of Storm’s evolving beliefs over the years, and his 180-degree turn into becoming a spy for Danish intelligence, MI5 and MI6, and the CIA, is an intensely suspenseful tale that stacks up to any novel of espionage as a cliffhanger. It is also a carefully measured condemnation of Danish intelligence and the CIA, and to a lesser extent of the twin British agencies — measured, because Storm is critical of no one more than himself. The details about distrust and conflict among the various agencies are worth the price of the book in their own right. (Hint: they thought little was wrong with undermining one another’s operations — and these were all allies.)

If you’re looking for insight into the minds and mores of radical Islamists and a true account of how Western powers practice the craft of intelligence, Agent Storm is an eye-opening introduction.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed. You might also be interested in seeing my post, “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.” This book is one of the 17.

A brilliant inquiry into the limits of power today

limits of powerThe End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be by Moises Naim

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Mark Zuckerberg hit it out of the park with this one, the first selection in his attempt to channel Oprah Winfrey with his own “book club.” The End of Power is a  remarkably insightful inquiry into the limits of power in today’s wired world, when a tiny group of fanatics can upend national policy half a world away. As Naim writes, referring not just to global leadership but to corporate executive suites, established churches, and the military, “the powerful are experiencing increasingly greater limits on their power. . . In the twenty-first century, power is easier to get, harder to use — and easier to lose.”

We often speak of the complexity of the modern world, but we tend to lose sight of just how complex it is. Consider this: in 1941, when I was born, world population stood at roughly 2.3 billion, whereas today we humans number 7.2 billion. Then, there was a total of 61 sovereign states on the planet. Today, there are 193 members of the United Nations, more than three times as many. But the number of players on the world stage today is far greater than that, including a plethora of global and regional organizations and what the media has come to call “non-state players” such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, all of which have come into being in the last seventy years. The upshot is that a US State Department list of treaties currently in force runs to almost five hundred pages! Add to these facts the speed and breadth of reach of information technologies and “profound shifts in expectations, values, and social norms,” and the case seems made. “But the more fundamental explanation as to why barriers to power have become more feeble,” Naim writes, “has to do with the transformation in such diverse factors as rapid economic growth in many poor countries, migratory patterns, medicine and healthcare, education, and even attitudes and cultural mores.” In the midst of all this complexity, how could anyone hope to be the master of all he surveys?

Naim analyzes the means by which power is expressed, referring to them as Muscle (coercion), Code (obligation), Pitch (persuasion), and Reward (inducement). He posits three overarching phenomena that give rise to weakening the barriers to power: the More revolution (there’s more of everything now), the Mobility revolution (we and our money, not just communications, move around a lot faster now), and the Mentality revolution (“taking nothing for granted anymore”). Like any typology, Naim’s are debatable — other thinkers may carve up reality along different lines — but they ring true to my ear. After all, to note what he calls “a cascading diffusion of power,” we have only to look at the gridlock that has overtaken the political process in many nations (not just the US) and the shocking ability of micropowers — those “non-state actors” — to change the course of world history. Even “a core axiom of war has been stood on its head. Once upon a time, superior firepower ultimately prevailed. Now that is no longer true.” There are parallel developments in nearly every realm of human endeavor. For example, “the advantage long considered to be built into corporate scale, scope, and hierarchy has been blunted, or even transformed into a handicap.”

These are not superficial changes or limited to one region of the globe. “[S]ince 2004,” Naim writes, “three-quarters of the world’s economies have made it easier to start a business.” Rising competition, indeed!

Naim sees these developments as fraught with risk. He writes of five significant ones: Disorder (obviously), De-Skilling and Loss of Knowledge (witness Fox News), the Banalization of Social Movements (through social media, “sound bites,” and oversimplified pitches by politicians and NGOs), Boosting Impatience and Shortening Attention Spans (just look around), and Alienation (obviously).

The End of Power is endlessly thought-provoking — a worthy addition to our understanding of the way the world works today.

Moises Naim has an extraordinary resume. Born in Libya, educated at MIT, a former Venezuelan Minister of Trade and Industry and former Executive Director of the World Bank, he was the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine from 1996 to 2010. The End of Power is only the latest of the more than ten books he has written or edited.

The PLO, Miss Universe, and the CIA—and it’s all true

miss universeThe Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Chances are slim that you’ve ever heard of Robert Ames. I hadn’t.

Bob Ames was a CIA officer for two decades in the 1960s and 70s. He was one of eight CIA employees to die in the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983. Ames had risen to senior positions in the agency but never became its director. Why, then, would he be revered three decades later among many in the CIA, and why would anyone publish his biography?

The answer to those questions becomes self-evident in the pages of this thoroughly researched book. Ames was, in the view of many of his colleagues in life and no doubt more of them after his passing, the “good spy” of Kai Bird’s title — a brilliant example of the best the agency could field.

Bob Ames was an Arabist, not by heritage but by choice. As a private in the US Army stationed at a “listening station” in what is now Eritrea before he joined the CIA, he began studying the Arabic language. After many years of intensive study and postings in countries where the language was spoken, Ames became so proficient that for fun he could play word games in Arabic. His command of the language, unusual for US officials overseas in those days, played a major role in his storied career that encompassed eventful assignments in Saudi Arabia, South Yemen, and Lebanon. Ames became the agency’s preeminent authority on the Middle East. President Carter’s Middle East expert on the National Security Council (NSC) told the author, “He was the most effective intelligence officer I ever encountered.” He provided vital information to the NSC under both Presidents Carter and Reagan and frequently briefed President Reagan in the years before he (Ames) died. Two of his closest friends — a Lebanese Shi’a businessman and a Palestinian Sunni terrorist leader — became major figures in the region, and his close relationships with them were the key to much of his success, not just in obtaining critical, up-to-the minute intelligence about the major events of the day but, at times, in being able to influence the course of events with their help.

Ames’ story is fascinating and historically significant, in large part because of his breakthrough success in gaining the trust, and then a deep friendship, with Ali Hassan Salameh, who was chief of intelligence for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and whom Yasir Arafat considered to be like a son. Salameh was a tall, handsome, flamboyant man who took Georgina Rizk (Miss Universe 1971) as his second wife; he commanded Arafat’s personal guards and participated in a number of high-profile terrorist attacks, though none of them against the US or European targets. As the author writes, “Ames’ back channel to Salameh . . .  created a virtual nonaggression pact between the U.S. government and Arafat’s Fatah guerrillas.” That relationship, the centerpiece of Ames’ career, lasted throughout the 1970s, often against orders. The PLO actively assisted the US government on several occasions, guaranteeing safe passage for American citizens and their allies in war-torn Lebanon and providing useful intelligence at times. In fact, as I read this book, it seemed to me that the connection between the PLO and the CIA was at least as strong as that between the CIA and the Mossad, Israel’s secret service, especially after the election of Menachem Begin as Israeli premier in 1977.

Begin, the champion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, rejected US calls for moderation and repeatedly lied to US officials about Israel’s intentions in Lebanon, which the Israeli Defence Force invaded in 1982. The low point in that military action — known forever after as “Sharon’s War” for the Israeli Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon — was the reprehensible Israeli move to invite right-wing Christian Lebanese militias into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps to carry out a vengeful massacre that cost the lives of 1,000 and 2,500 Muslims. Those events led directly to the creation of a new Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia that later became Hezbollah, which now controls Lebanon and constantly threatens war with Israel.

It is profoundly sad and ironic that the suicide truck-bomb attack in which Bob Ames died — like the even larger attack later in 1983 that took the lives of 241 US Marines in their barracks — “quite literally inspired Bin Laden’s suicidal assaults on America in [1998 and] 2001.” (After learning of these events, Bin Laden “sent a delegation of Al-Qaeda operatives to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for training in explosives and intelligence practices.”)

The Good Spy casts light on important historical events and figures in the Middle East during a tumultuous time in its history. Though reasonably well written on the whole, the author displayed an annoying habit of re-introducing people and events he had already described, sometimes only a few pages later. A better editor could have caught these errors.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed. You might also be interested in seeing my post, “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.” This book is one of the 17.

Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new CIA strategy

CIA strategyThe Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When Chou En-Lai, then #2 to Mao Tse-Tung, was asked for his perspective on the historical meaning of the French Revolution, he is said to have replied, “It’s too early to tell.”

As we’re beginning to understand now, George W. Bush engineered a revolution of a different sort in the misguided steps he took to “end terrorism” in the years following 9/11. The country’s military establishment gained trillions of dollars in new spending within a decade, and our intelligence agencies (16 of them at last count) mushroomed in size. Even more important, the White House profoundly changed the rules under which both the Pentagon and the CIA operated, layering onto an already bloated military-industrial complex additional hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts to private companies, enabling the Pentagon to operate virtually at will, even in countries where the U.S. was not at war, and shifting the CIA’s strategy from gathering intelligence to “enhanced interrogation” to killing suspected terrorists — all without making changes in the Pentagon’s procurement policies to reflect the passing of the Cold War more than two decades ago.

In The Way of the Knife, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Mark Mazzetti sums up the situation as follows: “Prior to the attacks of September 11, the Pentagon did very little human spying, and the CIA was not officially permitted to kill. In the years since, each has done a great deal of both, and a military-intelligence complex has emerged to carry out the new American way of war.”

As Chou En-Lai would clearly agree, the long-term impact of these dramatic policy changes is impossible to see. Unmistakably, though, the values embodied in our Federal government changed under George W. Bush — and Barack Obama has continued on the same course into his second term, even stepping up the use of drones for targeted murder. This doesn’t bode well for a U.S. foreign and military policy supposedly grounded in humanistic assumptions.

Mark Mazzetti makes an important contribution to exploring the near-term consequences of one of these phenomena in The Way of the Knife, which dissects the massive shift in CIA priorities from the Clinton era to the Obama Administration. The “secret army” of the book’s subtitle is the CIA’s paramilitary capability that sends Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, or, increasingly, mercenaries on secret missions around the world and uses drones to murder terrorist suspects. Mazzetti focuses much of his attention on the dysfunctional American relationship with Pakistan and to a lesser degree on the secret wars in Yemen and Somalia. However, he makes it clear that the U.S. is now conducting undeclared wars in a great many more countries — and hiding that information from the American public. “The residents of the Oval Office have turned to covert action hundreds of times, and often have come to regret it,” Mazzetti writes. “But memories are short, new presidents arrive at the White House every four or eight years, and a familiar pattern played out over the second half of the twentieth century: presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations . . . “

In touching on the highlights of the CIA’s history from its founding after World War II to the present, Mazzetti reveals the agency’s schizophrenic attitude toward the use of calculated murder in its operations.

For many years, especially under the directorship of Allen Dulles in the 1950s, the CIA was little more than a reincarnation of its predecessor (where Dulles got his start), the OSS of “Wild Bill” Donovan. As we now know, the CIA was involved in overthrowing governments (Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, probably among others) and in frequent attempts to assassinate heads of state, including Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Nho Dinh Diem (South Vietnam), and Salvador Allende (Chile). When all this nefarious activity came to light in the 1970s in the landmark Senate hearings headed by Senator Frank Church, then-President Gerald Ford outlawed assassination and the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, which included most of the agency’s bad boys, was shackled by unsympathetic new directors named to clean up the mess.

By 2001, the OSS-inspired use of paramilitary operations and targeted killing that had dominated the CIA in its early years was ancient history to the new generation who had already advanced into positions of leadership. The radical course-shift demanded by the Bush White House turned the agency upside down again. And the dramatic expansion of the drone war by CIA director Leon Panetta (“the most influential CIA director since William Casey during the Reagan administration”) completed the transition of the agency into a paramilitary force.

The Way of the Knife is thoroughly researched and skillfully written by a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times. The book’s highlights include the protracted tales of several colorful figures caught up in the unfolding of the secret wars, including former top CIA official Dewey Clarridge, a Virginia horsewoman named Michele Ballarin, and several senior Pakistani intelligence operatives. If you’re interested in the ups and downs of the U.S. intelligence establishment, you’ll find this book just not essential reading but entertaining as well.

I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of other books on closely related topics in recent years. Among these are Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, and The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda, by Peter L. Bergen. Top Secret America is the most dramatic and most important of this lot.

You might also be interested in seeing my post, “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.” This book is one of the 17.

Pentagon waste and fraud, and who’s really responsible for them

Pentagon waste: The Pornography of Power by Robert ScheerThe Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America, by Robert Scheer

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Books about current affairs, especially those by journalists, rarely keep their edge once the headlines they address have vanished from the news. A 2008 book by former Berkeley activist Robert Scheer’s is a notable exception. Scheer wrote five years ago about the spectacular buildup of the U.S. military machine following 9/11, and his report transcends the facts and circumstances of the story. The Pornography of Power delivers insight into what should be one of the issues that most preoccupies concerned Americans: the seemingly unassailable position of the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about more than half a century ago.

Over the eight years George W. Bush inhabited the White House, the U.S. military budget more than doubled, from about $300 billion to just under $700 billion. (In reporting these figures, the Office of Management and Budget notes that they exclude expenditures for the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans’ Affairs. Clearly, they also exclude funds for the CIA, which runs its own military operations, as well as interest on the debt incurred to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

You might be tempted to think that these gargantuan increases are understandable, given the expansion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — but you would be wrong. In fact, a huge proportion of the money spent on the military in the first decade of the 21st Century was not to support troops in the field or provide them with the weapons and protection they required. It was to finance the development and acquisition of new, high-tech weapons systems that could never be deployed in an asymmetric war against terrorists or insurgents.

The central insight of The Pornography of Power is that the waste and fraud in the military budget isn’t hidden in the cracks of obscure documents — it’s right out front in multi-billion-dollar expenditures for unnecessary new weapons. How do we know these weapons are unnecessary? Because the military brass told us so — and Congress simply forced the Pentagon to develop (or continue developing and producing) them, anyway. As Scheer reports, Congress voted hundreds of billions of dollars to develop and produce big-ticket weapons systems such as nuclear attack submarines and the trouble-plagued F-35 “joint strike fighter,” often on the basis of absurd arguments that they were needed to defend us against Al Qaeda.

The occasional glaring example of fraud complicates this picture of Pentagon waste, but simple, straightforward corruption (cushy corporate jobs for a cooperative Pentagon bureaucrat, for example) is a minor factor. The real problem are the politicians — liberal Democrats like Barbara Boxer as well as the usual suspects on the Republican right — who fearfully back spending money on these boondoggles because they expect blowback from constituents if they don’t. And if we can’t count on Senators and Representatives who champion cuts in the military budget out of the other side of their mouths, then what hope is there to eliminate the waste?

Despite the occasional jarring reminder that Scheer is writing about events several years in the past, and some circumstances that have changed during the last five years, The Pornography of Power remains relevant reading today. You can count on one thing above all from Bob Scheer: straight talk.

You might also be interested in 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics, of which this book is one.

The 5 best novels I’ve read in 2012

best novelsTruth to tell, I haven’t read all that many trade novels during the past year, and, anyway, in general I tend to stay away from the literary “masterpieces” trumpeted so loudly by the likes of the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. More often than not, I find the darlings of the literary set are writing not for me but for, well, the literary set. I’ve seen far too many impenetrable tomes lauded as fine literature. Give me a good, gripping story any day of the year, and I’ll gladly forego pretty much any one of the Booker Prize winners of recent years. I truly enjoyed reading all five of the books listed below.

1. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley

Political satire of the highest order. I found myself laughing hysterically, sometimes for pages at a time. But, like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.

2. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Set in Bangkok in the 23rd century, this wildly inventive story examines humanity’s plight once the oceans have risen twenty feet, and most of the human race in in thrall to the American and Chinese “calorie companies” that have killed off virtually all traditional sources of food with genetically engineered plagues.

3. The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

A chilling novel set in Geneva, where a brilliant and eccentric American physicist has teamed up with an unscrupulous English financier to use the scientist’s breakthrough techniques in artificial intelligence to manipulate the financial markets.

4. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

The Orwellian story of a North Korean “tunnel rat,” trained in kidnapping and hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels leading under the DMZ to South Korea, who briefly becomes a confidante of the country’s elite military commanders and of the Dear Leader himself, only later to find himself confined to a prison mine, where citizens who run afoul of officialdom are worked to death underground.

5. Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

A deeply unsettling novel structured as an open letter to Osama bin Laden from a devastated young mother whose husband and young son have died in a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London.