"The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism" by Ron Suskind, Harper Books, 415 pages, $27.95
In case I run out of space before enumerating all the fine qualities of Ron Suskind's new book, "The Way of the World," let me get ahead of myself and say this: It has been a long time since I have read such a fascinating and gripping book. For the most part, it is a veiled account of the failures and blunders of George W. Bush and his administration.
Bush will soon be leaving the White House, but the readers of this book must realize that the business of fully assessing his abominable legacy will continue for a very long time to come. The slowly unfolding details tell the story of a profound and almost paralyzing blow to the power and good name of the United States. What infuriates Suskind most of all is the way in which the Bush administration adopted lies as its exclusive governing tool. The administration lied to the whole world, but first and foremost to the American people.
The most sensational and disturbing lie of all is Suskind's revelation, solidly sourced, that, even though they knew Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, Bush and his men convinced the American public and the entire world that their country had no other choice but to embark on an armed invasion to keep the tyrant from Baghdad from using those weapons on his enemies.
But this is only one stitch in a colorful but ultimately depressing tapestry woven by Suskind in an attempt to explore, one event at a time, how the U.S. administration lost its moral hegemony. In many respects, the book is the magnum opus of a great American patriot who still believes in the spirit of the Marshall Plan and in the democratic principles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the founders of the republic.
Ron Suskind is a respected veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, but this new effort demonstrates that, in addition to his impressive journalistic skills, he is also a very empathetic narrator. "The Way of the World" is composed of several "stories" that appear unrelated, but together form a chronicle of many hues that can at times be quite dark and depressing.
When Bush justifies his actions by saying that the free world must fight for its life and its core beliefs against a wave of terrorism that threatens to annihilate it, he is not making it up: Suskind has met the hatemongers and prophets of doom, and does not hide their malicious intentions from the reader. He knows that the free world is not a safe place yet. While American soldiers are trying to bring Bush-style democracy to Iraq, merchants of death are peddling enriched uranium and simple formulas for manufacturing ghastly dirty bombs. But the U.S. administration has taken very little action against them.
Altogether, there is a kind of paradox about the war on terror, observes Suskind. While the president's men loudly advertise their plans to fight agents of terror, they do their utmost to sabotage the work of America's traditional intelligence agencies. Suskind is very worried about the deliberate weakening of the CIA and the privatization of U.S. intelligence. He even has an explanation for this seemingly bizarre phenomenon: Bush and his camp are not really interested in intelligence. They have a mission and an agenda. They want to change the world and impose on it an order that conforms with their ideas. They don't want the intelligence community to come along with solid, verified data because that only complicates matters and makes it harder for them to operate. Like the terrorists and their henchmen, over the past eight years the powers-that-be in the United States and the world have preferred black and white to the gradations and nuances in intelligence reports filed from around the globe.
Sources of strength
But again, "The Way of the World" is not just about politicians and their unscrupulous ways. To drive home the brutal implications of the war on terror, Suskind sends one of the heroines of his multicolored tapestry off to Guantanamo, the detention camp in Cuba where the United States holds security prisoners, denying them all the human and POW rights that the U.S. constitution guarantees to those who live within its borders. The encounters of this lawyer, a committed human rights activist, with a sick prisoner who is innocent of all charges, are gripping, but also depressing.
So where does Suskind get his optimism? It springs from the story itself, as he discovers more and more Americans, some of them veteran government officials who, due to their fear for the future of American liberty and justice, have mobilized to aid the prisoners and are forcing the administration to show its cards and disclose its modus operandi. In the end, the appeal of this Guantanamo detainee will reach the Supreme Court and some courageous and independent judge will block the government. This is the way it has always been in America, and therein lies the country's strength.
Another episode that becomes part of the tapestry is the story of the young Pakistani from Lahore, who comes to the United States to study. After graduating, he finds a job and considers settling in America permanently, although the country has not always made him feel welcome, and has occasionally treated him as being a representative of all that is evil. The chronicle of his life and the way he relates to his new surroundings and his Pakistani family keenly illustrate the complexity of America's relationship with the Muslim world.
As a student in the United States, he learns that preserving his cultural uniqueness is not necessarily the same as being faithful to Islam and its laws. He throws off the yoke of religion when his beloved older sister goes in the opposite direction. From a liberated and open person, she becomes a devout Muslim who shows her growing piety through her clothes, which become more conservative and concealing every time they meet.
The brother and sister see each other at family events and try to decipher the essence of what is happening to them. Both are living outside their country - she in London and he in Washington. They confront the growing conflict between East and West on a daily basis, as mutual enmity and misunderstanding deepen. The religious sister, who is actually a supporter of the peace camp, cannot understand why the world and her neighbors in London see her as a representative of Al-Qaida and the terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers and the London underground.
According to Suskind, this internal schism in Islamic countries and contemporary Islamic society was very much exemplified by the late Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, who sought an Islamic democracy capable of bridging tradition and the demands of the modern world. In the end, it was the administration in Washington that opted for the old, corrupt path - the path of Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf - after Bhutto unsuccessfully prevailed upon the Americans to get him to ensure her safety when she returned to Pakistan.
The story of Bhutto's assassination is recounted in Suskind's book with spectacular drama. He is not a blind devotee of Bhutto, but her final attempt to change her country's political reality offered a glimpse of hope that an independent local democracy could be established in Pakistan, very different from the democracy the U.S. military is trying to impose in Iraq.
When it first came out, Suskind's book set off a major storm. Critics and readers overlooked his optimistic message, naturally focusing on his big scoop: the decision of the Bush administration to go ahead with the plan to invade Iraq even though the president knew with absolute certainty that there was no basis whatsoever for the claim that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. This information reached American intelligence from a variety of sources, but final confirmation came from the most authoritative source of all - Hussein's intelligence chief. Referred to as "George" in internal memos, the man in question was Tahir Habbush, one of Hussein's closest confidants.
'Replace the messenger'
After the conquest was complete and a hunt began for the leaders of the regime, who had disappeared, the Americans distributed a pack of cards imprinted with the wanted men's faces. Habbush was given a very respectable place in the pack; he was card No. 16. But while U.S. intelligence pretended to be seeking the head of the Iraqi intelligence, Habbush was already safely ensconced in a secret hiding place in Jordan. And who smuggled him out of Iraq and placed a tidy sum of money in his hands? U.S. intelligence agents, who fully upheld their end of the deal with this spy.
What a pity, writes Suskind, that Habbush was let go at such an early stage of his recruitment without anyone in Washington grasping the significance of the highly reliable data he had delivered - straight from the office of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. administration pushed the intelligence community to collect the latest information on Iraq's nuclear arsenal, but what Washington really wanted, it turned out, was not data but support for its decision to attack Iraq.
Meeting with the president and vice president, Secret Service officials said they had reached the unmistakable conclusion, based on Habbush's reports, that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, or any vehicle that could supposedly transport laboratories and weapons from one hiding place to another. The response of the U.S. administration: "Replace the messenger." Go out and get us someone who says Iraq is swarming with weapons of mass destruction.
Most of the operatives in those days, including Habbush's handlers, did not hesitate to share their knowledge with Suskind, either out of wounded professional pride or out of patriotism and concern for the fate of their country. In the final analysis, the author's message to his readers and those who will soon be moving into the White House is that deception and hiding the truth do not serve America's global interests and objectives. In this complicated world of ours, where existential threats loom so large, it is preferable to go back to the tried-and-true methods of old. There is no need to conceal America's hegemonic aspirations. After World War II, when America stepped in to rescue the Western world, there was obviously more to it than pure philanthropy.
America won the battle for the world's heart against the greatest rival it has ever known: the communist dream. Now it is confronting an enemy no less formidable, and possibly even more dangerous and violent - fundamentalist Islam.
Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian and editor of Am Oved's Ofakim nonfiction series.
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