Books

Dissection of Bush's war falls short

How an administration as fixated on loyalty and conformity as this one ever came to produce so unending a series of defectors eager to tell all to anyone who will listen is a topic that will keep psycho-historically inclined scholars of the presidency employed well into the decade after next.

Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former national affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal, is one of the enterprising journalists who have made the most of this inexplicable confessional impulse. Suskind has contributed two other important volumes to the large library of books exploring the inner workings of President George W. Bush's secrecy-obsessed White House.

In "The Price of Loyalty" he brought to light the administration's pathological intolerance of loyal internal dissent and ordinary differences of opinion. The account gained authority from the cooperation of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who early on was purged from the Cabinet for expressions of excessive independence.

Suskind's "The One Percent Doctrine" delineated the origins and perilous effect of Vice President Dick Cheney's extraordinary influence over the White House's approach to national security and the war on terror. As this reviewer wrote at the time, Suskind's altogether convincing treatment of issues was built on diligently meticulous reporting and clear sourcing of key points.

A reader comes, therefore, to "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism" with high expectations. One probably will get up feeling frustrated, confused and in need of further reassurance from the author as to the substance of some of the book's most serious allegations.

Truth to tell, "The Way of the World" is structurally a mess. One suspects that Suskind, mindful that the Bush/Cheney administration is staggering to inglorious conclusion, intended this book to look to the future as well as back to the recent past -- to suggest a way forward. It's a worthwhile goal, as well as a canny authorial strategy to lengthen the book's shelf life, if it comes off.

It does not.

You can sense the beginnings of the problem in the faux poetics of the title and in the grandiloquence of the utterly baffling subtitle: Whose truth? Whose hope -- and for what? "Age of Extremism" is a mildly clever gloss on Auden's pointed "The Age of Anxiety," but whose extremism? Is it Bush and Cheney's or al-Qaida's -- or both?

There's not much help to be had from the text. Suskind follows a number of individuals who apparently are meant to put a human face on the war on terror. These individual stories are told in the present tense, apparently for the sake of stylistic immediacy. Among the subjects are a rather unpleasant Afghan high school student sent to study in Colorado and his naive American host family, as well as a young Pakistani immigrant working out questions of modernity and faith in the shadow of Washington, D.C.'s bars and strip clubs. There's a civil rights lawyer who assumes the defense of an innocent and badly abused Guantánamo detainee.

The author seems to have intended that the layering of these personal stories would add resonance and depth to a new set of allegations concerning the administration's dysfunction and, possibly, illegal misconduct.

Many of Suskind's revelations are sourced to current and former members of the intelligence agencies. But some account needs to be taken of the near-state of war that has prevailed between the spooks and the administration for most of the past eight years. It isn't.

That's too bad, because many of Suskind's allegations are consequential.

The book's most controversial allegation involves the charge that the White House ordered then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to forge a backdated letter from one-time Iraqi intelligence chief Tahir Jalil Habbush. (Habbush, like Sabri, provided his American handlers with prewar intelligence that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. How we got things so wrong with information coming from that level of the Iraqi regime is a question for another day.) The forged letter reportedly admitted an official link between al-Qaida and Baghdad and revealed that Mohamed Atta, kingpin of the 9/11 hijackers, trained in Iraq. Both allegations were things Cheney and his circle desperately wanted to be true. As a piece of disinformation designed to influence U.S. domestic opinion, it also violated the CIA's charter.

The White House, Tenet and the two CIA operatives Suskind quotes as having admitted carrying out the forgery and subsequently peddling it to a British journalist all immediately denied the author's version of events. Suskind, however, told interviewers that he has the two agents -- Richer and John Maguire -- discussing the forgery on tape. Last week, he posted a partial transcript of the conversation with Richer on his personal Web site, www.ronsuskind.com. It not only supports Suskind's account as written, but shows he took a conservative approach toward his material.

As a work of literary nonfiction, "The Way of the World" is an irritating example of overreaching, but Suskind's reporting continues to make him an indispensable chronicler of the Bush/Cheney debacle.

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