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America’s Downfall: Ron Suskind and the Years After Sept. 11

Ron Suskind, The Way of the World, (Harper 2008)

As the Iraq War loomed in 2003, British intelligence launched a daring, eleventh-hour mission to determine whether Saddam Hussein actually possessed the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush Administration claimed Iraq had. MI6’s best agent managed to set up clandestine meetings with one of the few men who truly knew about Hussein’s arsenal: the head of Iraqi intelligence.

That figure, Tahir Jalil Habbush, made a startling revelation during the sessions: Saddam Hussein had no WMD and worried that his enemies within Iraq and without, such as Iran, would discover he didn’t possess his most deadly deterrent. British officials quickly passed the stunning bit of intelligence to the White House, which ignored it, and went forward with the invasion. “The problem was the Cheney crowd was in too much of a hurry, really. Bush never resisted them quite strongly enough,” Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, tells investigative journalist Ron Suskind.

The disturbing revelation is one of many in Suskind’s latest absorbing book, The Way of the World. Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former senior national affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal, chronicles the great political tragedy of our time: how the United States squandered its moral authority in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks. He wrenchingly chronicles the Bush Administration’s trumped up case for the Iraq War, the steady erosion of U.S. principles, and the abandonment of key allies, such as former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Way of the World is part Washington insider in the mode of Bob Woodward’s journalism, but it also has much in common with recent Hollywood films such as Syriana and Babel. Like the movies, the book unravels in a series of interlocking stories that range around the world from Downing Street to the White House to Pakistan to Cuba. The stories show how Bush’s misguided policies have ensnared presidents and peasants alike and how terror and globalization have created uneasy—but unbreakable—bonds between nations and people. 

The book has a rich cast. Among other characters, Suskind tells of a Libyan baker, who is slowly dying as he is held on terrorism charges in the black hole of Guantanamo Bay, but who may be innocent. And he reports on a pair of former CIA agents putting together a secret mission to attempt to buy uranium on the black market and smuggle it back into the United States. The goal is to shock a complacent government into taking seriously the threat of al-Qaeda exploding a nuclear weapon here. This is one of the most chilling sections of the book.

In a briefing with one of the former CIA agents, National Intelligence director Mike McConnell, one of the officials charged with overseeing the nation’s efforts to head off al-Qaeda’s nuclear ambitions, dismissed the government’s efforts on that front: “Looks like we don’t even have a plan!” McConnell blurted out, according to Suskind.

Suskind also provides a dramatic account of Benzahir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in October 2007 and argues the United States should, and could, have done more to prevent her death at the hands of a suicide bomber. In another section, Suskind tells the poignant story of an Afghan boy attempting to reconcile the values of his strict Islamic upbringing and the West during a year as an exchange student at a Denver high school. Way of the World is an ambitious act of reporting and Suskind shows a deft touch in weaving together these disparate strands into a coherent story.

Suskind has distinguished himself as one of the best scribes covering the Bush Administration through his magazine writing and two previous bestsellers: The One Percent Doctrine (2006), which showed the corrosive effects of ideology in the Bush team’s pursuit of terrorists, and The Price of Loyalty (2004), which was one of the first accounts of a high-level administration official (former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill) criticizing Bush. Neither book endeared Suskind to the White House; Way of the World won’t either.

The book’s most explosive—and controversial —reporting is the claim that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a back-dated letter from Habbush, the Iraq intelligence chief, to Saddam Hussein claiming that Sept. 11 ring leader Mohammed Atta trained for his mission in Iraq. The letter was to be proof of the Administration’s claim that Hussein and  al-Qaeda were linked. An Iraqi official leaked the letter to a conservative British newspaper, which broke the story the same day Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. The story was picked up by the U.S. media. Bush Administration officials have vigorously denied they ordered the forgery. The CIA agent, who was the source of the story, also claims that Suskind got it wrong.

Suskind believes that if true, the letter may violate the amended statutes that created the CIA, which bar covert actions aimed at influencing domestic opinion or political processes. “It pertains to the White House’s knowingly misusing an arm of the government, the sort of thing generally taken up in impeachment proceedings,” Suskind writes.

If there is a fault with Suskind’s writing, it is that it occasionally descends into mushiness. His sharp and dogged reporting sags with passages of trite “Why can’t we all just get along?” sentiment when talking about current global fault lines between rich and poor nations and major religions. Thankfully, Suskind doesn’t fall back on this philosophizing too often.

Suskind was the first to popularize the term “reality-based community,” which comes from a 2004 article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine. Way of the World is necessary reading for anyone that falls into that camp. And these days, that seems to be almost everyone.


Justin Jouvenal


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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