Tuesday, July 04, 2006


A glimpse from the inside.

Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

When Ron Suskind wrote The Price Of Loyalty, it was the first in-depth look inside the Bush White House, and in the intervening years what he reported has shaped the conventional wisdom about how the administration operates. Suskind wrote with the full cooperation of Bush's first Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, and it is hard to imagine a more helpful source. A believer in openness, O'Neill left government service with an archive of documents which he handed over to Suskind. With O'Neill as a witness and the documents as a foundation, Suskind showed a White House in which a small circle -- in particular, Vice President Cheney -- controlled access to the President, and thereby controlled policy. Cabinet secretaries were outsiders. By now, the story is familiar.

Suskind is back with another inside look at the administration, this time with a focus on foreign policy and the global war on terrorism. Once again, Suskind has gained impressive access, and the stories his sources have told him are worth the price of admission. I've posted some excerpts here, here and here, but there's plenty more all over the blogosphere. Truly important stuff. In particular, Suskind cultivated sources inside the CIA -- although many of them seem to have left before and during the purge launched by Porter Goss -- not the least of whom is George Tenet. Indeed, the book closes with Goss assuming the position of DCI. Among other revelations in the book is that the White House set up Tenet to take the fall for the missing WMD by feeding Bob Woodward the "slam dunk" line. According to Tenet, he never said it, although even now he is still too loyal to Bush, or simply classy, to put it quite so bluntly. (Tenet and others at the CIA told Woodward that they differed with the White House's account of the "slam dunk" meeting, but you would not know that from reading Plan Of Attack.)

What this book lacks, however, is a compelling narrative arc or focus to tie these anecdotes together. The book's scope is too broad, and would have challenged even a writer with full cooperation from his subjects and ready access to the pertinent archives. Lacking these, Suskind struggles to place the episodes he relates into a larger context. In this way, The One Percent Doctrine reminded me of Seymour Hersh's Chain Of Command. It's hard to fault Suskind for this: The so-called war on terror is hardly over, and surely there is much that his sources did not dare tell him or that he chose to omit. For now, we will just have to take what we can get.

Suskind often fills the gaps with florid prose about big ideas, and I could have done with a lot less of this. For example, he often takes up the strain between the secrecy integral to foreign affairs and the openness integral to a well-functioning democracy. He's surely onto something here, though he's hardly the first. Unfortunately, he hasn't approached this tension with any rigor. I finished the book in full agreement that the Bush administration has abused national security for political gain, but it was his reportage of concrete facts that made the case. (I saw Suskind do a bookstore appearance on C-SPAN a few days ago, and although he appears to be an effective public speaker, he had the same tendency to grab hold of Big Ideas without really grappling with them.)

Big Ideas aside, Suskind's book also fails to settle on an explanation for the conduct of the war on terror. Instead, I see three: (1) Having disregarded the threat posed by Al Qaeda before 9/11, Bush has determined never to be caught out again having not done enough; (2) In response to the threats posed by nuclear and biological weapons, Cheney has developed an intellectual framework for policy -- the title of which is that of Suskind's book -- to replace more conventional cost-benefit analyses; and (3) The administration's political instincts, on full display in The Price Of Loyalty, have its tendrils throughout the war on terror as well, causing policy to be either driven for partisan gain or misrepresented to an unknowing public.

Or maybe the problem is not Suskind's, but the administration's. The three alternatives above -- one driven by personality, one by policy, and one by politics -- belong most to Bush, Cheny, and Karl Rove, respectively. (Rove seldom appears in this book, but I suspect that this is because Suskind's sources did not encounter him much.) And in practice, the three reinforce each other.

For more, Suskind's site is here. Michiko Kakutani reviews it ("riveting"), as does Barton Gellman. An excerpt from TIME is here. Suskind appeared on Fresh Air to discuss the book, and you can listen to the program here.

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