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Book Review

Suskind gives a ground-up view of Bush's war on terror

By Claude R. Marx
August 21, 2008
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The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism
By Ron Suskind
Harper, 415 pp., $27.95

There have already been enough books about the Bush administration's war on terror to fill several shelves in a library. Most are either strongly pro or con with not enough dispassionate analysis.

Ron Suskind's "The Way of the World" is something of a hybrid. Rather than looking at the subject from 10,000 feet above ground, it tells us about it through the stories of government operatives, a defense lawyer, and two citizens of Muslim countries living in the United States. It is critical of President Bush and his policies but makes its points by example rather than by taking cheap shots.

Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has a knack for getting sources to confide in him and recall their innermost thoughts during pivotal situations, though occasionally he borrows a page from Bob Woodward and reconstructs the dialogue in conversations at which he wasn't present.

The book's biggest bombshell says that in 2003, after the White House learned Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (its major stated reason for going to war against Iraq), it ordered the CIA to fabricate a letter from Iraq's intelligence chief to Saddam Hussein saying that 9/11 terrorist leader Mohammad Atta had trained in Iraq before that fateful day.

Suskind's sources seem pretty solid, and the denials from the White House and former CIA director George Tenet were what you would expect of policymakers trying to salvage their reputation; they didn't try to disparage Suskind or threaten legal action.

The author further makes his case against the Bush administration by quoting several intelligence operatives who expressed doubts about the war on terror. The profiles of these operatives are engaging and mostly flattering; clearly talking to Suskind pays off. Unfortunately, the comments don't tell us much we don't already know, and many of the points had been previously made in the memoirs of several former spies.

Suskind's failure to acknowledge the successes of the country's post-9/11 strategy detracts from the effectiveness of his arguments. For all of the flaws (and there are many) of the government's policies, there have been no additional terrorist attacks on American soil.

To be sure, the political sections of the book will get the most attention, especially in light of Suskind's two earlier, critically acclaimed books on the Bush administration, "The Price of Loyalty" and "The One Percent Doctrine."

But readers who skip over or read too hastily the sections dealing with the effects of the Bush administration's policies on average citizens are doing themselves a disservice.

Suskind provides a dramatic description of an Afghan student's struggles in America and his clashes with his American hosts. But his skills are even more evident when he relates the story of Usman Khosa, a Pakistani research analyst living in Washington, D.C., who was detained as he walked outside the White House because he looked suspicious. Khosa was not physically harmed by his interrogators but was verbally intimidated, forced to name everyone he knew in America. "Usman, all but suffocating under his status as terrorist subject, now must spread the virus to everyone he knows," Suskind writes. "The names build, one after another. Usman pauses, name by name. His whole life in America, everyone he's met."

Building a dramatic narrative, Suskind points out that while Khosa is being questioned in the basement of the White House complex, Bush is in the Oval Office making contradictory statements about American dealings with terrorists: "Don't reward bad behavior -- that's what Cheney often says -- but Bush, at this point, knows this kind of global experiment in behavior modification is like running a calculus equation with fast-changing variables. Surprises every minute," Suskind writes. It's an apt metaphor that does an effective job at making his point and follows the time-honored journalistic rule of "Show, don't tell."

While "The Way of the World" doesn't break a great deal of ground, its intriguing profiles and elegant writing make the book worth reading.

Journalist Claude R. Marx is the author of a chapter on media and politics in "The Sixth Year Itch," edited by Larry J. Sabato.

Ron Suskind Ron Suskind relays his facts through the stories of government operatives, a defense lawyer, and two citizens of Muslim countries living in America.
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