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BOOK REVIEW: The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power

Published in Daily Times / 20 Feb 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: David E Sanger

Today, US Vice President Biden believes that American foreign policy is once again respected in the world. While the new face of this policy - composed of something old, something new & something borrowed - unveiled a year ago was prelude to Obama’s uphill battle to regain military/political high ground, fallout from the old policy is the dominant theme here.

‘Inheritance…’ is a dramatic playback of events that follows parallel timelines to determine how certain parts of the world were shaping during ‘Iraq’. David Sanger has logged 7 years covering the White House and uses insights gained during his time as Chief Washington Correspondent for New York Times to ascertain the opportunities missed by one president, identify forthcoming challenges for the next and explore options still left in the smouldering ruins of disastrous decisions. He uses solid arguments based on interviews (on/off record) with key officials to crucify - where needed and credit - where appropriate.

This skilfully drawn sketch captures key moments that defined the Presidency and redefined history. Post Iraq, the troika (think axis of evil) are emboldened to pursue dangerous agendas , abandoned nations become epicentres of trouble while savvy ones find ways to profit. An unsparing look at the Bush administration shows the unintended side-effects of Iraq leading ‘‘Dear Leader’ in North Korea to build a nuclear arsenal and ‘Supreme Leader’ in Iran to assemble a nuclear capability’ . There are several instances where the administration also concedes its failure .

He leads with the winners of Iraq war - Iran’s Mullah Manhattan Project, uncovering the brief window of opportunity (quickly squandered) in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that brought Iran and the US on the ‘same side of a common fight’ - albeit briefly. Then there is the tragic irony where actual evidence of nuclear proliferation was held back because of the WMD fiasco.

He demonstrates Iraq as a vortex that sucked away aid - $18B for Iraq in 2004 vs. $720M for Afghanistan - and resources from the primary war at a critical juncture that might have prevented a resurgence of Taliban. Along the way he appreciates that America is a nation that wields the largest hammer, but not every problem is a nail .

David’s visit to Strategic Plans, home to Pakistan’s nuclear keys betrays the prevalent fear about the safety of its nuclear arsenal and widens the discussion to build a case for the invasion of an ally. The composite drawn from talks with US Director of National Intelligence, bolsters his view of a Musharraf as master of the double game ; a government which is complicit based on one officers fiery speech about supporting Afghan Taliban and an intercepted call where Pak Army Chief Kiyani allegedly calls Hekmatyar a ‘strategic asset’.

Heightened distrust, backed by credible sounding ‘intel’ led to a gradual shift in the US administrations attitude towards their ally, giving greater latitude to drones and ‘special’ forces. Among the accusations are repeated claims of Pakistani forces actively supporting the Taliban with Pakistan quietly arming/training militants and other insurgent groups in an effort to gain greater influence over the tribal areas . Of course, to conclude that these are not rogue ISI agents but sanctioned polices is pure conjecture. There have been enough attacks on Pakistani security forces to disprove the theory. Referring to the trim houses and well tended lawns in Chaklala Cantt., he is left to conclude that ‘….both army and ISI have reserved society’s best privileges for themselves’ . Perhaps if the local bodies took better care of their districts, the disparity between the two halves would not be so striking - or embarrassing for that matter.

While some of the suspicions (that militants and intelligence agencies are hand in glove) are shared by Pakistanis as revealed by Imtiaz Gul’s book ‘the Al-Qaeda Connection’, they are just that - suspicions. Confronted with such a devastating brew of insinuations and ‘cherry picked intelligence!’ the reader wonders why would you not invade such an ally, If, of course, one truly believed said ally was in effect blatantly subverting American interests from the safety of its well tended lawns. Fortunately, the recent capture of a key Afghan Taliban figure (no. 2) in a joint CIA-ISI operation goes against the carefully built up case against Pakistan. Besides these maddening declarations, ‘Inheritance….’ slips up is when it asserts that the Pakistani cabinet was to dine at Marriott the day it was bombed in 2007. The government did try to portray itself as a target but the author missed Marriott’s owner - Hashwani’s testimony (see BBC, CNN) where he dismissed the government’s claim.

A jaded world view of Pakistan aside, the books strength lies in its ability to infuse excitement in an otherwise drab subject matter. This widescreen view also ponders on the implications of China’s burgeoning economy already slated to overtake Japan, credits Bush with getting several China priorities right and seeks ways to manage, not contain the Chinese given their increasing interdependence on each other. A very delightful, if imaginary conversation between Obama and the Chinese has also been thrown in. Finally, we flash-forward to a couple of nightmarish scenarios, to demonstrate America’s preparedness against a nuclear/biological/cyber attack.

David Sanger retrofits history with his version of a GPS to serve a dual purpose – as a navigation device it gives the new administration manoeuvring space, the benefit of hindsight provides a nicer looking roadmap.

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