October 2008

The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism.

A Book Review by Thomas G. Vincent

"The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism." By Ron Suskind, Harper Collins, Hardcover, 2008, 415 Pages, $27.95

In order to appreciate Ron Suskind’s book, "The Way of The World," it is important to first understand what it is not. Despite some unfortunate promotion to the contrary, it is not an exposé of the Bush administration. While the book contains several shocking revelations which make a very good case for impeachment, Suskind doesn’t accuse anyone of high crimes or scream out for justice. What he does do is weave several compelling narratives into a rich and colorful tapestry that illustrates the effect of certain political decisions by the Bush team on the mood and morality of the nation. At its heart, is an old-fashioned, well-told story.

Suskind’s treatment of his real life characters and their tales is deeply personal. There is the sleep-deprived intelligence analyst charged with identifying threats to the United States; the innocent Guantanamo prisoner and the lawyer determined to free him; the young, well-educated Pakistani working in Washington, D.C.; and the teen-age exchange student from Afghanistan who struggles to make sense of his Islamic faith. Winding throughout their stories is the central tale of the Bush administration. Like a single wet strand of yarn that bleeds color into the surrounding fabric, Suskind shows us how the collective actions of a few powerful men not only affect the world, but also individual lives.

With several books, a distinguished journalism career, and a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, Suskind has a solid track record as a writer. The success of "The Way of the World", however, lies not in Suskind’s formidable journalistic skills or even his masterful storytelling ability. The real nut of the book is Suskind’s ability to cut through facts, dates, and speeches to expose the thoughts and feelings that drive his character’s actions. In other words: Suskind succeeds at putting a human face on historical events.

For example, in the prologue, when relating the story of Bush’s refusal to allow the CIA to wiretap then Russian President Vladimir Putin, Suskind writes: “Bush is a guy who needs to make things personal — it’s how he’s always organized a complex world — and he felt that he’d developed a bond with Putin. When the CIA made its offer, his response was that you don’t wiretap a friend.” It is this kind of insight that allows us to put into perspective the events that unfold later in the book.

Suskind’s biases, while evident, are muted. When he writes about Bush: “He’s not particularly reflective, doesn’t think in large strategic terms, and he’s never had much taste for the basic analytical rigors embraced by the modern professional class,” Suskind is not trying to slam the president— He’s trying to get us to understand Bush’s “powerful confidence in his instinct,” and how “…making things personal without hesitation or limits … became the face of America.”

As compelling as the rest of the stories are, it is the Bush thread that has garnered the most press— with good reason. There are revealing stories about Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani politician assassinated last year, and the London airline bomb plot (you know, the one that resulted in you having to ditch your suntan lotion before boarding a plane). There is the revelation that the Bush administration had solid evidence from Saddam Hussein’s own intelligence chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush, about Iraq’s lack of WMDs — intelligence that the White House ignored and even suppressed.

The most shocking revelation in the book though, is the assertion that the Bush White House directed the CIA to fabricate a letter with Habbush’s signature stating that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had trained in Iraq — a complete falsehood. Suppressing direct evidence that ran counter to their policy is bad enough, but the possibility that the Bush administration created false intelligence linking Al Qaeda with Hussein — intelligence they subsequently used to justify the invasion after the fact — goes way beyond facts being fixed around foreign policy. If true, this should be a scandal of monumental proportions; one that would make Watergate look like a weenie roast.

Despite the incendiary nature of this allegation, Suskind’s own response is curiously reserved, stating only that the letter, “… pertains to the White House’s knowingly misusing an arm of government, the sort of thing generally taken up in impeachment hearings.”

The controversy surrounding the revelations in "The Way of the World" makes it a must read for those interested in studying mistakes made during the current administration. It should also be required reading for any prospective impeachment committee. For the rest of us, it is a fascinating snapshot of recent political history. It’s also a darn good story.