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

David Sanger is at home in the corridors of power, whether in Washington, D.C. (where he has been covering the White House for The New York Times throughout the Bush presidency) or in the military compounds housing Pakistan’s generals. His reportage focuses on interviewing world leaders and their aides in paneled offices and underground situation rooms, rather than the man (or woman) on the street or the terrorists and secret operatives in the back alleys. Through his interviews with top officials, who defend and justify or disavow and repudiate policies in which they had been involved, Sanger has produced one of the most comprehensive — and harrowing — accounts of American foreign policy ever written.

Sanger’s main point is that George Bush and his top aides were too driven by their moral certitude to understand the complexities of events. Their “with U.S. or against us” approach (with its reliance on pressure, diplomatic coercion, and military force) led them to overlook opportunities, while their hubris allowed them to overestimate American control over events. In one case after another the Bush administration squandered American diplomatic, military, and fiscal resources, failing to take advantage of opportunities for settlements with adversaries. And they were always too late to change an unsuccessful policy line, because in White House precincts “a strategic change was often equated with weakness or viewed as an admission of error.” Consider the complex dominos of Southwest and South Asia: Bush’s decision to invade Iraq meant that resources were shifted away from the mission to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan; that in turn led to a reliance on NATO for a military mission it was unwilling and unable to perform, resulting in a resurgent Taliban; an American “tilt” to India fueled Pakistan’s fears that its adversary would surround it (by building roads in Afghanistan), leading the Pakistani intelligence services to continue their close relationship with the Taliban as a counterweight; American efforts to press the Pakistanis to fight Pashtun tribes in the Frontier Territories pushed the terrorist problem ever further eastward, with the result that the Obama administration must now deal with Pakistan as a failed state — a failed state with nukes.

Sanger, a graduate of Harvard and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, well understands concepts of foreign policymaking (groupthink), presidential decision making (rigidification and power stakes), and diplomacy (divide and conquer), but because he is a superb reporter, he doesn’t present his argument theoretically, nor does he rely on government and think tank studies. Instead, he relies on superb reporting, some of it his own and some from his Times colleagues. Pakistan’s sympathy for Afghan extremists is portrayed through the chilling recollections of an American official present at a joint meeting of American intelligence and Pakistani officials, at which a general in the room, seemingly oblivious to the presence of American officials, talks with other officers about his nation’s strategic situation vis-?-vis India and how that must inevitably lead to an alliance with the Taliban.

There are important revelations about American foreign policy and intelligence activities. Some are from open sources yet are surprising nonetheless: the U.S. pledged about half of what Iran did at the first donor’s conference in Tokyo convened to obtain contributions to rebuilding Afghanistan after the invasion. Other revelations come from intelligence sources. The U.S. managed to infiltrate Iranian computer networks and tinkered with some of the centrifuges Iranians were using to enrich nuclear material, resulting in the centrifuges’ destruction. Intelligence agents obtained what they called “the Laptop of Death” from an Iranian nuclear scientist; it contained detailed blueprints of Iranian nuclear weapons development. Bush signed off on Operation Cannonball to allow the CIA to go after Bin Laden in his Pakistan refuge, and then in the final year of his presidency he ordered ground operations by special military units in Pakistan, as well as the more publicized missile attacks; these new efforts were not limited to al-Qaeda operatives but covered a wide range of Islamic militants. The U.S. military prepared to shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile in the first minutes of its flight as a demonstration of American anti-ballistic missile capabilities, but slow communication with Washington aborted the operation.

Much of the book is a geographic tour of world hot spots, each of which receives a chapter that lays out the issues, demonstrates the failure of the Bush administration to resolve them successfully, and makes some suggestions for the incoming Obama presidency. The last three chapters, while too brief to do justice to their topics — the possibility of terrorist nuclear, biological, or cyberspace attacks on the U.S. — are harrowing enough that they can be recommended to anyone who wishes to stay awake at night worrying about the future of our civilization. Sanger doesn’t contribute much to what we already know about the dangers in each threat, but he devastatingly demonstrates — once again through interviews with the key officials — that the U.S. preparedness agencies are doing a heckuva job.

The Inheritance is finely crafted, and Sanger contrives several “What else is new?” moments. In one, two Carter administration officials, Robert Gates and Zbigniew Brzezinski, are at a meeting in Algiers in 1979, trying to determine if the Carter administration could do business with the revolutionaries who had just toppled the shah of Iran; later, Sanger circles around to a another meeting, held almost three decades later, of an advisory task force in Washington convened to discuss Iran, not coincidentally led by Gates and Brzezinski. In a discussion of Pakistan’s climate of violence, Sanger notes that the doctor who tried unsuccessfully to save the country’s first assassinated prime minister, Liaquat ali-Kahn, had a son (also a doctor) who tried unsuccessfully to revive former prime minister Bhutto after she was shot in December 2007.

Sanger’s language is vivid: Russia at the end of the Cold War was “bankrupt, geopolitical roadkill”; Iranian leaders watching Saddam’s statue pulled down in Baghdad after the American invasion worry that “downtown Tehran could be the next stop on the preemption parade”; Ahmadinejad celebrates the enrichment of some uranium, although it was not enough “to irradiate a microwave dinner.” Sanger shares with the reader the mordant wit of a Bush administration official who observes about Afghanistan: “You know it’s time to pull your ambassador when his poll numbers are higher than the president’s.”

“Undoing the damage of the recent past will take years,” Sanger observes, and he hopes the next cohort of national security officials will practice “the art of strategic patience.” If they do, he concludes, the Obama presidency will go down in history as a group that was “present at the re-creation” of American influence in the world. Toward that laudable goal, Sanger’s book might be the best transition document the new president and his advisers — and the rest of U.S. — can read.