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


Readers of The New York Times know David Sanger as one of the most trusted correspondents in Washington, one to whom presidents, secretaries of state, and foreign leaders talk with unusual candor. Now, with a historian?s sweep and an insider?s eye for telling detail, Sanger delivers an urgent intelligence briefing on the world America faces.

In a riveting narrative, The Inheritance describes the huge costs of distraction and lost opportunities at home and abroad as Iraq soaked ...

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

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Readers of The New York Times know David Sanger as one of the most trusted correspondents in Washington, one to whom presidents, secretaries of state, and foreign leaders talk with unusual candor. Now, with a historian’s sweep and an insider’s eye for telling detail, Sanger delivers an urgent intelligence briefing on the world America faces.

In a riveting narrative, The Inheritance describes the huge costs of distraction and lost opportunities at home and abroad as Iraq soaked up manpower, money, and intelligence capabilities. The 2008 market collapse further undermined American leadership, leaving the new president with a set of challenges unparalleled since Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the Oval Office.

Sanger takes readers into the White House Situation Room to reveal how Washington penetrated Tehran’s nuclear secrets, leading President Bush, in his last year, to secretly step up covert actions in a desperate effort to delay an Iranian bomb. Meanwhile, his intelligence chiefs made repeated secret missions to Pakistan as they tried to stem a growing insurgency and cope with an ally who was also aiding the enemy–while receiving billions in American military aid. Now the new president faces critical choices: Is it better to learn to live with a nuclear Iran or risk overt or covert confrontation? Is it worth sending U.S. forces deep into Pakistani territory at the risk of undermining an unstable Pakistani government sitting on a nuclear arsenal? It is a race against time and against a new effort by Islamic extremists–never before disclosed–to quietly infiltrate Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

“Bush wrote a lot of checks,” one senior intelligence official told Sanger, “that the next president is going to have to cash.”

The Inheritance takes readers to Afghanistan, where Bush never delivered on his promises for a Marshall Plan to rebuild the country, paving the way for the Taliban’s return. It examines the chilling calculus of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, who built actual weapons of mass destruction in the same months that the Bush administration pursued phantoms in Iraq, then sold his nuclear technology in the Middle East in an operation the American intelligence apparatus missed. And it explores how China became one of the real winners of the Iraq war, using the past eight years to expand its influence in Asia, and lock up oil supplies in Africa while Washington was bogged down in the Middle East. Yet Sanger, a former foreign correspondent in Asia, sees enormous potential for the next administration to forge a partnership with Beijing on energy and the environment.

At once a secret history of our foreign policy misadventures and a lucid explanation of the opportunities they create, The Inheritance is vital reading for anyone trying to understand the extraordinary challenges that lie ahead.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Dazzling and mordantly hilarious….The product of extraordinarily diligent reporting….A Woodwardian trove of inside dope….Devastatingly effective.”
The New York Times

The Inheritance reaffirms Thomas Jefferson's belief that for the American democracy to work there must be an informed citizenry. That means great reporting by great reporters is always required.  David Sanger's book epitomizes the requirement. He goes through the world of challenges and opportunities that lie dead as well as ahead for the United States globally. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and China are on the list. So are matters nuclear and economic, among others. Sanger's telling is full of behind-the-door stories that read like Alan Furst spy novels. This is a superior work of journalism.”
—Jim Lehrer, executive editior and anchor, The NewsHour

—Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times
“Highly instructive.”                              
—Edward Luce, Financial Times
“One of the most comprehensive—and harrowing—accounts of American foreign policy ever written….Sanger’s book might be the best transition document the new president and his advisers—and the rest of the U.S.—can read.”
—Richard Pious, author of The President, Congress and the Constitution and The War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law
“Sanger’s behind-the-scenes account of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy is laced with scoops and secret conversations about a world spinning out of America’s control....Over to you, Mr. President.”
—Romesh Ratnesar, Time
“Prescient, relevant—and great reading for people who want to have insomnia.”
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
“An in-depth look…at where America stands in the world, why in-dpeth reporting by the Fourt Estate keeps government honest, and how the Obama Administration faces global challenges not of its own making.”
—Mike Smith, The Huffington Post
“A sobering, often chilling account.”
—Brian MacArthur, The Telegraph

“One of the finest journalists of our time, David Sanger tells the surprising stories of crucial, heretofore-hidden events in Washington and around the globe that have culminated in the unprecedented world crisis that now faces us.  For the incoming President and the rest of us, Sanger's important book provides both understanding and hope. The Inheritance should be essential reading. "
—Michael Beschloss

“Somehow, David Sanger has broken through the secrecy and the government gobbledygook to tell us how we got to where we are and the choices this leaves for the next administration. He reveals inside stuff we have never heard in detail that will surprise and sometimes shock, yet he has framed it all in language the specialist will appreciate and the layman can understand. One of the most important books of the year.”
—Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent, CBS News

“A brilliant tour d’horizon of world trouble spots, world crises and world-class challenges….This volume has the title of a policy book but the air of a non-fiction page-turner, in the spirit and example of David Halberstam….Put the remote and the BlackBerry away, Mr. President, and start reading.”
—David Shribman, Toronto Globe and Mail

Gary J. Bass
…dazzling and mordantly hilarious…Mr. Bush has taken to citing Harry S. Truman, implying that history will vindicate his legacy in Iraq and beyond. The Inheritance is a devastatingly effective pre-emptive strike against that.
—The New York Times
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 [host country's] 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. --Richard Pious

Richard Pious is Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor at Barnard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University. He is the author of The President, Congress and the Constitution (1984) and The War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law (2006), among other works. He has recently published articles on military tribunals, interrogation of detainees, warrantless surveillance, and war powers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307407931
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/12/2010
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 1,025,933
  • Product dimensions: 5.23 (w) x 8.05 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

DAVID E. SANGER is the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. In twenty-six years at the Times, he has been a member of two teams that won the Pulitzer Prize and has received numerous awards for investigative, national security, and White House reporting. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons.

From the Hardcover edition.

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