Tuesday, 26 May 2009

“What Happened”, by Scott McClellan (Public Affairs)


“Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception”

Following the tumult of the Plame affair, new White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan started to take a closer look at the political culture in which he was operating.

“As I reflected on this leak episode – one of the defining episodes of my tenure as press secretary – my view of Washington began to crystallize as never before. What I witnessed and have come to realize about my time in the spotlight – beyond just this episode – is a larger, and very unpleasant truth.”

This unpleasant truth was that the culture of deception spread and permeated throughout Washington’s political society and national political discourse, that it has “become an accepted way of winning the partisan wars for public opinion and an increasingly destructive part of Washington’s culture.” Instead of discovering that the “great right-wing conspiracy” was a creation of the embattled Clinton administration, McClellan found that the leader he had pegged so much hope on, George W. Bush, would wallow in the same deceitful and political mud the author (rather naively) hoped was a fiction, recreating many of the same political tactics they had spent so long railing against on the campaign trail. Most of this deception would revolve around Bush’s most consequential decision in office, the war in Iraq.

While many books have been written about the George W. Bush presidency – with many more still in the pipeline, What Happened provides a particularly intimate insider’s view of these turbulent years. McClellan started working for Bush before he officially announced his intention to run for president, and was with him until 2007, having served in a number of posts in the White House – most notably and infamously as Press Secretary. After a brief chapter on McClellan’s own beginnings in politics (it’s a family thing), and his upbringing as a whole, he moves on to the 2000 campaign and beyond.

There is an overall apologetic tone to the book – the author often points out those positions he held in opposition to the president, sometimes giving lengthy explanations of why (e.g. his nuanced and considered position on the death penalty), and also describes Bush administration’s faults. This goes some way in showing us the loyalty Bush engenders in those who worked for him. What doesn’t work, however, is McClellan’s anecdotes about Bush being the fun guy on the campaign trail – in certain examples, Bush comes across as a bit of a bully, putting people in their place and making it seem like he’s the only one doing the real work. Far from painting an endearing picture of Bush, it only underscores some of the negative images created by partisan journalists.

Perhaps the most honest appraisal of the former president comes when McClellan discusses his (and by extension his administration’s) hazy relationship with truth and recollection. McClellan laments how Bush “has a way of falling back on the hazy memory defense to protect himself from potential political embarrassment”, all too comfortable with the “I do not recall” defence – a tactic, we might remember, The Daily Show and pretty much the entire mainstream media ridiculed disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for using excessively during the hearings about the politically-motivated firings at the justice department. Other members of the administration discussed in the book are the “troika” of Rove, Andy Card, and Karen Hughes – the message people.

This is a very interesting book. Bush and his administration are put under the microscope, often put into context, and filled with anecdotes and recollections to paint a fuller picture than anything written by someone who was not on the inside.

While not as detailed or expansive as Bob Woodward’s Bush at War series (nothing is, really), this book nonetheless has plenty to offer the casual reader, as well as those who are well-informed on the subject. It is filled with insider detail and personal observations that show a man struggling with his personal loyalty, affection and respect for President Bush, and his disappointed awareness that things were not always on the level during the administration’s tenure in office.

What Happened is written in a very clear, welcoming style. Part mea culpa, defense, indictment, and narrative, it is a very worthwhile addition to your library.

Also try: Bob Woodward, Bush At War (2003), Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial (2006); Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (2007); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency (2008); Mike Loew, Thanks For The Memories, George (2009); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004)

Thursday, 21 May 2009

“Herbert Hoover”, by William E. Leuchtenburg (Times/Henry Holt)


“The Republican efficiency expert whose economic boosterism met its match in the Great Depression”

Catapulted into the public eye and national politics by his heroic fund-raising campaigns to help feed Europe during and after World War I, Herbert Hoover does not now enjoy a favourable or fond reputation among the majority of those he helped and his own countrymen. His presidency (which he won in a land-slide) and pre-presidential accomplishments are over-shadowed by the Stock Market Crash and Great Depression. Even though he tried to enlist the help of private sector leaders (for example, Henry Ford), he was unable to mitigate the Depression, which led to his second election, where the tables (and results) were turned on their head, and he was ousted by FDR.

The book opens with Hoover’s early life as an orphan who was swapped around family members for his formative years; and how even though he was largely unschooled, he managed to get into Stanford. Leuchtenburg then moves on to Hoover’s pre-presidential career in business (globetrotting to Australia, China and the UK), and then on to his political career. What’s most interesting is the way the author brings across Hoover’s character, which actually informs much of the content of the book; how it is almost completely at odds with what you would expect for someone who was so successful. For such a well-travelled man, he was also quite casually racist, believing that Asians and Caucasians shouldn’t mix, and being particularly critical of the Chinese: “Diplomacy with an Asiatic is of no use. If you are going to do business with him you must begin your talk with a gun in your hand, and let him know that you will use it.”

He was brusk, cold, completely out of place in social situations, yet immensely successful at almost everything he put his mind to. As Woodrow Wilson’s “Food Czar” during World War I, and then as Commerce Secretary for presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he pushed the boundaries of what the government could achieve (and also what it was allowed to do).

Exhibiting the same need for control he had when in the private sector, not to mention a disregard for the legal parameters of his jobs, Hoover frequently butted heads with his fellow officials, getting involved in areas and with issues that were wholly beyond his departments’ purview. His “forays into international affairs led Hoover to clash with Hughes, Mellon, and even the president”, while also clashing with other administration members on the issue of taxation (he was surprisingly progressive), lending regulation, and the environment.

Even though he served as an “energetic and much admired” Secretary of Commerce for two presidents, when in the Oval Office, Hoover was blinkered by his distrust of government and his belief that volunteerism would solve all social ills in America.

Overall, Leuchtenburg has written a very accessible and interesting biography of the man usually vilified for not fixing the US economy. By spending much of the book on his pre- and post-presidential life (about two-thirds), the book offers a much broader picture of the man. His strange desire to give money to struggling causes and acquaintances entirely confidentially (“good deeds by stealth”). Hoover comes across as a socially-awkward, fiercely independent, rather arrogant, yet gifted man.

An interesting, somewhat illuminating, and balanced portrait of a president many know little about, except his inability to solve the Great Depression.

It’s not the best in the series, but it certainly offers plenty for anyone wanting a brief account of this troubled man’s life and presidency. Recommended.

Also try: William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D Roosevelt & the New Deal (1963) & The Perils of Prosperity (1993); Roy Jenkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2003); John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash (1955/92); Harris Warren, Herbert Hoover & the Great Depression (2007); Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression & New Deal (2008); Amity Schlaes, The Forgotten Man (2007); Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance, 1929 (2009)

Thursday, 14 May 2009

“The Terror Presidency”, by Jack Goldsmith (W.W. Norton)

Goldsmith-TerrorPresidencyA former Assistant Attorney General offers his incites into the debates, themes and pathologies that dominated the Bush Administration post-9/11

When Jack Goldsmith was appointed to his position in the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, he almost immediately found himself at odds with the regime. During his first two months, he was briefed on some of the most top-secret policies of the administration. Some of these he found to be “deeply flawed” and “sloppily reasoned, overboard, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the President,” drawing the conclusion that “some of our most important counterterrorism policies rested on severely damaged legal foundations.”

“In an administration bent on pushing antiterrorism efforts to the limits of the law, OLC’s authority to determine those limits made it a frontline policymaker in the war on terrorism.”

Given the continuing attention on the torture memos and “who knew what when” stories still dominating the political media, this is a timely book, and well worth the attention of anyone interested in America, torture, the rule of law and the Presidency. Best of all, Goldsmith locates the current torture and legal debate in America’s history, comparing today with previous presidencies – those referred to include FDR’s, Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s. “But unlike these other presidents, President Bush acted in an era in which many aspects of presidential war power had become encumbered by elaborate criminal restrictions,” causing government officials to seriously worry about the possibility that “judgment calls would result in prosecution by independent councils, Justice Departments of future administrations, or foreign or international courts.”

The author discusses the effect of reading the daily “threat matrix”, and how it had the potential for instilling a near-constant sense of paranoia (not exactly conducive to sound government). Key characters such as John Yoo, Richard Armitage, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, and so forth, receive fair appraisals, even when he describes how memos or legal findings from the OLC that did not support the President’s beliefs and statements were often ridiculed or shot down.

Instead, the administration used a “go-it-alone” approach, coming to conclusions through “minimal deliberation [and] unilateral action.” This approach, as well as frequently marginalising Congress, only goes to explain the situation we are now in. His basic argument, on this score, is that the Bush administration did not attempt to use “consultation, deliberation, the appearance of deference, and credible expressions of public concern for constitutional and international values” to meet their goals. This left only a hard-nosed, aggressive approach, even when both Houses of Congress were controlled by their own party.

In this honest (occasionally patchy) account of his time working for the Bush administration, Goldsmith has achieved what he set out to do; namely, provide a look into the pathologies and thought-processes at work during the aftermath of 9/11 and the following War on Terror. The Bush administration was one with a pathological need to expand executive power, a narrow-mindedness and love for secrecy that alienated allies, and a sketchy grasp of the political and legal realities of the methods they wanted to approve. The Terror Presidency is an illuminating, well-written book, filled with interesting and detailed information.

Despite the administration fault, Goldsmith argues, the Bush presidency and policies has done good for America and has helped protect America. He criticises in the afterword the new culture of excessive caution in Washington – a natural outgrowth from prosecutorial instruments like independent counsels and (in this case) a liberal establishment who might want revenge for eight years of Republican (mis)rule. Even though the author is a Republican, he holds hope for the Obama administration, believing that Obama will keep many of the Bush antiterrorism policies in place, but approach the legislation differently, more like Lincoln and FDR, who used a “bipartisan and pragmatic national security team” with “genuine consultation and consent from Congress, [and] a less secretive executive branch.”

A critical portrait of an administration stretching laws to their breaking-points, The Terror Presidency is a very well-written and useful book – the chapters are well structured, the author’s prose are very clear, and it’s both engaging and highly readable.

An excellent book.

Also try: Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency (2008); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004) & The One-Percent Doctrine (2007); Jane Mayer, The Dark Side (2008); David Iglesias, In Justice (2009); John Yoo, War By Other Means (2006); Scott McClellan, What Happened (2009)

Monday, 11 May 2009

“The New Asian Hemisphere”, by Kishore Mahbubani (PublicAffairs)


A “non-Western” Narrative of our Time. A much-travelled Asian ambassador argues that the 21st Century belongs to Asia

For centuries the world has been effectively and actually dominated by Western powers – be it the colonial powers (Britain, France, Portugal, etc.), or the preponderance of US power (economic and military) we have today. According to Kishore Mahbubani, former two-term Singaporean ambassador to the UN, Asians have finally understood, absorbed and implemented Western best practices and methods in a number of areas, including free-market economics, modern science and technology, and the rule of law. At the same time, we are seeing more and more widely accepted ideas, new patterns of cooperation, originating in Asia.

The New Asian Hemisphere takes a look at the rise of Asia and what this rise might mean for international relations. First, the author offers three possible scenarios that might arise in Asia: “The March to Modernity”, “The Retreat Into Fortresses”, and “The Triumph of the West”. Of these three, Mahbubani sees the first as the most likely. The book then goes on to explain why Asia is rising now, how the West has become less optimistic, and how the West and East compare.

“One of the key goals of this book is to restore Western optimism about the future of our world,” writes Mahbubani. It only requires one simple change, he believes:

“they need to drop all the ideological baggage they accumulated in the several areas of Western triumphalism, and they must stop believing that they can remake the world in their own image.”

With the failure of Americas’s democracy project (e.g. election victories of Hamas), there is a lot to recommend this position. There is a sense of “West knows best”, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise (the economic crisis we’re currently experiencing, for example). What the author has done is attempt to provide a look into how Asia and the West can rise together, as it were; to work together and succeed together.

“Pragmatism is the best guiding spirit we can have as we venture into the new century. It is therefore only appropriate to quote… the greatest pragmatist of the twentieth century, Deng Xiaoping: It does not matter if a cat is black or white; if it catches mice, it is a good cat.”

However, there are faults in the Asian approach to politics and economics (perhaps due to different mindset or root to societal norms) – just ask Minxin Pei, who in the early 2000s, seemed to be intent on publishing articles solely on endemic Chinese corruption. There are also issues with regards to human rights and pollution, which the Western powers hold dear but are seemingly not as important, or don’t hold the same definitions, for some Asian nations. The New Asian Hemisphere is not a book to read if you believe the West has the answers to every problem, every solution to today’s international issues and dilemmas. Personally, I don’t think this, so the book offered a great deal of useful, well-written opinions to draw from.

Mahbubani reasonably subscribes to the thesis that rising Asian powers (specifically China) are not interested in dominating the globe. Rather, they are more interested in finding ways to work within the current system, to replicate the successes (in their own way) of the West. This is because

“Recent decades have demonstrated that Asians have become among the greatest beneficiaries of the open multilateral order created by America and the victors of World War II in 1945. Few Asian societies today want to destabilize a system that has helped them.”

The West needs to learn to share – in terms of influence, power, and respective roles in international institutions.In this, Mahbubani is completely correct – how can China be excluded (except as an “observer”) from the major negotiations of the developed nations? That George W. Bush convened a G20 meeting shortly before leaving office is a good sign, that the US and the West is starting to understand that maybe it would be a good thing to share some of the burden, to allow other to carry the weight of the world. (If, for no other reason, than maybe people will ‘hate’ America less.)

“If the West could learn to work with, rather than against [Asia’s rise], it can help make the twenty-first century one of the happiest centuries of human history.”

The Economist described this book as “an anti-Western polemic, designed to wake up Americans and Europeans by making them angry”. While I am not sure I would accept “polemic” as a fair portrayal, the latter half of the quote is accurate – some might even say important. There are certain elements to the author’s thesis that could very well irritate narrow-minded Westerners (as it obviously did for The Economist reviewer), but equally the West has become somewhat complacent, sitting on top of the heap, and equally resistant to loosening its grip on the levers of global economic power. But, equally, Mahbubani pays tribute to Western “modernisation” that has helped Asian nations develop. He also suggests that the West should not look at Asia’s rise with foreboding – after all, it was Western modernisation that helped lift Asian success, development and growth.

Mahbubani does pick and choose some of his examples and data (especially when arguing that the West have not been competent caretakers of international order). His inclusion of Japan in the “Western” camp is strange given that, in the American mindset, in the 1980s, the “yellow peril” was about Japan’s economic and technological prowess. Also, having lived and travelled widely in Japan, to suggest it is “Western” like Europe and the USA (I would say) is incorrect. Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka are as much Western as Shanghai or Beijing (perhaps with a little more of a penchant for neon signage).

If you can get past the self-congratulatory preface, together with Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, and Joshua Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable, The New Asian Hemisphere is essential reading for all with even a slight interest in the changing nature of the world, the shifting patterns and foci of power. The East is rising. Whether that results in a concurrent decline of the West is questionable, and too pessimistic to assume without evidence.

Overall, this is a very good book. It is written in an accessible, inviting style, which should help draw in new readers and non-specialists. Highly informative, illuminating, interesting, and (on many things) right. Recommended.

Also try: Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (2008); Joshua Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable (2009); Bill Emmott, Rivals (2008); Parag Khanna, The Second World (2008); Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008); David Kang, China Rising (2007)

By the Same Author: Can Asians Think? (2004) Beyond the Age of Innocence (2006)

Sunday, 10 May 2009

“The Democracy Index”, by Heather K. Gerken (Princeton)


Why the US election system is failing, and how to fix it

With the 2008 election now well and truly behind us, it is interesting to pick up and read this book from Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School. Gerken, who was part of Obama’s “election protection team”, does not share the media-reported view that the 2008 presidential election went smoothly. In fact, in certain districts, reports of a smooth election “bore no resemblance” to what she was seeing on her computer screens. “Many jurisdictions simply fell apart as wave after wave of voters crashed down upon them.”

One comforting thought for Gerken was that “it seemed clear that most of the problems were caused not by partisan mischief, but by neglect” of the election system. In The Democracy Index, the author offers her prescriptions for how to fix this broken system.

“Our election system is run badly… [it is] clunky at best and dysfunctional at worst… Although many people are aware of the problem and eager for a solution, reform efforts have gotten surprisingly little traction.”

The biggest problem is that the system is poorly funded and planned; a failure of the “nuts-and-bolts” of the system. The book lays out a methodical, data-driven approach to election reform – including creating a ranking for all 50 states and their voting records, including such varied data as voter line-length, number of malfunctioning machines, problems with voter registration and miscounts and/or vote rejection.

Rather than stick all these data in a drawer, Gerken proposes that if it is all made public, it will create pressure on politicians and officials, giving them the incentive to reform their practices as they try to edge up the rankings. It would be a bit like the university rankings one sees in US and UK newspapers, or the RAE rankings I suppose. Gerken refers to the US News & World Report as a partial model for her Index. This, of course, offers possibilities of cheating (as happens with university rankings), where local officials might be tempted to cook the books in order to improve their ranking. While the author acknowledges that no system could ever be totally fool-proof, “If the Democracy Index were having such a powerful effect on election officials that they were tempted to cheat, we would already have come a long way” towards helping to fix the system, to change the entrenched mindsets involved. The author offers a very simple (and sensible) reason for a ranking being the best approach: “no one wants to be at the bottom of the list.”

The Democracy Index identifies the major obstacles to election-practice reform, and also looks at why it is a repeatedly sidelined issue in American politics. The obstacles include partisan bias, lack of professionalism, Perhaps the most important problems are that of “hyper-decentralization” (or “failed federalism”), and “deferred maintenance”. The former is just that almost everything with regards to election in the US is the sole responsibility of under-funded, under-staffed, and under-prepared localities. The latter means action is only likely to take place as-and-when a problem occurs. A Russian Roulette approach to election maintenance (the phrase is most commonly used in relation to infrastructure up-keep).

With four more years before the next election, it will be interesting to see if any of Gerken’s ideas get taken on board by state legislatures and also the federal government. It is hard to imagine any state having problems putting a good political spin on moving up the rankings (“Who, after all, is against democracy working better?”). “At a time when the United States is trying to spread democracy abroad, our election system falls well short of our peers’”, and no doubt America’s global image would improve if it could show that its brand of democracy did work, is representative, and is not prone to Banana-Republic-style problems. It’s difficult to see how Gerken’s proposals could ever be considered a bad thing.

Gerken writes in an accessible and engaging style, making this book about a not-exactly-sexy topic a pretty good read. Her prose are written in a welcome straight-forward, and unstuffy style. The book is also an honest account of election specialists and their standard approaches – on a number of occasions, Gerken highlights the go-to solutions usually carted out by specialists, and admits she herself has succumbed to the same temptations as her colleagues. Filled with anecdotes and examples to support and flesh-out the author’s arguments, The Democracy Index is a quick, interesting and important read for anyone invested in America getting Democracy right.

Also try: Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State (2008)

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

“Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade”, by Joseph Wheelan (PublicAffairs)


The Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life of America’s 6th President.

For the majority of the 43 men to have occupied the American Presidency, it has been the last stop on colourful, successful careers – even if their tenure as Commander-in-Chief was not itself particularly successful.

There have been a growing few, however, who have gone on to achieve great things post-presidency. These include the diplomatically hyperactive Jimmy Carter, and the philanthropic and busy George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Going back further in history, William Howard Taft followed his single presidential term with time on the Supreme Court, and Andrew Johnson was briefly a Senator before his death.

Of all the presidents, however, none have come close to matching John Quincy Adams’s post-presidential life, during which he was a Congressman for 17 years (indeed, he would eventually die in Congress). He took up his rhetorical arms against slavery, masonry, Andrew Jackson, but most of all in his vociferous defence of the First Amendment.

Joseph Wheelan takes us first through his successful, globe-trotting pre-presidential life in a mere 35 pages, and then his presidency (and the supposed “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay that doomed it to failure) in a further 30 pages. The remainder of the book is entirely devoted to his years in Congress – his battles with his nemesis and presidential successor, Andrew Jackson, his support for the Bank of the America, his eloquent and frequent opposition to slavery, his unsuccessful opposition to the annexation of Texas, the founding of the Smithsonian Institute, and his commitment to internal improvements, to name but a few.

In this singularly excellent account of John Quincy Adams’s post-presidency, Wheelan has written an engaging, illuminating and oft-entertaining history. Filled with excerpts from JQA’s voluminous diaries and correspondence (from the age of 12 until his death, there were only a few, short periods when he did not assiduously note down everything he experienced), through the eyes of the “Favored Son of the Revolution”, we get a glimpse of the most powerful players (Jefferson, Calhoun, Clay, Van Buren, and so on), and also the important events and developments of the age. Given his long public career, Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade provides a wonderful history of America’s first half-century – the shifting politics, the dangers faced by the new nation, as well as its triumphs.

John Quincy Adams remains a mostly forgotten president and public figure – given his contribution to America’s development and politics, this is tragic. Often, new scholarship on this time period can be stuffy and unwieldy, but Joseph Wheelan has done a laudable job of shining greater light on “Old Man Eloquent” and his relentless urge to serve in a style and manner that is accessible and enjoyable throughout.

A highly recommended read.

Also try: Robert Remini, John Quincy Adams (2002); Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1999); Nina Burleigh, The Stranger & The Statesman (2004); John T. Morse, John Quincy Adams (1882); Richard Brookhiser, America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 (2002)