Friday, June 30, 2006

A “Suskind offering”: Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine

I’ve finished Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, and I’m not overwhelmed, more average-to-middling-whelmed (but if you still want to buy it after reading my review, do click here for my Powell’s link or here for my link. I get like 80¢ if you do. Or try your public library; I had this copy 3 days after I put a hold on it).

It’s a 350-page book that would have been better, if less lucrative, as a long New Yorker article. Like other books by reporters, it’s hard to judge how seriously to take its revelations without knowing who his sources are, and indeed who his sources aren’t – his insights into the thinking of Acting President Cheney may be the most important part of the book, but I’ll bet he wasn’t able to interview the man.

(I wrote that part last night. Today the Columbia Journalism Review website has an interview with him, and dear God what a self-important, pompous man he is. I couldn’t have brought myself to read the book if I’d read that interview first. He admits that the reader must take on faith that he has talked with enough of the right anonymous people and that he is able to take account of their biases and agendas and get the story right. But, dammit, people love and trust him, he says: “I think over time readers are saying, okay, this is a Suskind offering, this is what he does. It’s more vivid, it moves.” Now how you can trust that his quotes from Bush and Cheney are accurate when he thinks that that’s what his readers are saying? I don’t think he realizes that the trust he’s asking us to place in his judgment and his character exactly mirrors the trust Bush demands as his due.)

The book’s title refers to the belief among the Bushies that the stakes are so high in The War Against Terror (TWAT) that it is permissible to act to prevent events that there is very little proof will actually happen, such as Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network passing nuclear technology to Al Qaida. Can’t have the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud, and all that. “Suspicion... became the threshold for action.” Suskind seems to have spoken mostly with CIA sources, who are interested in reasserting the importance of factual analysis and, let’s face it, in covering their asses.

By the way, the book’s famous Bush quote, after Tenet sent a briefer to Crawford in August 2001 to make sure Bush got the point that bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States, “All right, you’ve covered your ass, now”: the real significance isn’t just that Bush dismissed it, but that for him, the point of intelligence briefings wasn’t to provide a basis for action; rather, that he considered them a form of bureaucratic ass-covering.

The most interesting thing about the book is the way in which 1) Cheney’s plans, dating back to the Ford administration, to strengthen the executive branch, 2) Bush’s intellectual laziness, and 3) the “new type of war” against shadowy terrorists, all came together to reinforce each other and create the new model of government we have today. Suskind writes,
The Cheney Doctrine released George W. Bush from his area of greatest weakness – the analytical abilities so prized in America’s professional class – and freed his decision-making to rely on impulse and improvisation to a degree that was without precedent for a modern president. Cheney essentially crafted a platform, an architecture, for Bush to be Bush, while still being President.
The Cheney Doctrine – “It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It’s about our response.” (that’s another maybe-quote) – is a perfect fit with a president who’s all about response and not at all about analysis, but it was The War Against Terror (TWAT) that raised the stakes and the uncertainty and paranoia and fear so that that recklessness could seem like a reasonable response.

On the one hand, crucial facts were routinely, Suskind says, kept away from Bush by Cheney, so that Bush could stick to the agreed narrative in public with plausible deniability and without being confused by the facts. Suskind, in another significant-if-true revelation, says that when Bush met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in April 2002 to try to get Saudi Arabia to cooperate against Al Qaida, he hadn’t seen, and evidently didn’t know about the existence of, the prince’s set of demands, mostly relating to Israel, because Cheney had diverted them to his office. The prince went away rather confused.

There many interesting things in the book, and fragments of interesting things, including a discussion of how to get authoritarian rulers (like Gadhafi) to do what the US wants, when their power depends on not losing face. We have a terrorist policy, Suskind says, but not a dictator policy. And there are many of those significant-if-true quotes and facts which I simply don’t know how to use because I’m not inclined to put blind trust in Suskind. Like a George Bush speech, it’s likely to be believed by the sorts of people who are inclined to believe it, but not to convince anyone else.

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