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Depth, but on what footing?

Times Staff Writer

How an administration as fixated on loyalty and conformity as this one ever came to produce so unending a series of defectors eager to tell all to anyone who will listen is a topic that probably will keep psycho-historically inclined scholars of the presidency fully employed well into the decade after next. Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former national affairs writer for the Wall Street Journal, is one of the enterprising journalists who have made the most of this inexplicable confessional impulse.

Suskind has already contributed two important volumes to the large library of books exploring the inner workings of President George W. Bush’s secrecy-obsessed White House. In “The Price of Loyalty” he brought to light the administration’s pathological intolerance of loyal internal dissent and even ordinary differences of opinion. It was an account that gained authority from the cooperation of former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who -- early on -- was purged from the Cabinet for expressions of excessive independence. Suskind’s “The One Percent Doctrine” delineated the origins and perilous effect of Vice President Dick Cheney’s extraordinary influence over the White House’s approach to national security and the war on terror. As this reviewer wrote at the time, Suskind’s altogether convincing treatment of issues was built on diligently meticulous reporting and clear sourcing of key points.

A reader comes, therefore, to “The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism” with high expectations. One is likely to get up, however, feeling frustrated, confused and in need of further reassurance from the author as to the substance of some of the book’s most serious allegations.

Truth to tell, “The Way of the World” is structurally a mess. One suspects that Suskind, mindful that the Bush/Cheney administration is staggering to inglorious conclusion, intended this book to look to the future as well as back to the recent past -- to suggest, in some fashion, a way forward. It’s inarguably a worthwhile goal, as well as a canny authorial strategy to lengthen the book’s shelf life, if it comes off.

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It does not.

You can sense the beginnings of the problem in the faux poetics of the title and in the grandiloquence of the utterly baffling subtitle: Whose truth? Whose hope -- and for what? “Age of Extremism” is a mildly clever gloss on Auden’s pointed “The Age of Anxiety,” but whose extremism? Is it Bush and Cheney’s or Al Qaeda’s -- or, perhaps, both?

There’s not much help to be had from the text. Suskind has chosen to follow a number of individuals who apparently are meant to put a human face on the war on terror. These individual stories are told in the present tense, apparently for the sake of stylistic immediacy. Among the subjects are a rather unpleasant Afghan high school student sent to study in Colorado and his naive American host family, as well as a young Pakistani immigrant working out questions of modernity and faith in the shadow of Washington, D.C.'s bars and strip clubs. There’s a civil rights lawyer who assumes the defense of an innocent and badly abused Guantanamo detainee. (There surely is an important book yet to be written about the heroism of the civil rights and, particularly, military lawyers who have sacrificed themselves and their careers in Pauline devotion to the cause of securing basic due process for the inmates of the Bush/Cheney gulag.)

The author seems to have intended that the layering of these personal stories would add resonance and depth to a new set of allegations concerning the administration’s dysfunction and, possibly, illegal misconduct. Fair enough, but what is one to make of references to “vast heartbeat migrations” or to people who “bend toward the sunlight like all living things”? It’s hard to know what to do with an assertion that this book’s story is one “about common people coming to the shores of a vast, challenging place, discovering their truest potential and re-creating, over and over, a new world.” Yes, of course.

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Worse, what are readers supposed to do with an endless italic introduction to one chapter that purports to be a reconstruction of the 11th century Muslim philosopher-physician Avicenna buying his first copy of Aristotle from a bookseller in the bazaar of Bukhara? We’re meant to hear not only the slap of his sandals, but also learn precisely how much he paid. (If we’re going into that sort of detail, why use the Latinate Avicenna instead of his real name, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina?)

One begins to understand why the publicity operatives at HarperCollins were so eager to get Suskind onto the interview-show circuit before putting copies of “The Way of the World” into reviewers’ hands. So far, that’s kept the focus on the book’s new set of revelations about the administration’s conduct of the war on terror and against Iraq. Even there, though, unexpected questions arise.

For example, early on in his narrative, Suskind describes an agreement struck between Bush and Cheney in which the far more experienced vice president agreed to recede into the background at White House meetings. Afterward, he and the president would meet to work out whatever action they thought appropriate, which Cheney would initiate. According to Suskind, the arrangement suited Cheney, who remains traumatized by his service on the White House staff during Watergate and the Vietnam War. Maintaining a plausible deniability for the chief executive remains one of his highest goals, according to this account. The problem is that Suskind is describing a two-party agreement. It’s fairly safe to say that neither Bush nor Cheney talked about it and, since no source is cited, we’re left to wonder whose version of events this is. It makes no difference that the arrangement seems all of a piece with both men’s personalities and histories; some sourcing is required.

Many of Suskind’s revelations are indeed sourced to current and former members of the intelligence agencies. Fair enough, but some account needs to be taken of the near-state of war that has prevailed between the spooks and the administration for most of the last eight years. It isn’t. That’s too bad, because many of Suskind’s allegations are consequential. He alleges, for example, that Saddam Hussein’s last foreign minister, Naji Sabri, was an American agent and that his U.S. handlers deliberately distorted his reports in order to secure British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for the war. Suskind writes that a CIA agent named Rob Richer virtually put Jordan’s King Abdullah II on the throne as his father, Hussein, lay dying, then took the princeling out for a night of celebratory drinking. There’s a great deal about the administration’s frantic attempts to lure Al Qaeda agents seeking nuclear materials out into the open and a wrenching account of a missed opportunity to both halt Iran’s nuclear program and strike a blow at Al Qaeda.

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The book’s most controversial allegation involves the charge that the White House ordered then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to forge a backdated letter from one-time Iraqi intelligence chief Tahir Jalil Habbush. (Habbush, like Sabri, provided his American handlers with prewar intelligence that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. How we got things so wrong with information coming from that level of the Iraqi regime is a question for another day.) The forged letter reportedly admitted an official link between Al Qaeda and Baghdad and revealed that Mohamed Atta, kingpin of the 9/11 hijackers, trained in Iraq. Both allegations were things Cheney and his circle desperately wanted to be true. As a piece of disinformation designed to influence U.S. domestic opinion, it also violated the CIA’s charter.

The White House, Tenet and the two CIA operatives Suskind quotes as having admitted carrying out the forgery and subsequently peddling it to a British journalist all immediately denied the author’s version of events. Suskind, however, told interviewers that he has the two agents -- Richer and John Maguire -- discussing the forgery on tape. Friday, he posted a partial transcript of the conversation with Richer on his personal website, www.ronsuskind.com. It not only supports Suskind’s account as written, but shows he took a conservative approach toward his material.

As a work of literary nonfiction, “The Way of the World” is an irritating example of overreaching, but Suskind’s reporting continues to make him an indispensable chronicler of the Bush/Cheney debacle.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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