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New Book- The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House

Friday, March 25th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / a.k.a  “zen“]

The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House […] by Zalmay Khalilzad

Just received a courtesy review copy of The Envoy, the memoir of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, from Christine at St. Martin’s Press.

Khalilzad was part of a small group of diplomatic troubleshooters and heavy hitters for the second Bush administration, whose numbers included John Negroponte, Ryan Crocker and John Bolton who were heavily engaged during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like the others, Khalilzad had held a variety of important policy posts at State, the NSC and the Department of Defense before assuming ambassadorial duties; the bureaucratic experience, ties to senior White House officials and the exigencies of counterinsurgency warfare would make these posts more actively proconsular than was typical for an American ambassador.   Indeed, the endorsements on the book jacket, which include two former Secretaries of State, a former Secretary of Defense and a former CIA Director testify to the author’s political weight in Khalilzad’s years of government service.

It’s been a while since I have read a diplomatic memoir, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how Khalilzad treats Afghanistan’s early post-Taliban years, given that he personally is a bridge from the Reagan policy of supporting the anti-Soviet mujahedin to the toppling of the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 and helping to organize the new Afghan state. Khalilzad is also, of course, an Afghan by birth, giving him greater insight into that country’s complex political and social divisions than most American diplomats could muster.

I will give The Envoy a formal review in the future but Khalizad has given a synopsis of where he thinks American policy went awry in Afghanistan over at Thomas E. Rick’s Best Defense blog.

REVIEW: The Last of the President’s Men

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward

Last of the President’s Men is a short but revealing work by Bob Woodward, the prolific author on American presidents who returns full circle to the subject that made Woodward a celebrity journalist, Richard Nixon and Watergate. Specifically, Last of the President’s Men is about the relationship between Richard Nixon and Alexander Butterfield, the man who revealed to the world Nixon’s secret White House taping system which ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation under the sure threat of impeachment. Butterfield, who unsuccessfully attempted a book of his own, is virtually Woodward’s co-author here and it is Butterfield’s voluminous personal papers, carted out from his White House office against the rules and hidden away for decades, that serve as the evidentiary basis of this book.

Aside from the precise description of how the taping system came to be installed in the Oval Office, a task Nixon’s feared chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, delegated to Butterfield, the focus is on Butterfield’s role as a top aide to both Nixon and Haldeman, a post to which Butterfield ascended only with considerable difficulty after first navigating Richard Nixon’s neurotic quirks, becoming in essence, “Haldeman’s Haldeman”.  Butterfield does not come across as an entirely admirable character. Like Mark Felt who in turning informer during Watergate had acted out of frustrated ambition, Alexander Butterfield’s betrayal of Richard Nixon had less to do with safeguarding the Constitution from an out of control president than the reaction of an unappreciated servant who had noted every slight and had nursed his grievances.

What shines through in the story is how truly weird and brittle Nixon had become in dealing with other human beings by the time he had reached the presidency. It is very difficult to reconcile the Richard Nixon of The Last of the President’s Men who had paralyzing anxiety attacks over working with – or even meeting- new staff with the Nixon who wrangled with lawyers, FBI agents and fellow Congressmen in investigating Alger Hiss, who forcefully debated Nikita Khrushchev or who remained steady when his limousine was attacked by a Communist mob in Venezuela. Perhaps Nixon grew worse with age or perhaps as president, Nixon finally had the means to keep unwanted people – and that would be nearly everyone – at bay. The portrait painted by Woodward of Richard Nixon is of a desperately lonely, misanthropic figure, inept at and pained by normal social relations to such an extent that he kept even his wife and children at a strange remove.

NIXON

Yet Nixon had his gifts and even Woodward allows this, particularly his “strategic mind” which Woodward credits for Nixon managing to retain to this day, admirers. Nixon, for all his social awkwardness (which in sections is  downright painful to read and I speak as someone deeply versed in things Nixon) had a penetrating intelligence that let him understand the board and the players, the moves they might make and their strengths and weaknesses of which Nixon might take advantage. Had Richard Nixon not outsmarted himself with the taping system that Butterfield meticulously oversaw, he most likely would have prevailed in Watergate over his enemies and left office after two full terms. Nixon was far smarter than his critics gave him credit at the time and far more ruthlessly manipulative than his defenders are willing to concede to this day.

The Last of the President’s Men is fast read but an interesting one. Recommended.

Book Bonanza

Monday, December 28th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

My usual yuletide haul of books received and purchased….

     

     

     

     

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Avoiding Armageddon: From the Great War to the Fall of France 1918-1940 by Jeremy Black
Roots of Strategy Book 3
Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner
Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes
Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
The Middle-East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis
Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D’Este
Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith by D.K.R. Crosswell
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin 

If anyone has read these titles and wishes to fire away about them, or their authors in the comment section, feel free. Not sure how many will be featured in future reviews.

The Nixon books were first brought to my attention on, if I recall, the Facebook page of historian Maarja Krusten of NixonNARA, the expert’s expert in matters relating to the presidential records, documents, court cases and tapes of Richard Nixon. When Maarja opines on Nixon topics, I listen with care. I look forward to reading these, even though my opinion of  Bob Woodward is that he often has to be treated cautiously, Alexander Butterfield’s cooperation and contribution was obviously central to the book (not unlike the far longer cooperation between George Kennan and his biographer,  historian John Lewis Gaddis). Evan Thomas’ theme just offhand strongly reminds me of Richard Reeves’ excellent President Nixon: Alone in the White House; I’m curious if this will be a rehashing or if Thomas can bring something new to the table about America’s 37th President.

I am also excited about Rule of the Clan, which should be of interest to anyone thinking about insurgency, irregular warfare, unconventional warfare and terrorism intersecting with tribal or quasi-tribal societies. My friends Michael Lotus and James Bennett who wrote the excellent America 3.0 and drew on the family structure ideas of British anthropologist Alan Macfarlane and French scholar Emanuel Todd, would also be interested.

The fiction was picked up for a simpler reason. I need a change of pace and never read the last, most recent book in the Game of Thrones series.

What are you reading these days?

New Books

Monday, September 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

   

The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop and the Gods of New York by Michael Muhammed Knight

Ideal by Ayn Rand

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

An eclectic combination, to be sure.

I am mostly finished with Reign of Error and The Five Percenters. The former is a devastating and methodically documented critique by historian and former Bush I administration official Diane Ravitch of a crony capitalist network’s effort to hijack public education and its revenues under the guise of reform. The latter is a friendly journalistic history of the often feared and widely misunderstood Five Percent Nation, which split away, at times violently, from the better known Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammed and Louis Farrakhan. Knight’s objectivity is somewhat suspect here as he himself became a rare white Muslim Five Percenter (a.k.a. “Azrael Wisdom“) and apologist, but his closeness to the group’s insiders cannot be denied.

What are you reading?

New Books

Monday, July 13th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Hit Half-Price Books recently….

         

Leadership by James MacGregor Burns
How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil
Goebbels by Peter Longerich
I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer
The Red Baron (Autobiography)
Memoir of a Revolutionary by Milovan Djilas
The Haunted Wood by Alexander Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein
The Coming Anarchy by Robert Kaplan
The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction by Nate Silver

The Haunted Wood was once groundbreaking and provocative and is now a classic of Cold War studies. Allen Weinstein, the former Archivist of the United States, died a month ago but he was better known as one of the historians who exposed that Alger Hiss was indeed the Soviet spy, traitor and secret Communist inside the Roosevelt administration State Department that Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon said he was, an achievement that did not endear Weinstein to the dwindling band of hardcore leftist Hiss apologists at The Nation magazine.

Milovan Djilas was a man who epitomized the same conflict as the Hiss-Chambers trial.  The right hand to Tito in the Yugoslav Communist Party, Djilas was the highest ranking Communist official to become a dissident and critic, moving politically from convinced Stalinist to an advocate of free elections and liberal democracy. Djilas shrewdly analyzed the Communist nomenklatura as an oppressive and parasitic oligarchy in The New Class.

What are you reading?

 


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