Journalists, rather than academics, are providing the essential reading on the origins and course of President George W. Bush's "war on terror." Fortunately, their skill at getting original material and then telling a good story is-at least in the case of Mann, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, and Coll, of The Washington Post-matched by a keen sense of historical context.
For anyone interested in contemporary U.S. politics and foreign policy, Mann's book is a treat. He writes with great knowledge and facility about Bush's top foreign policy advisers, described as "the Vulcans." The collective noun will not likely stick, since neither intellectually nor personally do they cohere as a group. Yet Mann does point to some fascinating interactions in the careers of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, and Condoleezza Rice in their journeys through politics, bureaucracy, and, in the case of Powell and Armitage, war. As he tells their stories, Mann presents characters who are much more than cardboard cut-outs. He illuminates past controversies and traces the schools of thought they represent-from the skeptical prudence of Powell to the cerebral zeal of Wolfowitz-back to long before the end of the Cold War, thus demonstrating important continuities at work. It becomes apparent that, among Republicans, the case for multilateralism and caution never really recovered from the disappointing outcome of the 1991 Persian Gulf War-Saddam's survival.
Coll also provides vital background with his detailed telling of the CIA's involvement in the tangled, vicious politics of Afghanistan. The complex story warns of how measures that make sense in the short term (in this case, arming the anti-Soviet mujahideen with advanced weaponry and acquiescing in the rise of the Taliban) can have dire long-term consequences (the rise of fervently anti-Western Islamic militancy). Coll is severe in his criticism of U.S. policy, which often failed simply by not paying enough attention to detail, and of the roles of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in creating a movement that eventually came to threaten them. As al Qaeda began to use Afghanistan to launch terrorist attacks, the Clinton administration (including counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who cultivated an air of "sinister mystery" but was right on the big issue of the danger posed by Osama bin Laden) found itself bereft of options. The book closes with the murder of one of the more promising anti-Taliban warlords, Ahmed Shah Massoud, just as final preparations for September 11 were being made.
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