Friday, March 30, 2012

The Way of the World

 A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism
Ron Suskind

I found this 2008 book, by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ron Suskind, a bit problematical. Written near the end of the Bush/Cheney second term, it blatantly characterizes George W. Bush as a bully, not in some policy sense, but personally, as the kid who picks on smaller kids in the schoolyard and takes their lunch money. This is a postulate, unsupported by any evidence. Perhaps Suskind had already made that case in a previous book but, if so, he made no reference to it.

Suskind follows several people in the book, in a novelistic sort of way. Are these real people doing and saying real things? Wendy Chamberlin, certainly, is a real diplomat, now at the Middle East Institute. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen actually was a top CIA employee and now works at the Kennedy School of Government. But how about Usman Khosa, from Pakistan or Ibrahim Frontan, a high school exchange student from a small village in Afghanistan? Suskind reports extensive private conversations between these people and friends in Pakistan, Washington D.C., Colorado. Pennsylvania. Did he interview Khosa's sister about what they talked about during a visit to Lahore for a family wedding? Did he talk to the other kids in Frontan's two high schools? I don't know where the reporting leaves off and the fiction begins in The Way of the World. I didn't see much hope in the book, though, even were it one hundred percent truth.

The lesson driven home is that the Bush administration manipulated public opinion and lied about the cause for war in Iraq. We already knew that. Suskind suggests that the U.S. be humble in our policy regarding the Middle East. That hardly seems possible. Do we apologize and pull all our troops out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Oops, sorry, our mistake. Politely ask Israel to give Jerusalem to the Palistinians? Not likely, unless we want the Taliban back in Kabul by fall and massive Israeli lobbying against whatever administration took Suskind's advice.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is in the book looking for a way to energize the search for stray nuclear material throughout the world. His chapters are frightening and not hopeful at all. Wendy Chamberlin, I think, is the model on which Suskind would like to build a new American foreign policy. She worked on Arab/Israeli relations for the State Department, became the UN High Commissioner on Refugees where she attempted to rally assistance for South Sudan and Darfur. Wouldn't it be great if we could just give food and medicine to everyone in need and not worry about Alkaida, North Korea, Iran or a dozen othe sources of potential chaos?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Feast Day of Fools

James Lee Burke

The latest in James Lee Burke's Hackberry Holland series finds the nearly eighty year old west Texas sheriff involved with the kidnapping of an engineer who has the entire plan of the Predator drone in his head. From this improbable premise a mountain of improbabilities is built, which the reader may scarcely notice, while the suspense rolls on.

The idea that one person could sit down with a pencil an a piece of paper and draw out a set of plans which would allow Alkaida to build it's own homemade Predator, which Noeie Barnum is purported to be capable of, is an absurd idea. This provides the motivation for the FBI, a familiar Russian crime boss, the son of a former US Senator and a couple of Mexican coyotes to cause a lot of chaos in Hackberry Holland's county. Everybody is looking for this guy. Most want to sell him, and his talents, to the highest bidder.

It takes a while to find him, of course, because he is hiding out with the equally improbable Preacher Jack Collins, Holland's nemesis, a scruffy mad serial killer who lives out of dumpsters and goodwill stores, and, by the way, is a very rich man, with no explainable means of support, that can have a new Toyota delivered to him at a truck stop and hire unreliable Mexican criminals to screw up his plans, whatever he needs.

Three quarters of the way through the book, Burke seems to tire of Noeie Barnum as a device and summarily dismisses him from the story. By this time, another character "La Magdelena," a Cambodian woman who runs a way station for illegal aliens who have just crossed the border, has been kidnapped and taken to Mexico by the Russians, who plan to trade her for Barnum, who is now being held in "protective custody" in Holland's jail. Holland, turns Barnum loose and tells him to hitch hike out of his county, teams up with Jack Collins to invade their heavily guarded compound and rescue her, thus ending the book on a highly ambiguous note.

Feast Day of Fools is highly flawed and illogical. It is also a great page turner, full of unspeakable violence, if you like that sort of thing.