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Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power [Audiobook] [Audio CD]

David E. Sanger , Robertson Dean
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

5 Jun 2012
“Stunning revelations…This is an account that long will be consulted by anyone trying to understand not just Iran but warfare in the 21st century…an important book.” –Tom Ricks, New York Times

Inside the White House Situation Room, the newly elected Barack Obama immerses himself in the details of a remark­able new American capability to launch cyberwar against Iran—and escalates covert operations to delay the day when the mullahs could obtain a nuclear weapon. Over the next three years Obama accelerates drone attacks as an alter­native to putting troops on the ground in Pakistan, and becomes increasingly reliant on the Special Forces, whose hunting of al-Qaeda illuminates the path out of an unwin­nable war in Afghanistan.
Confront and Conceal provides readers with a picture of an administration that came to office with the world on fire. It takes them into the Situation Room debate over how to undermine Iran’s program while simultaneously trying to prevent Israel from taking military action that could plunge the region into another war. It dissects how the bin Laden raid worsened the dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan. And it traces how Obama’s early idealism about fighting “a war of necessity” in Afghanistan quickly turned to fatigue and frustration.
One of the most trusted and acclaimed national security correspondents in the country, David Sanger of the New York Times takes readers deep inside the Obama adminis­tration’s most perilous decisions: The president dispatch­es an emergency search team to the Gulf when the White House briefly fears the Taliban may have obtained the Bomb, but he rejects a plan in late 2011 to send in Special Forces to recover a stealth drone that went down in Iran. Obama overrules his advisers and takes the riskiest path in killing Osama bin Laden, and ignores their advice when he helps oust Hosni Mubarak from the presidency of Egypt.
“The surprise is his aggressiveness,” a key ambassador who works closely with Obama reports.
Yet the president has also pivoted American foreign policy away from the attritional wars of the past decade, attempting to preserve America’s influence with a lighter, defter touch—all while focusing on a new era of diplomacy in Asia and reconfiguring America’s role during a time of economic turmoil and austerity.
As the world seeks to understand whether there is an Obama Doctrine, Confront and Conceal is a fascinating, unflinching account of these complex years, in which the president and his administration have found themselves struggling to stay ahead in a world where power is diffuse and America’s ability to exert control grows ever more elusive.

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Product details

  • Audio CD: 13 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group; Unabridged edition (5 Jun 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307990478
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307990471
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 13 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,529,271 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This thrilling book allows you to live through the decision mechanisms that map world politics today. The historical 'story-line' for each of the political decisions covered in the book is elegantly narrated by someone who obviously had extensive access to the decision-makers of the Obama administration.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fine journalism, interesting analysis 15 Feb 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
Sanger goes beyond reporting and brings a timely analysis of Obama's first term foreign policy. It is revealing in many aspects, from the secret cyber operations to the main debates among the president and its advisors.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read 30 Aug 2013
By Robing
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
An interesting read which, if true, just reminds me of how devious our politicians really are. However, it gives a good insight into how all governments work and think.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thorough and exciting 17 Jan 2013
The book offers detailed and off-the-record stories on Obama's main foreign policy concerns: Afghanistan, Iran, Arab Spring, and China/Norht Korea. Albeit non-fiction, the book often reads like an exciting story. Must have for Obama fans and foreign policy addicts.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  74 reviews
89 of 100 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to the Wars of the 21st Century 7 Jun 2012
By Herbert L Calhoun - Published on
Piggybacking on GW Bush's earlier forays into cyber warfare, President Obama, in lieu of having to launch (or having to prevent Israel from launching) a full-scaled air attack, elected to launch instead, a joint cyber attack with Israel on the centrifuges at Iran's Natanz nuclear plant. In retrospect, it can be seen that Obama's motive for pulling Israel into a highly secret cyber project was designed primarily to dissuade our closest Middle East Ally, from launching its own unilateral (but what would have probably been a highly destabilizing) military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. This well-written book goes into such scary detail about the whole enterprise, that like John McCain in his recent call for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the matter, I too wondered how a New York Times Reporter could get access to so many intricate details of such a closely held national security secret?

Here is a rough summary of the most interesting part of the book in my view: the author's description of how a Bush initiated project called "Olympic Games," unfolded and got played out under Obama's direction:

Following up on previous efforts to surreptitiously install faulty parts into Iran's German made computer systems and power supplies, General James Cartwright, of the U.S. strategic command, convinced President GW Bush that launching a cyber penetration effort could be at least as effective as the stratagem of trying to introduce faulty parts. Bush bought into Cartwright's idea, which outlined a way of gaining access to the Natanz plant's industrial computer controls by the innocent introduction via a thumb drive of a small bit of "sleeper" code called a "beacon." Once the "beacon" entered the system, its job was then to surreptitiously map the complete operation of the facility's master control system and report the results back to the NSA.

This scenario was played out exactly as General Cartwright had planned it to be; and once the beacon did its job, NSA (by now under the Obama administration's direction), engaged in a joint effort with the Israeli version of our own NSA cyber experts. Together they developed a "worm" called Stuxnet, that, without making itself known to the target, infiltrated and fouled up the operational controls of the Iranian centrifuges. In effect, and without tipping off its own presence, Stuxnet instructed the centrifuges to self-destruct, leaving control panel gauges with readings that would be perfectly normal for an uneventful operational state.

The exercise worked to perfection with two exceptions. First, although the worm did indeed knock out about a thousand or so Iranian centrifuges, they were back up and running in little over a year. Second, an Iranian Scientist accidentally downloaded the worm onto his private laptop, and unwittingly disseminated it across the Internet. This boomerang effect, for obvious reasons, set off alarm bells in Washington and Tel Aviv.

The moral of this exercise is a non-political one, but is nevertheless a profound one, and can only stand as a cautionary tale about playing with "cyber weapons" that we neither fully understand nor can fully control: The cautionary tale is that these weapons can have profound far-reaching unintended consequences. In a world where cyber technology, and thus cyber weapons, are available to anyone, whether they be nations, innocent or mercenary computer hackers, or terrorists, all nations, including the largest and most sophisticated ones, are equally vulnerable. And once attacked, it is next to impossible for those attacked, to know the identity of the attacker. Unless that is, the country happens to be the U.S., who sooner rather than later will spill its guts and spill the beans on itself, and admit that it was the attacker: A devastatingly clear and alarming read that does not pander to the Obama administration, but reveals the risk Obama will take to get on the good side of our national security and Israeli hawks. Five stars
51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Get it and think for yourself 10 Jun 2012
By Park Ave - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book and a few related articles have riled political Washington for the past week. Sanger obviously had very high access, has sourced his open facts very well and wrote an excellent book. Here's a great inside look at the past three years of diplomacy, covert action and internal Administration deliberations.

I won't give another summary here; others already have. I will echo another reviewer's irritation at Sanger's introduction of Obama as "typical dovish Democrat" and transition to "Hawk." Sanger needed to tell a story here; like many in the Washington press corps, he is shocked (SHOCKED!) to find the President would act like either a "Hawk" or a politician. Sanger has difficulty moving away from that bit of conventional wisdom, an understandable problem given his own position as a New York Times reporter.

The only other point the book seems to lack is a deeper discussion of the legal and geo-political ramifications of nation-states' use of cyberwarfare in peacetime. Sanger brings up the point of nations using military-designed computer programs to weaken or spy upon other nations. Is this an act of war? Where is that line to be drawn? Sanger asks the question but doesn't search very far for his own position, nor does he look to any other outside voices on the subject.

So, we have an extended news article here, focusing on several challenges to the United States around the world and how this Administration has met them, for good or ill. Sanger doesn't take much of a position of his own, but this won't stop reviewers, talking heads, the left-wing blogosphere or right-wing shriek radio from spinning this book to their own ends. I believe this book is worth the money to read and decide for yourself.
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Confronting the Obama Doctrine 13 Jun 2012
By H. P. - Published on
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Confront and Conceal is, in many ways, the sequel to The Inheritance. The Inheritance was about the foreign policy challenges Obama inherited from Bush. In Confront and Conceal, Sanger examines how Obama has faced those changes and attempts to pin down an "Obama Doctrine." In Inheritance, Sanger presented America's foreign policy challenges as almost siloed. Here, he makes clear that our continued presence in Afghanistan is largely driven by our strategic interests in Pakistan, and those strategic interests are amplified by our interest in not leaving Pakistan with the alternative of China as their major ally and benefactor. And the money to pay for it all comes from the same place. Everything is linked.

Confront and Conceal is organized into five parts, covering: Afghanistan & Pakistan, Iran, drones & cyber warfare, the Arab Spring, and China & North Korea. The section on Afghanistan & Pakistan is the longest by a fair margin, taking up almost one third of the book. China & North Korea, by comparison, is given short shrift. In my mind, it's hard to argue that the Arab Spring deserves twice the space as China & North Korea.

A renewed exuberance for the Afghan war (reflecting Obama's campaign rhetoric) soon faded under sober inspection. Transforming Afghanistan into a modern nation was not and never had been feasible. There is simply no way to replace the development aid and military spending that accounted for the vast majority of Afghanistan's GDP. So our focus shifted to warily watching Pakistan and (rightly) putting our pursuit of al-Qaeda first, even if it means jeopardizing our relationship with Pakistan, as the mission to kill Osama bin Laden did. In the end, we will likely leave Afghanistan little better off than it was (although we lasted longer there than the Soviets), our relationship with Pakistan will remain fraught (but we can never end it lest China fill our void), and al-Qaeda may eventually be able to rebuild, but there is no doubt that we have dealt al-Qaeda a mighty blow. It is the one true success of the last three years.

Iran is one of two instances where Obama's policy of more open engagement backfired on us. It soured our relationship with Israel (with settlements already a sore spot), and we wound up reacting to them instead of being proactive. We launched America's first major cyber attack, dubbed Olympic Games, in conjunction with the Israelis in part to prevent them from preemptively bombing Iran. It was enormously successful on one level. We set Iran's nuclear program back years. But we also inadvertently released a virus into the "wild," and we have merely delayed, not stopped, Iran's progress. Perhaps most disconcerting about this section is an apparent acquiescence to an eventual nuclear Iran on the part of members of the Obama administration (Israel understandably feels different; this is their Cuban Missile Crisis).

Drones and cyber warfare of course get ample attention in the first two parts, but Sanger devotes a (short) section entirely to them as well. They have become integral to American strategy. They were the two covert programs Bush urged Obama to preserve. Obama has not only preserved, but greatly expanded, our efforts on both fronts. And he has been deeply involved; "[p]erhaps not since Lyndon Johnson had sat in the same room, more than four decades before, picking bombing targets in North Vietnam, had a president of the United States been so intimately involved in the step-by-step escalation of an attack on a foreign nation's infrastructure." With cyber warfare, for now all the advantages lay with the attacker: they can wait for just the right moment to strike, the victim won't know who hit him for far too long, and there is no effective deterrence. These are more disconcerting when we consider our own vulnerabilities. The attacks on Iran also showed that cyber attacks can cause physical damage.

The Arab Spring caught the administration flat-footed. But who could have ever predicted something like that? The better measure is how we reacted. Obama bumbled with Egypt, hit all the right notes in Lebanon (where Sanger sees American interests as small), and has been helpless to prevent the slaughter Syria (which Sanger sees as much more important to American interests). But for all its greater strategic importance, Syria is challenging in all the ways Lebanon was not, as Sanger takes pains to show.

The label `China and North Korea' is a bit of a misnomer. It's really a section on China with a few mentions of North Korea. But only because there isn't much to say. How could we have learned so little in the past three years about a country that we once called part of an axis of evil? Sanger has little to nothing new to say about new North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Open engagement hurt us in China too--many Chinese leaders saw it as weakness. Americans often view China as monolithic and under the utter control of Hu Jintao, but Sanger explains that efforts to decentralize eroded the power of the central government, and American intelligence officers now recognize three factions: isolationists, those who see us as a friendly rival, and those who see us as a less-than-friendly rival.

Sanger's primary goal is to pin down an Obama Doctrine (words the administration adamantly refuses to utter). He ultimately boils it down to a strategy of confrontation and concealment. Obama is no less likely than Bush to order a preemptive strike. He is far more likely to do it with drones, cyber weapons, or special forces. Ground wars are to be avoided at all costs. It's too early to judge Obama's presidency, though. Early on, Sanger points out that at this point in their presidencies, Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't look like debacles, Nixon hadn't gone to China, and Truman's policy of containment was still an experiment.

Where I think Sanger (and Obama) get it wrong is in the idea of a "new" military. A smaller, more flexible military that can strike but isn't built to wage wars of occupation. But we thought much the same in the 90s. We will, at some point, feel we need to go into a country and wage war on the ground, and we will need ground troops to do it. And that ability gives us no small measure of "soft power."

This review is of the Kindle edition. Photos are in the middle, as is most common in a traditional book, instead of at the end as is most common in Kindle books in my experience. Reference material begins at the 86% mark. It consists of Acknowledgements, A Note on Sources, and Endnotes (linked both ways).
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Barack Obama's foreign and military policy viewed from the inside 19 Jun 2012
By Mal Warwick - Published on
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When I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, I expected a great deal from his Presidency -- much too much, it's clear in hindsight. What I didn't expect was that as President he would exercise U.S. military power almost as aggressively as George W. Bush. As the subtitle of this excellent book hints so broadly, the apparently anti-war candidate Obama quickly morphed in office into a resolute, hands-on Commander in Chief.

In his campaign, Obama had "promised to restore traditional American `engagement' by talking and listening to America's most troubling adversaries and reluctant partners. His supporters saw a welcome turn away from the `with us or against us' black-and-whites of the Bush years. His critics saw naivete and softness. Both have been surprised. This is a book about those surprises."

In practice, Obama learned that his brand of engagement yielded little more than vitriolic rhetoric from Iranian mullahs, North Korean generals, and the Pakistani military. What has proved far more effective are the actions he could take consistent with his more sophisticated view of American power: a massive increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the country's first-ever (known) use of cyberwarfare in a targeted attack on Iran's nuclear program, along with increasingly brutal sanctions on the country and its government; the ever-growing use of Special Forces in operations such as the murder of Osama bin Laden; and a pronounced "pivot" from Europe to Asia in combating the rise of China, as exemplified by the opening of a new military base in Australia. While ending U.S. participation in our "war of choice" in Iraq and beginning the pullout from Afghanistan, President Obama has sharply stepped up our use of the weapons of war in a growing number of undeclared and sometimes undercover hostilities.

Make no mistake about it: Barack Obama has made an idelible mark on the U.S. military and intelligence services, sharpening their missions and reshaping their priorities, and all while forcing them to live within more limited means. And anyone who might be tempted to think that Obama acted this way out of weakness needs to understand that great extent to which he made decisions at crucial times in the face of opposition from nearly all those around him -- in giving the green light to the Navy SEAL mission to kill bin Laden, and in deciding to ask Hosni Mubarak to resign. As Sanger writes, "`He personally basically overrode just about his entire government,' said one official in the room, noting that Gates and Clinton were still actively opposed, `Look, this is what I'm going to do,' Obama said, according to notes of the meeting. `I'm going to call [Mubarak] now.'"

All this, and more, comes to light in the five sections that form the backbone of this book. Sanger writes about each of the leading hotspots in turn: Afghanistan and Pakistan; Iran; Egypt; China and North Korea. This is truly world-class reporting, informed by sources at the very highest levels of the U.S. government.

Sanger concludes, "It is too early to know if the emerging Obama Doctrine -- a lighter footprint around the world, and a reliance on coalitions to deal with global problems that do not directly threaten American security -- will prove a lasting formula. His effort at `rebalancing' away from the quagmires in the Middle East toward the continent of greatest promise in the future -- Asia -- was long overdue. But it is a change of emphasis more than a change of direction. Obama proved her was adaptable to new realities, what James Fallows rightly called `the main trait we can hope for in a president.'"

If you've ever wondered what it might be like to be a 30-year veteran of The New York Times and serve as its Chief Washington Correspondent, read this extraordinary book with an eye on those sources, both named and anonymous, and their revelations, which pop up seemingly on every page. You'll see, then, how very deeply embedded in the fabric of official Washington is this one newspaper -- a newspaper that serves as the source of an extraordinary proportion of the stories that make their way onto evening news broadcasts and the front pages of other papers around the world. In laying bare the pattern of Barack Obama's surprisingly aggressive use of military power, Confront and Conceal is just as effective in revealing David Sanger's unusually high-level access at the White House, the CIA, and the Pentagon.

17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but Not Objective 3 Aug 2012
By F. M. Bobbitt - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book is interesting reading.

It is disappointing that an author would undermine the national security of this country by printing what is obviously classified details about our covert activities. I'm sure some cheer the fact that a number of our covert initiatives have been revealed in surprising detail, but as a former career Marine infantry officer with three years in combat, I always felt I had my hands full getting my missions accomplished and keeping my Marines as safe as possible without brilliant authors and journalists reducing our chances of survival. In that respect, I'm biased and when it comes to highly sensitive information, my rule is to "do no harm" to those whose lives are already at risk. I think a lot of harm has been done with this book.

And I found the author to be too much of a cheerleader for Obama throughout the book. There is some mild criticisms of Obama, but his adulation for this President is glaringly obvious. For example, he is long winded over how courageous Obama has been in "continuing" the drone attacks and cyber warfare programs that were started under the Bush administration. I fail to see what is courageous about continuing programs that had been in use for years before he was elected. Sanger also portrays Obama as captian courageous for approving the mission to kill Osama Bin Ladin. I'm pretty sure that 95% of the people in the United States would not have hesitated to approve that particular mission, so while it was the right thing to do, the courage goes to the SEALs and TF-160 pilots who put their lives on the line and not to anyone in Washington DC who gave it the green light.

I just felt Sanger was too quick to give credit and accolades when there didn't seem much to justify it in the details. It seems like calling an air traffic controller courageous for clearing an airliner to land when the pilot is the one who has to make the safe landing.

I would have liked to have seen a more balanced analysis. The vast majority of sources in the book are from Obama senior advisors who I think would perhaps have a tendency to put a positive spin on the things they and/or the administration did. I didn't see much in the way of insights from critics who were experts in such activities. Perhaps there were no critics, but I would find that hard to believe.

Still, I'd recommend the book. The horses are long gone now, and so there is no sense in trying to close the barn door. But the information revealed in this book will make it ten times more difficult to conduct similar operations in the future.
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