Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power Audio CD – Audiobook, 5 Jun 2012
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"A must-read for policy wonks and a good primer on how American power works beyond our borders."
"Penetrating history of the presiden'ts effort to grapple with a world in flux..."
" New York Times"
"Sanger is one of the leading national security reporters in the United States, and this astonishingly revealing insider's account of the Obama administration's foreign policy process is a triumph of the genre.''
" Foreign Affairs
""Meticulously reported, immensely readable..."
" The Washington Post"" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
DAVID E. SANGER is the chief Washington correspondent for the "New York Times" and bestselling author of "The Inheritance." He has been a member of two teams that won the Pulitzer Prize and has received numerous awards for coverage of the presidency and national security policy. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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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
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.
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).
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.
Some critics have rightfully pointed to the chapter on U.S. cyber-warfare efforts against Iran (aka "Olympic Games") as revelatory. It certainly is a fascinating exposé, one that may very well justify the price of the book, but I found that the overall purpose of the book - to explore a wide-ranging survey of reportage dealing with the emerging "Obama Doctrine" - served a much more serviceable purpose. Sanger covers U.S. policy with respect to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, drone warfare, China, North Korea, and the "Arab Spring" (i.e., Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria). That's a lot of territory for one politically oriented trade book.
Sanger is clearly sympathetic to the Obama administration's plight, and generally paints a favorable portrait of their tenure ("Confront and Conceal" is a follow-up to its favorably-reviewed predecessor, "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power"). Still, it's hardly a fawning encomium. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in current foreign policy challenges; however, it may be rather dull for policy wonks who are, perhaps, more well-informed than an average low-information voter.