< Book Club


Friday, October 16, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we heard, most of the coverage concerns the policy questions confronting the president. It’s a complicated calculation, and underlying it all is history. Recently we read that two books about the Vietnam War are being passed around Washington and shaping the debate over Afghanistan. The first, popular in military circles, is Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, which argues that we might have won in Vietnam but that just as new counterinsurgency tactics were starting to work, we had to withdraw because we had lost the war at home. The other book, Lesson in Disaster, by Gordon Goldstein, traces how confused and contradictory military advice led to terrible decision-making by past presidents. That book is favored by White House insiders and has apparently appeared on Obama’s nightstand. All of this reading is making New Yorker staff writer, George Packer, a little nervous. After reading Lesson in Disaster himself, he can see many similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan and President Kennedy’s dilemma and Obama’s. But, he says, presidents cannot find the path to the present in the past, although he can see why it’s tempting.

GEORGE PACKER: The parallels were eerie, and it was just the easiest thing in the world to imagine Obama in John F. Kennedy’s place. A new president inherits a conflict, has made some campaign promises about it but, at the same time is a very rational thinker who doesn't want to destroy his presidency by being bulldozed into a war by his military advisors. That was Kennedy’s position. That is Obama’s position. So it didn't surprise me that this book, apparently, has made its way to the presidential bedroom.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, George, talk to me about books and presidents. We know that The Guns of August, which chronicled how the great powers of Europe spiraled uncontrollably into World War I, was very important to John F. Kennedy. He quoted from it often. He handed it out to everybody in the top ranks of the Army. He used it as a cautionary tale when confronting a possible war in Southeast Asia.

GEORGE PACKER: The Guns of August really was not a particularly relevant [LAUGHS] historical analogy for Vietnam. You know, Bill Clinton inherited a war in Bosnia, and he had campaigned on the need for America to somehow intervene to stop it. He then picked up Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, which he took to mean, stay out. This is an old, ancient blood feud and no outsider can put an end to it. That was a very bad reading of the war in Bosnia. He went to the book that told him what he probably wanted to hear, because he, like Kennedy, did not want to begin his administration getting America deeper into a war that could consume his domestic agenda.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But then it seems that Clinton picked up Michael Sells’ book, The Bridge Betrayed: Reform and Genocide in Bosnia, which argued that the ethnic conflict had ebbed and flowed through the years and that the West could make a difference.

GEORGE PACKER: Right, well, I think these presidents get to the book at the moment when they want to. George W. Bush read something like 90 books in 2006, according to Karl Rove. They had a competition. Bush won. It’s too bad that he didn't read any books that year that might have told him that the Iraq War was turning into a cataclysm, because he didn't seem to know it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Bush apparently did encounter one book that shaped him, though. It was by the famous Russian dissident who became an Israeli politician, Natan Sharansky, called The Case for Democracy.

GEORGE PACKER: Because it told him that people everywhere want to be free and that once they're free and living under a democratic government, there will be no more terrorism. Again, when presidents go looking for books that provide a mirror to reflect their own views, I think books can be dangerous. What every president really should learn is that no two decisions are the same. No two wars are the same. You know, neither Lessons in Disaster nor A Better War can really tell Obama what to do and not do in Afghanistan.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote in your blog posting that history tells you how to think, not what to think.

GEORGE PACKER: What I meant by that is in the case of Vietnam you can read Lessons in Disaster and A Better War and learn a lot about the need to keep an open mind, to listen to dissenting views, to ask hard questions about goals and strategies, to be brave enough to overrule your advisors who've been around a lot longer than you have. Those are all ways of thinking, but they cannot give you the answers, these books. They cannot tell you we need more troops in Afghanistan or we don't need more troops in Afghanistan, because the early years in Vietnam went badly or because the later years in Vietnam went a little better. I think Obama does care about how he thinks and doesn't have all the answers sort of lined up on cue cards. And so, his reading of these books, I think and hope, is designed to make him a better president by making him a better thinker and not simply to give him answers that only his own time and his own presidency can offer.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: George, thank you very much.

GEORGE PACKER: Always my pleasure, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Packer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of several books, including Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade, out later this month.