Quick Review: TO START A WAR by Robert Draper (Penguin Press)

DraperR-ToStartAWarUSAn interesting, well-written, and extensive investigation into what the US went to war with Iraq

Even now, after more than fifteen years, it is hard to see the invasion of Iraq through the cool, considered gaze of history. For too many people, the damage is still too palpable, and still unfolding. Most of the major players in that decision are still with us, and few of them are not haunted by it, in one way or another. Perhaps it’s that combination, the passage of the years and the still unresolved trauma, that explains why so many protagonists opened up so fully for the first time to Robert Draper.

Draper’s prodigious reporting has yielded scores of consequential new revelations, from the important to the merely absurd. As a whole, the book paints a vivid and indelible picture of a decision-making process that was fatally compromised by a combination of post-9/11 fear and paranoia, rank naïveté, craven groupthink, and a set of actors with idées fixes who gamed the process relentlessly. Everything was believed; nothing was true. The intelligence failure was comprehensive. Draper’s fair-mindedness and deep understanding of the principal actors suffuse his account, as does a storytelling genius that is close to sorcery. There are no cheap shots here, which makes the ultimate conclusion all the more damning.

In the spirit of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, To Start A War will stand as the definitive account of a collective process that arrived at evidence that would prove to be not just dubious but entirely false, driven by imagination rather than a quest for truth — evidence that was then used to justify a verdict that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and a flood tide of chaos in the Middle East that shows no signs of ebbing.

“Why did Bush et al shift their focus from Afghanistan and al Qaeda to Saddam and Iraq?” This is a question that many have been trying to answer, with varying degrees of success ever since the shift happened. In his latest book, Draper presents an account of how the United States ended up in Iraq. It’s an interesting, wide-ranging investigation. Continue reading

Review: THE PEOPLE, NO by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books)

FrankT-ThePeopleNoThe interesting, if flawed history of American populism and its corruption by the elite

Rarely does a work of history contain startling implications for the present, but in The People, No Thomas Frank pulls off that explosive effect by showing us that everything we think we know about populism is wrong. Today “populism” is seen as a frightening thing, a term pundits use to describe the racist philosophy of Donald Trump and European extremists. But this is a mistake.

The real story of populism is an account of enlightenment and liberation; it is the story of American democracy itself, of its ever-widening promise of a decent life for all. Taking us from the tumultuous 1890s, when the radical left-wing Populist Party — the biggest mass movement in American history — fought Gilded Age plutocrats to the reformers’ great triumphs under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Frank reminds us how much we owe to the populist ethos. Frank also shows that elitist groups have reliably detested populism, lashing out at working-class concerns. The anti-populist vituperations by the Washington centrists of today are only the latest expression.

Frank pummels the elites, revisits the movement’s provocative politics, and declares true populism to be the language of promise and optimism. The People, No is a ringing affirmation of a movement that, Frank shows us, is not the problem of our times, but the solution for what ails us.

I’ve been a fan of Thomas Frank’s writing for some time, now. His books have offered plenty of interesting and incisive examinations and critiques of American politics, culture, and economics. In The People, No, he turns his attention to “populism”: a term that has become quite ubiquitous in the age of Trump, but it is a term that is widely misunderstood. Frank provides a history of this movement, and explains how it has been twisted for nefarious ends. Continue reading

Upcoming: IF THEN by Jill Lepore (Liveright)

LeporeJ-IfThenA new Jill Lepore book is always something to celebrate! And this latest looks quite different from the author’s previous histories. In the past, Lepore has covered topics such as the storytelling tradition in America (The Story of America), The Secret History of Wonder Woman, and has also tackled the Herculean task of writing a single-volume history of the United States (These Truths). If Then is a history of a data company established during the Cold War and how its influence can still be felt today. Here’s the synopsis:

A brilliant, revelatory account of the Cold War origins of the data-mad, algorithmic twenty-first century, from the author of the acclaimed international bestseller These Truths.

The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge — decades before Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley likes to imagine that it has no past, but the scientists of Simulmatics are the long-dead grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Borrowing from psychological warfare, they used computers to predict and direct human behavior, deploying their “People Machine” from New York, Cambridge, and Saigon for clients that included John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the New York Times, Young & Rubicam, and, during the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense.

Jill Lepore, distinguished Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, unearthed from archives the almost unbelievable story of this long-vanished corporation, and of the women hidden behind it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world now finds itself trapped and tormented, algorithm by algorithm.

I’m really looking forward to reading this. I would also highly recommend The Story of America and The Secret History of Wonder Woman. If you are looking for a single-volume history of the United States, then These Truths is certainly one to consider (I’ve typically found that genre rather unwieldy, but Lepore’s book is excellent).

If Then is due to be published by Liveright in North America and in the UK, on September 15th, 2020.

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Quick Review: THE CORROSION OF CONSERVATISM by Max Boot (Liveright)

BootM-CorrosionOfConservatismAn interesting account of a Republican’s departure from his life-long political home

Warning that the Trump presidency presages America’s decline, the political commentator recounts his extraordinary journey from lifelong Republican to vehement Trump opponent.

As nativism, xenophobia, vile racism, and assaults on the rule of law threaten the very fabric of our nation, The Corrosion of Conservatism presents an urgent defense of American democracy.

Pronouncing Mexican immigrants to be “rapists,” Donald Trump announced his 2015 presidential bid, causing Max Boot to think he was watching a dystopian science-fiction movie. The respected conservative historian couldn’t fathom that the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan could endorse such an unqualified reality-TV star. Yet the Twilight Zone episode that Boot believed he was watching created an ideological dislocation so shattering that Boot’s transformation from Republican foreign policy adviser to celebrated anti-Trump columnist becomes the dramatic story of The Corrosion of Conservatism.

No longer a Republican, but also not a Democrat, Boot here records his ideological journey from a “movement” conservative to a man without a party, beginning with his political coming-of-age as a young émigré from the Soviet Union, enthralled with the National Review and the conservative intellectual tradition of Russell Kirk and F. A. Hayek. Against this personal odyssey, Boot simultaneously traces the evolution of modern American conservatism, jump-started by Barry Goldwater’s canonical The Conscience of a Conservative, to the rise of Trumpism and its gradual corrosion of what was once the Republican Party.

While 90 percent of his fellow Republicans became political “toadies” in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Boot stood his ground, enduring the vitriol of his erstwhile conservative colleagues, trolled on Twitter by a white supremacist who depicted his “execution” in a gas chamber by a smiling, Nazi-clad Trump. And yet, Boot nevertheless remains a villain to some partisan circles for his enduring commitment to conservative fiscal and national security principles. It is from this isolated position, then, that Boot launches this bold declaration of dissent and its urgent plea for true, bipartisan cooperation.

With uncompromising insights, The Corrosion of Conservatism evokes both a president who has traduced every norm and the rise of a nascent centrist movement to counter Trump’s assault on democracy.

I’ve been aware of Max Boot’s writings for a long time. I read many of his articles as part of my research for one of my PhD chapters. I frequently disagreed with him, especially on US domestic policy, but was always interested in reading what he thought about foreign policy (the subject of my thesis). During 2016, like many who are interested in/obsessed with US politics, I noticed his sharp break from his party and have watched with interest his evolution as his former-party has imploded and wholly bought into Trumpism. Continue reading

Recommendation: Penguin’s World War I China Specials

ChinaPenguinSpecials-WWI

This series of nine short books is fantastic. I bought them quite some time ago — they were released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — but I have finally caught up. If you have any interest in learning about China, then I would highly recommend these books. Each of them was informative, engaging, sometimes entertaining, and frequently brutally honest. Continue reading

Upcoming: OUR TOWNS by James & Deborah Fallows (Pantheon)

Fallows-OurTownsUSI have long been a fan of James Fallows‘s journalism — I first read his work in The Atlantic, back in 2007 when he was still living in China (some of his articles from that time have been collected in the excellent Postcards From Tomorrow Square, which I’m reading at the moment). This year, Pantheon will publish Fallows’s latest book, co-written with his wife, Deborah FallowsOur Towns. Here’s the synopsis:

A vivid, surprising portrait of the civic and economic reinvention taking place in America, town by town and generally out of view of the national media. A realistically positive and provocative view of the country between its coasts.

For the last five years, James and Deborah Fallows have been traveling across America in a single-engine prop airplane. Visiting dozens of towns, they have met hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants, librarians, business people, city planners, students, and entrepreneurs to take the pulse and understand the prospects of places that usually draw notice only after a disaster or during a political campaign.

The America they saw is acutely conscious of its problems — from economic dislocation to the opioid scourge — but itis also crafting solutions, with a practical-minded determination at dramatic odds with the bitter paralysis of national politics. At times of dysfunction on a national level, reform possibilities have often arisen from the local level. The Fallowses describe America in the middle of one of these creative waves. Their view of the country is as complex and contradictory as America itself, but it also reflects the energy, the generosity and compassion, the dreams, and the determination of many who are in the midst of making things better. Our Towns is the story of their journey — and an account of a country busy remaking itself.

I received an ARC of this book recently, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. (I’ll probably start it either after finishing Postcards…, or after my next non-fiction read.)

Follow the Authors: Goodreads — James/Deborah; Twitter — James/Deborah

Quick Review: WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT by Jeffrey Rosen (Times Books)

RosenJ-APS27-WilliamHowardTaftAn excellent, short introduction to the life and career of the 27th president

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

William Howard Taft is one of the lesser-known presidents. For many, if he is known at all, it is due to the fact that he was quite large. It’s unfortunate that his story has been boiled down into a punch-line. A life-long Republican who was enamoured with the Constitution and those who crafted it, he spent his career judiciously adhering to what he saw as the tenets laid down by the Founding Fathers. He was meticulous, he was extremely intelligent and well-read. He placed principle above party at almost all times. In his contribution to the excellent American Presidents Series, Rosen gives readers a very good, short and engaging introduction to Taft’s life and career. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE LIFE OF ANDREW JACKSON by Robert V. Remini (Harper)

ReminiRV-LifeOfAndrewJacksonUSA very useful, infuriating single-volume biography of the seventh president

Robert V. Remini’s prize-winning, three-volume biography Life of Andrew Jackson won the National Book Award on its completion in 1984 and is recognized as one of the greatest lives of a U.S. President. In this meticulously crafted single-volume abridgment, Remini captures the essence of the life and career of the seventh president of the United States. As president, from 1829-1837, Jackson was a significant force in the nations’s expansion, the growth of presidential power, and the transition from republicanism to democracy.

Jackson is a highly controversial figure who is undergoing historical reconsideration today. He is known as spurring the emergence of the modern American political division of Republican and Democractic parties, for the infamous Indian removal on the Trail of Tears, and for his brave victory against the British as Major General at the Battle of New Orleans.

Never an apologist, Remini portrays Jackson as a foreceful, sometimes tragic, hero — a man whose strength and flaws were larger than life, a president whose conviction provided the nation with one of the most influential, colorful, and controversial administrations in our history.

Robert V. Remini is considered one of the preeminent scholars of Andrew Jackson and his times. His three-volume biography of Jackson won the National Book Award and many think of it as one of the best, substantial biographies of any president. In The Life of Andrew Jackson, he has written a comprehensive, (relatively) briskly paced biography. However, the book suffers from one major flaw that coloured almost everything Remini included within. Continue reading

Upcoming: HEIRS OF THE FOUNDERS by H.W. Brands (Doubleday)

BrandsHW-HeirsToTheFoundersUSIn H.W. Brands‘s latest book, the acclaimed historian turns his attention to the three men whose political careers had lasting impact on the United States after the Founding generation had left the stage: Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. (Sort of — they were all active during some of the founding administrations, but they outlasted them all.) As contemporary politics devolves into horrifying farce, there has rarely been a better time in which to revisit the early years of American politics: messy, contentious, often violent, and yet fascinating. Heirs to the Founders is due to be published by Doubleday in November 2018 (in North America and in the UK). Here’s the official synopsis:

The riveting story of how America’s second generation of political giants — Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun — battled to complete the unfinished work of the Founding Fathers and decide the shape of our democracy.

In the early days of the nineteenth century, three young men strode onto the national stage, elected to Congress at a moment when the Founding Fathers were beginning to retire to their farms. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a champion orator known for his eloquence, spoke for the North and its business class. Henry Clay of Kentucky, as dashing as he was ambitious, embodied the hopes of the rising West. South Carolina’s John Calhoun, with piercing eyes and an even more piercing intellect, defended the South and slavery.

Together this second generation of American founders took the country to war, battled one another for the presidency, and tasked themselves with finishing the work the Founders had left undone. Above all, they sought to remedy the two glaring flaws in the Constitution: its fudge on where authority ultimately rested, with the states or the nation; and its unwillingness to address the essential incompatibility of republicanism and slavery. They wrestled with these issues for four decades, arguing bitterly and hammering out political compromises that held the union together, but only just. Then, in 1850, when California moved to join the union as a free state, “the three great men of America” had one last chance to save the country from the real risk of civil war. But by then they were never further apart.

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Upcoming: THE RISE OF ANDREW JACKSON by David S. Heidler & Jeanne T. Heidler (Basic Books)

Heidler-RiseOfAndrewJacksonUSIn October, Basic Books are due to publish the new book by David S. and Jeanne T. HeidlerThe Rise of Andrew Jackson. I have mixed feelings about Andrew Jackson — he was a towering, important figure during one of my favourite periods of American history, whose election helped to fundamentally alter the way presidential elections are conducted.

Generally, though, I have found it to be the case that if you’ve read one book about Jackson, you’ve read them all. Many of his papers were lost in a fire at the Hermitage, and he was by no means as prolific as many of his peers and other presidents. I am not Jackson’s biggest fan. However, the Heidlers’ new book caught my attention because of its focus on the propagandists and journalists who helped Jackson polish his image, to scrub his decidedly unattractive personal history and general manner.

The story of Andrew Jackson’s improbable ascent to the White House, centered on the handlers and propagandists who made it possible

Andrew Jackson was volatile and prone to violence, and well into his forties his sole claim on the public’s affections derived from his victory in a thirty-minute battle at New Orleans in early 1815. Yet those in his immediate circle believed he was a great man who should be president of the United States.

Jackson’s election in 1828 is usually viewed as a result of the expansion of democracy. Historians David and Jeanne Heidler argue that he actually owed his victory to his closest supporters, who wrote hagiographies of him, founded newspapers to savage his enemies, and built a political network that was always on message. In transforming a difficult man into a paragon of republican virtue, the Jacksonites exploded the old order and created a mode of electioneering that has been mimicked ever since.

I’m really looking forward to reading The Rise of Andrew Jackson. The book is published by Basic Books in late October 2018, and will be available in the UK. The Heidlers are also the authors of Henry Clay: The Essential American, among others.

Follow the Authors: Website