Review: Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
Reviewed by Cyril Almeida
REVILED, mocked or treated with thinly veiled contempt in certain circles, the journalist in Pakistan who is close to a politician, general, judge or bureaucrat has a far more estimable counterpart in the US: the investigative reporter with cosy ties to top officials who feed confidential information in return for reasonably favourable coverage in print or electronic media.
While the ethics may be debatable for the more informed reader or viewer — does privileged access impinge on the journalistic duty to inform the public and hold government to account? — such coverage can be highly useful. It gives an insider account on the hows and whys as seen from the perspective of key decision-makers.
In the US, there are few perhaps who play the game of balancing access with disclosure as well as David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. Sanger’s speciality is the White House and his deep contacts there not only help extract information for his internationally acclaimed newspaper but also give the White House a chance to put its version of events — sometimes even undiluted spin — out for national and global consumption.
In fact, Sanger’s latest book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, has been dismissed in Republican circles as an attempt by the Obama administration to burnish its national security credentials in a presidential election year in the US.
While that may well have been the administration’s goal in granting such wide-ranging access to Sanger, it is an assessment that is somewhat unkind to the journalist.
Sympathetic as Sanger may be towards some figures — National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, almost certainly one of the book’s major sources for many of the unattributed quotes by a “senior official”, comes off as almost heroic in places — he is more measured in his assessment of Obama’s presidency through more than half of his first term. At the very outset, Sanger writes: “On many of the hardest issues, Obama’s idealism about what he could accomplish has run headlong into the more craven instincts of electoral politics — and oftentimes the craven instincts have won out.”
What Sanger does do, however, is not push the debate as hard as other critics have when writing about the difficult choices that Obama has confronted on the national security front. For example, Sanger does muse about how drone strikes are different from targeted assassinations but he also faithfully reproduces the stock arguments for them: low cost, low risk and reasonably effective.
However, the backlash the US triggered from Pakistani security establishment and mainstream society in relying so heavily on drone strikes — there were over 100 strikes in 2010 — has led to a massive decline in 2012: less than 20 this year so far. Did the Obama administration ever contemplate that the short-term gains — wiping out scores of al Qaeda, Taliban and affiliated militants — would lead to the problems they have with the Pakistani state and society, causing the latest instrument of war to be used sparingly because of political and diplomatic constraints? Was it worth going so far down the militant food chain in 2009 and 2010 if it meant using the drones sparingly in 2012, even against more senior figures?
Sanger doesn’t explore these issues, though admittedly they were tough to anticipate before Pak-US relations soured so dramatically over the past couple of years.
Still, Sanger’s book is a remarkable read for the details it provides on White House debates on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. The chapter “Olympic Games” is particularly sensational stuff, building as it does on a New York Times story just prior to Sanger’s book on America’s cyber warfare against Iran’s nuclear programme.
To date, the spectre of cyber warfare was raised largely in the context of Chinese, Russian or non-state anarchists attacking Western cyber infrastructure vulnerabilities — banking systems, stock market, electricity grids, utility providers, etcetera. But as Sanger details, it is the US that has fired the biggest shot so far in a cyber arms race by showing how it can be used to attack a country’s most sensitive military projects.
Here in Pakistan, the interest will be largely in the sections on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which comprise roughly a third of the book. On Afghanistan, there is not much new — the differences between the US military and the White House, the confusion among the civilians themselves on the way forward, incoherence of fighting a war abroad to a domestic political timeline, etcetera are all well-known.On Pakistan, however, there are new and important details about discussions inside the White House. While Congress, US military and counter-terrorism circles and the defence establishment appear to see Pakistan primarily through the lens of Afghanistan — and therefore advocate harsh policies to punish Pakistan for its perceived role in undermining the anti-Taliban war effort in Afghanistan — the White House under Obama appears far more ambivalent about turning the screws on Pakistan as a policy prescription.
As Douglas Lute, special assistant to the president on Afghanistan and Pakistan and a retired general, tells Sanger, “At the end of the day, breaking off relations with Pakistan or containing it might feel satisfying, but the next day you have to wake up and deal with them.” That said, as the authorisations to up drone strikes and take out Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil indicate, neither is the Obama White House afraid of taking decisions that are sure to anger principals on the Pakistani side and inflame public opinion.
What the internal debates, as recounted by Sanger, do suggest is that Pakistani policy circles are, unsurprisingly, fundamentally mistaken about American intentions towards Pakistan.
Pakistan matters to the US because a) it has nuclear weapons, b) it has a serious terrorism problem and c) it has a large Muslim population that is crucial to the West’s relations with the overall Muslim world. That combination means that, when push comes to shove, the US cannot afford to turn its back on Pakistan. And yet, the more Pakistan mismanages its terrorism problem, the more the world is alarmed and the more policies damaging to this country may be taken up.
In page after page, Sanger puts the contours to a debate — “Pakistan Good Enough” as he dubs it — that has not even begun to mature yet. If it draws the right lessons from the evolving debate, Pakistan could set Pak-US relations on a more stable trajectory. If it draws the wrong lessons from it — by allowing paranoia to eclipse a rational understanding of US concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, for example — Pakistani policymakers may end up triggering the very outcome more paranoid figures in the security establishment here are convinced the US has wanted all along: isolation and containment for Pakistan.
At the very least, Pakistanis interested in knowing what a second term for President Obama may mean for the region, and Pakistan in particular, should read Sanger’s account of what he calls a “presidency in midstream”.
The reviewer is a Dawn staffer
Confront and Conceal:
Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
By David Sanger
Crown Publishers, US