Times' David E. Sanger: Obama Must 'Re-Balance The Portfolio' And Address Multiple Global Threats

03/09/2009 07:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

During his seven years covering the White House for the New York Times, Chief Washington Correspondent David E. Sanger has had extraordinary access to U.S. presidents and world leaders. On Thursday, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter gathered with friends and family at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington D.C. to introduce his new book The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power.

Highlights from the discussion follow. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Huffington Post writer Diane Tucker asked these questions. The evening was sponsored by the Center for a New American Security.

In retrospect, did President Bush do the right thing in reacting to 9/11 by declaring a universal war on terrorism?

David E. Sanger: He did the right thing by going back to Afghanistan. However, when George W. Bush declared a universal war on terrorism, his administration began to blunder. They wanted the country to feel at war, but they had a very difficult time identifying the enemy. And then by defining the enemy too broadly, they created the problem of setting people against us who might not have been against us ordinarily. In fact, there were opportunities throughout the Bush administration to divide America's enemies. Those opportunities were missed.

You've called Iraq "The Great Distraction."

The Iraq War so preoccupied the U.S. senior leadership that many greater threats were allowed to fester. President-elect Obama needs to re-balance the portfolio. It's like you're saving to send the kids to college and you invest everything in one stock -- and that stock is Iraq. I don't think the Bush administration intended to invest everything in Iraq. But as the war stretched into three, four, five years...and then turned bad in 2006 and 2007...Iraq just sucked all the air out of the room.

People who voted for Barack Obama want to believe the U.S. will take a new foreign policy path.

In many ways, we will. But I think you're going to be surprised by how much Obama follows through from the Bush administration. Look at the people he has asked to join his administration.

Bush's lack of foreign policy experience caused him to overreact to what was going on in the world. Is Obama starting to drift in the same direction?

I don't think you can read the Presidential Daily Brief -- and its matrix of threats -- without thinking about what it could do to your presidency if even one of them goes wrong. So yes, I think it's possible you could see Obama react much the way Bush did. I'm not sure whether experience is the right metric here, because we didn't have presidential briefs at this granular level before 9/11.

What should president-elect Obama worry about most in the next 12 months?

Obama doesn't have much time left on Iran. By the time he's sworn in, the Iranians will have just enough uranium to make one nuclear weapon. Within a year or two, they'll have enough uranium to declare a significant nuclear capability.

In addition, a crisis could develop fast in Pakistan -- where terrorism meets a weak, newly elected civilian government sitting on an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Pakistan has done a good job of securing the weapons, but we don't know how well they've secured the laboratories where the fuel is produced. It's a big worry.

Another worry is that there's so much distrust between Pakistan and the United States, it's impossible to get a clear vision of what's going on there. Obama will need to rebuild trust with the Pakistani government. But this will be difficult for him to do because of covert operations already underway there.

During the presidential campaign, Obama went out of his way to make the case that he would be a strong ally of Israel.

At the same time, I sense that many people in the Obama camp think the Israelis have gone too far in Gaza. I think they wanted Israel to move to a cease-fire sooner. It's a difficult situation to address right now because Obama's team is so new, its members are still figuring out their relationships with each other.

What challenges does Obama face with Europe?

Europe is celebrating the arrival of the Obama administration. But I think their wild ecstasy will hit a wall when Obama shows them a big map of Afghanistan with many of the European countries nicely arrayed in the safest parts of northern Afghanistan, then gently says that if they're going to be part of the NATO Alliance it would be nice if they would get down to the areas where Taliban members are. I think Obama will be a lot tougher on the Europeans than they expected. Will the Europeans be able to say "no" to a president whose election they celebrated?

You've said that Obama faces a set of challenges unparalleled since FDR. He also inherits more executive power than any other president. What happens at the intersection of these two forces?

That's going to be one of the really interesting things to watch. Many people in the Democratic Party objected when President Bush took on more power. But once you take office, the temptation is not to say, "I want to go back a few generations in presidential power." I think it's very difficult to give power back, particularly when you're in the midst of two wars.

* * * *

"Can we go home now?" asked young Ned Sanger as the evening wore on. As he waited patiently for his dad to sign books, I 'grilled' the personable tweenager for insider information on the author's work habits.

What was it like to see your dad up there on the stage?

Ned Sanger: It was cool, but I didn't understand everything he said.

Are you proud of your dad?

Yeah, it's big. The book took him 2-1/2 years to do.

Did he often work late at night?

I think so. His office is up in the attic.

Does he have a cool attic, like in a Harry Potter movie?

No. My dad's office is messy!