War and Peace in a Jittery Nation: Obama's Last Year and After

12/17/2015 12:22 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2016

America is a jittery nation this holiday season.

It's not easy to remain cool and calm let alone joyful in the face of media reports of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, shootings at schools and medical facilities, or videos of police encounters in American cities.

Our daily life was disrupted this week when a bomb threat closed Los Angeles public schools and our eight-year-old grandson Viggo, who lives with us, suddenly couldn't go to school. We took him to a holiday bake and art sale at Occidental College run by an artist friend and let him pick out a print for his room -- but, along the way, we had to explain why his school had been closed. The next morning as part of our daily ritual, Viggo and I ate breakfast and watched the morning news. We heard Governor Chris Christie say that we were in World War III. Viggo and I agreed that Christie is a big doofus. Even an eight-year-old knows that this rhetoric is a ridiculous over stretch.

The Republican Presidential race is unhinged by international events, as well as by President Obama's staying power. None is a credible leader for the nation. The only candidate who has offered a robust, nuanced and thoughtful strategy for dealing with ISIS is Hillary Clinton, but whether she might actually become Commander-in-Chief we won't know until next November's election. Barack Obama is president for one more year. He has responded calmly to the rush of recent events, and not let calls for World War stampede him into hasty moves.

For a man who receive the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office, Obama has had to spend a lot of his time deciding on military actions. Given the strategic mess that he inherited from George Bush, he didn't have the best of options. While he has made mistakes and missed a few opportunities, overall Obama has performed well as Commander-in-Chief. His diplomatic initiatives with Cuba and Iran this past year, certainly justify the Nobel committee's award. He leaves his successor in position to expand the potential of both openings.

Obama has also made good on his commitment to lead on climate change. The recent Paris agreement, while by no means perfect or legally enforceable, would not have happened without Obama's engagement of China and her leader Xi Jin-Ping. The challenge of dealing with China on environmental issues, as well as more fraught military and economic matters will, of course, be passed to the next president, as will engaging and resisting Russia's President for Life, Vladimir Putin. Obama might find a way to work a short term deal with Putin allowing a truce in the Syrian civil war, but whatever transpires, Putin's aggressive nationalism on other fronts will not disappear. He will be in Moscow for the next president to face.

For now, the focus in Washington, DC, and in presidential politics is on ISIS. I have national security friends going to conferences and meetings, intent on producing the ideal political-military strategy that will eradicate the self-declared Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. To think clearly about plans more sophisticated than Ted Cruz' call for carpet bombing, requires actually understanding where ISIS came from, its appeal and base of support, and most importantly, what not to do that would play into its or other terrorist groups' narratives. I'm hoping that President Obama, in the holiday mode of bipartisanship, might send Republicans a few gift books about ISIS and terrorism.

Here are my recommendations:

What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, by Louise Richardson, a former Harvard scholar and now head of St. Andrews University (and soon to be first woman head of Oxford University). This is a calm, clear headed analysis of terrorist groups and terrorist methods, looking at historical examples from the West as well as from the Middle East.

Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization, by Reza Aslan, an American Muslim religious scholar and best selling author of Zealot, a Life of Jesus, who is a professor at UC Riverside. Aslan's book focuses on the Islamic world, and offers the good advice on how to fight a cosmic war: don't.

Black Flag: The Rise of ISIS, by Washington Post correspondent Joby Warrick, a riveting account of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the architect of ISIS's strategy, born in the ruins of Iraq after the American invasion. Essential reading for understanding what we are facing in Syria and Iraq.

Any serious strategy for eradicating ISIS requires dealing with the Syrian civil war, and like it or not, Russia, a long time patron of the Assad family regime, is a player in that game. The New Czar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, by Steven Lee Myers, former New York Times correspondent in Moscow, is the best guide to understanding the rise and transformation of Vladimir Putin from a minor KGB bureaucrat to the nationalist leader of Russia. Opportunities to forge a working relationship with Putin were badly missed during the Bush administration. The task is much more difficult now, as Myers and current events show -- but Putin is the head of a major nuclear and Eurasian land power, and must be part of diplomatic solutions while remaining an irritating presence for the next President.

China too remains a challenge, even more so than Russia, because our economies are more integrated. The Port in Los Angeles where I live is the largest importer of goods from China. My grandson Viggo is studying in Chinese half the day in LAUSD's Mandarin immersion program. I recently hosted a visit to Oxy by the Chinese consul general where our largest number of foreign students are now from mainland China. Hollywood and the NBA keep expanding operations in China.

The next president cannot shy away from engaging the country.

A good primer for understanding contemporary China is Qiu Xiaolong's new novel, Shanghai Redemption, as well as his previous book in the Inspector Chen series, Enigma of China. In fact, I recommend as a gift pack the complete set of Qiu Xiaolong's detective series set in and around Shanghai. He deals with all of the vital issues in contemporary China ranging from corruption to censorship of the Internet to environmental pollution. The best non-fiction report on today's China is Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos, the former New Yorker correspondent in Beijing, which won the National Book Award last year. For historical perspective on US-China relations, my favorite book of the past year is China 1945: Mao's Revolution and America's Fateful Choice, by Richard Bernstein, a former New York Times Asia correspondent, who offers an insightful and well reported narrative of how America's temporary WWII alliance with Mao's movement led to years of non-recognition and hostility.

Like other elite colleges this year, Occidental saw a burst of student activism around issues of race, identity and diversity. It's hard not to be sympathetic with black students' concerns while not always agreeing with their tactics or their proposals for change.

However, to put some of the issues of micro-aggression in political perspective, I've been recommending to students, faculty and administrators that they read the brilliantly reported Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times crime reporter who describes and analyzes the violent deaths of black men in American cities. It's a sobering book that offers no easy solutions to our "exceptional" heritage of racial segregation and separation.

It might be fitting for the next president to ask former President Obama to head a national commission of inquiry into race, violence and life in American cities.

Other non-fiction works of the past year that I've enjoyed and feel are helpful for understanding our jittery world include: The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins, by James Angelos, former Wall Street Journal reporter, on the travails of Greece and the EU; Dancing With The Devil in the City of God--Rio de Janiero on the Brink, by Juliana Barbassa, former AP bureau chief in Rio, a brilliant narrative of the good, bad and ugly aspects of a dynamic global city which will host the Olympics next year; Circus Maximus, by sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, an Economist Book of the Year, on the pros and cons of hosting a mega-sporting event such as the Olympics or the World Cup (I required this book in my course this fall on Sports, Diplomacy and Globalization); and The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, by Don Doyle, a professor of history, on the "public diplomacy" surrounding the Civil War, and how Lincoln's and the Union's actions to combat slavery reverberated around the world.

In a class by itself, and the perfect "stocking stuffer" for any sports or political enthusiast is the picture and text book, The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama, by Sports Illustrated correspondent Alexander Wolff. More than any other recent president, Barack Obama has embraced a major American sport -- basketball -- as a player and as a fan. This book is an exploration of the sports journey of Barack Obama, and of the role of sports in national politics.

As always, I temper my non-fiction and work related reading with a search for compelling international mysteries where I can be entertained and informed. In addition to reading Qiu Xiaolong's latest, Shanghai Redemption, I enjoyed discovering Smaller and Smaller Circles, by F.H. Batacan, winner of the Philippine national book award, a story of a Jesuit priest detective investigating a serial killer in the slums of Manila's Quezon City; Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart, a historical detective novel set in 18th Century China during the time of the Kang Xi emperor -- elegantly written and well researched, it reminded me of the joys of my university course in Chinese history taught by Jonathan Spence, an expert on the period; Dictator, by Robert Harris, the last in the trilogy of historical thrillers about the Roman legislator and orator Cicero and the fall of the Roman Republic (the previous volumes are Imperium and Lustrum).

I also have a passion for future history (okay, sci-fi); I find it useful to speculate on where political economic trends might lead us when my grandkids are grown or even my age. This year brought entertaining books by masters of the genre including Ian McDonald's Luna: New Moon, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife, and Dave Hutchinson's Europe At Midnight, the continuing story of Europe broken into mini-states which he began in Europe in Autumn.

Next year will bring the presidential election and more good reading to inform us of the joys and perils of American exceptionalism. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz will bring out his collected political essays, and author Sidney Blumenthal will publish the first volume of his highly anticipated study of Lincoln as a politician. Former Army colonel Andrew Bacevich will publish a study of American military involvement in the modern Middle East. In a blast from the past, Routledge Revivals will reissue in hard cover and e-book Economic Democracy: The Challenge of the 1980s, co-authored by Stanford economist Martin Carnoy and myself. Before Bernie Sanders was speaking about inequality on the Senate floor or running for president as an economic populist, Martin and I were trying to analyze the workings of the American economy and options for reforming it. We got many things wrong including not anticipating the rise of Chinese economy, the spread of the Internet or the end of the Cold War, but we were right about the Reagan attack on unions and public interest organizations, growing corporate support for rolling back the federal social safety net, and the shift in the Republican party towards a largely white, conservative, Southern-based party.

Enough of the heavy stuff. I wish everyone a warm holiday season, including the president and his family when they are eating snow cones in Hawaii.

Go see the new Star Wars movie and worry about conflict in galaxies far, far away from ours -- and don't let Donald Trump or ISIS spoil your holidays.

~ The Ambassadude