THE BLOG
11/02/2006 12:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Back to the Book

There are a hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred, three hundred channels. There's CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, HNN, Fox News, BBC, MSNBC, C-Span, and C-Span 2. There's AM, FM, and satellite radio. And podcasts. Then there's the Internet with access to an almost infinite number of sites.

Books, what about books?

Print. Remember it? Print in thick stacks, bundled together. Often with extra pages in the back with indices, bibliographies, and footnotes. Bulky. Costly. Incapable of conveying sound or pictures that move.

And yet...

The most interesting political reporting these last couple of years has been in books.

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas Ricks, is a stunning piece of journalism. The amount of first-hand research, the access he got, the depth and range of his knowledge of the military and military matters is all remarkable. The evaluation, on the record, by a named source, an army officer, of Paul Wolfowitz as "dangeously idealistic. And crack-smoking stupid," is, all by itself, worth the cover price.

The point of view is vivid and the conclusions it draws do not equivocate. In the first page and a half Ricks says, "One of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy...negligently...squandered...recklessly...flawed...hurried...agonizingly incompetent. Blame must lie foremost with President Bush himself but his incompetence and arrogance are only part of the story. It takes more than one person to make a mess as big as Iraq."

The author is the senior Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post.

But this is not the war that's been reported in the Washington Post. Indeed, the Post has been aggressively pro-war. So, even as we are being dazzled by the book, we may want to scream, "Where the hell have you been?"

James Risen is the reporter who got the story that the NSA was doing wiretaps without warrants. A clear and simple contravention of the constitution. And an unnecessary one, since there were already secret courts that would issue secret warrants and would even do so after the fact, making urgency no excuse. He got the story in 2004, before the last presidential election. The editors at the New York Times consulted with the White House. The White House asked them not to run it as it would compromise, they said, national security. It also convinced Bill Keller, the editor in chief, that wiretaps without warrants were legal. The Times did not run the story. Nor did it appear anywhere else.

Until the book.

State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, by James Risen, was due to be published, with that information included, in January, 2006. The Times, rather than being scooped by their own employee, finally published the story in December 2005.

The book also includes several other stunning bits. That the CIA station chief in Baghdad reported that the US was losing the war in Iraq as far back as 2003. That Afghanistan was being "lost," if not to the Taliban, then to becoming a narco-state.

Before we go to war in Iran, someone should look at Risen's book and realize how we pushed Iran away from being a potential ally, into "the Axis of Evil."

Iran hated the Taliban. It supported the Northern Alliance--which the United States also supported--against the Taliban. It was against Al Qaeda. Indeed, Iran approached the Untied States and offered to trade top Al Qaeda captives--including Osama bin Laden's son--in return for anti-Iranian terrorists who were in American-controlled Iraq. But the US did not take Iran up on it.

On TV and in the papers, we are told that we're fighting "insurgents."

They are people without a cause, goals, or motivations. They are simply, like generic bad guys in a computer game, "insurgents." Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraq, Iran, militias, mobsters, tribes, and clans, all merge into one vast, undifferentiated mass of enemies conspiring against us.

It may be possible for armies in the field to fight other armies in the field as a matter of mass, movement, and armaments. But it is not possible to wage a war of occupation or of regime change or of cultural transformation unless you know who you're fighting, why they're fighting, and what they want.

Who are we fighting?

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright, explains the development and growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

Two terribly important ideas are made absolutely clear in the book.

The first is that it was incompetence and bureaucratic idiocy that allowed 9/11 to succeed. The answer to preventing the next 9/11 should therefore be competence and bureaucratic openness. Instead, there has been increased secrecy, bigger and bigger bureaucracies, and presidential Medals of Freedom to honor the most inept among us.

The second idea is that the reason for the 9/11 attacks was to provoke a massive, incompetent overreaction. Bin Laden wanted the US to invade Afghanistan. He thought it would become a quagmire for America the way it had been for the Soviets. The US managed to invade Afghanistan without that happening. But then we invaded Iraq. Which gave bin Laden all he could have wished for. A quagmire, a focus for jihadist recruitment, and a demonstration of the limitations of American power. Limitations that Iran and Korea are now taking advantage of.

Provocation into overreaction is classic guerrilla-warfare theory.

Why did we have to wait until 2006 to hear that? Why did we have to wait for the book?

Part of the answer has to do with what is wrong with the media.

Jeff Cohen's Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, is--besides being a series of funny anecdotes--a relief after all this reading about worlds in which each idiocy leads to death and dismemberment. It finds its way to the heart of the matter.

We expect to get good journalism and even truth from private enterprise. The theory is that competition will give the consumer ever better products. The assumption is that the general public is the consumer and that the product is accurate, relevant, and insightful news.

But that's not true. The general public is actually the product and the news is in the business of delivering that product to the advertisers.

The advertisers are mostly large corporations. They have political agendas. Those agendas veer to the right.

Then there is the nature of books themselves.

They remain the place for people to actually think things through. To take a point of view and explain it at length. To take a position and have the time and space to really justify it.

So unplug the TV, let your newspaper subscription lapse, wait a few years for the book to come out, and then you'll know what really happened. Which way would you rather have it, quick and wrong, or late and right?