arack Obama, it is safe to say, likes books more than his predecessor did. We know that much because he has written a couple of good onesmost notably, the well-received memoir Dreams From My Father, which launched him into the public sphere as a writer before his political career beganand because it is not a news event when he reads one, as it was when George W. Bush announced that he intended to thumb through Camuss The Stranger on his summer vacation two years ago.
A president who is a serious reader is of course likely to be shaped by what he reads, and we know a bit about what has been on Obamas list so far. From interviews, we know that Ernest Hemingways For Whom the Bell Tolls made an impression on him as a young man. His campaign reading listor at least the books he chose to be seen with on the trailincluded Jonathan Alters The Defining Moment, Larry Bartelss Unequal Democracy, Steve Colls Ghost Wars, Fareed Zakarias The Post-American World, and Doris Kearns Goodwins Team of Rivals. And we know that, at least in the case of the latter book, Obamas choice of reading has already had some impact on his governing choices (or at least on how pundits frame them on the Sunday-morning talk shows).
So in the hope that hes willing to take a few more reading assignments, we asked a few of our favorite writers and thinkers to offer their suggestions on what the new president should have by his bedside. Eds.
Mr. President, if you are serious about negotiating with Iran, you need a guidebook on Iranian culture so that you can tell when “yes” means “no,” when “no” means “maybe,” and when “Death to America!” means “Please, lets talk.” May I suggest The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, by Hooman Majd? An Iranian American who lives in the States and has advised and translated for both current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former President Muhammad Khatami, Majd has written perhaps the best book on contemporary Iranian culture and all of its complexities and contradictions. Dont go to Tehran without it.
Barack Obama has identified Reinhold Niebuhr as “one of my favorite philosophers” and is familiar with the great Protestant theologians various writings. Yet as Obama assumes the mantle of Most Powerful Man in the World, Niebuhrs Irony of American History is one volume that deserves a careful second reading.
Published in 1952, when the Cold War was at its frostiest and Americans were still coming to terms with what it meant to exercise global leadership, Irony called attention to a series of illusions to which Niebuhr believed his countrymen and their political leaders were peculiarly susceptible. To persist in those illusions, he warned, was to court political and moral catastrophe. History, he wrote, “is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” To imagine that history can be coerced toward some predetermined destination represents the height of folly.
With the end of the Cold War in 1989, those very same illusionsnow expressed through self-congratulatory claims that the end of history had elevated the United States to the status of indispensable nation called upon to exercise benign global hegemonygained a rebirth. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush embraced those illusions and made them the foundation of his global war on terror. The catastrophes that ensued testify eloquently to the enduring relevance of the warnings that Niebuhr had issued a half century earlier.
To correct the errors of the Bush era will require that Obama repudiate the illusions that gave rise to those errors in the first place. In that regard, Irony should serve as an essential text. A first rule of statecraft, Niebuhr writes, is to nurture a “modest awareness of the limits of our own knowledge and power.” Modesty doesnt imply passivity. It does mean curbing the inclination to portray our adversaries as evil incarnate while insisting that we ourselves are innocent and our purposes altruistic.
Niebuhr observed that “the pretensions of virtue are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power.” After eight years that gave us Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and waterboarding, our pretensions of virtue look a bit worse for wear. The imperative of the moment is to manifest “a sense of contrition about the human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemys demonry and our own vanities.”
I recommend that the new president read William Jamess The Will to Believe and George Santayanas Character and Opinion in the United States. Both books serve a useful purpose to anyone trying to understand America in an overarching sense. They are products of two of our best minds and tell us something of our national character and preferences.
My recommendation to President Obama is George F. Kennans Memoirs, 19251950. It is a powerful account of a brilliant young man from the Midwest who attends Princeton as a lonely outsider and goes on to become one of the most important figures in the history of American diplomacy. More important, it conveys Kennans contributions to the character of American foreign policy in the years of the Cold War. He believed that the United States had an obligation to be active in the world in preserving peace and stability. He also believed that there were limits to what the United States can do in the world, and that it must choose its missions selectively. The “containment policy,” which Kennan helped to create, was meant not just as a strategy for containing Communism, butas Kennan saw ita strategy for containing the United States as well, for ensuring that the United States would exercise caution and restraint in its international ventures, something later supporters of containment often forgot.
I suggest The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS, by Helen Epstein. My premise is that the new president is a serious reader, is passionate about the big issues of his presidency, and hungers for reliable explication and detail, yet has limited time and therefore needs a single volume that is both easy to read and transformational in its effects. This at least was my experience as an accidental reader of The Invisible Cure. Epstein is a molecular biologist who has worked extensively in Africaher tough, fair-minded, empathetic, and empirical book changed utterly what I understood about the “social ecology” of the greatest medical crisis of our era and the policies that might address it. She is as hard on the United States as she is on African governments, and by this method has produced a great service to both. President Bushs heartfelt but flawed approach to the AIDS crisis in Africa is one of his few truly positive legacies; if President Obama finds time for this book, he will not dare abandon Bushs cause, but he will be smarter about its pursuit.
A Peoples History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, is the perfect way for the new president to relearn history for our troubled moral (see: torture) and economic times. It reminds us that unrestrained nationalism and crony capitalism are poisons which savage the have-nots. Zinn looks at the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the labor movement, and even how the West was won from the point of view of that vast majority of us who dont have the capital, dont make the decisions, and dont write the history books, but do get to do all the grunt work while the rich get richer. If nothing else, it would force Obama to contemplate the reality that we citizens are much too deferential to authority, far too willing to blame ourselves for not being a “have,” and woefully susceptible to the old strategy of “divide and conquer.”
We all know the areas in which Barack Obamas experience, instincts, and long-stated positions make him his own policy expert. Rule-of-law questions, plus management of racial frictions, are the two most obvious illustrations. I assume he is getting a crash education on economic and energy policy from a very strong team, and I bet he quickly shows a good natural feel for dealing with foreign leaders.
The place to worry is about defense policy. Obama said next to nothing about it during the campaign. Of course, he emphasized getting out of Iraq and focusing more on Afghanistan and about the limits of military-firepower answers to complex economic and ethnic questions. But about the cost and nature of Americas defense establishment, the training and nature of the officer corps, the relative roles of the services, and a hundred similar issues Obama has been hazy at best. This is a problem not just because the issues are so important but also because Democratic leaders can so easily be mau-maued into thinking that they must be resolutely “pro-military”which in practice means never questioning budgetsto hold off attacks from the right. Clearest recent case study: Hillary Clintons eight-year role on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
What would make me feel best about Obama on this front? News that he had actually, himself, read Americas Defense Meltdown, by an all-star array of truly expert authors. There is no better, terser, more comprehensive or authoritative introduction to an independent, realistic perspective on the Pentagoncomplete with the facts, details, and nuance to give Obama confidence in these views. Plus, its freeat this site: http://www.cdi.org/pdfs/AmericasDefenseMeltdownFullText.pdf.
When you campaign on change we can believe in, and suddenly youre facing change we cant believe is happening, here are two books for you, Mr. President.
One is The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz. Its still the most accessible guide to thinking rationally, systematically, and strategically about futures you cant possibly predict. Scenario planning is the antidote to the kind of futures bravado that caused us to roll into Iraq thinking there was no other possibility but that theyd throw rose petals at our feet. As change accelerates, youve got a lot more strange stuff coming at you, Mr. President. This is the conceptual guide on how to prepare.
The other is Mark Twains Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Its the greatest long-view providereverof fresh reminders why you cared. Cared about these perverse, ornery, unpredictable, cussed people you chose to lead. It never lets you forget that in the face of unprecedented threats, the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity, and humor will wend its way to glory.
In view of how well read the new president is, from the press reports on his reading on presidential transitions and current crises, it is not easy to think of what else one might suggest to him. But one book that his advisers may not have thought of is India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha, an excellent history of India since independence. India will have to concern the president on occasion; China will undoubtedly concern him more often, but in view of its closed political system no equivalent book could be written on China. Unlike many current books on India, Guhas is scholarly, well written, and remarkably balanced in judging the enormous problems India facesits poverty, some long-sustained internal insurrections, ineffectiveness of government in many respectsagainst its recent economic vibrancy and in particular its success in maintaining its democracy over these sixty years.
Barack Obama is no doubt acutely conscious of the “blind into Baghdad” mentality that afflicted Bush and many of his advisers. He has also, it is safe to assume, already read The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam. So let me recommend Halberstams last book, The Coldest Winter, for it is yet another reminder of the danger that every decisionmaker faces: the arrogant refusal to consider that his or her assumptions may be fatally flawed. The book is about Korea, where General Douglas MacArthur, from his perch in Japan, adamantly ignored warnings that his push north toward the Yalu River would bring the Chinese into the war. Indeed, when dead Chinese soldiers were found on the battlefield, MacArthur and his aides confidently asserted that they were North Koreans in Chinese army uniforms. The subsequent invasion by the Chinese cost thousands of lives and nearly led to the conquest of South Korea.
Id also suggest he find a copy of an unjustly ignored novel about Washington: The Floating Island, by Garrett Epps. Published in 1985 and (apparently) set in the last years of the Carter administration, the novel gleefully skewers careerists, Establishment icons, self-proclaimed Washington power brokers, think tanks, and just about anything else the capital has to offer. Apart from providing any number of cautionary tales, the book is gut-bustingly funnyand I suspect it wont be long before Obama finds he could use a good laugh.
I recommend the new president read (or reread) The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. He should do so to remind himself, when the clever, idealistic briefer comes to tell him about the “third way” that will produce a breakthrough in Americas tangled relations with the world, that weve been down this road again, and again, and again.
I would like to think of something soothing and medicinal, but heres my dour choice: The Iron Wall, Avi Shlaims revisionist history of Israel and the Arab world, which appeared in 2001. President Obama is going to want to focus on reviving the American and world economy, but he is not going to be able to ignore the Middle East. And he would be wise to train his attention not just on Iraq and Iran, but onthe continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Shlaims book makes a good case for an old lesson: that a balanced, evenhanded approach to the conflict, far from being “anti-
Israel,” holds out the only hope for resolving the conflict, and that such a resolution is in the interests of the United States, the Palestinians, and the Israelis themselves.
The new president should read The Edge of Disaster, by Stephen Flynn, despite its generic Chicken Little title. Flynn has the politics and the strategy exactly right for the two big business-of-government tasks facing the new administration: (1) annulling the previous politics of “homeland security” and getting it right this time; and (2) massively upscaling our investment in infrastructure. Its hard to be rational and rigorous and constructive when thinking about catastrophebut thats exactly what we need.
“I cant believe some of this stuff is legal,” a high-ranking government official said to me a few months ago, right around the time that all hell was truly breaking loose. It was when Lehman was going bankrupt, and AIG was teetering on the brink, and Merrill Lynch was being sold, and Morgan Stanley and even mighty Goldman Sachs were rumored to be in serious trouble. And “this stuff” the official was referring to were some of the more exotic, complex, and fiendishly hard-to-value derivative securities that were imploding like dynamite sticks, bringing down the financial system with them.
Barack Obama has so many things he wants to accomplish, in health care, education, the environment, and so on, but none of them will get done if he doesnt first get his hands around the financial crisis. We all know hes been brushing up on FDRs first 100 days, and thats all to the good. Saving the auto industry, getting banks to lend again, creating the kind of mega-stimulus package to get the economy back on its feetthese are all things he is going to tackle early on.
But then he is going to have to figure out how to fix the financial system filled with “that stuff.” And to do so he is going to have to build a new regulatory apparatus, because the old one has clearly broken down. Thats where my two book recommendations come in.
The first is A Demon of Our Own Design, by Richard Bookstaber, a memoir with a point by a Wall Street veteran. Bookstaber, a risk manager, chronicles the rising complexity of Wall Street, through the prism of his own experience. Taking us through such traumatic events as the crash of 1987 and the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in the late 1990s, he makes a powerful case that “these breakdowns come about not in spite of our efforts at improving market design but because of them. The structural risk in the financial markets is a direct result of our attempts to improve the state of the financial markets; its origins are in what we would generally chalk up as progress. The steps we have taken to make the markets more attuned to our investment desires have exaggerated the pace of activity and the complexity of financial instruments that makes crisis inevitable. Complexity cloaks catastrophe.” And so it has. Figuring out how to either make the system less complex or the risks more transparent to all will be a key part of any new system of financial regulation.
My second recommendation is that the incoming president read some of the writings of Warren Buffett, in particular the annual reports of Berkshire Hathaway, his holding company. Happily, they are collected in a book, The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. Actually, they include lessons for everyone, not just corporate executives. It was Buffett who wrote in his annual report several years ago that derivatives were “financial weapons of mass destruction.” But the main lesson he teaches is that the best kind of investing has a value system attached to it. Buffett buys companies, not stocks. He thinks about the long term, not the short term. He became very rich by not trying to get rich quick. He has tackled the problems with stock options, and with executive compensation. (Believe it or not, Buffetts executives at Berkshire Hathaway dont get any options; he doesnt believe in them.) In many ways, his rules for investing are rules to live by, and Obama could do worse than use his bully pulpit to preach them to the rest of us.
I would recommend that President Obama read Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones. Its a short-story collection that brilliantly illuminates the humanity and struggles of everyday Washingtonians. Despite the phony Washington bashing during the campaign, D.C. is as Main Street as any place in America, and just as deserving of federal attention. The District could be a model for reform. A leader with Barack Obamas intelligence and enthusiasm has the ability to make that happen.
I realize that President Obama will be busy, and he wont have much time to kick back with a whole book. So I will merely suggest that he read The Pretense of Knowledge, by Friedrich Hayek, a 1974 lecture delivered after the Austrian-born economist accepted the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Hayeks argument was that social science, including the dismal science of economics, has built up the pretenseand it is only a pretensethat it is possible to gain “scientific” mastery over complicated social problems. Such intellectual ambition is
inherently Icarus-like, he argued. It is “the fatal conceit,” as he en-
titled one of his books (available, if 44 is curious, on Amazon).
It seems that every president feels called upon to undertake some enormous challengea task worthy of his own egoand usually that challenge defeats him. For Bill Clinton, it was health care. For George W. Bush, it was Iraq. Of course, sometimes a president succeedsso it was with FDR, victor in World War II, and Ronald Reagan, who won the Cold War.
So what will it be for Obama? Thats an open question right now, but a little Hayekian humility could save him from the grievous mistakes that other presidents have made as a result of overconfidence and underpreparation.
Announcing his heavyweight national security team (most notably Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates), Barack Obama declared, “One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink and everybody agrees with everything and theres no discussion and there are not dissenting views.” It might seem bracing that the new president is familiar with the dangers of “groupthink.” But were he to read the 1982 book Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, by the late Irving L. Janis, the psychologist who originally formulated the concept four decades ago, he would learn that the pitfalls that accompany White House crisis decisionmaking are more subtle than lockstep conformity. As Janiss shrewd melding of political history and group psychology makes clear, John F. Kennedy listened to an outside dissenter (Senator William Fulbright) during the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion and Lyndon Johnson boasted naysayers on his White House staff during the Vietnam escalation. (LBJ, in fact, mockingly referred to Bill Moyers as “Mr. Stop-the-Bombing.”) But the dissenters in these cases were as marginalized as Colin Powell (Mr. Lets-Wait-for-the-Security-Council) on the eve of the Iraq invasion.
If Obama has time for only forty pages, he should read Janiss interpretation of the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy, like Obama, entered the White House with a cohesive band of advisers from the campaign, a best-and-brightest veneer to his administration, and a sense of invulnerability from a dizzying political ascent. Janis evokes that era by quoting an unnamed Justice Department official: “It seemed that, with John Kennedy leading us and with all the talent he had assembled, nothing could stop us.” (The italics are in the original.)
Most attempts by social scientists to peer into the inner workings of governments are too theoretical, too quantitative, and too mechanistic to be useful outside of an academic seminar room. But Groupthink is far more than a clever compound wordinspired by George Orwells 1984to signify unanimity among decisionmakers. It is also an enduring book, and remains a cautionary tale of talented Democratic presidents gone awry.
The new president should read Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. It will validate his intuitions about the world and give him a vocabulary and conceptual framework to explain how the Obama generation is different. He should also read The Way We Will Be, by John Zogby. He will see himself in the mirror as one of the “first globals” and will see the U.S. not as a parochial country but an increasingly globally connected one.
Mindful of the acute demand for Barack Obama to articulate a new ideal of American leadership, Id first recommend Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Garry Wills. The book commanded a wide audience when it was published in 1992, but it bears reading, or rereading, especially for this moment and this president. Wills elegantly deconstructs both Lincoln and the first eighty-seven years of Americas history to show how wordsthe right words, on cuecan shape a nations core philosophy. The book burns away myth, that Lincoln hastily wrote the Gettysburg speech on an envelope and snubbed his long-winded predecessor, the brilliant nineteenth-century Hellenist Edward Everett. He did neither. In fact, Lincoln drew inspiration from the eras blossoming Greek revival and the countrys growing “transcendentalist” movement to firmly measure Americas bloody and unfinished experiment in self-governance against a lofty ideal of justice, of an ever-perfecting union.
This was a reach. The famous phrase of grade-school oration”Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”was the stuff of sharp controversy in its day. By reaching back to Jeffersons language of “self-evident” equality in the Declaration, Lincoln leapt over the pragmatic genius of the Constitution, the preservation of which many still saw as the raison dtre of the great war. No, he said, looking across one of historys bloodiest battlefields, this was about lifting our sights toward the “unfinished work” of a “new birth of freedom.” That was audacity, at a time of crisis. Obama, prematurely being compared to the greatest of our presidents, has shown extra-
ordinary rhetorical capacities, especially in his speech about race. But the demands going forward are sure to rise exponentially. Words matter. Obama could change the world with his. This book provides both example and inspiration of how it was once done, and might be again.
Comparisons to Lincoln notwithstanding, Obama will be left to manage a “team of rivals” without the depth of crisis Lincoln employed to compel consensus among his obstreperous gang. The key for Obama will be using the force of his personality to manage debate thats both fierce and productive, at the very highest levels. For that, Id offer Beyond Human Scale, by Eli Ginzberg and George Vojta. It was published without fanfare in 1985, and has become a cult classic among the “process people,” those whove worked furiously in recent decades to consider and reconsider ways large organizations, both public and private, might be managed more effectively. Their axiom, that “good process creates good outcomes,” was shaped by Columbia Professor Ginzberg, who died in 2002 at the age of ninety-one, after having advised eight presidents, starting with FDR, on everything from health care to military furloughs. In Beyond Human Scale, he and the management consultant George Vojta run though a primer on how decisionmakers can guard against being misinformed or misled. Especially important: the careful placement of honest brokers who can get bad news to the boss without suffering ill effects (in fact, they should be rewarded). Page after page is jammed with trenchant fareeverything from how a cushion of financial reserves often enables a CEO to “avoid making hard decisions when problems first appear” to how, for a president, it generally takes a war to “reveal weaknesses in the military.” With tough decisions on the governments ownership, or bailout, of vast dysfunctional corporationsand two ongoing warsObama and his team will have to construct a sterling decisionmaking system. And then theyll have to recalibrate and fine-tune it for every oncoming crisis.
This site and all contents within are Copyright 1969-2009 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036