RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA…. The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We’re covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts, and here are the next two from our list.
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, Guha’s is scholarly, well written, and remarkably balanced in judging the enormous problems India faces — its poverty, some long-sustained internal insurrections, ineffectiveness of government in many respects — against 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 Halberstam’s 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.
I’d 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 funny — and I suspect it won’t be long before Obama finds he could use a good laugh.