Time of peril

Published October 11, 2021
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

MUCH of the international community saw the Trump years as deeply destabilising for the world. The former US president acted not just irresponsibly and unpredictably but was intensely divisive both for his country and the world. His brand of populism was infused by xenophobic and racist views with his ‘America First’ slogan shaping his unilateralist foreign policy. At home he mainstreamed and emboldened the far right, fringe extremist groups and white supremacists who have become an enduring part of the American political landscape.

The world watched in horror when Trump refused to accept the results of the November 2020 presidential election, declined to cooperate in the transfer of power and incited a violent mob to storm Congress to prevent it from certifying the election result. This was followed by his historic impeachment on the charge of “incitement of insurrection”, becoming the only president to be impeached twice. Bob Woodward’s new book, Peril, co-authored with Robert Costa, chronicles these dramatic events and much more. It is the third in his trilogy, the first two being Fear and Rage about Trump’s turbulent time in office.

Read: US general doubted Trump’s sanity, called China to calm nerves: book

Woodward writes the ultimate ‘insider’ accounts about American presidents, politics and foreign policy. His 2010 book Obama’s War has lost little of its relevance, and is worth revisiting after America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. It shines a light on the internal ‘wars’, policy rifts and personality clashes in the Obama administration over the course to follow in America’s longest war. The policy muddle and strategic flaws in Washington’s approach to Afghanistan are persuasively recounted based on authoritative sources.

His new book is just as compelling. The most sensational disclosure for which it received much pre-publication publicity is how the senior-most US military officer assured his Chinese counterpart that America wasn’t about to attack his country given the alarm both in China and elsewhere that an increasingly unhinged Trump might “go rogue” and order a military strike. This episode forms the book’s prologue. Another chapter describes this in more detail as also Gen Mark Milley’s conversation with Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, during which she sought assurances that Trump would be prevented from any reckless course including resort to nuclear weapons.

A compelling new book chronicles the dramatic events that almost pushed America over the edge.

These disclosures triggered intense controversy which echoed in recent Congressional hearings on Afghanistan when Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was asked if they were true. He acknowledged he made two calls to Gen Li Zoucheng of PLA, one before and another after the election, because the Chinese were worried about a US attack. But he said this with the knowledge of top Trump officials and also because he was mandated to ensure “strategic stability”. As for the conversation with Pelosi he told lawmakers he had “sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process”. He also acknowledged he had been interviewed by Woodward. In fact, the book seems to rely heavily on Milley’s accounts of events. He was among more than 200 people interviewed by the authors.

The book’s short chapters go back and forth between Trump’s erratic conduct and Biden mulling over whether to run for the White House a third time and how he wanted his family to make that call given the many tragedies it had faced. Several chapters offer vignettes of both men in the eventful days leading up to the election and insights into how they ran their campaigns. Trump’s attempts and failure to challenge and delegitimise the election is also dealt with in great detail. The role of US military chiefs looms large in the treatment of Trump’s reaction to the protests against racism that erupted after the death of George Floyd in police custody. They resisted and foiled his attempt to deploy troops on the streets and deal with demonstrations by invoking the Insurrection Act.

The Jan 6 violent assault on the US Capitol is described by an almost minute by minute account. Days after the attack, Milley, says the book, noted in his daily dairy: “Big Threat: Domestic terrorism.” He identified the attackers as far right militias, extreme Tea Party and new Brown Shirts, a US version of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. And he concluded it was a planned revolution. In fact, US security agencies had been warning earlier — this is not mentioned in the book — that armed white supremist groups had emerged among the most lethal threats to the country. In Congressional testimony in October 2019, the FBI director had revealed that “racially motivated violent extremism”, principally from white supremacists, represented “the majority of domestic terrorism threats”. It is these groups that Trump encouraged.

Readers in Pakistan will be most interested in Chapter 60 which deals with Biden’s review of Afghan policy. This goes over familiar ground of how as vice president he opposed Obama’s troop surge. Now as president he wanted to hear a range of views on this although everyone knew he wanted since 2009 to end US involvement in Afghanistan. In two months, there were 25 National Security Council meetings among others in one of “the most wide-ranged policy reviews ever held”.

Biden was “determined not to be jammed” by the military as Obama had been. This chapter has him asking a series of key questions — had the US not long gone beyond its original aim to defeat Al Qaeda? Was the nature of threat such as to require keeping thousands of troops there? The answer came in his decision to completely pull out and end America’s ‘forever’ war. The book claims that the Pentagon and Nato ministers argued for a slower “gated” withdrawal to provide leverage for diplomatic efforts for a political settlement. But when Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed a delayed pullout to the Taliban in Doha they rejected it and warned that if this happened, they would attack US forces and provincial capitals. Biden then stuck to his decision and “seemed at peace” with it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2021

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