David Sanger, the New York Times' Chief Washington correspondent - and who will be making a special appearance at the Weston Playhouse Sunday, Aug. 12 - begins new book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power," with a riveting synopsis of one of the most fascinating chapters in recent U.S. military and diplomatic history; the use of a cyber weapon. It was a computer virus which came to be known as "Stuxnet," and was intended to impede or at least slow down Iran's march to acquire nuclear weapon capability. The tale is a combination of old-fashioned legwork and spycraft, with modern computer technology and hi-tech gadgetry applied to a complex geopolitical problem. Known to its Washington planners as "Olympic Games," the cyber initiative, which had been conceived during the closing years of the Bush Administration and was humming along nicely until 2010, suddenly took a wrong turn. A newer version of the virus had been introduced into Iran's nuclear laboratories, but the worm, which was designed to make the Iranian centrifuges that enriched uranium into usable and potentially weapons grade nuclear fuel spin out of control, had gotten loose and had been released out in the World Wide Web, instead of staying within its intended confines of the Iranian nuclear lab. Now, there was a danger the virus could be copied, compromised and a cyber counterattack could be the payback of what from all accounts
President Obama, however, decided to continue "Olympic Games" anyway, holding to the belief that this new age form of warfare would pay dividends and buy time for economic sanctions to tighten their grip around Iran and compel its leaders to discontinue their nuclear ambitions.
"That turned out to be a good call," Sanger writes in his prologue to 'Confront and Conceal.' "Within weeks, the United States and Israel had inserted another version of the amped up worm into Natanz (the site of the Iranian nuclear lab), and then a third. And suddenly, the giant electronic ears at the NSA (National Security Agency) had picked up conversations suggesting that just shy of a thousand centrifuges had come crashing to a halt inside the underground cavern at Natanz."
This kind willingness to take bold risks is one the chief surprises of the Obama presidency to date, Sanger writes in his new book, in many ways a successor to his previous one, "The Inheritance," which analyzed the world Obama found as he took office in early 2009. Both the political left and right have been surprised - in some cases disappointed - by his willingness to be more forceful than expected in the foreign affairs arena. But it's not a one-dimensional approach, Sanger said in a recent interview. It depends on whether the threat to the U.S. is clear and direct - like the Taliban in Afghanistan or Iranian nukes - and whether the U.S. can avoid acting alone. There's a more general reluctance to act unilaterally than was the case under the Bush administration, he said. Above all, avoiding messy, long term ground wars where the U.S. has to foot the bill in blood and dollars are to be avoided. This helps explain U.S. policy when it came to intervening in Libya last year, and Syria today.
But it also reflects a shift of Obama's own thinking on Afghanistan, where his administration came into office proclaiming the conflict in that country to be a "war of necessity," only to backpedal once the complexities of the region and the likelihood of protracted involvement there came more into focus. Realistic flexibility? Or an unwillingness to stick with it? History will eventually judge.
"There were hints of this during the 2008 presidential campaign," Sanger said in his interview with The Journal. "(Obama) said he would go after (Osama) bin-Laden if he was in Pakistan," adding that Obama's embrace of a "light footprint" policy in Afghanistan - meaning expanded use of pilotless drone aircraft and covert operations, rather than "nation building" and counterinsurgency strategies - were also somewhat surprising.
There is much more to savor in this fascinating and timely book.
Sanger casts his gaze not only across the often conflicting imperatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, and cyber warfare, but ranges across U.S.policy towards Asia, the "Arab Spring" uprisings last year, and especially towards China, as well.
Sanger recently made an appearance also at the Northshire Bookstore for a discussion about his new book, where this topic surfaced for debate and discussion. How does the U.S. deal with a state on the rise? How does the Chinese leadership deal with us? There are two approaches the Chinese seem to be taking - one patient and passive, the other more aggressive. Navigating between those differing poles is tricky and fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding, Sanger said at the bookstore.
In the end, China is the real prize. A quarter century from now, Iraq and Afghanistan may be seen as sideshows to a larger struggle, and "getting China right" will be the major task confronting U.S. policy makers today and in the immediate future, he said in answer to a question at his bookstore appearance.
There's more; the level of transparency - or rather the relative lack of it - is another interesting theme which Sanger explores, informed by his nearly two decades of experience covering the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. The present administration is not the most transparent of the group, he told The Journal.
"They are more closed, certainly, than Clinton, maybe not more closed than Bush's first term, but more closed than Bush's second term," he said. "They are a very cautious group and they're into news management."
Sanger will be appearing at the Weston Playhouse on Sunday, Aug. 12, to discuss the themes of his book and take part in a general discussion of U.S. foreign policy in 2012 as we enter the final phase of a presidential election. His appearance is part of a regular fund-raising event Sanger participates in with the playhouse. He stays for part of each summer in Weston, and wrote parts of "The Inheritance" there. The event will start at 7:30 p.m. For more information about reserving tickets, call 802-824-5288.