January 13, 2009 — Last Sept. 2, Barack Obama went into the F.B.I. building in Chicago to get a 90-minute secret briefing from Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, about the world Mr. Obama would face if he won the presidency. As David E. Sanger recounts in “The Inheritance,” Mr. McConnell warned Mr. Obama about a sickening range of intractable problems: Al Qaeda’s regrouping along the ungoverned border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran’s headlong progress toward getting nuclear weapons, totalitarian North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal, Russian belligerence, an overheating planet — and more. The sensible reaction would have been to walk outside and drop out of the race immediately.
Rarely will a president enter office so thoroughly challenged on Day 1 as Mr. Obama. This dazzling and mordantly hilarious book is a history of how we got into this particular ditch. Mr. Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, drops the strict detachment of a daily reporter and lets rip, delivering a withering indictment of his longtime subject: President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, which he writes “has left us less admired by our allies, less feared by our enemies and less capable of convincing the rest of the world that our economic and political model is worthy of emulation.”
After seven years covering Mr. Bush, Mr. Sanger, a shrewd and insightful strategic thinker, is left stunned by “the president’s inexplicable resistance, until the final quarter of his term in office, to changing course.” Mr. Bush, he says, saw strategic change and negotiation as signs of weakness. This is a Nixon who never went to China.
These unvarnished conclusions by Mr. Sanger will of course confirm the perfidy that Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly presume lies in the black hearts of Times reporters. But Mr. Sanger’s criticism, the product of extraordinarily diligent reporting, is too hawkish to be easily dismissed by conservatives. He believes in putting brute military power behind diplomacy, wants to win the war in Afghanistan and hates the thought of a nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea.
Unlike other accounts of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy, “The Inheritance” is not about Iraq but about the crushing opportunity costs paid elsewhere for that quagmire. With America bogged down in Iraq, a rising China has expanded its global influence. Mr. Sanger reports of the peril from unsecured nuclear arsenals: “As the situation in Iraq worsened, the post-9/11 efforts to create a multilayered defense against a domestic W.M.D. attack waned.”
The ripples from Iraq go as far as Darfur, Sudan’s ravaged western region. According to Mr. Sanger’s interviews with senior administration officials, Condoleezza Rice told Mr. Bush, “I don’t think you can invade another Muslim country during this administration, even for the best of reasons.”
The Iraq war hobbled America’s ability to threaten North Korea and Iran credibly. Mr. Sanger points out that in 2003, as North Korea kicked out international weapons inspectors and raced to complete the fuel for perhaps six nuclear weapons, the Bush administration was gunning to invade nuclear-free Iraq.
“Had a few other things on our mind,” said a senior Bush administration official, when Mr. Sanger reminded him that the North Korean crisis was unfolding at the same time.
Most directly, Mr. Sanger bats back at the argument made forcefully to him in 2007 by Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, that the administration never shortchanged Afghanistan because of Iraq. Mr. Sanger writes, “Time and again, Afghanistan — the country where the 9/11 plot was hatched — was overshadowed by the war in Iraq.”
When Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan, called the White House in the winter of 2008 to ask for about 37,000 more American troops, he was rebuffed. According to Mr. Sanger, crucial Special Forces units, seasoned combat troops and C.I.A. personnel were shuffled over to Iraq, taking pressure off Al Qaeda and the Taliban. New Predator drones were sent to Iraq, not Afghanistan.
“We’re simply in a world of limited resources, and those resources are in Iraq,” a senior administration official told Mr. Sanger. “Anyone who tells you differently is blowing smoke.”
Mr. Sanger’s book is a Woodwardian trove of inside dope. He draws upon his own interviews with Mr. Bush, Ms. Rice, Robert M. Gates, Colin L. Powell, Pervez Musharraf and many more. He offers astonishing details on how the C.I.A. penetrated A. Q. Khan’s network of nuclear technology for sale and sabotaged some of Iran’s efforts to get nuclear technology. And he has a terrifying chapter in which he describes Pakistan’s unsteady efforts to keep Islamist radicals from infiltrating or stealing from its burgeoning nuclear weapons program, bolstered with $100 million of secret American aid.
“The Inheritance” offers up a painfully long catalog of squandered opportunities. Mr. Sanger slams Mr. Bush for not exploring the post-Sept. 11 possibilities of an alliance of convenience with Iran against Sunni Arab extremists until the end of his second term and notes that in 2005, at a potentially opportune diplomatic moment when Iran had only a few centrifuges to enrich uranium, Mr. Bush was preoccupied with Iraq.
Mr. Sanger quotes Christopher R. Hill, the skillful veteran diplomat spearheading the joint American and Asian effort to denuclearize North Korea, on administration hard-liners: “These” — here an epithet unprintable in The New York Times — “don’t know how to negotiate. Everything is Appomattox. It’s just ‘Come out with your hands up.’ ”
Looking forward, Mr. Sanger delivers a series of hard truths. He states bluntly that it may take decades before American troops can leave Afghanistan without risking a Taliban return to power. He reports about a July 2007 American intelligence assessment that Al Qaeda, sheltered in Pakistan, had, in Mr. Sanger’s words, “reorganized its command structure and was once again planning attacks against the United States.” Unless something big changes, he writes, Iran will get nuclear weapons, which will most likely start Egyptian and Saudi nuclear programs in response.
Of course, some of the problems that bedeviled Mr. Bush also confounded other presidents, from Lyndon B. Johnson to Bill Clinton, who failed to stop China, Israel, India and Pakistan from getting nuclear weapons. And Mr. Bush has some achievements to point to: soberly handling China, helping create the six-party talks as a promising framework for future Asian security and upgrading America’s commitment to fighting the AIDS pandemic.
Still, Mr. Bush has taken to citing Harry S. Truman, implying that history will vindicate his legacy in Iraq and beyond. “The Inheritance” is a devastatingly effective pre-emptive strike against that.
Gary J. Bass, a Princeton professor, is the author of “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention.”