This book has another, much longer, subtitle, “Inside the Lies That Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity”. It is a solid contribution to my project of understanding the history I lived through. I was born the same year as the author, who died in 2019.
The US Foreign Service hired Wilson because he was fluent in French, and possibly because he was “handy”, having worked as a carpenter. They initially assigned him to administer aid in Niger, which suffered from drought.
Wilson was gregarious, in the best sense, forming friendships readily. He grew to love Africa, and wished Americans understood it better.
Wilson’s diplomatic career spanned service in six different sub-Saharan countries, two of which he served as ambassador. He later worked in Iraq as leading US government representative during the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, risking his life to get Americans safely away before the first Iraq war (Desert Storm) exploded in 1991. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1998.
Given his breadth of experience and his political visibility after retirement, a memoir was certainly to be expected. But Wilson is one of those men best known for the person he married. He was “Mr. Valerie Plame”. Why did the administration of President George W Bush “blow the cover” of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative (spy) whose specialty was weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? I reviewed Ms. Plame’s memoir at the link below.
Long story… Bush wanted to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. He told the American people that Hussein had WMDs, and we went to war (Operation Iraqi Freedom) in 2003. THE WEAPONS WERE NEVER FOUND. Wilson was very public about the fact that President Bush knew they didn’t exist. Bush allowed Plame to be “outed” as a way to discredit Wilson, an unethical and destructive action.
Wilson was convinced that action short of war (diplomacy, sanctions, airspace interdictions, UN pressure, etc) could have led to regime change in Iraq without invasion and occupation. After all, two major “revolutions” of immense global importance had taken place in the preceding decade. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and South Africa ended apartheid and embraced democracy in 1994. During each of these radical changes, war was avoided.
Wilson was not a pacifist. He said he was opposed to “stupid war”. He approved of Desert Storm because it was conducted by an international coalition, supported by the American public and had a clear, limited goal – to get Iraq out of Kuwait. Operation Iraqi Freedom was preemptive (against an unconfirmed threat), unilateral and without a clear goal. Only once in the book does he use the “Q-word”, quagmire.
Contemporary note… Wilson points out that a major red flag in the run-up to the second Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) was lack of an occupation PLAN. Sound familiar?
Wilson would be furious about our current struggles with the Covid pandemic and the recent insurrection. Certainly he would not be silent.
434 pages, published 2019. Includes notes and index.
Today is Veterans Day, a good time to think about the American armed forces, the Pentagon, and the military veterans among our friends and family.
Why did I choose this book from the recent arrivals shelf? And why did I keep reading, given its length and density?
- First, I thought of it as an opportunity to understand war and militarism, facets of American life and culture which disturb me terribly. I am deeply opposed to war, and can only gain from understanding it better.
- Second, I’m a citizen and a taxpayer, so the Pentagon acts in my name and spends my tax dollar. Again, I want to know what’s going on.
- Finally, I’m curious about leadership. It’s a term so freely bandied about. Who is a good leader? How should leaders be selected? Trained? Deployed? I feel that I’ve witnessed and experienced both good and bad leadership, but sometimes I’m not sure who belongs in which category. I have only attempted leadership in very small settings…what’s it like in the major leagues?
As Secretary of Defense (2015 to 2017) under President Obama, Carter presided over the world’s largest organization, the United States of America Department of Defense. The Pentagon oversees both the armed forces and all the civilians that support them, and also provides advice to the President about all aspects of national security.
At Yale University, Carter studied physics and medieval history. The connection between physics and military science (in the nuclear age) is fairly obvious, but what about medieval history? Carter said he was simply following his own curiosity when he studied it, but he feels that it explains how Europe worked its way through the creation of “civilization”, finding ways so its population could live in relative comfort and order.
Carter is a clear and careful (and prolific) writer , and this is a thoughtful book. Carter divides leadership into two categories.
- One, which he calls “reinforcement”, is finding the best in your underlings and supporting them with training, encouragement and responsibility.
- The second, more challenging aspect is leading an organization in a new direction which is unfamiliar and unpopular. Consider the following:
Carter will be remembered as the Secretary of Defense who opened all military jobs to all service members, female as well as male.
- First, he did his homework. He argues strenuously that his decision was based on data, research and the overwhelming importance military preparedness, NOT on political correctness or a desire for social experimentation.
- He developed extensive plans for implementation of the new policy before it was announced, attempting to consider every possible problem and concern that could be raised.
- He was open about the fact that the Marine Corps had wanted to maintain “male only” status for certain certain jobs, but asserted his larger responsibility to the President to chart the best possible course for the military.
- Ultimately, his announcement was crafted and timed to minimize unproductive “second guessing”.
The process isn’t finished, but Carter set it onto a clear path.
Carter placed a high value on oral, written and media based communication, giving it an entire chapter in his book. He discusses “message” and “story” and the value of consistent repetition. He has used social media to communicate with American soldiers, and poses for selfies with soldiers in combat zones.
In his chapter about the defeat of ISIS, Carter uses a very obscure word, “deconfliction”. He uses it to describe our interactions with Russia during the fight against ISIS. Russia was not an ally, hence we were not “cooperating” with them. But both sides knew it was important to prevent accidental armed contact from leading to hostilities between the US and Russia. Hence, “deconfliction” provided patterns of unofficial communication to meet that goal. The word can be found at dictionary.com and its first reported use is listed as 1970. (Upon first reading, I thought Carter made it up!)
Carter makes clear the high value he places on diplomacy, including what he calls “coercive diplomacy”. It’s the “carrot and stick” approach, with high stakes. He feels that President Trump should have refused to meet the North Korean President Kim Jong-un until North Korea took very substantial, verifiable steps toward de-nuclearization. Kim Jong-un was “rewarded” without making any measurable change in support of American interests. Carter recognizes the high value of symbolic gestures, like a visit from the President of the United States.
Speaking about current unstable geopolitical “hot spots”, Carter says the US will never invade and occupy Iran, as it would be ungovernable. He does not say the same about North Korea, though he states that war in the Korean peninsula would bring calamitous suffering to our South Korean allies.
This book is well worth reading. Even re-reading, but right now I’m looking for something lighter.
Published 2015 – 238 pages, indexed, with photos, poems and artwork.
I grabbed this book (off a give-away table) because I spotted a section on DIPLOMACY. And if there’s anything that might help our troubled world right now, that’s it.
I rapidly realized this book fits one of my favorite categories – accounts of times and events I lived through, but don’t really understand. I’ve investigated the Civil Rights movement, Kent State (does everyone recognize this reference?) and the Cuban missile crisis.
I read one of Carter’s earlier books, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood. It would be worth reading even if Carter had not risen to the Presidency.
By way of a refresher… Jimmy Carter was born in Georgia in 1924 and served as the 39thPresident of the United States from 1977 to 1981, losing the campaign for a second term to Ronald Reagan. At 93, he is the longest-retired President in US history. (Wikipedia)
The social/historical thread that runs through A Full Life is race. Carter grew up deep in the segregated South. The US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, was segregated when he entered in 1943. In 1948, the US military and Civil Service were integrated by order of President Harry Truman. By the time he returned to Plains, GA, Carter had little tolerance for racial discrimination. So many years have passed, and our country still struggles with racial issues!
A Full Life – Reflections at Ninety is studded with surprises. I had forgotten that it was Carter who pardoned all the draft resisters from the Vietman war, allowing many who had left the country the option of return.
Carter’s account of the peace talks that led to the Camp David Accords (1978) is fascinating. As Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began to favor some of Carter’s suggestions, Sadat’s contingent became so angry that Carter feared for Sadat’s life, worrying so much he lost a night’s sleep, a rare problem for Carter. What would have happened if Sadat had been murdered in the US? (Sadat was assassinated 1981, in Egypt.)
Carter often sent family members overseas to represent him. Rosalynn Carter traveled to Brazil as part of an effort to convince that country not to refine nuclear reactor waste for use in weapons. OMG! The mere thought of nuclear states in South American gives me cold chills! (Yes, I recognize the irony…)
I very much enjoyed seeing Carter’s paintings, ten of which are reproduced in this book. As far as I know, he is a self taught artist. I’m impressed that he painted portraits. That’s much harder than a landscape or a picture of a house. I only skimmed Carter’s poems…poetry is not my strong point.
For anyone interested in the US Presidency, A Full Life is worth a careful read. Carter is an excellent, incisive writer and an accomplished politician in the best sense of the word. I wish he could have served longer, and I admire his undertakings in retirement.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (published in 2001).
I love this book! It’s wonderful. Looking back through my reading journal, I find that I (first) read it in 2010, but wrote only that it was “magical” and dealt with music and love.
!! SPOILER ALERT !! Stop here if you don’t want to know the outcome. But do read the book!
I wasn’t sure whether the term “bel canto” referred to the singer or the song. Wikipedia tells me it an Italian operatic style, light and agile, with clear phrasing. The main female character in the book is an American opera singer of highest reputation. She has the misfortune to be taken hostage at a diplomatic party in an unnamed third world country, along with several dozen men.
If I start to summarize the story, this will go on forever. The plot is “encapsulated”, tight – terrorists invade a party and take hostages. A long period of (gradually decreasing) tension and negotiation ensues. The mansion in which the hostages are held becomes a microcosm and Patchett develops complex, surprising and loveable characters and relationships within it.
Two themes that twine through this book are music and language. Everyone is in love with the singer – she is beautiful, accomplished, famous, and usually gracious. Even the young, unsophisticated terrorists worship her, and over time, everything revolves around her singing.
Two important male characters are an ultra wealthy Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, and his younger translator, named Gen. Gen becomes the communication node in a group where five or six languages are in use – Spanish, English, French and Russian, primarily, and sometimes Italian. it turns out some of the terrorists speak mostly an indigenous language, and barely understand Spanish, so Gen is sometimes at a loss.
There’s another fascinating male character, Messner, the Swiss Red Cross negotiator who is the only person able to come and go freely from the besieged mansion. He is sophisticated, experienced at negotiation, and knows that the situation is likely to end in terrible violence. So, what does it mean to be “neutral”? What can he accomplish?Messner struggles with this.
Inevitably, the fragile “community” is torn apart. All the terrorists are killed, and the hostages go back to their lives with memories and scars that will be permanent and incomprehensible to those around them. The book, somehow, is more positive than negative.
I will probably return to this book over and over. It’s a treat.