Tuesday, December 14, 2010

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy by Francis Fukuyama

Once a prominent neoconservative, Francis Fukuyama breaks with his former political comrades by attacking the U.S. invasion of Iraq. With deep insight, this book begins by tracing the origins of neoconservatism in the 1930s, with a group of left-wing intellectuals. Over the pursuing decades, this group moved, to greater and lesser degrees, to the right of the political spectrum. Unlike traditional conservatives of the Nixon-Kissinger school, however, the early-neocons blended a desire for greater human rights and liberty, with a belief that U.S. power could be used for moral reasons. (The "realist" school of Kissinger, in contrast, saw geopolitics as primarily a struggle for power among states). With the rise of Reagan, Fukuyama argues, the neoconservative worldview was able to trump the "realist" politics of detente espoused by Kissinger, and help bring an end to the cold.

But with the rise of a unipolar world led by the United States, the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration overreached, with the result that the U.S. got bogged down in Iraq at a huge military, human and political cost. Furthermore, in a case of political irony, the invasion of Iraq -- with its visions of nation building and spreading democracy across the Middle East -- was championed by a group of people who historically had been very critical of massive social engineering projects. Overall, this is a very smart book that provides insight into what went wrong in Iraq, and provides lessons on how the errors of the neocons can be avoided in the future.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower by Zbigniew Brzezinski

In this short book, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor under President Carter, analysis the three U.S. presidents who governed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Citing the immense opportunities that were available to the United States after the end of the Cold War, Brzezinski concludes that neither Bush I, Clinton or Bush II took advantage of their position as the de facto global leader.

Of the three former Presidents, Brzezinski rates the elder George H. W. Bush as the best. Between 1989-92, Bush I had to deal with an incredible number of international events: e.g. the collapse of the U.S.S.R.; emerging democracies in Eastern Europe; Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, to name just a few. With great skill, however, he was able to usher in a peaceful end of the Cold War, while keeping together the U.N.-sanctioned coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Unfortunately, this great tactical skill was not exploited with an ensuing strategic vision.

Bill Clinton, meanwhile, is portrayed as a brilliant man who failed to live up to his promise, and whose haphazard decision making style resulted in a self-indulgent foreign policy. Clinton may have been loved around the world, but he did not use this goodwill to make an important mark in geopolitical affairs.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, is portrayed as a terrible president who sullied the reputation of the U.S. around the world. The invasion of Iraq is particularly criticized as a geo-political failure. His president is described as a complete disaster.

With this in mind, Brzezinski argues that the next U.S. President -- this book was published in 2007, a year before President Obama was elected -- will have to repair the image of the United States around the world, while pursuing a coherent strategic vision that escaped his three predecessors. In an ominous passage at the end of the book, however, is this sentence, which was written well before the current financial meltdown: "Given America's growing global indebtedness (it now borrows some 80 percent of the world's savings) and huge trade deficits, a major financial crisis, especially in an atmosphere of emotionally charged and globally pervasive Anti-American feeling, could have dire consequences for America's well-being and security."

As the Chinese curse says, may you live in interesting times.

3 out of 5 stars

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

A good friend of mine has been telling me for years that I should read Elmore Leonard. After finishing "Get Shorty" I finally understand what all the fuss is about. This book is a true joy to read, with its wonderful dialogue, great pacing and delightful plot. I definetly plan to read more Leonard books in the near future.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Rocksburg railroad murders by K.C. Constantine

This is the fourth book by K.C. Constantine that I have read and it is by far my least favourite novel by him. If you were to go to your local public library or bookstore, chances are that Constantine would be classified in the police mystery section. But what makes his books a fantastic read – and they truly are remarkable stories – is not the cloak-and-dagger detective work of his hero, Chief Mario Balzic, but the insightful portrait that he draws of blue collar America.

Unlike his other books, however, “The Rocksburg Railroad Murders” is a typical detective story that could have been written by numerous other writers. To make matters worse, the ending seemed rushed, as if the book were an hour-long television show that was nearing the end.

To be fair, this is the first book in the long Mario Balzic series and it’s possible that Constantine was still finding his voice. As well, the book is filled with excellent dialogue that is a hallmark of Constantine’s great work. But for those who have not read this brilliant author before, I would not recommend starting with this novel.

2 out of 5 stars

Time's Child by Rebecca Ore

This book is a mess. With one dimensional characters, boring dialogue and random scenes that are mashed together without much thought, this novel is a perfect example of a writer losing the plot. So why do I want to read more books by Rebecca Ore? Well, because for all its fault -- and there are MANY in this story -- it is clear that Ore has a wonderful bank of ideas.

The premise behind "Time's Child" is an interesting one. It's 2308 and the earth has descended into a collection of city states, following a plague that has devastated the world. In this post-apocalyptic setting, the surviving humans use a time machine to bring back people from the past. The main protagonists in the book -- a woman who is a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci; a Norse viking; and a computer hacker form the 21st century -- struggle to adjust to their new reality.

Unfortunately, this promising beginning descends into a pointless plot. Equally frustrating, a series of intriguing ideas -- e.g. men who can become pregnant; mysterious people in alternate futures beyond the 24th century that seem to control the characters in the book -- are never fully developed and are allowed to languish. The result is a chaotic mess that, if written better, could have been an excellent science fiction work.

1 out of 5 stars