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Waging war on governmental stupidity

by Tim Pfaff

"War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence" author Ronan Farrow. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
"War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence" author Ronan Farrow. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe  

In a couple of weeks last month, Ronan Farrow came out publicly, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Harvey Weinstein for The New Yorker, was named one of Time's 100 most influential people, and saw the publication of his book, "War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence" (Norton). Shortly thereafter, North and South Korea took their biggest steps toward one another since the Korean War armistice, people gave Trump credit for it and he snatched it, and it was revealed that over Easter, secretly, Mike Pompeo, then still CIA director and a fiercely embattled nominee for Secretary of State back home, had gone to meet Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang for talks.

The cross-timing was such that Farrow, appearing on a string of talk shows that has marked one of the newsiest book tours ever, talked. In hours of Congressional hearings, Pompeo had demonstrated his gift for obfuscating inarticulately. Farrow spoke lucidly on Pompeo, who was narrowly confirmed between the author's appearances on the talk shows, and on the Korea business as a whole in complete, grammatically intact, substantive sentences that didn't preclude his saying he found it all terrifying.

Farrow also was unfailingly civil, appropriately funny and poised as a raptor. At the grand old age of 30, he agreed with the sane people that our hope - a word he uses with evident sincerity - lies with the younger generation, in which he did not expressly include himself.

His book's like that. Urgent, informed and not without a sense of humor sly enough to put his elders in their places and gentle enough to leave you thinking that, bad as things are, you're not wasting your time reading it despite the world's hanging by a thread. You could be spending more time with the people closest to you, but they'd likely not be as unrelentingly interesting, even entertaining, as Farrow.

He's interviewed every living Secretary of State, all of whom talked to him willingly, and some of whom let him talk their truth to power in ways they, by their stations, could not or did not. And he even recounts the obligatory bathroom meeting (his job interview) with his mentor, Richard Holbrooke, though it needs saying that Farrow was standing outside the bathroom door as Holbrooke showered, and that this behavior was routine for Holbrooke and not, appearances to the contrary, at all Weinstein-ish-or, you can be sure, that would have made it into this book, too.

Farrow worked, in official capacities, in the State Department, for four years beginning in 2009 - sub-ambassadorially, to be sure, being precocious while making color Power Points and scuffing his shoe leather, without which his tales would lack color if not credibility. Anyone who, like him, has waited in a hot, windowless office of a military regime arguing for visa privileges will understand.

As recently as the late Obama Administration, when comparatively low-profile John Kerry was doing things like brokering the Iran Deal - and Farrow was already deep into this 450-page book - "War on Peace" would probably have been read primarily by the people who already knew its contents, from their vantage point, and would have argued it with face- and ass-saving "expertise." Today, in the still wake of the Trump-Tillerson dismantling of the State Department - even now still lacking an ambassador to South Korea - this deadly serious, wit-leavened book meets a public nearly desperate to hear its message.

Like its namesake, "War on Peace" is in no small part an adventure story. There are breath-holding (his and the reader's) sand-in-his-shoes Pakistani stories. Many of his interviews with SecStates for this book read like Meetings with Remarkable Madmen (and stuffed shirts), some of the women acquitting themselves marginally better.

Importantly, this is not a dump-on-Trump book, of which we've had our fill. Farrow traces the hacking away at diplomacy, mostly giving way to the military, as a process long in the devolving. The bravery of this book does not inspire nostalgia for the administrations of William Jefferson Clinton or Barack Hussein Obama, either. But neither is it ever wantonly destructive, and Farrow allows for human decency beyond his own.

There are no dull stretches in this startling yet intellectually honest, responsible book. (Unlike, say, with "Fire and Fury," there are academically correct endnotes along with its index.) But there is, as he emphasized in one of his more trenchant TV appearances, a through-line that he would prefer be the attention-getter.

In short, it is that everywhere the U.S. has reduced its influence or withdrawn, China has stepped in, cagily and with imperial, subcutaneously malicious intent. Speaking as someone living just south of China, and daily feeling its reach and grasp, I urge heeding Farrow's view of our present and future, which augurs to make us sorrier than about Putin.

One can only hope Farrow's war on profligate governmental stupidity will turn out to be a paean to diplomacy and not a dirge on its death. If we all end up in camps, hope you're in the same barracks with Farrow. To borrow from his mother's ex, going to bed with Farrow (the book) has been the most fun I've had without having sex. It's also revived a nearly lost feeling: that I want to go on.

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