Books: Ron Suskind's 'The Way of the World'

Ron Suskind: It's been directly felt when it comes to the true threat of WMD and rogue nukes. That was a connection I found in the reporting, time and again. In terms of trying to get groups of people who don't like us to act in a certain way, to bend toward our example, it's like herding cats. You can't force them, you have to offer something they want. In the past we've been very good at that and we have to rediscover our ability for it.

So nuclear terrorists are like cats?
[Laughing] Not really. It's more like getting the producers of fissile material, or states where it might be found, to act in the broader interest of humanity. We're trying to deal with stateless entities now, these terror networks, using the traditional state-to-state dance of force and diplomacy and not fully recognizing the havoc this great empowerment of individuals has caused. Networks develop across borders, unified by a notion of shared interest. What that means for the U.S. is getting serious about this struggle for hearts and minds. We've completely forgotten the importance of America being a force for good in the world, and instead spent the better part of the last eight years exporting fear and anger and being—in the eyes of much of the world—an agent of reckless aggression. We've almost purposefully engendered anti-Americanism across the globe and that's been the great sin of the last eight years.

How does that play out in terms of our ability to gather intelligence?
The gold of this era is human intelligence, and the assistance of people who have proximity to the threatening actors. If people in vast numbers just look the other way, and say, "Fine, let America get their comeuppance," we're in trouble.

Your book makes some powerful revelations, the biggest of which is that prior to the invasion in 2003, the Bush administration had intel from a top Iraqi official that there were no WMD in Iraq and chose to ignore it. Yet, all this seems to have fallen on deaf ears. We don ' t seem to care anymore.
I think there's a scandal fatigue that's set in. We became captive of fear and embraced these lesser angels and told our leaders: just keep us safe and we'll leave the rest to you. We just want to know the ends, not the means. We were willing to look the other way as long as we got to where we wanted to go.

That sounds eerily similar to what ' s led to this financial mess.
Absolutely, the ends-justify-the-means policy breeds the philosophy of "Win first and the rest is for later, or for never. We'll decide once we've won, don't blink, keep the ball rolling, trust my confidence." These are all the mantras that have ruled the day for the better part of the last decade. We forgot the value of those carefully laid foundations of transparency and accountability. We stripped away regulations and oversights, whether it's our rights to privacy or mortgage regulations. This idea that I should be unfettered in my desires—and in my dash for a winner-take-all victory—washed it all away.

But isn't that what the American people wanted?
The pursuit of happiness is a the potent fuel that drives the American experiment forward, but it only works with lines drawn on the highway, traffic lights, stop signs and a cop car hiding here and there in the bushes. What's happened in this era is that the people with the fastest cars threw all that away—no lines, no traffic regulations, drive as fast as you can, wherever you want to go and damn the consequences. The ends were so glorious and everyone was racing toward them as one, it became very difficult to hit the brakes. To say wait a minute, and maybe cause a pileup.

We ' re such a history-minded country, it ' s such a part of our sense of ourselves as a nation, yet we seem to have turned a blind eye to it in recent years by committing the same mistakes we have in the past.
On balance, the idea is that you learn more from your failures than your victories and hopefully we will learn from this period. But certainly, the notions of probity and prudence that formed so much of this country's bedrock for so long, this reliance on the basic common sense of the people, has gone out the window and been replaced by the simple maxim of: what can I get away with?

But that mind-set has failed in catastrophic fashion, both in the realms of politics and economics.
It has, which is why we're at a true American crossroads right now. There are very pointed and basic questions being raised about the nature of the American character. Are we who we say we are? Can we be trusted? Do we practice the same ideals we espouse? Recently, too often, the answer has been no. The question? Will there be a correction, where, in a few years, we'll wake up to see that responsible behavior, that prudence, is being rewarded. We'll see.

Do you feel the personality of this administration trickled into the country ' s social and corporate fabric?
No doubt, and it's no surprise. Eras get defined by presidents. In a very basic way, people—even against their will—tend to channel their leaders. Bush is a confidence man. He believes in the transforming power of confidence, which typifies these last eight years and defined so many of our engagements in the world. Confidence has ruled all. Was it earned confidence, based on evidence, or willed confidence, based on desire? We decided we'd rather not draw that line and instead simply said, "I am confident, I'm certain, therefore you should trust me. Don't ask questions because it will slow me down." A moral slope, for sure, and, as a nation, we've slid down it. Now, it may be time to start climbing back up that slippery slope, back to the high ground.