There's an election year—and the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks—around the corner, but fall's big books are too preoccupied to notice. They're looking East. The mood is wistful; the emphasis is on American vulnerability and waning influence in a changing world; and many books are trying to unravel one central riddle.
Pakistan, our enigmatic adversary-cum-ally, looms large in our collective imaginations. The Future of Pakistan, edited by Stephen Cohen, examines the tensions boiling within Pakistan's borders and evaluates several future scenarios. John R. Schmidt's indispensable The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad explains how various Pakistani regimes long nurtured extremist groups only to find themselves under attack from this same explosive element. Ken Ballen and Peter Bergen take us deeper into the world of these fundamentalists in Terrorists in Love, with intimate profiles of six radicals, their motivations and deadly missions.
When it comes to our own missteps in the region, you won't find a more shocking, saddening—and yes, hilarious—account than Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, the State Department insider's firsthand account of how the U.S. is bungling the reconstruction of Iraq with symbolic rather than substantive efforts to provide relief (Van Buren's image of the U.S. outfitting a local school with computers—rather than electricity—is unforgettable).
On domestic immoderation and lack of regulation, William Arkin and Dana Priest explore the vast, shadowy, impossible-to-monitor ecosystem of security agencies that sprang up after September 11 in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.
And, of course, the season sees the blooming of the usual perennials: polemics by the likes of Pat Buchanan, Christine O'Donnell, and Michael Moore. The ever-sardonic Thomas Frank skewers the right in Pity the Billionaire: The Unexpected Resurgence of the American Right, in which he investigates why the current recession precipitated the resurgence of conservatism.
Colin Woodard explains away partisanship in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, which makes the provocative claim that our culture wars are inevitable. North America was settled by groups with distinct political and religious values—and we haven't had a moment's peace since.
But if you're interested in our commonalities not our differences, Republic, Lost: A Declaration for Independence will allow you to distribute your indignation more evenly. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig argues that the greatest threat to democracy isn't radical Islam, hanging chads, or a camera-phone in the hands of a congressman. It's the money that corrupts democratic processes.
Thomas Friedman returns to argue that perhaps the world isn't quite so flat. His latest, the rueful That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, a collaboration with foreign policy analyst Michael Mandelbaum, argues that the U.S. is being fast outpaced by its competitors, India and China.
And what of India and China? They've long had Burma to buffer their outsize populations and ambitions. As Burma itself develops, the two behemoths will encounter each other, and Where China Meets India: Burma and the Closing of the Great Asian Frontier by Thant Myint-U examines the political, economic, and cultural consequences of the coming moment.
PW's Top 10 Politics
The Future of Pakistan
Edited by Stephen Cohen. Brookings Institution, Oct.
Pakistan in the Age of Jihad
John R. Schmidt. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept.
Terrorists in Love:
The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals
Ken Ballen and Peter Bergen. Free Press, Oct.
We Meant Well:
How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
Peter Van Buren. Metropolitan, Sept.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State
William Arkin and Dana Priest. Little, Brown, Sept.
Pity the Billionaire: The Unexpected Resurgence of the American Right
Thomas Frank. Metropolitan, Jan.
A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
Colin Woodard. Viking, Sept.
A Declaration for Independence
Lawrence Lessig. Hachette, Oct.
That Used to Be Us:
How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back
Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept.
Where China Meets India: Burma and the Closing of the Great Asian Frontier
Thant Myint-U. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept.