The best books to help understand how to fix U.S. diplomacy

Who am I?

My passion is fixing our diplomacy. Relatively late in my career, I found a new home working with and for some of the Foreign Service’s most talented people. My assignments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (during the 1990-91 Gulf War) led to my appointment as ambassador in Oman. After retirement I returned to Cairo to set up a regional multilateral development bank (we were unsuccessful) and later rebuild Iraq’s foreign ministry. I experienced the negative and frustrating impact of politicization and militarization on our foreign policy. Knowing we can and must do better motivated me to write From Sadat to Saddam and to commend to you the five books below.    

I wrote...

From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

By David J. Dunford,

Book cover of From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

What is my book about?

From Sadat to Saddam is both a memoir and a reflection on the politicization of the U.S. diplomatic corps and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This book begins with the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, continues through two Gulf wars, and ends with the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq in 2011. It addresses the basic questions of how and why we find ourselves today in endless military conflict and how we allowed our soft power to atrophy well before the election of Donald Trump. It chronicles three decades of dealing with foreign policy challenges, opportunities, and frustrations and recommends that the time has come to invest in a truly professional diplomatic service.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III

David J. Dunford Why did I love this book?

Paradoxically, my thoughts on the decline of U.S. diplomacy begin with the superb biography of James A. Baker by Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser.  Many believe Baker was the best secretary of state ever. He presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, our muscular response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and the reinvigoration of the Middle East peace process  I personally witnessed Baker’s impressive negotiating skills in Riyadh. Baker did not begin with a favorable impression of the Foreign Service, and he did not leave it a better place. Unlike George Shultz who relied on Foreign Service professionals, he brought his own team with him. He replaced the entire leadership of the Middle East bureau, a center of excellence under Shultz.  

By Peter Baker, Susan Glasser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Man Who Ran Washington as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New York Times • The Washington Post • Fortune • Bloomberg

From two of America's most revered political journalists comes the definitive biography of legendary White House chief of staff and secretary of state James A. Baker III: the man who ran Washington when Washington ran the world.

For a quarter-century, from the end of Watergate to the aftermath of the Cold War, no Republican won the presidency without his help or ran the White House without his advice. James Addison Baker III was the indispensable man for four presidents because he understood better…

Book cover of Circle in the Sand: The Bush Dynasty in Iraq

David J. Dunford Why did I love this book?

Although Stephen Coll’s Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower deserved the attention they got, Circle in the Sand, in my opinion, did the best job of connecting the dots between our decision to deploy 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia in 1990 and the 9/11 attack and our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Alfonsi highlights the misgivings of Chas Freeman, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and my boss from 1989-92, about our continued military presence and the growing Islamic opposition to the Saudi royal family. Our reporting from Riyadh attracted little interest in Washington. Chas Freeman was the last career professional to serve as ambassador to Saudi Arabia until 2022. The influence of career professionals on U.S. policy toward the Middle East continued to diminish during the Clinton years.

By Christian Alfonsi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Circle in the Sand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An important, massively researched and revelation-filled work of history that uncovers how decisions made by the first Bush White House preordained the current administration’s decision to invade Iraq.

“Is this a one-time thing, or should we foreshadow more to come?”

This was the prophetic question posed by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft in a secret April 1991 memorandum about the postwar management of Iraq, two months after the United States had defeated Iraqi forces in Operation Desert Storm—but left Saddam Hussein securely in power. Circle in the Sand challenges the widely held notion that Saddam’s survival was the result of…

Book cover of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon

David J. Dunford Why did I love this book?

This book entertains while recounting the militarization of our foreign policy. Post-retirement, I worked briefly for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and later as a contractor helping to train military units headed for Iraq and Afghanistan. Our professional military is a superb fighting machine but the decisions to invade Iraq and Afghanistan inevitably resulted in challenges diplomats and development workers are best equipped to handle. The budget-slashing reinvention of government during the Clinton years meant there weren’t enough trained civilians to handle existing priorities much less a surge to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. As Rosa Brooks writes, from the perspective of both an insider and a superb reporter, the military became everything. The military had the money while civilian agencies like State and USAID were underfunded.

By Rosa Brooks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A dynamic work of reportage" (The New York Times) written "with clarity and...wit" (The New York Times Book Review) about what happens when the ancient boundary between war and peace is erased.

Once, war was a temporary state of affairs. Today, America's wars are everywhere and forever: our enemies change constantly and rarely wear uniforms, and virtually anything can become a weapon. As war expands, so does the role of the US military. Military personnel now analyze computer code, train Afghan judges, build Ebola isolation wards, eavesdrop on electronic communications, develop soap operas, and patrol for pirates. You name it,…

Book cover of The Ambassadors: America's Diplomats on the Front Lines

David J. Dunford Why did I love this book?

Richter recounts the stories of four extraordinary professional diplomats who served post 9/11 and are role models for the diplomats of the future. Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador in Egypt and Pakistan, worked for me briefly in Washington and Riyadh. I crossed paths with Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador in Iraq and Afghanistan, many times in Washington, Baghdad, and elsewhere. I met Chris Stevens once before he became U.S. ambassador in Libya. The political exploitation of his death was outrageous. I didn’t know Robert Ford, who resigned in frustration over U.S. policy toward Syria. They were sent to dangerous and unstable places. Diplomacy can be risky. They had to work closely were their military counterparts. They experienced the frustration of advising Washington politicians who lack both understanding and a willingness to listen. 

By Paul Richter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ambassadors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Veteran diplomatic correspondent Paul Richter goes behind the battles and the headlines to show how American ambassadors are the unconventional warriors in the Muslim world-running local government, directing drone strikes, building nations, and risking their lives on the front lines.

The tale's heroes are a small circle of top career diplomats who have been an unheralded but crucial line of national defense in the past two decades of wars in the greater Middle East. In The Ambassadors, Paul Richter shares the astonishing, true-life stories of four expeditionary diplomats who "do the hardest things in the hardest places."

The book describes…

Book cover of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal

David J. Dunford Why did I love this book?

As good as the professionals in Richter’s book were, Bill Burns might be the best role model. He served as U.S. ambassador in Moscow. He became Deputy Secretary of State and was instrumental in negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement. Now CIA Director, I suspect he orchestrated the release of intelligence on Russia’s plans which led to a unified NATO response to the invasion of Ukraine. I first met Bill, then a junior officer, in Amman, and knew he was headed for great things. Although he had misgivings about our policies toward Iraq, Russia, and Syria, sadly, his dissent was ignored. He wonders in The Back Channel whether he should have resigned. Happily, he is back in government where his ideas for renewing American diplomacy might get a better reception.  

By William J. Burns,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Back Channel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A masterful diplomatic memoir” (The Washington Post) from CIA director and career ambassador William J. Burns, from his service under five presidents to his personal encounters with Vladimir Putin and other world leaders—an impassioned argument for the enduring value of diplomacy in an increasingly volatile world.

Over the course of more than three decades as an American diplomat, William J. Burns played a central role in the most consequential diplomatic episodes of his time—from the bloodless end of the Cold War to the collapse of post–Cold War relations with Putin’s Russia, from post–9/11 tumult in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle…

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Dinner with Churchill

By Robin Hawdon,

Book cover of Dinner with Churchill

Robin Hawdon Author Of Number Ten

New book alert!

Who am I?

My writing is eclectic and covers many topics. However, all my books tend to have a thriller element to them. Perhaps it's my career as an actor and playwright which has instilled the need to create suspense in all my writings. I sometimes feel that distinguished authors can get so carried away with their literary descriptions and philosophical insights that they forget to keep the story going! It is the need to know what happens next that keeps the reader turning the pages. Perhaps in achieving that some subtlety has to be sacrificed, but, hey, you don't read a political thriller to study the philosophical problems of governing nations!

Robin's book list on lone heroes and threats to national security

What is my book about?

This is a new novel by one of the UK's most prolific writers. It is based around an extraordinary true incident at the start of World War II when fierce political opponents Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain encountered each other at a famous dinner party. Seen from the perspective of Lucy Armitage, a young girl suddenly conscripted by a strange stroke of fate into Churchill's overworked but adoring team of secretaries.

As Churchill prepares to take over the leadership of the nation, Lucy finds herself increasingly involved in her famous employer's phenomenal work output and eccentric habits. When romance and the world of espionage impinge on her life, she becomes a vital part of the eternal struggle between good and evil regimes that still exists today.

Dinner with Churchill

By Robin Hawdon,

What is this book about?

It is on historical record that, on the evening of October 13th 1939, six weeks after war had been declared on Hitler's Germany, Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, fierce and implacable opponents for years over the appeasement issue, met together with their two wives, Clementine and Anne, for a private dinner at Admiralty House, and event which caused ripples throughout Westminster.

Chamberlain was still Prime Minister, but had seen all his efforts to negotiate peace with Hitler shattered. Churchill had been recalled to the cabinet after ten years 'in the wilderness', his dire warnings of the Nazi threat vindicated.


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