The oft-repeated maxim attributed to Gustave Flaubert, "God is in the details," has a variant: "Governing is in the details," as Zakheim's memoir, a firsthand postmortem of the Bush administration's Afghanistan and Iraq policies, makes clear. The volume provides an insider's view not only on strategy but also on an underappreciated aspect of the history—the "practicalities of implementation."
Zakheim was one of the first advisors in 1998 to join the Bush campaign's foreign policy team, dubbed by Condoleezza Rice, the "Vulcans." He joined other, better-known names including Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, to help brief Bush on international issues and then moved on to the Department of Defense after the election.
The author demonstrates that problems with postwar reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq resulted from factors incidental to the Bush administration's initial aversion to "nation-building." He stresses another crucial reason for the mismanaged reconstruction initiatives: mid-level bureaucratic disputes over appropriations between Congress, the Defense Department, and the Office of Management and Budget.
In his capacities as the Pentagon's comptroller, chief financial officer, and coordinator for Afghan civilian reconstruction, Zakheim negotiated with coalition partners to raise and disburse funds for the Afghanistan and Iraq missions. Describing these negotiations, Zakheim provides insights into the unfortunate realities of dealing with authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes. Notwithstanding the ostensible confluence of interest between these states and Washington, corruption, haggling, secrecy, double-talk, and false promises were a fact of life.
Zakheim illustrates the point with numbers. After the first Afghan donors' conference, for example, the government of Saudi Arabia pledged $220 million but disbursed $27 million; Kuwait disbursed $2 million of its $30 million pledge; and Qatar simply did not bother to follow up on its $12 million pledge. Zakheim's failed 2003 negotiations with Syrian charge d'affaires, Imad Moustapha, over frozen Iraqi assets—the highest-level Pentagon talks with Syria in years—reveal the futility of the Bush administration's attempted rapprochement with Damascus.
Zakheim unintentionally reveals a major shortcoming in the White House's Afghanistan strategy: By repeatedly defending the Bush record vis-à-vis Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, he highlights the administration's inability to recognize and deal with Pakistan's double-game of cooperating with Washington while inciting instability across its borders.
A Vulcan's Tale is weaker in its strategic analysis. Zakheim advances the oft-repeated charge that the "rush to war with Iraq" detracted from the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Especially given his intimate involvement with the issue, Zakheim's discussion is simplistic and ultimately unconvincing, relying too much on anecdotes about administration officials' supposed inattention to Afghanistan. He downplays, for example, the fact that almost immediately after the start of the 2003 Iraq war, the Bush administration doubled funding for Afghanistan reconstruction and greatly increased the size of the country's national army and police.
Overall, Zakheim's memoir remains useful in explaining the impact that U.S. decisions after 9/11 had on subsequent outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq.