The cover describes Stratfor (the intelligence company Friedman founded) as a “Shadow CIA”. By this book’s description of the CIA, this implies it has a lot of details right but misses many important broad trends. The book tends to have weaknesses of this nature, being better as a history of Al Qaeda’s conflict with the U.S. than as a guide to the future, but it’s probably a good deal more reliable than CIA analysis.
It describes a few important trends that I wasn’t aware of. The best theory the book proposes that I hadn’t heard before is the claim that the U.S. government is much more worried about Al Qaeda getting a nuclear bomb than the public realizes (for instance, the Axis of Evil is the set of nations that are unable or unwilling to prove they won’t help Al Qaeda get the bomb).
The explanation of the U.S. motives for invading Iraq as primarily to pressure the Saudi government is unconvincing.
The book’s biases are sufficiently subtle that I have some difficulty detecting them. It often paints Bush in as favorable a light as possible, but is also filled with some harsh criticisms of his mistakes, for example:
It is an extraordinary fact that in the U.S.-jihadist war, the only senior commander or responsible civilian to have been effectively relieved was Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, who was retired unceremoniously (although not ahead of schedule) after he accurately stated that more than 200,000 troops would be needed in Iraq
The person selected, Tom Ridge, had no background in the field and had absolutely no idea what he was doing, but that was not a problem problem since, in fact, he would have nothing really to do. His job was simply to appear to be in control of an apparatus that did not yet exist
But it’s hard to place a lot of confidence in theories that are backed mainly by eloquent stories. It’s unfortunate that the book is unable or unwilling to document the evidence needed to confirm them.
There’s a fair amount of agreement between this book and Imperial Hubris, but I’ve revised my opinion of that book a bit due to the disagreements between the two. The claims by Imperial Hubris that we don’t need to worry about a new Caliphate seem unpersuasive now that I see there widespread disagreement with that claim and weak arguments on both sides. The two books disagree on who’s currently winning the war, but I see no sign that defeat for either side is anywhere near close enough to be predictable.