OUR ENTIRE NATIONAL SECURITY TEAM spent the next four days absorbed by the drama unfolding on the open seas off Somalia. The quick-thinking crew of the cargo-carrying Maersk Alabama had managed to disable the ship’s engine before the pirates boarded, and most of its members had hidden in a secure room. Their American captain, a courageous and levelheaded Vermonter named Richard Phillips, meanwhile, had stayed on the bridge. With the 508-foot ship inoperable and their small skiff no longer seaworthy, the Somalis decided to flee on a covered lifeboat, taking Phillips as a hostage and demanding a $2 million ransom. Even as one of the hostage-takers surrendered, negotiations to release the American captain went nowhere. The drama only heightened when Phillips attempted escape by jumping overboard, only to be recaptured.

With the situation growing more tense by the hour, I issued a standing order to fire on the Somali pirates if at any point Phillips appeared to be in imminent danger. Finally, on the fifth day, we got the word: In the middle of the night, as two of the Somalis came out into the open and the other could be seen through a small window holding a gun to the American captain, Navy SEAL snipers took three shots. The pirates were killed. Phillips was safe.

The news elicited high fives all around the White House. The Washington Post headline declared it AN EARLY MILITARY VICTORY FOR OBAMA. But as relieved as I was to see Captain Phillips reunited with his family, and as proud as I was of our navy personnel for their handling of the situation, I wasn’t inclined to beat my chest over the episode. Partly, it was a simple recognition that the line between success and complete disaster had been a matter of inches—three bullets finding their targets through the darkness rather than being thrown off just a tad by a sudden ocean swell. But I also realized that around the world, in places like Yemen and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, the lives of millions of young men like those three dead Somalis (some of them boys, really, since the oldest pirate was believed to be nineteen) had been warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings, or the schemes of older men. They were dangerous, these young men, often deliberately and casually cruel. Still, in the aggregate, at least, I wanted somehow to save them—send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.

THAT PART OF my job involved ordering people to be killed wasn’t a surprise, although it was rarely framed that way. Fighting terrorists—“on their ten-yard line and not ours” as Gates liked to put it—had provided the entire rationale behind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as al-Qaeda had scattered and gone underground, metastasizing into a complex web of affiliates, operatives, sleeper cells, and sympathizers connected by the internet and burner phones, our national security agencies had been challenged to construct new forms of more targeted, nontraditional warfare—including operating an arsenal of lethal drones to take out al-Qaeda operatives within the territory of Pakistan. The National Security Agency, or NSA, already the most sophisticated electronic-intelligence-gathering organization in the world, employed new supercomputers and decryption technology worth billions of dollars to comb cyberspace in search of terrorist communications and potential threats. The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, anchored by Navy SEAL teams and Army Special Forces, carried out nighttime raids and hunted down terrorist suspects mostly inside—but sometimes outside—the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. And the CIA developed new forms of analysis and intelligence gathering.

The White House, too, had reorganized itself to manage the terrorist threat. Each month, I chaired a meeting in the Situation Room, bringing all the intelligence agencies together to review recent developments and ensure coordination. The Bush administration had developed a ranking of terrorist targets, a kind of “Top 20” list complete with photos, alias information, and vital statistics reminiscent of those on baseball cards; generally, whenever someone on the list was killed, a new target was added, leading Rahm to observe that “al-Qaeda’s HR department must have trouble filling that number 21 slot.” In fact, my hyperactive chief of staff—who’d spent enough time in Washington to know that his new, liberal president couldn’t afford to look soft on terrorism—was obsessed with the list, cornering those responsible for our targeting operations to find out what was taking so long when it came to locating number 10 or 14.

I took no joy in any of this. It didn’t make me feel powerful. I’d entered politics to help kids get a better education, to help families get healthcare, to help poor countries grow more food—it was that kind of power that I measured myself against.

But the work was necessary, and it was my responsibility to make sure our operations were as effective as possible. Moreover, unlike some on the left, I’d never engaged in wholesale condemnation of the Bush administration’s approach to counterterrorism (CT). I’d seen enough of the intelligence to know that al-Qaeda and its affiliates were continuously plotting horrific crimes against innocent people. Its members weren’t amenable to negotiations or bound by the normal rules of engagement; thwarting their plots and rooting them out was a task of extraordinary complexity. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush had done some things right, including swiftly and consistently trying to tamp down anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States—no small feat, especially given our country’s history with McCarthyism and Japanese internment—and mobilizing international support for the early Afghan campaign. Even controversial Bush administration programs like the Patriot Act, which I myself had criticized, seemed to me potential tools for abuse more than wholesale violations of American civil liberties.

The way the Bush administration had spun the intelligence to gain public support for invading Iraq (not to mention its use of terrorism as a political cudgel in the 2004 elections) was more damning. And, of course, I considered the invasion itself to be as big a strategic blunder as the slide into Vietnam had been decades earlier. But the actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq hadn’t involved the indiscriminate bombing or deliberate targeting of civilians that had been a routine part of even “good” wars like World War II; and with glaring exceptions like Abu Ghraib, our troops in theater had displayed a remarkable level of discipline and professionalism.

As I saw it, then, my job was to fix those aspects of our CT effort that needed fixing, rather than tearing it out root and branch to start over. One such fix was closing Gitmo, the military prison at Guantánamo Bay—and thus halting the continuing stream of prisoners placed in indefinite detention there. Another was my executive order ending torture; although I’d been assured during my transition briefings that extraordinary renditions and “enhanced interrogations” had ceased during President Bush’s second term, the disingenuous, cavalier, and sometimes absurd ways that a few high-ranking holdovers from the previous administration described those practices to me (“A doctor was always present to ensure that the suspect didn’t suffer permanent damage or death”) had convinced me of the need for bright lines. Beyond that, my highest priority was creating strong systems of transparency, accountability, and oversight—ones that included Congress and the judiciary and would provide a credible legal framework for what I sadly suspected would be a long-term struggle. For that I needed the fresh eyes and critical mindset of the mostly liberal lawyers who worked under me in the White House, Pentagon, CIA, and State Department counsels’ offices. But I also needed someone who had operated at the very center of U.S. CT efforts, someone who could help me sort through the various policy trade-offs that were sure to come, and then reach into the bowels of the system to make sure the needed changes actually happened.

John Brennan was that person. In his early fifties, with thinning gray hair, a bad hip (a consequence of his dunking exploits as a high school basketball player), and the face of an Irish boxer, he had taken an interest in Arabic in college, studied at the American University in Cairo, and joined the CIA in 1980 after answering an ad in The New York Times. He would spend the next twenty-five years with the agency, as a daily intelligence briefer, a station chief in the Middle East, and, eventually, the deputy executive director under President Bush, charged with putting together the agency’s integrated CT unit after 9/11.

Despite the résumé and the tough-guy appearance, what struck me most about Brennan was his thoughtfulness and lack of bluster (along with his incongruously gentle voice). Although unwavering in his commitment to destroy al-Qaeda and its ilk, he possessed enough appreciation of Islamic culture and the complexities of the Middle East to know that guns and bombs alone wouldn’t accomplish that task. When he told me he had personally opposed waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation” sanctioned by his boss, I believed him; and I became convinced that his credibility with the intel community would be invaluable to me.

Still, Brennan had been at the CIA when waterboarding took place, and that association made him a nonstarter as my first agency director. Instead, I offered him the staff position of deputy national security advisor for homeland security and counterterrorism. “Your job,” I told him, “will be to help me protect this country in a way that’s consistent with our values, and to make sure everyone else is doing the same. Can you do that?” He said he could.

For the next four years, John Brennan would fulfill that promise, helping manage our efforts at reform and serving as my go-between with a sometimes skeptical and resistant CIA bureaucracy. He also shared my burden of knowing that any mistake we made could cost people their lives, which was the reason he could be found stoically working in a windowless West Wing office below the Oval through weekends and holidays, awake while others were sleeping, poring over every scrap of intelligence with a grim, dogged intensity that led folks around the White House to call him “the Sentinel.”

IT BECAME CLEAR pretty quickly that putting the fallout from past CT practices behind us and instituting new ones where needed was going to be a slow, painful grind. Closing Gitmo meant we needed to figure out alternative means to house and legally process both existing detainees and any terrorists captured in the future. Prompted by a set of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that had worked their way through the courts, I had to decide whether documents related to the CIA’s Bush-era waterboarding and rendition programs should be declassified (yes to legal memos justifying such practices, since both the memos and the programs themselves were already widely known; no to photos of the practices themselves, which the Pentagon and State Department feared might trigger international outrage and put our troops or diplomats in greater danger). Our legal teams and national security staff wrestled daily with how to set up stronger judicial and congressional oversight for our CT efforts and how to meet our obligations for transparency without tipping off New York Times–reading terrorists.

Rather than continue with what looked to the world like a bunch of ad hoc foreign policy decisions, we decided I’d deliver two speeches related to our anti-terrorism efforts. The first, intended mainly for domestic consumption, would insist that America’s long-term national security depended on fidelity to our Constitution and the rule of law, acknowledging that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we’d sometimes fallen short of those standards and laying out how my administration would approach counterterrorism going forward. The second, scheduled to be given in Cairo, would address a global audience—in particular, the world’s Muslims. I had promised to deliver a speech like this during the campaign, and although with everything else going on some of my team suggested canceling it, I told Rahm that backing out wasn’t an option. “We may not change public attitudes in these countries overnight,” I said, “but if we don’t squarely address the sources of tension between the West and the Muslim world, and describe what peaceful coexistence might look like, we’ll be fighting wars in the region for the next thirty years.”

To help write both speeches I enlisted the immense talents of Ben Rhodes, my thirty-one-year-old NSC speechwriter and soon-to-be deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. If Brennan represented someone who could act as a conduit between me and the national security apparatus I’d inherited, Ben connected me to my younger, more idealistic self. Raised in Manhattan by a liberal Jewish mother and a Texas lawyer father, both of whom had held government jobs under Lyndon Johnson, he had been pursuing a master’s degree in fiction writing at NYU when 9/11 happened. Fueled by patriotic anger, Ben had headed to D.C. in search of a way to serve, eventually finding a job with former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton and helping to write the influential 2006 Iraq Study Group report.

Short and prematurely balding, with dark brows that seemed perpetually furrowed, Ben had been thrown into the deep end of the pool, immediately asked by our understaffed campaign to crank out position papers, press releases, and major speeches. There’d been some growing pains: In Berlin, for example, he and Favs had landed on a beautiful German phrase—“a community of fate”—to tie together the themes of my one big preelection speech on foreign soil, only to discover a couple of hours before I was to go onstage that the phrase had been used in one of Hitler’s first addresses to the Reichstag. (“Probably not the effect you’re going for,” Reggie Love deadpanned as I burst into laughter and Ben’s face turned bright red.) Despite his youth, Ben wasn’t shy about weighing in on policy or contradicting my more senior advisors, with a sharp intelligence and a stubborn earnestness that was leavened with a self-deprecating humor and healthy sense of irony. He had a writer’s sensibility, one I shared, and it formed the basis for a relationship not unlike the one I’d developed with Favs: I could spend an hour with Ben dictating my arguments on a subject and count on getting a draft a few days later that not only captured my voice but also channeled something more essential: my bedrock view of the world, and sometimes even my heart.

Together, we knocked out the counterterrorism speech fairly quickly, though Ben reported that each time he sent a draft to the Pentagon or CIA for comments, it would come back with edits, red lines drawn through any word, proposal, or characterization deemed even remotely controversial or critical of practices like torture—not-so-subtle acts of resistance from the career folks, many of whom had come to Washington with the Bush administration. I told Ben to ignore most of their suggestions. On May 21, I delivered the speech at the National Archives, standing beside original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—just in case anybody inside or outside the government missed the point.

The “Muslim speech,” as we took to calling the second major address, was trickier. Beyond the negative portrayals of terrorists and oil sheikhs found on news broadcasts or in the movies, most Americans knew little about Islam. Meanwhile, surveys showed that Muslims around the world believed the United States was hostile toward their religion, and that our Middle East policy was based not on an interest in improving people’s lives but rather on maintaining oil supplies, killing terrorists, and protecting Israel. Given this divide, I told Ben that the focus of our speech had to be less about outlining new policies and more geared toward helping the two sides understand each other. That meant recognizing the extraordinary contributions of Islamic civilizations in the advancement of mathematics, science, and art and acknowledging the role colonialism had played in some of the Middle East’s ongoing struggles. It meant admitting past U.S. indifference toward corruption and repression in the region, and our complicity in the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government during the Cold War, as well as acknowledging the searing humiliations endured by Palestinians living in occupied territory. Hearing such basic history from the mouth of a U.S. president would catch many people off guard, I figured, and perhaps open their minds to other hard truths: that the Islamic fundamentalism that had come to dominate so much of the Muslim world was incompatible with the openness and tolerance that fueled modern progress; that too often Muslim leaders ginned up grievances against the West in order to distract from their own failures; that a Palestinian state would be delivered only through negotiation and compromise rather than incitements to violence and anti-Semitism; and that no society could truly succeed while systematically repressing its women.

WE WERE STILL working on the speech when we landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I was scheduled to meet with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (in Mecca and Medina) and the most powerful leader in the Arab world. I’d never set foot in the kingdom before, and at the lavish airport welcoming ceremony, the first thing I noticed was the complete absence of women or children on the tarmac or in the terminals—just rows of black-mustached men in military uniforms or the traditional thawb and ghutra. I had expected as much, of course; that’s how things were done in the Gulf. But as I climbed into the Beast, I was still struck by how oppressive and sad such a segregated place felt, as if I’d suddenly entered a world where all the colors had been muted.

The king had arranged for me and my team to stay at his horse ranch outside Riyadh, and as our motorcade and police escort sped down a wide, spotless highway under a blanched sun, the massive, unadorned office buildings, mosques, retail outlets, and luxury car showrooms quickly giving way to scrabbly desert, I thought about how little the Islam of Saudi Arabia resembled the version of the faith I’d witnessed as a child while living in Indonesia. In Jakarta in the 1960s and ’70s, Islam had occupied roughly the same place in that nation’s culture as Christianity did in the average American city or town, relevant but not dominant. The muezzin’s call to prayer punctuated the days, weddings and funerals followed the faith’s prescribed rituals, activities slowed down during fasting months, and pork might be hard to find on a restaurant’s menu. Otherwise, people lived their lives, with women riding Vespas in short skirts and high heels on their way to office jobs, boys and girls chasing kites, and long-haired youths dancing to the Beatles and the Jackson 5 at the local disco. Muslims were largely indistinguishable from the Christians, Hindus, or college-educated nonbelievers, like my stepfather, as they crammed onto Jakarta’s overcrowded buses, filled theater seats at the latest kung-fu movie, smoked outside roadside taverns, or strolled down the cacophonous streets. The overtly pious were scarce in those days, if not the object of derision then at least set apart, like Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out pamphlets in a Chicago neighborhood.

Saudi Arabia had always been different. Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the nation’s first monarch and the father of King Abdullah, had begun his reign in 1932 and been deeply wedded to the teachings of the eighteenth-century cleric Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. Abd al-Wahhab’s followers claimed to practice an uncorrupted version of Islam, viewing Shiite and Sufi Islam as heretical and observing religious tenets that were considered conservative even by the standards of traditional Arab culture: public segregation of the sexes, avoidance of contact with non-Muslims, and the rejection of secular art, music, and other pastimes that might distract from the faith. Following the post–World War I collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Abdulaziz consolidated control over rival Arab tribes and founded modern Saudi Arabia in accordance with these Wahhabist principles. His conquest of Mecca—birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the destination for all Muslim pilgrims seeking to fulfill the Five Tenets of Islam—as well as the holy city of Medina provided him with a platform from which to exert an outsized influence over Islamic doctrine around the world.

The discovery of Saudi oil fields and the untold wealth that came from it extended that influence even further. But it also exposed the contradictions of trying to sustain such ultraconservative practices in the midst of a rapidly modernizing world. Abdulaziz needed Western technology, know-how, and distribution channels to fully exploit the kingdom’s newfound treasure and formed an alliance with the United States to obtain modern weapons and secure the Saudi oil fields against rival states. Members of the extended royal family retained Western firms to invest their vast holdings and sent their children to Cambridge and Harvard to learn modern business practices. Young princes discovered the attractions of French villas, London nightclubs, and Vegas gaming rooms.

I’ve wondered sometimes whether there was a point when the Saudi monarchy might have reassessed its religious commitments, acknowledging that Wahhabist fundamentalism—like all forms of religious absolutism—was incompatible with modernity, and used its wealth and authority to steer Islam onto a gentler, more tolerant course. Probably not. The old ways were too deeply embedded, and as tensions with fundamentalists grew in the late 1970s, the royals may have accurately concluded that religious reform would lead inevitably to uncomfortable political and economic reform as well.

Instead, in order to avoid the kind of revolution that had established an Islamic republic in nearby Iran, the Saudi monarchy struck a bargain with its most hard-line clerics. In exchange for legitimizing the House of Saud’s absolute control over the nation’s economy and government (and for being willing to look the other way when members of the royal family succumbed to certain indiscretions), the clerics and religious police were granted authority to regulate daily social interactions, determine what was taught in schools, and mete out punishments to those who violated religious decrees—from public floggings to the removal of hands to actual crucifixions. Perhaps more important, the royal family steered billions of dollars to these same clerics to build mosques and madrassas across the Sunni world. As a result, from Pakistan to Egypt to Mali to Indonesia, fundamentalism grew stronger, tolerance for different Islamic practices grew weaker, drives to impose Islamic governance grew louder, and calls for a purging of Western influences from Islamic territory—through violence if necessary—grew more frequent. The Saudi monarchy could take satisfaction in having averted an Iranian-style revolution, both within its borders and among its Gulf partners (although maintaining such order still required a repressive internal security service and broad media censorship). But it had done so at the price of accelerating a transnational fundamentalist movement that despised Western influences, remained suspicious of Saudi dalliances with the United States, and served as a petri dish for the radicalization of many young Muslims: men like Osama bin Laden, the son of a prominent Saudi businessman close to the royal family, and the fifteen Saudi nationals who, along with four others, planned and carried out the September 11 attacks.

“RANCH” TURNED OUT to be something of a misnomer. With its massive grounds and multiple villas fitted with gold-plated plumbing, crystal chandeliers, and plush furnishings, King Abdullah’s complex looked more like a Four Seasons hotel plopped in the middle of the desert. The king himself—an octogenarian with a jet-black mustache and beard (male vanity seemed to be a common trait among world leaders)—greeted me warmly at the entrance to what appeared to be the main residence. With him was the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, a clean-shaven, U.S.-educated diplomat whose impeccable English, ingratiating manner, PR savvy, and deep Washington connections had made him the ideal point person for the kingdom’s attempts at damage control in the wake of 9/11.

The king was in an expansive mood that day, and with al-Jubeir acting as translator, he fondly recalled the 1945 meeting between his father and FDR aboard the USS Quincy, emphasized the great value he placed on the U.S.-Saudi alliance, and described the satisfaction he had felt at seeing me elected president. He approved of the idea of my upcoming speech in Cairo, insisting that Islam was a religion of peace and noting the work he had personally done to strengthen interfaith dialogues. He assured me, too, that the kingdom would coordinate with my economic advisors to make sure oil prices didn’t impede the post-crisis recovery.

But when it came to two of my specific requests—that the kingdom and other members of the Arab League consider a gesture to Israel that might help jump-start peace talks with Palestinians and that our teams discuss the possible transfer of some Gitmo prisoners to Saudi rehabilitation centers—the king was noncommittal, clearly wary of potential controversy.

The conversation lightened during the midday banquet the king hosted for our delegation. It was a lavish affair, like something out of a fairy tale, the fifty-foot table laden with whole roasted lambs and heaps of saffron rice and all manner of traditional and Western delicacies. Of the sixty or so people eating, my scheduling director, Alyssa Mastromonaco, and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett were two of the three women present. Alyssa seemed cheery enough as she chatted with Saudi officials across the table, although she appeared to have some trouble keeping the headscarf she was wearing from falling into the soup bowl. The king asked about my family, and I described how Michelle and the girls were adjusting to life in the White House. He explained that he had twelve wives himself—news reports put the number closer to thirty—along with forty children and dozens more grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, Your Majesty,” I said, “but how do you keep up with twelve wives?”

“Very badly,” he said, shaking his head wearily. “One of them is always jealous of the others. It’s more complicated than Middle East politics.”

Later, Ben and Denis came by the villa where I was staying so we could talk about final edits to the Cairo speech. Before settling in to work, we noticed a large travel case on the mantelpiece. I unsnapped the latches and lifted the top. On one side there was a large desert scene on a marble base featuring miniature gold figurines, as well as a glass clock powered by changes in temperature. On the other side, set in a velvet case, was a necklace half the length of a bicycle chain, encrusted with what appeared to be hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rubies and diamonds—along with a matching ring and earrings. I looked up at Ben and Denis.

“A little something for the missus,” Denis said. He explained that others in the delegation had found cases with expensive watches waiting for them in their rooms. “Apparently, nobody told the Saudis about our prohibition on gifts.”

Lifting the heavy jewels, I wondered how many times gifts like this had been discreetly left for other leaders during official visits to the kingdom—leaders whose countries didn’t have rules against taking gifts, or at least not ones that were enforced. I thought again about the Somali pirates I had ordered killed, Muslims all, and the many young men like them across the nearby borders of Yemen and Iraq, and in Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, whose earnings in a lifetime would probably never touch the cost of that necklace in my hands. Radicalize just 1 percent of those young men and you had yourself an army of half a million, ready to die for eternal glory—or maybe just a taste of something better.

I set the necklace down and closed the case. “All right,” I said. “Let’s work.”

THE GREATER CAIRO metropolitan area contained more than sixteen million people. We didn’t see any of them on the following day’s drive from the airport. The famously chaotic streets were empty for miles, save for police officers posted everywhere, a testimony to the extraordinary grip Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak held on his country—and the fact that an American president was a tempting target for local extremist groups.

If Saudi Arabia’s tradition-bound monarchy represented one path of modern Arab governance, Egypt’s autocratic regime represented the other. In the early 1950s, a charismatic and urbane army colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser had orchestrated a military overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and instituted a secular, one-party state. Soon after, he nationalized the Suez Canal, overcoming attempted military interventions by the British and French, which made him a global figure in the fight against colonialism and far and away the most popular leader in the Arab world.

Nasser went on to nationalize other key industries, initiate domestic land reform, and launch huge public works projects, all with the goal of eliminating vestiges of both British rule and Egypt’s feudal past. Overseas, he actively promoted a secular, vaguely socialist pan-Arab nationalism, fought a losing war against the Israelis, helped form the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Arab League, and became a charter member of the Non-Aligned Movement, which ostensibly refused to take sides in the Cold War but drew the suspicion and ire of Washington, in part because Nasser was accepting economic and military aid from the Soviets. He also ruthlessly cracked down on dissent and the formation of competing political parties in Egypt, particularly targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that sought to establish an Islamic government through grassroots political mobilization and charitable works, but also included members who occasionally turned to violence.

So dominant was Nasser’s authoritarian style of governance that even after his death in 1970, Middle Eastern leaders sought to replicate it. Lacking Nasser’s sophistication and ability to connect with the masses, though, men like Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi would maintain their power largely through corruption, patronage, brutal repression, and a constant if ineffective campaign against Israel.

After Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981, Hosni Mubarak took control using roughly the same formula, with one notable difference: Sadat’s signing of a peace accord with Israel had made Egypt a U.S. ally, leading successive American administrations to overlook the regime’s increasing corruption, shabby human rights record, and occasional anti-Semitism. Flush with aid not just from the United States but from the Saudis and other oil-rich Gulf states, Mubarak never bothered to reform his country’s stagnant economy, which now left a generation of disaffected young Egyptians unable to find work.

Our motorcade arrived at Qubba Palace—an elaborate mid-nineteenth-century structure and one of three presidential palaces in Cairo—and after a greeting ceremony, Mubarak invited me to his office for an hour-long discussion. He was eighty-one but still broad-shouldered and sturdy, with a Roman nose, dark hair combed back from his forehead, and heavy-lidded eyes that gave him the air of a man both accustomed to and slightly weary of his own command. After talking with him about the Egyptian economy and soliciting suggestions on how to reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli peace process, I raised the issue of human rights, suggesting steps he might take to release political prisoners and ease restrictions on the press.

Speaking accented but passable English, Mubarak politely deflected my concerns, insisting that his security services targeted only Islamic extremists and that the Egyptian public strongly supported his firm approach. I was left with an impression that would become all too familiar in my dealings with aging autocrats: Shut away in palaces, their every interaction mediated by the hard-faced, obsequious functionaries that surrounded them, they were unable to distinguish between their personal interests and those of their nations, their actions governed by no broader purpose beyond maintaining the tangled web of patronage and business interests that kept them in power.

What a contrast it was, then, to walk into Cairo University’s Grand Hall and find a packed house absolutely crackling with energy. We’d pressed the government to open my address to a wide cross section of Egyptian society, and it was clear that the mere presence of university students, journalists, scholars, leaders of women’s organizations, community activists, and even some prominent clerics and Muslim Brotherhood figures among the three thousand people present would help make this a singular event, one that would reach a wide global audience via television. As soon as I stepped onto the stage and delivered the Islamic salutation “Assalamu alaikum,” the crowd roared its approval. I was careful to make clear that no one speech was going to solve entrenched problems. But as the cheers and applause continued through my discussions of democracy, human rights and women’s rights, religious tolerance and the need for a true and lasting peace between a secure Israel and an autonomous Palestinian state, I could imagine the beginnings of a new Middle East. In that moment, it wasn’t hard to envision an alternate reality in which the young people in that auditorium would build new businesses and schools, lead responsive, functioning governments, and begin to reimagine their faith in a way that was at once true to tradition and open to other sources of wisdom. Perhaps the high-ranking government officials who sat grim-faced in the third row could imagine it as well.

I left the stage to a prolonged standing ovation and made a point of finding Ben, who as a rule got too nervous to watch any speech he’d helped to write and instead holed up in some back room, tapping into his BlackBerry. He was grinning from ear to ear.

“I guess that worked,” I said.

“That was historic,” he said, without a trace of irony.

IN LATER YEARS, critics and even some of my supporters would have a field day contrasting the lofty, hopeful tone of the Cairo speech with the grim realities that would play out in the Middle East during my two terms in office. For some, it showed the sin of naïveté, one that undermined key U.S. allies like Mubarak and thus emboldened the forces of chaos. For others, the problem was not the vision set forth in the speech but rather what they considered my failure to deliver on that vision with effective, meaningful action. I was tempted to answer, of course—to point out that I’d be the first to say that no single speech would solve the region’s long-standing challenges; that we’d pushed hard on every initiative I mentioned that day, whether large (a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians) or small (the creation of training programs for would-be entrepreneurs); that the arguments I made in Cairo were ones I’d still make.

But in the end, the facts of what happened are the facts, and I’m left with the same set of questions I first wrestled with as a young organizer. How useful is it to describe the world as it should be when efforts to achieve that world are bound to fall short? Was Václav Havel correct in suggesting that by raising expectations, I was doomed to disappoint them? Was it possible that abstract principles and high-minded ideals were and always would be nothing more than a pretense, a palliative, a way to beat back despair, but no match for the more primal urges that really moved us, so that no matter what we said or did, history was sure to run along its predetermined course, an endless cycle of fear, hunger and conflict, dominance and weakness?

Even at the time, doubts came naturally to me, the sugar high of the speech quickly replaced with thoughts of all the work awaiting me back home and the many forces arrayed against what I hoped to do. The excursion we took immediately after the speech deepened my brooding: a fifteen-minute helicopter ride, high over the sprawling city, until suddenly the jumble of cream-colored, Cubist-looking structures was gone and there was only desert and sun and the wondrous, geometric lines of the Pyramids cutting across the horizon. Upon landing, we were greeted by Cairo’s leading Egyptologist, a happily eccentric gentleman with a floppy wide-brimmed hat straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, and for the next several hours my team and I had the place to ourselves. We scaled the ancient, boulder-like stones of each pyramid’s face. We stood in the shadow of the Sphinx, staring up at its silent, indifferent gaze. We climbed a narrow, vertical chute to stand within one of the pharaohs’ dark inner chambers, the mystery of which was punctuated by Axe’s timeless words during our careful descent back down the ladder:

“Goddamn it, Rahm, slow down—your ass is in my face!”

At one point, as I stood watching Gibbs and some of the other staffers trying to mount camels for the obligatory tourist pictures, Reggie and Marvin motioned for me to join them inside the corridor of one of the Pyramids’ lesser temples.

“Check it out, boss,” Reggie said, pointing at the wall. There, carved in the smooth, porous stone, was the dark image of a man’s face. Not the profile typical of hieroglyphics but a straight-on head shot. A long, oval face. Prominent ears sticking straight out like handles. A cartoon of me, somehow forged in antiquity.

“Must be a relative,” Marvin said.

We all had a laugh then, and the two of them wandered off to join the camel riders. Our guide couldn’t tell me just who it was that the image depicted, or even whether it dated back to the time of the Pyramids. But I stood at the wall for an extra beat, trying to imagine the life behind that etching. Had he been a member of the royal court? A slave? A foreman? Maybe just a bored vandal, camped out at night centuries after the wall had been built, inspired by the stars and his own loneliness to sketch his own likeness. I tried to imagine the worries and strivings that might have consumed him and the nature of the world he’d occupied, likely full of its own struggles and palace intrigues, conquests and catastrophes, events that probably at the time felt no less pressing than those I’d face as soon as I got back to Washington. All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust.

Just as every speech I’d delivered, every law I passed and decision I made, would soon be forgotten.

Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.

BEFORE RETURNING HOME, I retraced a more recent history. President Sarkozy had organized a commemoration of the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy and had asked me to speak. Rather than head directly to France, we stopped first in Dresden, Germany, where Allied bombing toward the end of World War II resulted in a firestorm that engulfed the city, killing an estimated twenty-five thousand people. My visit was a purposeful gesture of respect for a now-stalwart ally. Angela Merkel and I toured a famous eighteenth-century church that had been destroyed by the air raids, only to be rebuilt fifty years later with a golden cross and orb crafted by a British silversmith whose father had been one of the bomber pilots. The silversmith’s work served as a reminder that even those on the right side of war must not turn away from their enemy’s suffering, or foreclose the possibility of reconciliation.

Merkel and I were later joined by the writer and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel for a visit to the former Buchenwald concentration camp. This, too, had practical political significance: We’d originally considered a trip to Tel Aviv to follow my speech in Cairo, but in deference to the Israeli government’s wishes that I not make the Palestinian question the primary focus of my speech—nor feed the perception that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the root cause of the Middle East’s turmoil—we had settled instead on a tour of one of the epicenters of the Holocaust to signal my commitment to the security of Israel and the Jewish people.

I had a more personal reason as well for wanting to make this pilgrimage. As a young man in college, I’d had a chance to hear Wiesel speak and had been deeply moved by how he chronicled his experiences as a Buchenwald survivor. Reading his books, I’d found an impregnable moral core that both fortified me and challenged me to be better. It had been one of the great pleasures of my time in the Senate that Elie and I became friends. When I told him that one of my great-uncles, Toot’s brother Charles Payne, had been a member of the U.S. infantry division that reached one of Buchenwald’s subcamps in April 1945 and began the liberation there, Elie had insisted that one day we would go together. Being with him now fulfilled that promise.

“If these trees could talk,” Elie said softly, waving toward a row of stately oaks as the two of us and Merkel slowly walked the gravel path toward Buchenwald’s main entrance. The sky was low and gray, the press at a respectful distance. We stopped at two memorials to those who died at the camp. One was a set of stone slabs featuring the names of the victims, including Elie’s father. The other was a list of the countries they came from, etched on a steel plate that was kept heated to thirty-seven degrees Celsius: the temperature of the human body, meant to be a reminder—in a place premised on hate and intolerance—of the common humanity we share.

For the next hour, we wandered the grounds, passing guard towers and walls lined with barbed wire, staring into the dark ovens of the crematorium and circling the foundations of the prisoners’ barracks. There were photographs of the camp as it had once been, mostly taken by U.S. army units at the moment of liberation. One showed Elie at sixteen looking out from one of the bunks, the same handsome face and mournful eyes but jagged with hunger and illness and the enormity of all he had witnessed. Elie described to me and Merkel the daily strategies he and other prisoners had used to survive: how the stronger or luckier ones would sneak food to the weak and the dying; how resistance meetings took place in latrines so foul that no guards ever entered them; how adults organized secret classes to teach children math, poetry, history—not just for learning’s sake, but so those children might maintain a belief that they would one day be free to pursue a normal life.

In remarks to the press afterward, Merkel spoke clearly and humbly of the necessity for Germans to remember the past—to wrestle with the agonizing question of how their homeland could have perpetrated such horrors and recognize the special responsibility they now shouldered to stand up against bigotry of all kinds. Then Elie spoke, describing how in 1945—paradoxically—he had emerged from the camp feeling hopeful about the future. Hopeful, he said, because he assumed that the world had surely learned once and for all that hatred was useless and racism stupid and “the will to conquer other people’s minds or territories or aspirations…is meaningless.” He wasn’t so sure now that such optimism was justified, he said, not after the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and Bosnia.

But he beseeched us, beseeched me, to leave Buchenwald with resolve, to try to bring about peace, to use the memory of what had happened on the ground where we stood to see past anger and divisions and find strength in solidarity.

I carried his words with me to Normandy, my second-to-last stop on the trip. On a bright, nearly cloudless day, thousands of people had gathered at the American Cemetery there, set atop a high coastal bluff that overlooked the English Channel’s blue, white-capped waters. Coming in by helicopter, I gazed down at the pebbled beaches below, where sixty-five years earlier more than 150,000 Allied troops, half of them Americans, had pitched through high surf to land under relentless enemy fire. They had taken the serrated cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, eventually establishing the beachhead that would prove decisive in winning the war. The thousands of marble headstones, bone-white rows across the deep-green grass, spoke to the price that had been paid.

I was greeted by a group of young Army Rangers who earlier in the day had re-created the parachute jumps that had accompanied D-Day’s amphibious landings. They were in dress uniform now, handsome and fit, smiling with a well-earned swagger. I shook hands with each of them, asking where they were from and where they were currently deployed. A sergeant first class named Cory Remsburg explained that most of them had just come back from Iraq; he’d be heading out to Afghanistan in the coming weeks, he said, for his tenth deployment. He quickly added, “That’s nothing compared to what the men did here sixty-five years ago, sir. They made our way of life possible.”

A survey of the crowd that day reminded me that very few D-Day or World War II vets were still alive and able to make the trip. Many who had made it needed wheelchairs or walkers to get around. Bob Dole, the acerbic Kansan who had overcome devastating injuries during World War II to become one of the most accomplished and respected senators in Washington, was there. So was my Uncle Charlie, Toot’s brother, who’d come with his wife, Melanie, as my guest. A retired librarian, he was one of the most gentle and unassuming men I knew. According to Toot, he’d been so shaken by his experiences as a soldier that he barely spoke for six months after returning home.

Whatever wounds they carried, these men exuded a quiet pride as they gathered in their veterans’ caps and neat blazers pinned with well-polished service medals. They swapped stories, accepted handshakes and words of thanks from me and other strangers, and were surrounded by children and grandchildren who knew them less for their war heroism than for the lives they had led afterward—as teachers, engineers, factory workers, or store owners, men who had married their sweethearts, worked hard to buy a house, fought off depression and disappointments, coached Little League, volunteered at their churches or synagogues, and seen their sons and daughters marry and have families of their own.

Standing on the stage as the ceremony began, I realized that the lives of these eighty-something-year-old veterans more than answered whatever doubts stirred in me. Maybe nothing would come of my Cairo speech. Maybe the dysfunction of the Middle East would play itself out regardless of what I did. Maybe the best we could hope for was to placate men like Mubarak and kill those who would try to kill us. Maybe, as the Pyramids had whispered, none of it mattered in the long run. But on the only scale that any of us can truly comprehend, the span of centuries, the actions of an American president sixty-five years earlier had set the world on a better course. The sacrifices these men had made, at roughly the same age as the young Army Rangers I’d just met, had made all the difference. Just as the witness of Elie Wiesel, a beneficiary of those sacrifices, made a difference; just as Angela Merkel’s willingness to absorb the tragic lessons of her own nation’s past made a difference.

It was my turn to speak. I told the stories of a few of the men we had come to honor. “Our history has always been the sum total of the choices made and the actions taken by each individual man and woman,” I concluded. “It has always been up to us.” Turning back to look at the old men sitting behind me on the stage, I believed this to be true.




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