Susan B. Glasser, editor in chief
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro (2012)
Anyone who wants to understand politics -- anywhere -- should read Robert Caro's latest and, in my view, best LBJ book, The Passage of Power. It might seem to have little to do with global matters -- even Vietnam rates scarcely more than a few mentions, serving mostly as dark foreshadowing of the next Caro tome to come -- but the book is a gripping study of a master politician at work that nonetheless seems uncannily relevant to this current age of crash transitions and democratic uncertainty, all these decades later. Besides, it's just a great read. Actually, The Passage of Power is two very different books in one -- the first half recounting in painful detail Johnson at his nadir, an increasingly isolated even mocked figure as John F. Kennedy's vice president, loathed by the president's dazzling liberal friends and plagued by scandals; while the second half is a vivid, at times hour by hour, account of Johnson's purposeful, instinctive actions to seize the reins of government in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy's Nov. 22, 1963, assassination. Both are page-turners.
For bonus reading this year, I also want to call out a wonderful collection of books by FP's friends and family. Foreign Policy's contributors are in general a writerly bunch, but they've outdone themselves in 2012 on an array of subjects, from Afghanistan and the Arab Spring to the history of American generalship and the origins of the Cold War. Among the most notable: acclaimed new books by David Rothkopf, FP's CEO and a weekly columnist, on Power, Inc., the centuries-long history of business and government working together (and not); Tom Ricks, FP's Best Defense blogger, on The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today; and Michael Dobbs, who somehow found time in between blogging the war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic on ForeignPolicy.com and live-tweeting the Cuban Missile Crisis on the occasion of its 50th anniversary to bring out Six Months in 1945, a gripping history of the passage from world war to Cold War in the space of just a few key months.
Other Foreign Policy standouts this year include the ebook we published by author and contributor Anna Badkhen, Afghanistan by Donkey, her moving account of a year's reporting from the country's forgotten, tormented north; Arab Uprising: the Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East, by Marc Lynch of Abu Aardvark blog and Middle East Channel fame; Manhunt, the gripping backstory of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden by Peter Bergen, editor of the AfPak Channel; and Ian Bremmer of The Call coining the term "G-zero world" in his book Every Nation for Itself.
Over the course of the year, we also ran many excerpts from the year's key international books, including must-reads from some terrific journalistic colleagues and friends: Michael Gordon's definitive Endgame history of the war in Iraq; Little America, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's great account of the flops and foibles of the American war in Afghanistan; and The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald's reported account of, and argument for, how the Obama administration's 2009 stimulus deal actually worked. Happy reading!
David Rothkopf, CEO and editor at large
Why Does the World Exist?, by Jim Holt (2012)
Foreign-policy specialists like to think of themselves as big thinkers. But all they do is grapple with global issues of the moment or, if they are visionaries, of the foreseeable future. And most of the really hard problems -- like what to do about Israel and Palestine or how to stop global warming -- are questions to which we already know the answers and for which we're just searching for the political will to do what we must. That's why, for me, Why Does the World Exist? was such a pleasure and a great escape. Not only did it cut right through to the biggest question of them all, but then Holt follows that question to philosophers and scientists who often (sometimes accidentally) bump into one another as they seek to wrap their brains around why their brains -- or anything else for that matter -- are here. Or why there is a here here. And what it might mean if none of this had happened at all. The prose is great, the questions even greater. And like walking around all day in ankle weights, once you've moved on, everything else will seem that much easier to handle. Unless of course, the whole topic leaves you curled up in the fetal position. Which -- spoiler alert -- could be a problem for the existentially anxious.
Blake Hounshell, managing editor
I'm going to take a slightly different tack, and tell you which books NOT to read -- this year or ever. Don't read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I made the mistake of diving into these five tomes, the best known of which is A Game of Thrones, for which the rightly popular HBO show is named, and I've regretted it ever since. Do not make my mistake. Not only are the books badly written, they're so incredibly long and poorly structured that it seems the editors gave up by the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, which ranges over 1,040 tedious pages. (I use it to combat insomnia.) Martin is planning two more novels to end the series. I beg you not to read them. Want real insight into politics as a blood sport? Read The Prince.
Tom Ricks, blogger
Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen (2012) and Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, by Jim Frederick (2010)
I found myself thinking about two books quite a lot over the last year. Hanoi's War, which I wrote about here, made me understand the Vietnam War differently. (And even now, nearly five decades after it ended, we really don't understand it well.) The other book is Black Hearts, which I wrote about here. It is an amazingly good account of how an Army unit went bad in Iraq, and raises major questions about the quality of senior leadership in that war. Many of those questions remain unanswered.
Dan Drezner, blogger
Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes (2012)
In a year in which I could not stop blogging about the U.S. presidential election and the peculiar folkways of America's foreign-policy community, I find that I can't get Christopher Hayes' Twilight of the Elites out of my head. It's an engaging read that addresses the question of whether a meritocratic elite can really stay meritocratic over extended periods of time. Hayes thinks the answer is no, and puts together a decent brief for that case, looking at a welter of different scandals and breakdowns of elite competence. It's a good book in no small part because Hayes acknowledges his own inner conflicts. As disgusted as he is with Enron, Lehman, Katrina, Penn State, Iraq and other elite catastrophes, he has peered into the maw of the populists who rail against these elites, and they give him a slight shudder as well. It is impossible not to read this book and think about how it applies to both America's foreign-policy community and the "Davos culture" as well.