Anyone interested in the complexity of foreign policy needs to read Breaking Faith by Graham Fuller. Good fiction has the power to reveal deeper "truths" about policy issues than analytical essays. The author's goal in this case is to present the multiple, often contradictory, views that exist in a hot spot of American diplomacy — Pakistan and indirectly Afghanistan — but he also describes the consequences of U.S. interventions over the long term, as in Chile. Fuller shows that American values are not always those of local populations and that Americans are mistaken if they think their values will be easily adopted if only given a chance.
Breaking Faith starts out roughly in the 1970s and 1980s during the presidency of Zia-ul-Haq (1978-88), when conservative Islam was on the rise. The young hero Alex is growing up in the Lahore home of his missionary parents, who provide medical services to the local population. It was not uncommon at the time to find American missionaries providing medical and educational services in Muslim countries like Pakistan, often as a fallback for failing to convert local Muslims to Christianity. The missionaries seemed surprised at the tenacity with which local people held to their faith, despite what the missionaries saw as the greater appeal of Christianity. This failure to convince should have been a portent of later failures to impose American values on local populations.
Working under difficult conditions, Alex's father justifies his family's hardships in terms of fulfilling his duties to his Christian faith. Despite his father's rigid religious convictions and patronizing view of Pakistanis, Alex forms close and warm relations with the Muslim family of his school friend Majeed, spending weekends at their home and even joining them during Ramadan fasting. Alex comes to appreciate the reasonable nature of their faith and begins to feel more comfortable in their home than his own.
A violent event forces Alex's family to return to the United States, interrupting his friendship with Majeed. Alex continues his schooling and at graduation is recruited into the CIA, having received flattering attention from a recruiter who appreciates his overseas experience and fluent Urdu. Alex is slowly drawn into the culture and rationales of the Agency, at first more because he feels appreciated than from any real interest in a career in intelligence. His first posting is as an undercover bank employee in Chile, where he meets and falls in love with a local woman, Isabel. Her family has suffered the dire consequences of earlier American interventions in Chilean politics and looks grudgingly upon Alex's desire to marry their daughter. Alex faces his first major crisis of conscience when he must present himself to his fiancée and future in-laws as something other than what he is.
This first phase of the novel brings in details of undercover CIA operations and shows the beginnings of Alex's unease. Although U.S. policy benefitted some, others suffered such serious consequences that one has to question whether the results justified the intervention. The unraveling of our hero's idealism begins in Chile before the story even reaches the core narrative, when he goes back to Pakistan after 9/11 and reconnects with Majeed.
No one is more capable of telling this story than Fuller. As an ex-CIA officer, his accounts of recruitment and intelligence gathering are within the realm of possibility, even without divulging methods and means in classified detail. They are not exaggerated for sensational effect. His postings include, among others, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Afghanistan, where he was station chief in Kabul. He also served on the National Intelligence Council in charge of the Asia and Middle East Division and later as vice chair. He is fluent in five languages including Spanish, Russian and Arabic, all capabilities he brings to the story. Similarly, his understanding for the contradictions inherent in working for the CIA and still being open to local arguments suggests he has wrestled with these himself. Since retiring, he has written a number of non-fiction books on the Middle East and Islamic fundamentalism. This is his first effort at writing fiction.
Because of its apparent aims, the book has to be judged on two points: how well it describes cross-cultural perspectives and how it works as a coherent and plausible story. Fuller keeps the perspectives separate by using individual characters to represent various points of view. Alex and Majeed, the childhood friend now in the Pakistani government, clash over their governments' different interests, though they remain friends. Minor characters represent sub-strands of thinking. Majeed's cousin shows how educated Pakistanis gradually become radicalized. Zubayda, Majeed's sister, suffers from this radicalizing society's severe view of women, but she becomes energized enough to make a career of advancing women's rights. Majeed's father, Akmal, shows the deeply religious side of many older Pakistanis, who follow a moderate — some would say truer — Islam and evinces a sympathy and accommodation for people of other faiths. Akmal puts himself in danger to show his son's friend this side of Islam.
Other minor characters also show the subtlety of Fuller's insights. Kevin, a well-established CIA officer, reflects the U.S. government's fear that officers will develop clientitis, too much sympathy for local culture. Kevin warns Mo, a new officer of South Asian descent, about Alex's suspect views. Mo bends over backwards to show his thoroughly American loyalties, taking sides with Kevin against Alex to make clear where his sympathies lie.
Isabel, Alex's wife, clearly detests his line of work and copes by intentionally remaining uninformed of the details so as not to precipitate her own crisis of conscience. Yet her silences deepen Alex's unease, reminding him of his own doubts. Soon his actions start having dire consequences for those he cares about and make him question his activities further. What does he owe those whose lives he is destroying? As a professional, should he unquestioningly follow his government's orders? Or should he prevent them from blundering into actions with unforeseen consequences? How much should he risk his career and friendships when he feels Washington may not be listening? Herein lies the ambiguity in Breaking Faith. Is it Alex breaking faith with his moral sense, his friends or, perhaps more important here, his country?
The book's heavy burden of substance necessarily takes a toll on its effectiveness as a novel. The book is too long and starts out a bit slowly, and the brilliant chapters on Pakistan made me wish he had confined the book to that area of the world. But these limitations didn't stop me from becoming wholly engrossed in the story from beginning to end. I particularly liked Alex's slow slide into the CIA/embassy culture and then, over time, his evolving discomfort.
The problem the book highlights so well seems to have worsened with Americans' growing sense of U.S. exceptionalism — the idea that American values have captured the evolutionary high ground and need to be realized everywhere through American leadership. Almost nonexistent is the once-prevalent idea of cultural relativism: that societies have their own values, which differ from ours and which local people don't necessarily want to change.
The Pakistani perspectives Fuller outlines emerged slowly. During the time I spent in Pakistan (1987-94) — roughly halfway between Alex's childhood and his return as a CIA officer — it was easy to encounter anti-American hostility in the villages of the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan, where I worked. During the day, people welcomed USAID-funded efforts to improve the primary-school system, but relaxing with local education officials, our core staff of teachers were often asked personal questions about our obviously nefarious reasons for being there. They were particularly interested in Mona, a Lebanese colleague who was obtaining her U.S. citizenship: why would she want to leave a Muslim country to live among infidels? Although these conversations were less sophisticated than those of Majeed and Alex, they exhibited the same ambivalence. About once a month, without warning, the whole staff would don green headbands and rush off for tableegh, a several-day retreat of fundamentalist sermonizing. Ultimately, they came to see us as individuals and less as representatives of America. They showed special respect for Mona, with her Arab origins and language, which allowed her to make points using Quranic verses. They trusted her to tell them whether the wonders of America seen on TV were real or only made up for effect. By setting the novel in these two widely separate time periods, Fuller shows with great clarity how anti-American hostility developed and permeated even the households of the educated elites.
Is the book relevant to policy making in our time? Apparently it is. A recent front-page headline in The Washington Post (5/5/2015) reads, "Anti-U.S. Attitudes Lessen in Pakistan." The article suggests the reasons for the change include that the war in Afghanistan is ending and most Americans are leaving. The Pakistani middle class is becoming more supportive of drone strikes after a terrorist massacre of school children in Peshawar in 2014. Finally, Pakistanis are increasingly coming to believe they must solve their own problems. The article gives credit to the U.S. embassy for trying to smooth out what has been an erratic relationship with Pakistan in recent decades, by lowering expectations and downplaying disagreements. Whether this is a significant change in relations can be debated, but there is no doubt that it remains an important issue.
Fuller has captured the ambivalence that should plague any thoughtful American living overseas, especially those working for the U.S. government. Too often, Washington's preoccupation with current crises makes it seem oblivious to the long-term implications of policy decisions in any single country. Fiction in this case suggests the importance of recognizing local perspectives; in the end, they are the ones most likely to influence the implementation of U.S. policy. Anyone going abroad should read this book; they will come away with a better understanding of the cross-cultural challenges faced by official Americans abroad.