Last year, Todd Moss published The Golden Hour, a novel about a coup in Mali. Moss served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2007-2008, and he has long been a senior officer at the Center for Global Development, where he wears a number of important hats. You can read his full biography here. The Golden Hour is a work of fiction, but it draws on his work at State and is clearly inspired partly by events in Mali in 2012-2013. Below I review the novel as a piece of writing and as a political statement.
As a Novel
From a literary point of view, I very much enjoyed the book. I found it to be a literal page-turner; I read it in two long sessions, the first of which kept me up much later than I had planned. The novel is engrossing largely because Moss strikes a skillful balance: he includes enough characters and plots twists that the book stays intriguing, but does not bog the writing down with needless complexity. Too many thrillers pack in characters and events until even the most sympathetic reader or viewer becomes lost and frustrated; Moss wisely avoids that.
The idea at the heart of the book is also compelling. Moss’ central character is an academic-turned-diplomat, Judd Ryker, who gets to put his ideas into practice. Ryker’s theory is that a coup can be successfully reversed within approximately one hundred hours. Mali becomes his first real test. I can’t say whether the idea of the “golden hour” in coup-reversal is workable or not; the point is, it’s interesting, and it was part of what kept me reading.
As a side note, I wondered whether the real-life scholar Jay Ufelder (who is not, it should be said, an advocate of anything like a “golden hour”) provided any of the inspiration for Ryker. There are certainly scholars out there doing sophisticated work on understanding coups, so the character of Ryker does not seem crazy.
As a Political Statement (Caution: Spoilers)
Moss was not, I think, primarily trying to make a statement: from what I can tell, The Golden Hour was written as a literary project and as an experiment in thinking through how an idea might play out. Nevertheless, a piece of fiction such as this, taking heavy inspiration from recent and dramatic events, implies some opinions about real-life politics.
The politics of the novel are complicated, which is a good thing: you could not pigeon-hole it as a defense of any particular ideology. I found some elements compelling, and others discomfiting.
One thing I found compelling was Moss’ depiction of an ostensible (and fictional) terrorist group called Ansar al-Sahra, whose violence and crime pushes some United States government officials to support Mali’s coup leader – again, all in the novel. Part of the novel’s resolution involves Ryker’s discovery that Ansar al-Sahra has been manufactured by the coup leader and his soldiers. This discovery helps Ryker unmake the coup and restore the civilian president. That kind of statement from Moss – that the U.S. government is too gullible when it comes to terrorist “threats,” and too tolerant of thugs who claim to be anti-terrorist – is timely and appropriate. The point to me is not that real-life terrorist groups are in reality secret plots, but rather that governments frequently overreact to terrorist groups, especially new and murky ones.
There was one thing that made me uncomfortable: Moss’ inclusion of a successful armed rescue of an American hostage by American special forces. The depiction of a flawless rescue, carried out by badasses, could mislead some readers into thinking that this should always be the approach in a hostage crisis. Some armed rescues work; many others go quite badly.
Finally, there’s a point about which I felt some real ambivalence: Moss’ depiction of the State Department as a place of high drama and high-stakes decision-making. When I worked there for a year in 2013-2014, I found that many officials – even senior officials – saw their time eaten up not by making “tough calls,” but by dealing with bureaucratic pressures, including the constant demands that different U.S. government agencies place on one another. This is exactly the point that Moss is trying to make, I suppose: that true leadership means finding ways to circumvent bureaucracy. His novel is a celebration of the idea of independent, anti-bureaucratic initiative – he opens with a quote from G.R. Berridge, “The advantages of backchannels are secrecy, speed, and the avoidance of internal bureaucratic battles.” But I think Moss overestimates the room that someone like Ryker might have to improvise, to go “backchannel,” to pursue diplomacy as an adventure and a risk.
Judging from my own (albeit limited and junior) experience, I think risk-aversion is so entrenched in American diplomacy right now that Ryker’s actions are almost unthinkable. Of course, The Golden Hour is a novel and it works as a novel – it’s not meant to map onto reality one-to-one. But the question of risk-taking in diplomacy has tremendous relevance right now, and in that sense I have trouble confining to the question of the plot’s plausibility to the text.
I also am not so sure that I want some of our current officials freelancing more – I would rather see systemic changes in how the United States looks at the world and allocates its resources. The scariest thing to me, in fact, is the diplomat who races through twenty-hour days thinking they are Ryker, thinking they are caught up in a whirling drama of high-stakes events – when in fact they are just managing various inputs and outputs within an essentially closed system comprising government officials (ours and theirs). What effect, after all, has the U.S. had on the ground in Mali since 2012? Has the U.S. decisively changed the course of events there at any point? Perhaps that’s because we’re missing a Ryker; or perhaps it’s because the current bureaucratic systems and diplomatic culture prevent the development of creative policies, not just when it comes to reversing coups but also when it comes to thinking imaginatively about Muslim Africa and the wider Muslim world.