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Sunday Book Review: The Great Gamble

[ 0 ] January 11, 2010 |

As conditions have deteriorated in Afghanistan in the past several years, academic and military specialists have paid greater attention to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, in an effort to support one faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan against another. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, having suffered serious losses of prestige, blood, and treasure. Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble covers the political and strategic details of the war in depth, with some forays into tactical and operational details of the actual fighting. He also draws larger conclusions about the impact of the war on Soviet and Afghan society.

Feifer deals at some length with Soviet decision-making prior to the war, arguing that the Soviets understood their own motives as defensive. The Soviets had grown unhappy with Hafizullah Amin, believing that his control over the country was slipping and that he was making too many overtures to Pakistan and the United States. The Soviets were also concerned with the spread of Islamic radicalism in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and wanted to shore up their southern flank. There was some opportunism to the Soviet action, as they believed the US was preoccupied with its own affairs and unlikely to become involved in the conflict. Many within both the Red Army and the CPSU were ambivalent or outright opposed to the invasion, however. Greater engagement had hazy prospects of success, they argued, and the game wasn’t worth the candle. In part because of the declining physical and mental capabilities of Leonid Brezhnev, the hawks prevailed; the Soviet Union began what was expected to be a brief, cheap military intervention in December 1979.

Feifer’s book would be better characterized as a history of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan than of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. While he does include some operational details, the focus is much more on the ambiance of the war, the slowly shifting expectations of Red Army soldiers, and the Soviet relationships with the Afghans. In some ways this is fitting; counter-insurgency campaigns lack the kind of decisive battle found in more conventional combat. At other times, however, Feifer seems uncertain as to whether particular battles or operations even took place. The book often fails to sufficiently explain the context of the engagements is does discuss.

Comparative questions about the Soviet and American experience in Afghanistan immediately leap to mind in any discussion of the Soviet war. Some differences are stark, while some similarities are frightening. On the one hand, the Red Army never displayed the technical and technological capacity that has characterized the American war. Soviet units often suffered casualties that would be shocking to Americans; entire company-sized units often suffered complete destruction. Soviet aircraft also suffered a much higher rate of attrition than their American counterparts, due in no small part to the effectiveness of US and Pakistani supplied anti-aircraft weapons. Soviet cruelty to civilians also appears to have been much more regular and much more brutal than that displayed by Americans since 2001. To put it bluntly, the worst Taliban propaganda about American atrocities pales in comparison to the self-reported behavior of Red Army soldiers.

And then there are some nagging similarities. While both the Soviet leadership and the rank and file of the Red Army had a tenuous relationship with orthodox Marxist ideology, many in both groups genuinely believed that the they were “saving” Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a feudal backwater, beset by an archaic religious ideology and a premodern tribal structure. Many Soviets believed that the invasion would substantially change Afghan life for the better. The Soviets engaged in many infrastructure projects designed to increase opportunity for Afghans, and to improve the prospects for economic development. The Soviets also took an interest in social revolution, with an eye towards breaking the hold of Islam and tribal organizations over Afghan life.

Soviet tension with its Afghan puppets also carries some reminders of the US experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Vietnam. The Soviet invasion was precipitated by the perceived need to intervene on behalf of one faction of the Afghan Communist Party against another. It is the only war I know of in which both factions requested Soviet intervention in the weeks leading up to the invasion. The Soviets continuously pressured Karmal and Najibullah to end corruption, reform governance, and build bridges with opposition forces in order to reduce the scope of the intervention. As in the American experience, these efforts rarely worked; both the Soviet and American proxies had their own constituencies to worry about. Concerns about legitimacy limited Soviet actions, just as they have American. The Soviets didn’t want to annex Afghanistan, and didn’t want it to appear as if they intended to do so. This made it difficult to take a heavy handed approach to even recalcitrant Afghan political actors. The Soviets were more willing to conduct negotiations with mujahadeen figures than their Afghan proxies, and on several occasions signed truces with various resistance factions.

The Red Army suffered all of the problems of shifting to COIN as the US military, and then some. Soviet military engagement was never completely coherent in terms of objectives; on the one hand, there was the realization on the part of the high command and the political authority that accomodation with Afghan civilians was necessary. On the other hand, the poorly disciplined and conventionally oriented Red Army proved too unwieldy to conduct warfare with the precision required by COIN; civilians were regularly butchered, and often deliberately targeted at the operational level. There were also some ideological problems, as Red Army political doctrine had trouble coming to terms with the notion that factors independent of class conflict could drive and insurgency. Soviet doctrine improved over the course of the war, at least in the tactical and operational senses. The Soviets became much better at conducting search/destroy and convoy missions through experience, and on many occasions successfully isolated and destroyed significant mujahadeen concentrations. On the other hand, rebuilding the Red Army as a COIN-oriented forces proved too much, and in any case excited neither the high command nor the Soviet political leadership.

Feifer suggests some other similarities that hearken more to the American experience in Vietnam than in Afghanistan, at least so far. The end of the war preceded the collapsed of the Soviet Union by three years, meaning that there was rather less time to dwell on the experience in Russia than in the United States. Nevertheless, some of the same bitterness and resentment of war critics that emerged in the wake of the fall of Saigon was also evident among Red Army veterans of Afghanistan. Even during the war, critics of the Soviet Union (and of the war) were attacked by veterans an unpatriotic, and unappreciative of the sacrifices made by Red Army soldiers. Feifer argues that while the collapse of the Soviet Union pushed the Afghanistan conflict off the radar screen of most Russian citizens for a while, that there has recently been some re-evaluation of the war, focused on the experience of Red Army soldiers.

The most important lesson of this book for the United States in Afghanistan is that drawing on even recent historical experience for lessons is perilously difficult. The US Army and the US Marine Corps are not the Red Army; the Taliban don’t have the same degree of support from Pakistan or the United States; the US invasion appears to have been more popular in Afghanistan at any point than the Soviet; US goals for nation-building are different than Soviet; the US economy is far more capable of weathering the strain of prolonged conflict than the Soviet. And yet; both the Russians and the Americans had to transition between a conventional and a COIN force. Both had to deal with unreliable, unaccountable proxies. Both had to deal with the confusing composition of Afghan society. Both had to conduct operations in an inhospitable climate. Both had to deal with steadily increasing unhappiness and alienation on the domestic front. While it might be enough simply to say that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” it remains unclear whether the similarities outweigh the differences, or on what metrics a comparison should be made. Learning is hard, and stuff.

As for the book, it probably lacks sufficient detail to leave specialists on Afghanistan, on COIN, or on the Red Army terribly pleased. Feifer doesn’t provide much about Afghan society, or about the changes wrought by the invasion, Soviet occupation policies, or the widespread destruction caused by fighting. He also doesn’t delve into a lot of detail about the tactics and composition of the Red Army. Feifer gives some account of the US and Pakistani contribution to the war, but intelligence specialists probably won’t be satisfied. However, The Great Gamble does provide a reasonable overview of the politics of the conflict, with enough fighting to contribute considerable flavor. I can’t recommend the book unreservedly, but many readers will find it productive.

Sunday Book Review: White Eagle, Red Star

[ 0 ] January 4, 2010 |

First published in 1972, Norman Davies’ White Eagle, Red Star covers the Soviet-Polish War of 1920. Davies went on to write extensively about Polish history in the 20th century, and White Eagle, Red Star was re-issued in 2003. Unfortunately, the new edition has not been updated to reflect the opening of Soviet and Polish archives following the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, White Eagle, Red Star remains an exceptionally lucid and useful account of the Soviet-Polish War, probably unmatched in the English language.

Early on, Davies establishes the central problem of Soviet-Polish War historiography; the war has no clear start date. From August 1914 on, the entirety of what would become the Soviet-Polish frontier was fluid and militarized. In addition to the armies of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, a variety of Polish, Ukrainian, and other nationalist groups sought to achieve independence. The collapse of the Imperial Russia in 1917 only enhanced the chaos, as did the retreat and collapse of the Russian Army in the face of the German advance. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk solved little, as German troops remained deployed deep within the disputed territory, and continued to carry out periodic offensive action. The October Revolution led to further ideological and national conflict. Finally, the defeat of Germany on the Western Front and the collapse of Austria-Hungary made Polish independence achievable, and conflict with whatever Russian state emerged from the chaos inevitable.

The reconstituted Polish state was carved out of territory from the German, Hapsburg, and Russian empires, with the latter boundary being the most fluid. Several different entities contested for authority along the notional border, including the Soviet state, various White warlords, several different Ukrainian statelets, the Baltics, and the German Army. With a relatively stable base, there was ample opportunity for the Poles to expand at Russian expense. The Polish Army was cobbled together from units in the German, Austrian, and Russian armies, with some British and French training and equipment. It wasn’t a terribly impressive force by the standards of World War I, but in mid-1919 it was probably the class of Eastern Europe.

The Red Army had problems. It was engaged on several fronts against many different opponents. The Russian industrial base had been gutted by the war and the revolution, leaving the army with meager and outdated equipment. The continuing hostility of the Western Allies and Japan made resupply from abroad difficult. The officer corps was a disaster, and included some veterans of World War I, some czarist officers, and a large number of relatively inexperienced recruits. Red Army doctrine, such that it was, developed in the battle against the Whites, and was not up to the challenge of static warfare with an even quasi-modern European army. On the upside, the Red Army had some good senior leadership, high morale and crack discipline in some units, and eventually a substantial numerical advantage.

Polish objectives weren’t entirely coherent, but were based on three essential premises. First, Poland should secure a favorable border with Russia, without overextending itself. Second, the Russian Empire posed a threat to Poland in either its Soviet or Imperial forms, and as such any weakening of the Empire would enhance Polish security. Finally, Poland had a critical diplomatic role to play in Eastern Europe as the leader of an emerging bloc of independent states; victory in war against Russia could help secure this place of prominence.

The Soviets suffered from strategic confusion. First, some believed that regime survival was at stake. The Poles, in collusion with various White forces and potentially with the support of the West, might attempt the military destruction of the Soviet regime, or at least the detachment of a geographic area large enough to substantially weaken the Soviet state. Related to this were general territorial concerns, which manifested in a desire to push the Soviet frontier as far west as possible. Finally, a significant portion of the Soviet elite saw the war with Poland as an opportunity to spread the Revolution. Poland was, in this conception, the first stop on the way to Germany. These goals stood in some tension with one another. The desire to spread the Revolution encouraged risk taking, and precluded the consolidation of sensible territorial positions. The concerns about regime survival encouraged paranoia, and led to misunderstandings both of Polish war aims and of the potential for a grand anti-Bolshevik coalition.

During the war, the Soviet elite ran into the unexpected problem of nationalism. Appeals to Russian nationalism, it turned out, proved far more productive in terms of morale and mobilization than class based propaganda. Russian workers displayed more interest in crushing their Polish comrades than in liberating them. Since most Bolsheviks were Russian, a turn towards nationalism was probably inevitable. The turn, however, helped alienate Polish Bolsheviks in both the USSR and Poland. The Poles themselves had little use for Bolshevik propaganda, preferring the domination of their own feudal class to alliance with Russian workers.

A pre-emptive Polish invasion of Ukraine began in late April 1920. The invasion was mildly successful; it captured Kiev, but no one in either the Polish military or political leadership believed that the city could be held. Indeed, the arrival of the Soviet First Cavalry Army threw the Poles back, and began a series of staged offensives across the entire front. The Poles managed to fall back in good order towards Warsaw, where they reorganized their defense for the expected Soviet onslaught. The senior Soviet commander was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a former czarist officer who had served time in Ingolstadt Prison, where he met Charles De Gaulle. Ingolstadt, incidentally, served as the basis for the final prison in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Tukhachevsky would later play a major role in the development of modern armored warfare, a project for which Stalin rewarded him with execution.

Tukhachevsky believed that the momentum of the Red Army offensive would unhinge the Poles and leave the Soviets in control of Warsaw. It turned, out, however, that the Soviet offensive developed too slowly and carried too little punch; the Polish Army successfully defended Warsaw, then threw the Soviets back. The larger Soviet offensive broke down, while the Poles remained in good order. By the end of August, it was clear that the Red Army would not be extending the Revolution to Warsaw, much less to Germany.

Davies argues that the Western Allies played a very minimal role in the war. None of Britain, France, or the United States had much stomach for war with the Soviet Union after the interventions of 1918. Moreover, few in the West believed the Poles capable of unseating the Bolshevik regime. The Germans had no interest in seeing a strong Poland on their eastern border, and indeed some Germans believed that a Russian victory would speed the end of the restrictions on German military power. Davies conclusion on this point contradicts most Soviet historiography, which sees the Polish-Soviet War as just another attempt by the West to strangle the Revolution. It also contradicts some Western accounts that emphasize the importance of British and French advisors in organizing the defense of Warsaw. However, I found Davies argument pretty compelling. The Allies were tired of war by 1919, and what little interest they had in Russian affairs was devoted to support of one White faction or another. More importantly, the Poles and Russians had their own very good reasons for fighting a war, few of which had anything to do with Western anti-communism.

The Soviet-Polish War wasn’t simply the result of Bolshevik aggression. There’s no question that much of the fault for the war lay with the Poles. While the Polish leadership wasn’t interested in being part of the Allied project to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution, or even in cooperating very closely with White Russian forces, it did want to seize as much territory as possible, and had an expansive vision of the role that Poland could play politically and diplomatically in Eastern Europe. The Poles believed that the chaos attendant to the Revolution could be profitably exploited. At the same time, however, conflict between the new Polish state and the Soviet Union was probably inevitable. For both nationalist and ideological reasons, the Soviets were likely to eventually pursue control over Poland. For the nationalists, Poland remained an integral part of the reconstituted Russian Empire. For the ideologues, Poland was the gateway to Europe, and to world revolution. Unfortunately for the Poles, there was simply no way out of the trap. The best hope for Poland might have been a full disintegration of Soviet Russia, along with a generally supportive Western Alliance. In other words, it’s difficult to imagine conditions under which Polish security might have been achieved short of what was accomplished in 1991.

Sunday Book Review: The Enemy of All

[ 0 ] December 6, 2009 |

Daniel Heller-Roazen’s The Enemy of All studies the genealogy of the term “pirate,” and the impact that the term has had on the development of Western international law and the laws of war. Beginning with Cicero, he focuses on the way in which legal theorists have excluded the category “pirate” from the benefits and obligations of law, while including other superficially similar groups such as “bandit,” “rebel,” or “thief.” While Heller-Roazen may have taken inspiration from the recent increase in piratical activity in Southeast Asia and off the coast of Somalia, the book isn’t about pirates as much as it is about the development of Western law.

The definition of piracy has shifted over time, but certain themes recur. Pirates are treated as lawless men, both individually and collectively. This is true even when it is acknowledged that certain nations of peoples regularly engage in the practice of piracy. Pirates act predominantly for private gain, although the distinction between pirate and privateer didn’t develop until the second half of the second millennium CE. Indeed, I suspect that the concept of privateer is a response to the development of formal naval organizations, the existence of which forced the creation of a separate category for the private actors who had traditionally engaged in state-sponsored maritime warfare. Although Heller-Roazen doesn’t dwell on the point, I think a closer examination of the development of the privateer distinction in this direction would be productive; lest we forget, one of the most important parts of Jack Aubrey’s job was to attack and seize enemy commerce, for which he was able to keep a substantial portion of the proceeds.

The other major requirement is the medium in which pirates operate. The term pirate suggests an implicit distinction between those who rob at sea and those who rob on land. Cicero made this more explicit by indicating that robbers on land remain part of the web of obligations, while no obligation is owed to pirates. Heller-Roazen argues that the key distinction is that pirates are lawless men who operate in a lawless space. In Western conceptions of law, from the Romans forward, the sea has stood as a legally exceptional zone. Those who rob within this exceptional zone (assuming they don’t work for a state, in uniform or no) are a special class of villain, to whom no mercy or legal obligation is owed. Heller-Roazen further argues that Western legal thought has periodically become preoccupied with the question of what differentiates legitimate and illegitimate combatants. Indeed, he argues that the most of what we regard as the laws of war depend to some extent on such a distinction. He quotes Cicero extensively on the topic, as well as Grotius, Kant, and Carl Schmitt. For the latter, one of the contexts concerns the question of whether submarine warfare should be understood as piracy or as a legitimate warfare. Interestingly enough, Schmitt further argued that a “war on pirates” is a contradiction in terms; war is political, while belligerency against pirates constitutes a non-political act.

Heller-Roazen doesn’t touch on the topic, but I’ll confess that I’m quite curious regarding how the term pirate came to be associated with violations of intellectual property law. Why are people who steal music “pirates,” rather than “thieves?” I’m not a pirate when I steal a DVD from Wal*Mart, but I am when I download the same movie from the internet. I suspect that the answer is relatively straightforward; the internet resembles, in its lawless nature, the sea. Thieves operates in a space where law exists and can (at least theoretically) be enforced, while pirates operate outside the law. As this book is really more about how piracy has been conceived in relation to the law than it is about, you know, pirates, I think it would have been productive for Heller-Roazen to track down the origins of the application of the term piracy to IP violators. Of course, no one has ever suggested that IP pirates stand outside the web of legal obligation, even as some argue that Somali pirates represent the enemy of all and should be executed on the spot. [See here for more info on the apparently long history of IP "piracy".]

The last chapter and the conclusion turn to the question that must have been obvious in the minds of most readers from the start: To what extent can this genealogy of the concept “pirate” shed light on the conceptualization of the other enemy of all, the modern stateless terrorist? The answer, unsurprisingly, is complicated. One problem comes with the opening of a new “lawless” medium, the air. Some air hijackers share some characteristics with pirates, although the concordance is rarely complete. Another problem comes from the question of whether the pursuit of political aims not explicitly framed in terms of the state can be considered political in the sense needed to justify the term “war.” Irish or Palestinian terrorists, for example, can legitimately be considered to be waging war on behalf of a (nascent or incomplete) state/national collective. This is less true, however of terrorists acting on behalf of international communism or some nebulous vision of jihad. These terrorists escape or reject territorial authority and consequently act, in some relevant sense, in a lawless space. If this kind of struggle is not political (and it falls outside some definitions of the term), then the phrase “Enemy of All” could be applied to certain terrorists. Heller-Roazen again draws on Schmitt to think about these questions, emphasizing the debate rather than coming to any specific answers about the legitimacy of particular characterizations.

I suspect that legal scholars who wish to treat Al Qaeda terrorists as a separate, distinct, and novel category of combatant would draw a certain degree of comfort from Heller-Roazen’s account of the term piracy, for two reasons. The first is that Western law has, in fact, pretty much from its inception agreed that there are certain enemies who do not merit the protection of law, or even contractual reciprocation. While pirates have traditionally occupied this nether region, Heller-Roazen explains that there are plausible ways in which terrorists could be conceptualized as the enemy of all. In fact, he quotes John Yoo making the explicit connection between pirates and terrorists. Second, Heller-Roazen demonstrates, as any genealogy will, the contingency of the legal terms that we deploy to characterize enemies. The terms “criminal,” “war criminal,” and “POW,” aren’t as cut and dried as we might want to believe. Thus, the notion that a novel legal category might be developed to describe terrorists is not so far beyond the pale.

None of this is to say that Heller-Roazen condones, or in fact has any normative position at all, regarding the legal categorization of terrorists by the Bush administration. Rather, he implies that the forms of reasoning employed to determine the status of such detainees are not alien to the Western legal tradition, which has always defined some combatants as illegal. In any case, the book is short, densely argued, and worthwhile for those interested in the development of international law.

Struggle for the Middle Sea

[ 0 ] December 5, 2009 |

I have a review of Vincent O’Hara’s Struggle for the Middle Sea up at ID.

Sunday Book Review: Hawk and Dove

[ 0 ] November 16, 2009 |

Nicholas Thompson’sThe Hawk and the Dove is an exceptionally readable dual biography of George Kennan and Paul Nitze. George Kennan is, to some, rather an odd dove; he helped formulate the vision of containment that led to NSC-68 and militarized confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Moreover, he was hardly a pacifist; nevertheless, in the way in which debate over national security policy became structured in the Cold War, Kennan most often stood on the “dovish” side. Nitze, the most direct father of NSC-68, as well as Team B, plays the role of “hawk.” Nitze is also Nicholas Thompson’s grandfather.

Both Kennan and Nitze were privileged and wildly talented. It’s true enough that an Ivy League pedigree won an undue degree of influence in the 1940s and the 1950s (a situation which absolutely, positively does not hold today), and Thompson details the manner in which Kennan and Nitze built their social networks and, eventually, their influence within government. Nitze was much better at this than Kennan; whereas Kennan believed that ideas were key to moving the machinery of government, Nitze understood the value of creating, nursing, and maintaining a group of bureaucratic warriors, as well as key connections with other major policymakers. It’s hardly surprising that the most prominent neocons found their start with Nitze; he understood that the bureaucracy responds to ideas that are prominent within the social circles of the bureaucracy, rather than to ideas that are popular within the general public or that are well regarded in the academy. Nitze also came to understand that the best approach to seizing influence over foreign policy was bipartisan; to make sure that your people were part of the larger machine of foreign policy, regardless of who happened to control Congress or to sit in the White House at any given time.

Nitze became obsessed with the question of how nuclear weapons could be utilized in an actual war. This isn’t because he wanted the nuke the Soviets; he genuinely believed that if the Soviets ever achieved “escalation superiority,” which in its essence meant “more megatons than us” that they would be able, by threat of nuclear annihilation, to win serious diplomatic concessions. US “preparedness” prevented both nuclear conflict and inevitable concession to Soviet aggression. Nitze spun out scenarios of nuclear war that were based on pure fantasy; the Soviets would somehow squirrel away the bulk on their population in vast civil defense shelters, then use their larger warheads to deal a devastating first strike to the US, secure in the knowledge that only their cities, infrastructure, and industry would be destroyed by a US counter-strike. The debates became tribal, as all such arguments will; the enemy became pacifist appeasers, and the use of any tactic to defeat this enemy, including accusations of treason and the invention of “facts,” became legitimate.

Nitze’s greatest failure, and the biggest difference between him and Kennan, was his de facto assumption that Soviet domestic politics didn’t exist. For Nitze and his acolytes, the assumption that all of the relevant policymakers in the Soviet Union were incorrigibly and equally hostile was sufficient in order to proceed with analysis. Weapons production was always the result of a nefarious plan formulated in the Kremlin, and never the result of the bureaucratic strength of various faction within the Soviet military. Any modernization, even one required to match US capabilities, was evidence of an evil Soviet plot to acquire escalation dominance. But this was only part of Nitze’s trick; by the time Team B was put together, Soviet arms production and capabilities could be inferred from imputed Soviet intentions. This is to say that evidence of Soviet weapons production at time A indicated evil Soviet intent, which then led Nitze and his cohort to estimate future Soviet production based on that indication of evil Soviet intent. The result, of course, was a wild overestimation of Soviet capabilities, and a complete misunderstanding of Soviet intent. Richard Pipes famously declared Team B a success, because it had established that some within the Soviet Union believed that a nuclear war could be won. What Pipes declined to note was that a) a similarly influential group within the United States believed the same thing, and b) the Soviets who believed in the possibility of victory were, like their American counterparts, a minority of the strategic establishment, c) almost to an individual, these Soviets believed that the war would begin with an American nuclear attack, and d) the most hawkish elements in the Soviet Union won bureaucratic victories on the backs of men like Paul Nitze. The products of School Nitze, as it were, would repeat these errors with Iraq, Iran, and China.

Thompson’s Kennan is a man who was wrong about many things, but who was right about one big thing. Kennan had frankly bizarre views about a number of subjects, including the value of democracy, race relations within the United States, and the project of modernity. However, he was fundamentally correct to identify the internal politics of the Soviet Union as dysfunctional, and to conclude that the regime had a limited lifespan, even on the time metrics normally associated with empires. The Soviet Empire was not, by his argument, the sort of creature that could survive in the long term, and it certainly could not outlast the Western democracies, however flawed they might be. The Soviet permanent war economy depended on a permanent perception of threat, and as this faded the Soviet experiment became less tenable. Kennan was also correct that Soviet expansion was limited in immediate aims, and that it could be successfully managed. Thus managing the Soviet Union was worthwhile, as it was a foul regime led by awful men, but the task had to be undertaken in a measured fashion.

Oddly enough, Kennan and Nitze interacted only at a few key times during their careers. Kennan made his key contribution before Nitze really found his niche in government, and Nitze gave a particular shape to Kennan’s basic framework. Kennan’s influence on major policy was minimal after the early 1950s, while Nitze had his hands in some manner on almost every strategic decision until the late 1980s. The two were friends early on in the same sense that all Ivy League cogs in the US foreign policy machine were friends; they were never particularly close, yet they never personalized their disagreements. Personally, I found the Kennan half of the book fascinating, simply for the basic weirdness of its subject; Kennan was an odd duck, with strange ideas. The Nitze sections left me infuriated; Nitze and his clones pursued one big idea, and didn’t both to worry overmuch about whether it was right, or at all helpful to the country. It’s not quite right to say that Kennan’s ideas deserved more credence, as his central argument was extremely influential; however, Nitze’s acolytes should have been chased out of government and indeed out of public life. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle should have had to struggle to publish an op-ed in the Dayton Daily News; instead, they were able to repeat their flawed analysis of the Soviet Union on a succession of other states, all to dreadful effect.

A Regular Guy Does Books

[ 0 ] November 5, 2009 |

I know that Glenn Beck is a soft target, but holy crap, this has the potential for some serious hilarity, especially as the legendary author of The Christmas Sweater is in a position to shape the reading habits of a few million self-aware, open minded, critical thinkers.

There are some decent quotes in the story:

“Let me just say, it’s almost conservative porn,”

Almost conservative porn . . . which would be, what, showing an ankle? A little leg perhaps, but no higher than the calf?

“You’re on the liberal side of things, which is, you know, fine,”

While the porn remains conservative, the tepid support for that damned First Amendment is reassuring.

“Glenn is a regular guy, and regular Americans like thrillers,” said Mr. Balfe, an editor of Mr. Beck’s current nonfiction best seller, “Arguing With Idiots.”

The research for which could have been entirely based on tape recordings of Beck talking in his sleep. To himself.

While I doubt that anything appearing on his show, or on his bookcase for that matter, will be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize any time soon, at least this is evidence that Beck, unlike Michele Bachmann, might be able to read (if not well read, as Dave Noon pointed out a couple months back . . . )

Do tune in.

Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money

[ 0 ] November 4, 2009 |

I have a review of Martin Murphy’s Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money up at ID. Long story short, it’s the best single volume introduction to modern piracy and maritime terrorism that I’ve read.

Something that Alarmists Suggest I Should be Alarmed About

[ 0 ] October 8, 2009 |

So I don’t understand; is this something I should be alarmed about? At this point, I don’t even remember where I get all my books; some are sent by publicists, others by magazines, and still others are bought by my department. I’m going to assume that declaring that I get some of the books I review for free means I never have to think about this again.

Sunday Book Review: By His Own Rules

[ 2 ] October 5, 2009 |

Bradley Graham’s extensive biography of Donald Rumsfeld runs 682 pages. About half of that length concerns Rumsfeld’s second tenure as Secretary of Defense. It’s this section that will be of greatest interest to most readers, but the rest of Rumsfeld’s career is also worth examining. Rumsfeld grew up in a middle class household, the son of an office manager who had held his position during the Great Depression. The Rumsfelds were by no means wealthy, but neither were they impoverished. Donald distinguished himself in high school both academically and athletically, winning a scholarship to Princeton (he also received NROTC support). Rumsfeld served as a pilot in the Navy (how many major conservative politicians have served as pilots?), then found his way into politics. In 1962, at the age of 30, he won election to the House of Representatives in a conservative Illinois district. He didn’t dominate the House by any means, but there’s no question that he punched above his weight. His record was moderate, and he demonstrated progressive views on issues of race. In 1968, ambitious for the Presidency, he left Congress and went to work in the Nixon administration.

Rumsfeld worked in the Nixon and then the Ford administration, eventually becoming the youngest ever Secretary of Defense. In 1977, he was still relatively young, and liked to consider himself a future contender for the GOP presidential nomination. However, Rumsfeld was not, at this point, a wealthy man. He decided to go into private industry, where he was able to make a considerable amount of money. There’s no question that Rumsfeld was talented, but his ability in private industry manifested mainly in his capacity for navigating governmental rules and regulations, and in using them to his company’s advantage. He also displayed a deft touch in intra-company battles. However, while private industry made him rich, it also left him out of the Reagan administration. He launched a brief, hopeless campaign for the 1988 GOP nomination, then found himself out of public service for another 13 years. When Rumsfeld was made SecDef again in 2001, he was the oldest person to hold the position.

Rumsfeld’s second tour as Secretary of Defense proved… eventful. He strongly believed in military transformation, the idea that the military services were organized and supplied along Cold War lines, and that a leaner, meaner, more lethal American military was both possible and necessary. The early portion of his tenure was rocky, and many thought it possible that he’d fall victim to an early reorganization. Then 9/11 happened, and everything changed.

Graham account is extremely detailed, contains interview with just about all of the principles (including Rumsfeld), and while not sympathetic to its subject is certainly fair. Here are some questions that it helped illuminate for me:

1. What was Rumsfeld’s role in pushing for the war in Iraq?
Graham makes the argument that Rumsfeld was more of a realist than a neocon, albeit with a certain form of appreciation for democracy. Rumsfeld was comfortable enough with the exercise of American power that he didn’t have any interest in pushing back against neoconservatives, either during the appointment process in 2001 or during the run up to war in 2002 and 2003. Rumsfeld was a war advocate, but not an advocate in the same terms as Paul Wolfowitz. The internal administration debate on the war included both Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz as players; strangely enough, this made it seem as if a diverse set of opinions all favored the war.

2. Did Rumsfeld’s administrative style make the war in Iraq worse?
Unquestionably. Rumsfeld was dismissive of both internal and external criticism, and spent little time in reflection. He contempt for the media helped make long term involvement a harder sell, even as the media fell over itself for his affection. Rumsfeld argues that he never turned down a request for additional troops or resources, but the reason he never had to turn down such a request is that his generals and deputies were terrified of him. DoD became dysfunctional under his watch, which meant that the war became even more dysfunctional than it needed to be. Moreover, Rumsfeld’s bureaucratic empire building meant that other bureaucracies couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up the slack.

3. Did Rumsfeld’s substantive focus make the war in Iraq worse?
Unquestionably. Rumsfeld remained focused like a laser on the idea of a light, intervention capable US military, the concept of which ran directly counter to the necessities of the war in Iraq. In a different administration his zest for an early drawdown of troops might have actually come off to his credit. In reality, however, he helped commit the US military to a project that could not be accomplished with available resources, then worked to constrain what resources existed. He was utterly uninterested in the COIN turn; indeed, he was deeply reluctant to admit that Iraq (then Afghanistan) could be characterized as an insurgency. Eventually, Graham argues, he simply lost interest in Iraq, preferring to focus on “transformation” goals that were increasingly anachronistic.

4. Did Rumsfeld’s administrative style and substantive focus make the war in Afghanistan worse?
Yes. Rumsfeld had little interest in the war in Afghanistan, seeing it as a sideshow. He devoted his attention to Iraq and to transformation, leaving the Afghan mission under-resourced and under-appreciated. Afghanistan did not, in Rumsfeld’s view, present a good case for the kind of war that Rumsfeld wanted to wage, even though the initial invasion and early occupation would represent a best case scenario for execution of a swift campaign of conquest and regime change. Rumsfeld also had contempt for most US allies, and devoted minimal attention to the development of a coalition to support either US operations or the Karzai government. Finally, Rumsfeld was uninterested in either nation or state building; these are difficult tasks in the best of times, and Rumsfeld’s hostility towards the notion of using American soldiers to construct Afghan institutions made the mission extremely difficult.

5. Would he have made a good peacetime Secretary of Defense?
Maybe. It’s odd, but the very characteristics that made a terrible wartime SecDef might hae made him a capable peacetime SecDef. Rumseld had no fear of the uniformed military, and was willing to cashier commanders who didn’t share his vision of warfare. He seemed to have been genuinely interested in a more efficient DoD, if not a smaller one. He was unimpressed with bureaucratic dogma from either the uniformed or the civilian sections of DoD. Moreover, he had the bureaucratic expertise to pursue the ends that he wanted. Of course, it’s not all about Rumsfeld; Graham reminds us that Rumsfeld was under fire from Congress, from industry groups, and (quietly) from the services prior to 9/11. In the absence of the attacks, Bush may not have been willing to stand with Rumsfeld, and he could have been either removed or left without substantial power. However, one of George W. Bush’s key characteristics is loyalty, and Rumsfeld had the support of the Vice President. Dubya might have been willing to stick with Rummy through a series of destructive battles with the bureaucracy, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that those battles would have left DoD in a healthier long term position. The problems that Rumsfeld identified were genuine; excessive deference to the uniformed military, Cold War mindset in procurement and doctrine, utterly broken system of procurement, and so forth. We’ll never know if Rummy could have punched his way through the system, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Had things been different, Rumsfeld might have gone down as a revolutionary SecDef.

A final, larger question involves Rumsfeld’s legacy as Secretary of Defense. Such lists can be pointless, but I think it’s difficult to argue that the Rumsfeld is anything but the worst Secretary of Defense in US history. McNamara is the obvious comparison, and there certainly are some interesting parallels. McNamara helped involve the United States in an ill-conceived war, and managed the war poorly. McNamara’s efforts to reform the Department of Defense largely failed, although it can’t quite be said that the reform effort had the opposite of its intended effect. In Rumsfeld’s case, the direction that the US military has gone since his tenure began is the precise opposite of what he wanted; an organization focused on COIN, on long-term occupations, and on state building is the last thing that he wanted. Moreover, he played a key role in the decisions that forced the US military to engage in this transformation. He allowed the United States to be humiliated through his insufficient attention to detainee policy, an inattention that can be characterized as either egregious oversight or intentional ignorance. Finally Rumsfeld helped slow the federal government’s response to Katrina through being slow on the trigger to allow the use of even non-military DoD assets.

Rumsfeld is, for the moment, held in contempt across the political spectrum. Everyone to the left of Dick Cheney (and many to his right) views Rumsfeld’s tenure as disastrous. By his own metrics, he failed at almost everything that he set out to do in 2001. Without 9/11, Rumsfeld would likely be judged to have led an honorable enough (as honorable as any long-term GOP operative) career as politician, businessman, and bureaucrat. 9/11 gave him the opportunity to fail on an epic scale, and he met the challenge.

Patuxent Naval Campaign

[ 0 ] September 27, 2009 |

I have a review of Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812 up at ID. Check it out, if you dare.

Book Bloggingheads: Graveyard of Empires

[ 0 ] August 13, 2009 |

Seth Jones and I talked about his book Graveyard of Empires last week on Bloggingheads:

…sadly, I forgot my hat in Cincinnati. Hopefully I’ll have an appropriate substitute by the next Bloggingheads.

Sunday Book Review: The Limits of Power

[ 2 ] July 12, 2009 |

This is the sixth installment of a seven part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. World of Nations, William Keylor
  2. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
  3. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  4. Second World, Parag Khanna
  5. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  6. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich


Limits of Power
is Andrew Bacevich’s fourth book, and will almost certainly be his most popular. Bacevich’s argument can be characterized thusly: Americans have become addicted to empire, and to the material benefits that empire provides. The piper, however, needs to be paid; American hegemony cannot endure forever, and especially cannot be preserved on the cheap. He argues that, especially in the post-Cold War era, US foreign policy has been marked by a militarized approach to hegemony that has enjoyed relatively strong bipartisan support. The American pursuit of empire is now more at odds with the structure of the international system than it ever has been, and this has produced economic, political, and military crises for the United States. Bacevich is a bitter critique of both the strategic mindset that put the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the operational execution of the wars. While he clearly loathes the Bush administration and neoconservativism, however, he doesn’t Democrats or previous Republican presidents from his fire.

Bacevich makes clear his view that all Americans are implicated in American empire. While the fruits of empire may have been allocated unequally, hegemony has acted as the ultimate “tide that lifts all boats,” creating broad and deep benefits for labor, women, minorities, and so forth. As he puts it in a clever turn of phrase:

A proper understanding of contemporary history means acknowledging an ironic kinship between hard-bitten Cold Warriorss like General LeMay and left-leaning feminists like Ms. Friedan. SAC helped maked possible the feminine mystique, and much else besides.

This is a remarkably interesting claim. I’m sure that it’s partially true; hegemony and empire have served to improve the material standards of ordinary Americans in ways that are difficult to catalogue. At the same time, there are certainly elements of the process of empire that have so egregiously favored small interest groups over large that I wonder whether it’s entirely reasonable to lay the responsibility for empire, even in small portion, at the feet of Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem. To be clear, Bacevich isn’t an apologist for empire; he isn’t claiming that empire is justified because of the good that it has produced for all Americans. Rather, he’s arguing that the progress that much of the progress that Americans have (often correctly) congratulated themselves for has been enabled by empire, and thus bears some substantial moral and practical cost. Bacevich does not spare “conservatives” from critique, arguing that Ronald Reagan’s central contribution to American life was to enable American self-gratification. One of the more interesting takeaways from this argument is that bipartisan support for American empire is essentially unsurprising. Democratic representatives don’t vote to enable wars because they disagree with the base; they vote for wars because, at least in the short term, Democratic interest groups benefit from empire and from the national security state. While this may not show up in polling data, it does affect long term voting behavior. Voters who strongly oppose a particular war may nevertheless end up voting for a pro-war incumbent when that incumbent wins a local contract to build the weapons necessary to fight the war.

In his chapter on the political crisis of empire, Bacevich details the way in which the pursuit of hegemony has restructured the American political system. Since 1940, Bacevich argues, the United States has been in a condition of permanent national security emergency. This has enabled the executive to increase its power at the extent of the other branches of government, the Federal government to increase its power at the extent of the states, and government at all levels to increase its dominance over American private life. In the years after World War II, the United States has drifted from foreign policy crisis to foreign policy crisis, each purportedly more serious than the last, and each justifying a more substantial national security apparatus. The crisis of the post-Cold War era are notable only in their absurdity; the US is more secure now that it has been at any point in its history, but nevertheless jumps when North Korea sneezes. There is more than a whiff of antiquarianism here; mourning over the loss of the “old Republic” makes no more sense coming from Andrew Bacevich than it from Gore Vidal. America, as Scott is fond of saying, did not have a virgin birth. Moreover, while I think its clear that the pursuit of empire has had some redistributive effect on power in the American political system, it’s not quite the case that all, or even most, change in the system of American governance has been produced by the need for hegemony. The relationship between the state and the individual has changed all over the Western world over the past sixty years, and cannot entirely be laid at the feet of empire. Moreover, the “old Republic”, such that is was, had a set of problems that weren’t necessarily preferable to the ones we face today. Nevertheless, Dr. Bacevich paints a compelling “second image reversed” portrait, demonstrating how our foreign policy choices change our politics and restructure how we live.

Dr. Bacevich paid a high price for the maintenance of American Empire, losing his son in 2007 in Iraq. There’s no question that Limits of Power is an angry book, but to say that it’s angry doesn’t mean that it’s an unfocused tirade. At risk of sounding trite, reading the book brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino; it’s not difficult to imagine Walt Kowalski sharing many of Dr. Bacevich’s beliefs, while at the same time maintaining a deep core of loyalty to the United States. For the leftist reader, The Limits of Power represents a genuine conservative attempt to grapple with the problems of the national security state, and a deeply refreshing alternative to the bad joke that Republican foreign policy has become. Limits of Power is also relatively short, well written, and easy to read. There’s much to disagree with (from either a progressive or conservative perspective), but it’s certainly worth a read.

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