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Tag: "books"

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.

Book Review: The Accidental Guerrilla

[ 1 ] July 5, 2009 |

This is the fourth 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

Seven years ago, David Kilcullen was an obscure officer in the Australian Army. He served in East Timor, and wrote a dissertation on guerrilla warfare in traditional societies. Today, he is the military equivalent of a rock star, with a degree of influence in the US military rarely enjoyed by foreigners. Kilcullen rose to prominence by developing and codifying a set of principles for fighting modern counter-insurgency warfare, and became part of the team that imprinted these principles institutionally in the US military. Accidental Guerrilla describes his experiences and the essentials of his theory of guerrilla warfare.

Kilcullen’s title refers to his theory of insurgent behavior. Most guerrillas and insurgents, he argues, do not share in the overarching set of political goals represented by the insurgency. They fight because their relatives have been killed or their lands have been burned by the government/occupier, or they fight because the insurgent forces have threatened to kill them, or because the insurgent forces have offered to pay them, or because they’re simply bored and the insurgents are offering something to do. The last sounds trite, but ought to be taken seriously; an insurgency can offer young men in pre-modern agrarian areas the opportunity for travel and excitement. If most guerrillas don’t actual share the ideological premises of the insurgency, then the trick to is to create conditions under which they don’t have an interest in aiding or joining the insurgents. This means laying the foundations for economic development, creating opportunities for the underemployed, not killing people’s families or clan associates, and protecting people from attacks by insurgents. Such activities will, eventually, isolate the core of the insurgency, and force it into steadily riskier attacks in order to maintain its position and resources.

This is a fairly standard description of what has come to be accepted as modern counter-insurgency theory. It is embodied doctrinally in FM 3-24, to which Kilcullen contributed and which bears obvious similarity to the argument laid out in Accidental Guerrilla. Kilcullen focuses a great deal on the understanding of local cultures and the appreciation of local grievances. If few guerrillas are motivated by the overarching ideological goals of the insurgency, then most have local concerns in mind. Understanding local power structures, social units, and decision-making procedures is thus critical to successful COIN. This preference has found institutional life in the Human Terrain System and similar approaches to collecting information on localities.

While counter-insurgency theory has been adopted by substantial portions of the military and political elite, it is not without its critics. Kilcullen takes a short aside to denounce Ralph Peters, who criticized the counter-insurgency turn as being too touchy feely and not sufficiently oriented around the butchery of the wogs. Another line of criticism suggests that COIN isn’t terribly different than the normal operations that modern armies conduct, and thus that the “COIN revolution” has involved much smoke and little fire. I don’t find this latter line of argument particularly compelling; the training required by officers and enlisted personnel in a military organization emphasizing COIN would seem to differ considerably from that required in a more conventionally oriented army. This doesn’t necessarily mean that COIN doctrine will manifest in every single soldier or in every unit, but it does suggest preference for a different set of skills and aptitudes than are required in a conventional force. Yet another line of critique accepts that COIN is substantially different than conventional operations, but argues that this leaves the United States particularly vulnerable; developing a capacity to fight effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan means losing the ability to fight in large scale conventional operations. I’m convinced of the first part, but not convinced that the second is at all relevant; it is difficult for me to imagine plausible scenarios in the short or medium term (other, perhaps, than North Korea) where the United States is under any threat that would require the deployment of significant conventional land forces.

Accidental Guerrilla will not fully soothe the fears of those who believe that counter-insurgency theory and practice is a stand in for empire. This critique has emerged on both the political right and the left. The steps that an army will undertake in a counter-insurgency campaign essentially replace the presence of domestic security forces, including police and military. This procedure lies at the heart of all successful imperialism; we kill the bad men with guns, replace them for a time with our own men and guns, and eventually turn security duties over to a friendlier, more accomodating set of men with guns. Furthermore, Kilcullen is hostile to the notion that precision attacks of the type we see in Pakistan are suitable to winning a counter-insurgency conflict. Counter-insurgency cannot be done on the cheap; campaigns like Afghanistan and Iraq can only be won if military organizations replace the essential functions of the state. That said, Kilcullen also argues that counter-insurgency operations are extremely difficult, with the clear implication being that they shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, if at all. He notes his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, both on the grounds that the operation had a low chance of success, and that it was tangential to larger US and Western foreign policy goals. Overall, I would suggest that his thinking on the place that counter-insurgency practice plays in the foreign policy of the United States is roughly similar to my own. COIN is compatible with imperialism, and is probably necessary to successful modern imperialism in a democratic state; however, it does not necessitate imperialism. The United States Army prepared for war in the Fulda Gap for sixty years without actually engaging in such war; it is similarly possible for counter-insurgency theory to be part of the foreign policy toolbox, yet not the tool of choice.

As an advocate for and architect of the Surge, Kilcullen emphasizes its impact on the reduction of violence in Iraq more than ethnic cleansing or the tribal awakening movement. He points out that previous efforts by tribal organizations to resist Al Qaeda had failed, and suggests that the reason the Anbar Awakening succeeded is that it was backed by US forces that were a) capable, and b) knew what they were doing. While there’s certainly cause to argue with the notion that the Surge single-handedly reduced violence in Iraq (it did not), and there are certainly questions to be asked about its long term strategic impact (it may have succeeded only insofar as it allowed the US to stay in Iraq longer), I do think that the harshest criticisms of the Surge have not born fruit. It’s one thing to say that the Surge was unlikely to “win” the war in Iraq, and entirely another to suggest that it would be wholly useless and have no meaningful positive impact. In 2006-7, I was pretty strongly in the latter camp, arguing that the Surge was too little, too late and that it would have no noticeable effect on the course of events in Iraq. While I’m not prepared to take back the mean things I said about Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, it’s no longer tenable to argue that the Surge was operationally (as opposed to strategically) doomed to failure. In combination with other factors (and there’s no way to tell how much each factor contributed) the Surge helped reduce violence well below what I had thought possible; I don’t know how much money I would have bet on the “over 313″ US casualties for 2008, but it’s fair to say it would have been a lot. Of course, withdrawal beginning in 2007 is the road not taken, but I argued not simply that the Surge was worse than withdrawal, but that it would fail according to its own metrics. Farley fail.

The term “must read” is by its nature trite; there really isn’t any book that everyone “must read” or have something horrible happen to them. Accidental Guerrilla, however, comes about as close as I can imagine to such status. It doesn’t hurt that Kilcullen is a remarkably good writer, with lucid, well-constructed prose and an eye for the relevant. Even if you’re not deeply interested in the ins and outs of counter-insurgency theory, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy Accidental Guerrilla. Even if you bitterly disagree with Kilcullen’s premises, it’s likely that you’ll find his argument useful, if only as a foil.

Sunday Book Review: Second World

[ 0 ] June 28, 2009 |

This is the fourth 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

If you like Tom Friedman, but think that his concepts are too concrete, that he doesn’t illustrate his points with enough random conversations with locals, that his conclusions aren’t sufficiently sweeping, that he spends way too much time defining key terms, that he doesn’t contradict himself enough, that he does too much research, that he could substitute stereotype for analysis a bit more often, that he doesn’t have enough contempt for existing work in the field, and that he’s insufficiently arrogant, then you’ll absolutely frakking love Parag Khanna. Second World is almost certainly the worst book that I’ve ever read on international politics.

That is all.

Sunday Book Review: Hide and Seek: Searching for Truth in Iraq

[ 1 ] June 21, 2009 |

This is the third 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

Charles Duelfer worked for UNSCOM, the agency that investigated Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions mandating the elimination of chemical and biological stockpiles during the 1990s. He later came to fame as the head of the Iraq Survey Group, which turned in the final administrative report on the state of Iraq’s unconventional weapons programs at the time of the invasion. The former job meant that he was uniquely suited for the latter, as he had more experience with Iraq than most living Americans. He has now penned Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, an analytical memoir about his experiences in Iraq. Duelfer isn’t a natural writer, and the seams are visibile; in some places Hide and Seek seems a touch incoherent. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable contribution to the growing literature on the Iraq War.

Duelfer continues to believe that the decision to invade Iraq was sound, but that the execution of the war was fatally disrupted by US ineptitude. This isn’t quite the incompetence dodge; he doesn’t attempt to excuse his support of the war by suggesting that he thought it would end up better than it did. Rather, he favored war because he believed that the other options were even worse. He argues that continued disengagment with Iraq would, in fairly short order, have resulted in the reconstitution of its unconventional weapons programs and itsbthreat to US interests in the Gulf. Direct engagement with Iraq could have borne fruit, but was impossible given the domestic situation within the United States. War, thus, was the only remaining option. Interestingly enough, Duelfer was largely indifferent to the central justification for war. He thought it possible that Iraq had retained stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, but was by no means certain. He didn’t, however think that the presence of such weapons was a key element of the case for war.

I found Duelfer’s argument that Saddam was a threat that required action uncompelling. It’s entirely correct to say that Iraq wanted out of the sanctions regime, and that elements of the regime wished to preserve the capability to produce unconventional weapons. It’s also true that some parts of the sanctions regime were untenable. This doesn’t, however, add up to very much. In four years of absence of inspections, the Iraqis had not reconstituted their unconventional weapons programs, in spite of the belief that the United States wasn’t playing fair. Moreover, Iraqi conventional capabilities had deteriorated substantially relative to the United States, and to every other state in the region. Without conventional capability, even a robust chemical program would have had only a limited effect on regional politics. Finally, I simply don’t believe that the sanctions regime was dead; an energetic, enthusiastic, and intelligent US administration could have used the political capital generated by 9/11 to reinvigorate and restructure the sanctions regime, such that it allowed Iraq to develop its economy while seriously restricting Hussein’s ability to reconstruct his conventional army. This, as they say, was the road not taken. To his credit, Duelfer gives absolutely no creedence to the notion that Hussein could transfer WMD to terrorist organizations.

Duelfer discusses Iraqi entreaties toward the United States on several occasions. Saddam and the rest of the regime believed that the United States and Iraq could cooperate on several fronts, and that the US and Iraq were natural allies. It seems that the Iraqis believed this during almost the entire period between 1991 and 2003, although the feelers became more serious after 1996. Hussein suggested collaboration on the Palestinian issue (including an offer to resettle Palestinians in Iraq), the growth of Islamic extremism, and Iran. It’s not quite true that none of this was taken seriously by the US government; rather, it’s more accurate to say that no one was listening. Duelfer, who worked in Iraq for much of this period, was sometimes the conduit through which such feelers were made. The Clinton administration, however, had not the faintest interest in reconciling with the Iraqi regime. Duelfer argues that the Iraqis could have offered the world and the moon, but that the balance of power in the US government precluded the possibility of diplomacy. Clinton wouldn’t pursue rapproachment with Iraq because of fear of Congressional criticism. This effectively foreclosed the “reconcile with Iraq” option.

I think that Duelfer is broadly correct; it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the United States government, at least in the short term, could have pursued reconciliation with Iraq. The problem was primarily (although not wholly) with Congressional Republicans; I suspect that even the Bush administration would have taken heat for openings with Hussein. Human rights advocacy groups would also, correctly, have denounced any rapproachment with Hussein’s regime. I think it’s also true that the blame for this situation fell on both sides. Had the Hussein government made a series of strong statements of denunciation of the attacks of 9/11, followed up by concrete and public offers of assistance, a dialogue might have been easier. The rehabilitation of Qaddafi demonstrates that anything can happen. Hussein, however, lacked vision.

As an unreformed war advocate, Duelfer is understandably agitated at the amazing ineptitude with which the war was conducted. He compellingly argues that the two biggest mistakes the US undertook following the invasion were the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the process of de-Baathification. These moves alienated two groups that the United States should not have alienated; large formations of heavily armed young men, and Iraq’s technical and bureaucratic elite. Duelfer was familiar and friendly with much of the latter from his time in Iraq in the 1990s, and is confidant that it could have been co-opted. In effect, the United States gutted the Iraqi state while simultaeneously creating a motivated resistance. Obviously, I don’t think that these moves were entirely responsible for the creation of the insurgency, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t make the situation much worse. Duelfer blames both decisions on the influence of the INC and on ideologues within the Defense Department. Neither group understood anything about modern Iraq, and the latter had only the faintest notion of what a state was.

Duelfer makes a tepid defense of the administration and the intelligence community against charges of lying and intentionally deceiving the American public, but doesn’t do a very good job. He makes the point, correctly, that pushing for a particular interpretation within a bureaucracy and intentional deception aren’t quite the same thing. He fails, however, to acknowledge the aura of absolute certainty that surrounded the administration’s insistence on the presence of chemical and biological weapons. In other words, it’s possible to imagine an administration that was forthrightly erroneous rather than intentionally deceptive, but the Bush administration ain’t it. Moreover, Duelfer fails entirely to discuss the most egregious deception undertaken by the administration, the implication that the Hussein regime was in league with Al Qaeda and could potentially supply the latter with effective WMD. A man with Duelfer’s expertise and experience in Iraq must have known that this was utter nonsense, both in terms of the likelihood of such a relationship and in terms of its fruits for either side. It is particularly disappointing that Duelfer ignores this deception, as it provided the logical foundation for linking the September 11 attacks to the invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution that Duelfer makes is insight into the bureaucratic machinations of the UN, Iraq, and the United States government. He details his slow realization that bureaucratic organizations depend on the production of their own internal realities, and that the realities that one organization requires to operate do not necessarily coincide with the realities of others. He discusses how the US, UNSCOM, and Iraq could have completely (and often wildly) different interpretations of the same event, and how these interpretations precluded meaningful cooperation. Duelfer is pretty hard on all of these bureaucracies; he faults the US bureaucracy for having an incoherent approach to Iraq, the Iraqi bureaucracy for perpetuating an unrealistic set of expectations, and the UN bureaucracy for limiting the scope of his investigations. On the latter, Duelfer falls into a common trap that afflicts UN critiques; he sees only how UN politics hindered the operations of UNSCOM, without thinking too much about how the Security Council enabled the investigations in the first place. This is classic trees-forest thinking. Without the Security Council, and without the will to conquer and occupy Iraq in 1991, there would have been no inspections whatsoever, and no investigation of Iraqi weapons program. Duelfer is fond of comparing the containment of Iraq post-1991 to the post-Versailles containment of Germany, but misses out on how the existence of the Security Council provided the former with far bigger teeth than the latter. Duelfer’s account will hold some interest for science and tech geeks, although not as much as I expected; Duelfer shies away from detailed discussions of the technical aspects of his work, although he does make clear that the details are, well, detailed.

This is a useful volume. There is much to disagree with, but that’s not really the point; read, disagree, and at the end you’ll still have a better understanding of how what Iraqis and Americans did after 1991 led to 2005. There is not and will never be a single narrative of US involvement in Iraq. The best we can do is try to piece together bits from different sources, in order to produce a narrative that makes sense. I suspect, moreover, that no single narrative will make sense to everyone. Duelfer’s contribution is an important one, largely because he was working in and thinking about Iraq while few other Americans were.

Sunday Book Review: Strait Talk

[ 0 ] June 14, 2009 |

Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk, published earlier this year, is a detailed examination of the triangular relationship between Washington, Taipei, and Beijing between the 1970s and today. Tucker focuses on the role that Taiwan played in the negotiations that normalized relations between the United States in China, both as object (how the US and CCP participants discussed what to do with China), and as participant (how Taipei and its allies tried to influence negotiations). The result is a remarkably detailed and interesting account of one of the key diplomatic relationships in the world today.

Broadly, Tucker’s argument is that the United States has repeatedly given away too much in negotiations with Beijing, especially with regards to Taiwan policy. During the Cold War and in the immediate post-Cold War period (although perhaps not today), the United States could offer China far more than China could offer the United States. Tucker suggests that a better appreciation of this fact could have made it possible for Nixon, Kissinger, and their successors to take a harder line on Taiwanese autonomy and on the nature of the US relationship with Taiwan. Tucker discusses repeated incidences of US preference for Beijing across several Presidential administrations, including both Democratic and Republican.

Tucker’s argument is most sound when we don’t consider the problem of imperfect information. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, it does appear that Beijing had much to gain from cooperation with the US, and that it might have been willing to display greater flexibility over Taiwan’s eventual status. Indeed, from some theoretical perspectives it should have been apparent at the time that the US could push Beijing around a bit, given the former’s strength and the latter’s weakness in 1972. Much depends on whether you believe client states bring patrons to heel, or the other way around. I don’t think, however, that Tucker sufficiently conveys the opaqueness of Chinese decision-making to US policymakers, especially in the early 1970s. Nixon and Kissinger rightly believed that a shift in Chinese alignment could bring substantial gains to the United States, both strategically and (eventually) economically. They could have played negotiations with an eye to relative gains with Beijing, which is to say that they could have accepted the argument that Beijing needed Washington more than vice-versa, and structured the resulting settlement accordingly. One reason they didn’t is that they were happy to accept relative loss vis-a-vis China in order to pursue absolute gains against the Soviet Union; Tucker covers this quite well. The other reason is that US policymakers didn’t have a good sense of the Chinese decision calculus, and therefore of how far the Chinese could be pushed before breaking. The rationality (in the traditional realist sense) of Chinese foreign policy behavior post-1949 was not evident to Americans of 1972, even if such behavior is more understandable through historical lens. I don’t think that Kissinger or Nixon knew precisely what Mao wanted, or what would happen if they pushed Mao too much on Taiwan and other areas of dispute. As such, accepting losses on certain negotiating positions was a way in which US diplomats and policymakers managed uncertainty about the Chinese decision-making process.

I think that later Presidents can be more justly accused of failing to negotiate assertively enough with Beijing than Nixon and Kissinger, but we should remember that Chinese decision-making and governance structures remained volatile until at least the early 1990s. Looking back its easy to see continuity, but there were always reasons for the US to be concerned about China’s leadership politics. In contrast, United States policymakers understood fully that Taipei had no options; despite a very brief flirtation with the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, Taiwan depended for survival on the generosity of Washington.

This didn’t mean, however, that Taiwan lacked advocates in the United States. Tucker’s other major contribution is a detailed discussion of the decline and fall of the China Lobby. As most know, the China Lobby wielded substantial influence in the United States for several decades. It represented an alliance of American evangelical and missionary groups, American businessmen interested in the China market, and a certain segment of the Chinese Nationalist political elite (although not, apparently, much of the Chinese-American community) . The Lobby helped structure the terms of US relations with China prior to World War II, steering the US towards Nationalist China and against Communist China and Japan. This is not to say that the Lobby was fully determinative of US policy; the US government had good reasons to oppose Japan and the CCP in any case. The Lobby helped, however, to turn a realpolitik decision into a moral crusade. The influence of the Lobby couldn’t save Nationalist China on the mainland, but nevertheless remained potent after 1949.

The language that the China Lobby used to preclude US rapproachment with China will be familiar to contemporary readers; China was a rogue state that could use its nuclear weapons randomly at any given time, and as such wasn’t fit for diplomacy. At one point, Chiang Kai Shek claimed knowledge of the location of the most important Chinese nuclear facilities, and suggested that he could take them out, if only the US would loosen the leash a bit. The PRC, it seemed, was full of atheist maniacs who didn’t believe that 72 virgins would be waiting for them when they died, and consequently could do ANYTHING. Lousy atheists. Anyway, strategic considerations (and sanity) precluded any meaningful unleashing of Chiang, but the influence of the Lobby in the executive branch and in Congress helped prevent a Sino-American dialogue over Vietnam, the final status of Korea, the role of the PRC at the UN, and the potential for collaboration with the Soviet Union. When any President hinted at acknowledging the PRC, the Lobby could arm Congressional opponents with money and righteous rhetoric about the dangers of appeasing Beijing. Nixon was able to break the cycle, in part because the most vocal China advocates came from within his own party, but also because of the shifting strategic situation of the early 1970s. Concern about increasing Soviet power and the need for a way out of Vietnam eventually overwhelmed the story that the Lobby was trying to sell. Even so, when news of Nixon’s China trip became public, Ronald Reagan (a member in good standing of the China Lobby) was dispatched to Taipei to allay Nationalist concerns. This was Reagan’s first major foray into foreign affairs, and it ended in embarrassment; Nixon essentially deceived Reagan as to the extent of concessions promised to the PRC, and Reagan himself later backtracked from generous campaign rhetoric with regard to Taipei. The influence of the Lobby waned in the 1980s, in part because the old guard died off, in part because the ideological force of the rhetoric progressively rang more hollow, but mostly because the US-PRC relationship was wildly successful. Beijing, and American business interests that favored engagement with Beijing, eventually were able to counteract and neutralize pro-Nationalist forces in the United States.

Understated in the discussion of Nixon’s opening with China is that one of Nixon’s key goals was to secure economic relations between the US and the PRC. Nixon believed that US-China trade could alleviate the economic difficulties that the United States faced in the early 1970s. On this point, while Nixon was probably too optimistic about the immediate effects (US trade with the PRC did not surpass US trade with Taiwan for a very long time), he pretty much nailed the long-term impact. The US trade relationship with China has become one of the cornerstones of US economic growth, and indeed of the entire world economy. It’s difficult to imagine what the world would look like without this relationship; had China remained isolated (not difficult to imagine in 1972), worldwide economic growth rates would undoubtedly have suffered. Tucker doesn’t delve deeply into this aspect of US relations with the PRC, but it’s nevertheless critical to an evaluation of the performance of US diplomacy in the 1970s and 1980s.

In spite of a few quibbles, I found Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk enormously valuable. It’s very detailed, well sourced, and compellingly constructed. I highly recommend it to China specialists, and to anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of strategic policymaking.

From Colony to Superpower XX: And Now We Come to the End

[ 0 ] May 18, 2009 |

This is the 20th and final chapter in the series on George Herring From Colony to Superpower. that Erik Loomis and I have embarked upon. The twentieth chapter runs from roughly the end of the first Gulf War until about 2007. The world that faced Clinton and the second George Bush was very different than that which his Cold War predecessors had to deal with. Unfortunately, neither Clinton nor Bush developed practical policies for managing and maintaining US hegemony. Clinton muddled through with varying levels of effectiveness, while the Bush administration developed a coherent ideology of the United States’ place in the world that had disastrous effect when put into practice. For better or worse, the United States still lacks a practicable vision of what it wants the world to look like, not to mention any reasonable conception of how best to press that vision forward.

Bill Clinton was woefully unprepared to handle foreign policy when he became President. That his successor was a major disaster in spite of having an experienced cabinet shouldn’t obscure this; Clinton had little interest and less experience in foreign affairs when he became President in 1993. His National Security Advisor is supposed to have said “Bill Clinton was elected for domestic policy. Our job is to keep foreign policy away from him.” Still, it’s hard to point to clear, enduring missteps that the administration took during its first term. Clinton handled North Korea as well as could have been hoped, and certainly better than his successor. He bears some responsibility for the disaster in Somalia; his predecessor left a bit of a mess, but Clinton didn’t improve the situation. Clinton didn’t have any very clear ideas of how to handle Iraq, but then at that time no one did; the general assumption was that Saddam Hussein couldn’t maintain control for an extended period of time. US intervention in Bosnia turned out more or less positively, leaving space for both interventionists and non-interventionists to complain. Russia policy is perhaps the one area in which Clinton’s fumbling may have had enduring effect, but again, it’s unclear what the alternatives to strongly supporting Yeltsin were. Clinton could have said no to NATO expansion, but given uncertainty about long-term Russian intentions, I think that the inclusion of Eastern Europe was defensible.

Over time, Clinton got better at the practice of foreign policy, and adopted a certain vision of liberal internationalism. There may be enduring questions about the wisdom of the intervention in Kosovo, but maintaining the alliance during the war was a diplomatic accomplishment. Clinton’s Israel/Palestine policy also left much to be desired, but given his successor it probably represented the last, best chance for a peace settlement. The lasting error of the second half of the Clinton administration may have been the steady rhetorical surrender to the foreign policy of neoconservatism. On Iraq in particular, Clinton ceded the ideological ground on deposing Saddam Hussein while retaining the practical control over the decision for war. This would have devastating consequences during the administration of his successor, as Clinton’s surrender undercut the ability of the Democratic Party to put up serious resistance to Bush’s march to war.

Herring gives as cogent and reasonable an explanation for intervention in Iraq as I’ve seen. Ideology, fear, political power, and oil were all drivers, and they weren’t mutually exclusive. Herring doesn’t waste time singing the praises of Colin Powell; Powell decided, in the end, that the United States really had reached the end of its options with Iraq, and the war was preferable to the status quo. Indeed, Herring doesn’t have very much to say about Powell, relative to the other members of the cabinet. He reminds us that the war was a bad idea conducted with great ineptitude and a deep lack of seriousness. In the end, almost no one got what they had wanted.

Curiously, Herring suggests that the Bush administration does represent a serious break with previous American foreign policy practice in its preference for preventive wars. I find this interesting because Herring has, in the full narrative, suggested that the discontinuities of US foreign policy over time aren’t that discontinuous at all. In particular, he has argued that a certain vision of American exceptionalism has always prevailed ideologically, and that this has had predictably policy effect over the centuries. In this context, it’s interesting that he sees Bush as a major discontinuity. One possibility is that this book took a very long time to write, and accordingly it would have been difficult to work in a full appreciation of how much a shift the Bush administration represented in the full narrative of the book.

A bit more to come in terms of general wrap up…

A Couple of Patterson Points

[ 0 ] May 16, 2009 |

The Patterson School’s new summer reading list is out. I’ve recently finished the Kilcullen and the Bacevich, both of which are quite good; reviews pending. Also, David Wescott of Business Lexington has a column up about our recent pirate related policy simulation. On a related point, I just finished Martin Murphy’s Small Boats, Dirty Money, which is a fantastic primer on piracy and martime terrorism.

From Colony to Superpower XIX: First Rays of the New Rising Sun?

[ 0 ] May 5, 2009 |

This is the 19th installment of our 20 part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower. Erik had the honors this week; check out his post first.

Reagan’s approach to Latin America was a touch more brutal than his immediate predecessors, but the disregard for human rights is only really notable for its contradiction with administration rhetoric towards the Soviet Union. The other difference was Congress; for the first time in a very long while, there was serious objection within Congress to administration Latin American policy. This resulted in a number of unsavory projects to limit the amount of information Congress possessed on US foreign policy, the most notable of which was the Iran-Contra affair. As the Cold War eased, so did US policy, opening some space for opposition movements in Latin America. When these movements no longer threatened to “tip the balance” towards the Soviet Union, they could tolerated and even supported to some extent.

Reagan’s Middle East policy was almost singularly inept. Neoconservatives don’t usually emphasize Beirut in their litany-of-appeasement-inevitably-leading-up-to-9/11 story, but the course of US intervention The Reagan administration clumsily handled the Iran-Iraq War, mostly favoring Iraq but leaning towards Iran at critical times. Re-reading the story of the Iran-Contra Affair remains shocking; it is remarkable that Reagan avoided impeachment. Herring’s discussion sheds some light on the unwillingness of the 1980s crop of neoconservatives to consider rapproachment with Iran. On both the US and the Israeli side, it was believed that the arms shipments to Iran would empower moderates and cause magical things to happen in Lebanon. The Iranians however, were simply playing the United States in order to get the weapons. It’s not terribly surprising that the advocates of the deal in the administration now view any effort to empower Iranian moderates as hopeless; if anti-tank weapons didn’t work, what will? However, it’s also remarkable the degree which Reagan and Bush were willing to put the screws to Israel. Both engaged in coercive foreign policy (condemnations, suspensions of aid) which are virtually unimaginable today.

Reagan entered office as a Taiwan hawk, and some in the administration pushed for a hard line with the PRC. However, as in Central America the desire to compete with the Soviet Union quickly eclipsed any interest in human rights. Reagan desired China’s cooperation against the Soviet Union more than his longstanding relationship with Taiwan, and thus largely ignored Taiwanese concerns. Happily, this corresponded with an important period in Taiwan’s long term democratization.

Herring makes clear that while Reagan deserves some credit for the end of the Cold War, the bulk of responsibility lies with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Reagan arms buildup did help convince some within the USSR that it could not compete military with the United States, and the arms control openings after 1984 helped convince some that the United States wasn’t a threat. But there was no coordinated strategy; the same people who strongly supported the first bitterly opposed the second. And of course there were also structural factors; the rapid decline of the price of oil in the 1980s helped to undermine the Soviet economy. In any case, the pressure produced by the United States wasn’t determinative; different Soviet leaders could have made much different choices, ranging from preventive war to hunkered isolation to Chinese style perestroika-without-the-glastnost. Reagan’s central achievement was recognizing the opening that Gorbachev offered.

More later on the first Bush administration…

From Colony to Superpower XVIII: Scooped!

[ 0 ] April 20, 2009 |

Part 18 in our twenty part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower brings us to 1974, and Gerald Ford’s unlikely ascension to the office of the Presidency. The chapter ends with the election of Ronald Reagan. In between, Herring expresses unlikely sympathy for the two occupants of the White House; the main villain of the piece is one Henry “Scoop” Jackson, along with the army of neoconservatives that he helped foster.

The over-arching theme of the chapter is the retreat (if only temporary) of the imperial presidency. Congress, emboldened by Watergate and by the Vietnam disaster, wasn’t in the mood to give either Ford or Carter an easy time. Herring challenges the notion that Ford was a bit of a dullard, noting that he had a strong record of compromise legislation in the House. The deck was stacked against, however; with the Democrats in control of Congress and in no mood to compromise, Ford had very limited success. Carter, although enjoying significant Democratic majorities, just didn’t have a solid strategy for dealing with Congress. It’s important to remember that the Democratic party of the 1970s is not the one that exists today, and that party discipline was much lower then than now.

In any case, both Ford and Carter faced challenges from the left and the right. The left tried to reduce the President’s ability to launch and wage illegal wars. The interference from the right was a good deal more destructive, and was led by “Scoop” Jackson of Washington. Jackson intervened in nearly every foreign policy question during this period, almost always to bad effect. In particular, he helped undermine several initiatives to further detente and reduce tensions with the Soviets. His interference didn’t end there, however; he also managed to misjudge US relations with China, and with Iran. Overall, Herring’s portrayal of Scoop Jackson is that of a buffoon; a man who’s inadequate knowledge of foreign affairs didn’t prevent him from taking on the role of demagogue, with destructive consequences. It’s not a portrayal that I particularly disagree with, and I think it’s fair to say that naming a ballistic missile submarine Henry M. Jackson is altogether as embarrassing for the Navy as the Carl Vinson and the John C. Stennis.

Herring argues that Jimmy Carter faced a series of nearly intractable foreign policy problems, and proceeded to handle them in a generally inept way. Carter had very little foreign policy experience, and built a foreign policy team that almost immediately went to war against itself. He didn’t have a strong understanding of how to build domestic support for policy, even when the policies themselves were quite solid. Herring lauds Carter’s commitment to the Panama Canal Treaty, for example, but questions his inability to explain why the treaty was a good idea in the face of conservative criticism. The comparisons with Obama are useful; although we don’t know how the Obama administration will be judged 20 years from now, it’s hard not to read Herring’s account of Carter and think that Obama has proceeded in a much more careful and effective manner, at least so far. Carter was also uncertain as to how to deal with the collapse of detente. Herring points out that detente was inherently limited by the fact that the US and the USSR had very different interests; Carter perhaps expected too much, and interpreted what the Soviets viewed as healthy competiton within detente as a break from detente. By the end of his administration, Carter had become a committed Cold Warrior. Of necessity Herring deals at length with the Iran hostage crisis, noting again that Carter inherited a problem with no solution, but that he didn’t distinguish himself even within that constraint.

One country in particular seems to be missing from Herring’s account; Indonesia. Obviously, it’s not Herring’s responsibility to discuss US relations with every country in the world, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on between the US and Indonesia during the Cold War, and thus far Herring hasn’t paid it much attention. In this chapter, Herring doesn’t have any discussion of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor (under Ford’s watch), of post-invasion relations between the US and Indonesia (under Carter’s watch), or of the role that Indonesia played in US Cold War strategy. Much the same could be said of the Philippines; I’m curious to see how Herring with deal with the end of the Marcos regime during the Reagan administration.

From Colony to Superpower XVII: Nixon Power!!!

[ 0 ] April 18, 2009 |

We’re now to part 17 of our twenty part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower. I am told that there is the possibility that the second half of the book may be released, in mildly revised form, in paperback; I’d recommend buying the whole thing, but mileage may vary. Chapter XVII deals with the Nixon administration, taking us up to 1974. As with the last installment, my understanding of events with regards to China (which looms large in this chapter) has been immeasurably improved by reading Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk; once I finish this series, I’ll give a full separate review to that work.

Erik writes:

I like this chapter because Herring is morally outraged, which always makes writing more lively. Herring clearly has little but contempt for Nixon and Kissinger. I agree, but Herring differentiates between Nixon and other presidents in ways that I am not really comfortable with.

I didn’t really get this from the chapter. It seemed to me that Herring distinguished between Nixon-Kissinger great power diplomacy and Nixon-Kissinger third world diplomacy, and rather approved of the former while harshly criticizing the latter. Herring suggests that Nixon and Kissinger were very bad a relations with non-great power actors, including Vietnam, Chile, and others, because they neither knew nor cared very much about anything that happened outside of Moscow or Beijing. Everything else, even Vietnam, was treated as a desultory sideshow. Nixon and Kissinger were happy to play the Cold Warriors in the sense that they would grant tacit support to Pinochet in Chile, but only because they understood such action in the frame of polite Cold War competition; Chile mattered because it might go Red, not because of any intrinsic value for US foreign policy.

This approach, as Herring suggests, had some drawbacks. Nixon was utterly indifferent to the suffering of the Vietnamese and Cambodian peoples; Johnson may actually have caused as much destruction (to Vietnam, anyway), but Nixon simply couldn’t bother to care, beyond an analysis of how the bombing of Cambodia affected his re-election chances, and relations with the great powers. In Latin America, Nixon happily adopted the frame that his immediate predecessors had left; the key threat was left wing regimes, which meant that right wing dictatorships should be tolerated and even encouraged. Nixon, like his predecessors, paid outsized attention to Fidel Castro, and understood the election of Salvador Allende largely within that frame.

I’d also say, however, that Herring gives Nixon a fair shake on China and the Soviet Union. Relations between the US and the USSR were probably better under Nixon than at any point during the Cold War, at least until Reagan’s second term. Nixon stood by while Willy Brandt pushed ostpolitik in Europe, which helped conclude the endless series of Berlin crises that had afflicted US-German-Soviet relations since 1945. The Soviets were more or less comfortable with Nixon’s fumbling in the third world; they certainly didn’t care what happened to Allende. They were also glad to see the US rein in the Israelis a bit. While the arms control agreements that Nixon and Brezhnev concluded could have been better, they did lay the foundation for regulating competition between the superpowers for the next twenty years.

Herring makes clear that Nixon and Kissinger do not deserve sole credit for “opening” China; the PRC had diplomatic and trade relations with most of the rest of the world by 1972, and the controversy over relations in the United States was in large part due to anti-Communist hysteria that Nixon himself helped foment. At the same time, it’s fair to say that Nixon and Kissinger grasped the opportunity that a visit to Beijing presented. Herring argues that the impetus to opening relations was generated largely by concerns about Cold War competition, but that there was also an economic element; Nixon believed that increased trade with China would, in the long run, help to substantially improve US growth. I think that this has, in the long run, been borne out, although the volume of trade between the two states remained very low for a very long time. In military and political terms, “opening” China looked much better on the map than it did in real life; Chinese military and economic power was a fraction of that of the USSR or the US, and it’s unclear that adding the PRC (even implicitly) to the list of US obligations may have reduced, rather than contributed to, overall US capabilities. Positive relations with Beijing and Moscow also failed to make the North Vietnamese any more flexible in negotiations.

Neoconservatives continue to loathe Nixon and Kissinger, and it’s not hard to understand why. Neither were interested in even lip service to human rights. Nixon understood detente with, not destruction of, the Soviet Union to be the primary goal of US foreign policy. Nixon “betrayed” the brave freedom fighters on Taiwan in favor of the totalitarian PRC. Nixon and Kissinger weren’t terribly friendly to Israel, at least by the standards of contemporary administrations; Herring suggests that Kissinger (Nixon was drunk and distracted by this point) was delighted to see the Israelis getting a bloody nose at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. In short, Nixon and Kissinger represent almost the negation of neoconservative foreign policy preferences, even worse than Carter.

FDL Book Salon: Dateline Havana

[ 0 ] April 11, 2009 |

The most exciting piracy event in recent memory happened to correspond with a period in which I had almost zero time to blog. A bit more on that later, of course; also will produce a longer response to the comments on this post. Of more immediate interest is a Firedoglake Book Salon on Reese Erlich’s Dateline Havana, which I’ll be hosting this afternoon at 5pm. Make sure to drop by…

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