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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.

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.

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