Book Review – How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle by Gideon Rose

It’s difficult to find both a more challenging and somber topic to analyze than American foreign policy. In 2010’s How Wars End, Gideon Rose displayed an exceptional grasp at explicating various diplomatic foibles. He framed his narrative through poor decisions policymakers made during wartime. Their paucity of acumen led to choices with harrowing unforeseen consequences. In the cases of World War I and the Gulf War, these assessments germinated the seeds that grew into much larger conflicts.

I’ve never written this before, but what really stood out about this book came before the actual narrative began. Rose’s dedication, “To the victims of bad planning”, summarized the entire story in just six words. Hemmingway once said he could write a novel in that many terms. Fortunately, for us foreign policy junkies, Rose included an additional 287 pages of actual text.

I discovered Rose’s choice of an opening quote quite telling, as well. He chose a line from military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. It read:

No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.    

In essence, this re-phrases his dictum that, “war is politics by other means.” I liked the way the author approached the subject. Regrettably all of the examples he cited demonstrated leaders not following von Clausewitz’s advice.

One observation deeply troubled me. The author described how a number of wartime leaders didn’t base policies on informed assessments. Rose described Franklin Roosevelt as a capricious decision maker.

FDR once admitted, “I never let my right hand know what my left hand does…I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths….” In foreign as in domestic policy, he was addicted to improvisation, creating a system that concentrated decisionmaking (sic) power in his hands and gave him the utmost flexibility. (Page 76)

            FDR also took a cynical approach to foreign policy.

Some have argued that “both before and during the war, what best explains Roosevelt’s foreign policies was his inclination to mirror American public opinion.” Clare Booth Luce expressed this view succinctly. “Every great leader” during the war, she was once described as saying, “had his typical gesture—Hitler the upraised arm, Churchill the V sign. Roosevelt? She wet her index finger and held it up.” (Page 77)

            Other leaders also displayed unorthodox styles. The author described George W. Bush as such:

“I’m not a textbook player, I’m a gut player,” Bush told journalist Bob Woodward in 2002, and in retrospect this seems a crucial fact about the Bush presidency. As one of his press secretaries would later put it, “President Bush has always been an instinctive leader more than an intellectual leader. He is not one to delve deeply into all the possible policy options—including sitting around and engaging in extended debates about them—before making a choice. Rather he chooses based on his gut and his most deeply held convictions. Such was the case with Iraq.” The problem was exacerbated by Bush’s temperament, which prized certitude and resolve and scorned second guessing and dissent of any kind. Throw in a penchant for bold, “consequential” decisions rather than “small ball”, and the result was an accident waiting to happen. (Page 263)

            Decisions have consequences. Rose attributed the postwar break-up of the Allied coalition to Roosevelt’s management style. He failed to plan what would happen if the Soviet Union left it following the end of the war. Bush’s demeanor led to the Iraq War. I don’t know whether the author intended to do this or not. I recognized some parallels between Bush 43’s optimistic view of the Iraq situation and that of Bush 41. The latter “planned” that “someone” would overthrow Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War.

I also thought Rose espoused some original and erudite analyses. He wrote the following about the end of the First World War.

In later years, it became a truism in many circles that the harshness of the Versailles Treaty and American failure to join the League doomed the world to a cycle of instability, tyranny, and war. With generations of hindsight, however, the treaty seems more balanced now than it did then, a mixture of discordant elements that was neither Carthaginian nor Metternichian .(Page 48)

Whenever I read or hear about the Treaty of Versailles, text from John Maynard Keynes’ scathing criticism in The Economic Consequences of the Peace enters my mind.  I’d like to learn more about Rose’s views on it; perhaps in his next book?

I personally recall the acerbic press condemnation of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s performance in Iraq. While acknowledging its failings, Rose presented a more balanced view of it.

The CPA, in short, was an improvisation. As Ali Allawi bitingly comments, it is “only explicable in terms of a cover for sorting out a post war ‘Iraq Policy,’ when none had existed prior to the invasion,” Nevertheless, for such an ill-starred, ad hoc, and perennially under resourced operation, Bremer’s outfit actually accomplished a decent amount during its brief life span. Despite all the mistakes it made and the bad press it received, it was in large part a well-intentioned, serious attempt to run the country, and a marked improvement on the administration’s previous efforts in this regard. (Page 250)

            I found How Wars End to be a masterful study of the tragedies of deficient planning. Modern policy makers ignore it at their peril. While nothing can be done to ameliorate the mistakes of the past, the next crisis is always on the way.

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