Foreign Policy

Book Review – A World in Disarray by Richard Haass

Dr. Haass hit on a serendipitous trifecta with A World in Disarray. Talk about putting out the right book, at the right time with the right title. This tome delivered a brief yet trenchant analysis of international relations from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia through the present day. The author explored how the world progressed from the development of nation states to an era of globalization then reverted to a period of isolationism.

Unlike many works on foreign relations, I found this book rather lucid. The author expressed his ideas in plain language. Here’s his analysis of the modern era.

Populism and nationalism are on the rise. What we are witnessing is a widespread rejection of globalization and international involvement and, as a result, a questioning of long-standing postures and policies, from openness to trade to immigrants to a willingness to maintain alliances and overseas commitments. (Location 107)

It impressed me that the President of the Council on Foreign Relations could describe world affairs without resorting to jargon. It allowed me to focus on his ideas instead of struggling through a challenging vocabulary.

A World in Disarray contained many definitions. That allowed me to understand precisely what the author meant. I liked that Dr. Haass provided them even for common words.

Order is…a measure of the world’s condition. (Location 259)

’Legitimacy,’ defined by Kissinger to mean ‘international agreement about the workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. (Location 307)

Terrorism often proves a challenging concept to define. There’s an adage that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The author provided an understandable description of terrorism. He used the one that emerged following the 9/11 attacks: “the intentional killing of innocent men, women and children by actors other than states for political purposes.” (Location 1355)

Many modern phenomena do not respect borders. Countries can affect each other in manners that previous generations never encountered. Technological advancements such as the internet and scourges such as ebola and climate change expand the scope of foreign policy. Dr. Haass used the book to advance a new approach towards it in the shadow of these threats. He called it “sovereign obligation.” He termed it as:

It is about a government’s obligations to other governments and through them to the citizens of other countries. (Loc 2498)

The author also provided examples of a poor approach to foreign policy. As Dr. Haass worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department at the beginning of George W. Bush’s Presidency, I’ll use his thoughts regarding the goal of the Iraq War.

The motive that most captured the imaginations of the upper reaches of the George W. Bush administration, though, was a belief that a post-Saddam Iraq would become democratic, setting an example and a precedent that the other Arab states and Iran would have great difficulty resisting. (Location 1724)

I thought it interesting that at an earlier point in the book, he wrote:

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Germany and Japan stand out as among the few successful examples of what today would be called regime change followed by nation or state building. (Location 441)

A World in Disarray provided a comprehensible and concise analysis of the globe’s current state and the events that led to it. George Santayana once wrote that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. Let’s hope modern leaders study Dr. Haass’ work so they don’t repeat the present.


Book Review: The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith

Mr. Meredith gave the expression “the dark continent” a whole new connotation in The Fate of Africa.  This narrative provided an historical overview of the region’s development from the end of the Second World War through 2005; at least in my version of the book. An intriguing synopsis resulted from it. The tome began with a quote from Pliny the Elder: “Out of Africa, always something new.” On a continent with so many diverse cultures, ethnic groups and nations, the development of each country followed the same pattern. Lamentably, Mr. Meredith showed how nearly every government degenerated from high hopes into kleptocratic authoritarianism; the latter of which they learned from their colonial governments. (Page 154)

Ghana’s independence on 6 March 1957 served as the centerpiece of the book’s beginning. The first African nation to achieve independence from a colonial power became a major event in world history. (Page 26) This served as one of the very few positive events to take place throughout the entire narrative. Some rare others included Nelson Mandela’s election to the South African Presidency and the end of apartheid. Another occurred when Abdou Diof of Senegal left office after losing an election in March of 2000. At the time, he was only the fourth African leader in four decades to relinquish power voluntarily. (The first one, Leopold Sedar Senghor, also served as Senegal’s president.)  That pretty much covers all the positive events covered by the book.

Although my version of The Fate of Africa came out over a decade ago, I found the author’s analysis of foreign aid very topical. Angus Deaton received the Nobel Prize in Economics this year. One of his areas of study concerned how outside financial support can restrain a country’s development. In his history, Mr. Meredith referenced the “donor fatigue” that took place in the 1980s. The West became frustrated with the profligacy of various African rulers. (Page 376) The author also provided myriad details how leaders used donor finance to delay as well as implement reforms. (Page 374) None of this should’ve surprised anybody. Earlier in the book Mr. Meredith detailed how African leaders “selfishly” pursued development goals. (Page 144)

The author explicated the rise of political Islam on the continent. He traced its origins to the “demise of the Pan-Arab nationalism of the 1960s” (Page 443) and the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967. (Page 443) Meredith traced its development in multiple countries such as Egypt, Algeria and Somalia. Of course, he elucidated its permeation into Sudan. Most people are familiar with political Islam’s influence in the Middle East. I applaud the author for exploring its prevalence in Africa.

As disturbing as I found the overall book, I thought it well written. His lucidity made the overall narrative more impactful. The author even included some good lines to make the text more memorable. Kenyans resorted to humor in explaining how their court system worked. “Why hire a lawyer when you can buy a judge?” They joked. (Page 285) Meredith explained that “while most states had an army, the Algerian army had a state.” (Page 447) He quoted someone as saying Libya’s leader, Colonel Qadaffi, had a “split personality – both evil.” (Page 351)

I had one criticism of the book. At times I wondered about the author’s core purpose in writing it. For a time I thought he aspired to educate people about the avaricious governance that infected the continent and the ensuing catastrophic human suffering it begot. At other times, I found the book a polemic blasting American foreign policy towards the region.

While Meredith criticized the programs of Britain, France and Belgium, I thought he reserved his main ire for the United States. Here’s his commentary on American policy towards Liberia. After vilifying its support of Samuel Doe he wrote the following.

It was a sign of how pusillanimous the United States had become in dealing with African dictators it favoured; that while the election was rejected in almost all quarters as fraudulent, US officials alone applauded it as “generally fair enough although marked by a few irregularities.” (Page 552)

The author presented the following anecdote about an American government official’s trip to Ghana’s independence ceremony.

But the most enthusiastic visitor was Richard Nixon, then the United States vice-president. From the moment he touched down in Accra, he rushed about shaking hands, hugging paramount chiefs, fondling black babies and posing for photographs. It was not always to good effect. Surrounded by a crowd of Ghanaians at an official ceremony, he slapped one man on the shoulder and asked what it felt like to be free. “I wouldn’t know, sir,” replied the man. “I’m from Alabama.” (Page 26)  

And there’s more. Here are Mr. Meredith’s thoughts on America’s response to a terrorist attack.

The repercussions of Sudan’s alliance with Islamist extremists reverberated for many years. In August 1998 “sleeper” cells planted by as-Qa’eda in East Africa in 1994 bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 263 people and injuring more than 5,000. President Clinton retaliated by ordering a missile strike against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, claiming it was being used to manufacture chemical weapons. No credible evidence was ever provided to support the claim but Sudan lost a large part of its capacity to produce medical supplies. (Page 593)

Several pages earlier, the author criticized Sudanese President Omar-al Bashir. He infused religion as a pretext to launch a jihad against his political enemies in the country’s south. First Meredith attacked the US for being too passive. When they responded with force against a brutal dictator, he criticized that. What approach would he advocate the US to take with brutal thugs?

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan (a native Ghanaian) observed, “Let us be careful not to mistake hope for achievement.” (Page 681) Sadly, there’s been exponentially more of the former throughout Africa’s postwar history. While The Fate of Africa provided a detailed analysis of how the current situation evolved, in terms of what can be done to rectify, it offered no answers.

Book Review: Magic and Mayhem by Derek Leebaert

The era following the Second World War won’t be remembered as the “golden age of American diplomacy”; Georgetown University professor Derek Leebaert certainly doesn’t view it that way. He made that clear in Magic and Mayhem’s sub-title: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan.

The author presented the book as an analysis of diplomatic foibles rather than as a straight historical narrative. In essence Mr. Leebaert blamed America’s postwar foreign policy failures on what he termed “magical thinking”. The book elucidated the six elements that comprise this phenomenon.

  • A sensation of urgency and of “crisis” that accompanies the belief that most any resolute action is superior to restraint; it’s a demeanor that’s joined by the emergency man’s eagerness to be his country’s revealer of dangers, real and imaginary.
  • The faith that American style business management—as practiced in Silicon Valley startups soon to join NASDAQ or, not long ago, the River Rouge plant in Dearborn or at steel mills along the Monongahela—can fix any global problem given enough time, resources and appropriately “can-do”, businesslike zeal.
  • A distinctively American desire to fall in behind celebrities, stars, and peddlers of some newly distilled experience who, in foreign affairs especially, seem to glow with wizardry—and whom we turn to for guidance while believing, for a fatefully long moment, that they only have to wave their wands for success to fall from the sky.
  • An expectation of wondrous returns on investment, even when this is based on intellectual shortcuts—in fact on lack of seriousness and mental flexibility, as described, for instance, in trenchant analyses of the Iraq War—though the same shortcuts were apparent in Vietnam and North Korea, as well as in many politico-military efforts in between.
  • Conjuring powerful, but simplified, images from the depths of “history” to rationalize huge and amorphously expanding objectives, a technique of foreign policy artistry resorted to by high officials, professors, and field commanders alike.
  • The repeated belief that that America can shape the destiny of other countries overnight and that the hearts and minds of distant people are throbbing to be transformed into something akin to the way we see ourselves. (Pages 7 – 8)

The author utilized examples from the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to illustrate his points. He also included anecdotes about various political and military personalities in these exploits to expand on his overall concepts.

I personally enjoyed his take on General Maxwell Taylor. Among his accomplishments, General Taylor led the 101st Airborne Division on D-Day, he commanded the U. S. Eighth Army in Korea, and served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Kennedy named him U. S. Ambassador to South Vietnam. The author knew General Taylor personally. While he commended the man’s intellect he criticized his analysis of South Vietnam. (It could never turn into a situation as terrible as Korea, he opined. Page 149) I thought that showed respectable balance on the author’s part.

Leebaert understood the provocative nature of his thesis. The obvious question he raised was, “What constitutes a successful military endeavor?” The author wrote,

Americans know what military success looks like: engagements that, for one, don’t end up unrecognizably, disastrously far from the mission declared at the start. (Page 33)

Even General Brent Scowcroft said, “Don’t change your objective because you are doing well.” (Page 194) Unfortunately, Leebaert managed to provide copious examples since 1950 where that wasn’t the case.

While the author researched the subject well, I did locate a mistake in the text. He indicated that the Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 19, 1996. It actually happened in 1995. (Page 231) Since Leebaert harshly criticized numerous others for mistakes they made, I thought he should have proofread the manuscript better.

While taking American History classes in college and graduate school, I thought the writing “too liberal” or “anti-anything the United States ever did”. As I mature I find more complexity in America’s approach to international relations. Books like Magic and Mayhem are among the reasons why.

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.