Books: Some Unconventional Wisdom

Books: Some Unconventional Wisdom

Mini Teaser: A review of The J Curve by Ian Bremmer and Winning the Un-War by Charles Peña.  Two authors turn their critical, discerning eye on the foibles of U.S. counter-terror and nation-building strategy. Just one offers a constructive course

by Author(s): J. Peter Pham

Ian Bremmer, The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 320 pp., $26.00.

Charles Peña, Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006), 272 pp., $27.95.

Given current events--the disappointing lack of progress (if not backsliding) in Afghanistan, the de facto sectarian and ethnic civil war in Iraq, and the difficulties the United States faces in obtaining an international consensus on how to deal with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea--it is rather ironic that it is realism, rather than other schools of international relations, which labors under something of a cloud. Nonetheless, it is realists--succinctly defined by Eliot Cohen in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last December as those who "believe that in foreign policy what matters is the national interest coolly calculated, the relationships of power, and the incurable nastiness of the human condition" (N.B. the good professor did not intend this characterization to be viewed favorably)--who find themselves assailed by both cosmopolitans on the left and neoconservatives on the right, both accusing them of varying types of amorality, if not worse.

It was not supposed to be this way. Realists had hopes that, after the repeated failures of forays into nation-building and the humiliatingly ineffective response to real threats of terrorism under the Clinton Administration, George W. Bush would preside over a reordering of America's international priorities. During his campaign for the presidency in 2000, Bush was unrelenting in his criticism of the Clinton Administration's commitment of U.S. military forces to nation-building exercises in places like Somalia and Haiti which, according to the Republican presidential candidate, were at best peripheral to America's core strategic interests. During his second debate with Al Gore, Bush responded to a question concerning the use of American soldiers for such "humanitarian interventions":

""It started off as a humanitarian mission and it changed into a nation-building mission, and that's where the mission went wrong. The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win a war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it's in our best interest. But in this case it was a nation-building exercise and same with Haiti. I wouldn't have supported either.""

Earlier in the campaign, the day before the Republican primary in Iowa, Bush told ABC's This Week that he would have been unwilling to commit American troops even in the event of a repeat of the Rwandan genocide, unless clear U.S. interests were at stake: "We should not send our troops to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide in nations outside our strategic interest. I don't like genocide and I don't like ethnic cleansing, but the president must set clear parameters as to where troops ought to be used and when they ought to be used." In fact, Bush argued that foreign policy under Clinton had become divorced from the country's interests, resulting in "action without vision, activity without priority, and missions without end--an approach that squanders American will and drains American energy." Many realists agreed and looked forward to a salutary change in the conduct of foreign policy to be anticipated with the return to Washington of "adults" like Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage and Dov Zakheim, after the wunderkind had been allowed to run amuck during the Clinton years. It goes without saying that, six years later, foreign policy realists are generally dismayed with what they have ended up with. What they have done with their disappointment, however, has varied.

Some have opted for the critical route. In Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism, Charles Peña, the former director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and now senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, essentially chronicles the story of realists' growing disenchantment with the Bush Administration, especially after 9/11. Deconstructing the "global war on terrorism" that has come to define the Bush presidency, Peña presents a provocative but well-documented indictment of current U.S. foreign policy, as well as the policymakers responsible for shaping it.

Unlike other critiques of the administration's stewardship of American interests abroad--a veritable cottage industry these days consisting of some intelligent contributions, a great many not-so-intelligent works, and quite a few downright unintelligible volumes--Peña's work is characterized by neither a militant anti-Americanism nor a reflexive pacifism.

The author argues: "Even if Iraq possessed chemical or biological weapons (which was a fair assumption) or even a nuclear weapon (which was a stretch of the imagination), it did not have the long-range military capability to strike the United States and thus pose a direct threat." What of the United Nations resolutions that Saddam Hussein clearly flaunted? For someone who works inside the Washington beltway, Peña is refreshingly blunt, if rather unconventional, in his riposte: "Even if Iraq was in violation of UN resolutions, the U.S. military exists to defend the United States: its territorial integrity and national sovereignty, its population, and the liberties that underlie the American way of life."

If defense of the patria is the principal purpose of maintaining nation's military strength--and one would be hard-pressed to disagree with Peña--and Al-Qaeda and its loose network of allies represent the most significant threat, what is a realist to prescribe for the situation that the United States finds itself in, with some 130,000 military personnel presently stationed in Iraq and taking casualties from anti-regime insurgents and foreign terrorists as well as the crossfire of an undeclared civil war? It is here that Peña's artfully constructed case not only begins to fray, it also diverges from the principles of realism.

Peña advocates a vigorous defense of the United States against its foes in the "War on Terrorism." First, he argues, the enemy must be defined in order to be targeted. For Peña, the enemy that truly threatens America is Al-Qaeda and, to a certain extent, those Islamists groups aligned with it. He cautions against casting the net much wider since, while all acts of terrorism are unjustifiable, not all terrorist organizations represent direct threats to the United States (the author cites the Basque group ETA by way of illustration).

Peña goes on to signal another folly: perceiving Al-Qaeda "in organizational terms as a centralized hierarchy, much like an organized crime family", which can be collapsed by decapitating the leadership. While Osama bin Laden and his top deputies are important targets, the terrorist group's distributed and cellular network must be dismantled piece by piece over the long term. Thus, Peña posits that the war in Iraq creates a "dangerous distraction"--and it should be noted that he was a critic of the conflict long before it became fashionable--by diverting the country's attention from the inch-by-inch war America should be waging against its real "enemy at the gates."

Peña then takes a strategic gamble, generally dismissing the alleged links between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Ba'athi regime--a potential misstep, given the masses of documents yet to be translated, much less analyzed. And he fails to address the reality with which policymakers have to deal: regardless of how it became that way, Iraq today is the central front in the War on Terror. Likewise, the author's proposition that "moderating" U.S. support for both "apostate" Muslim governments and Israel would remedy the hatred of Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups towards the United States is left disappointingly vague and facile (even were it not highly questionable): recall that arguably no American administration has pushed as hard as Bill Clinton's to achieve a Palestinian state and yet it was at that very time that Al-Qaeda gathered its forces for the 9/11 attacks.

If the "critical realism" in Peña's work raises some very significant questions without quite providing the satisfactory answers, the "analytical realism" in Ian Bremmer's The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall offers some tools for constructing a realistic international geopolitical grand strategy. Although he holds an adjunct position at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and is a contributing editor of The National Interest, Bremmer comes more directly from the world of business, where he heads the Eurasia Group, a global political risk advisory and consulting firm based in New York. Hence it is not surprising that The J Curve combines both realist concerns for national interests with the contemporary business world's demand for effective modeling.

J-curves themselves are not new to the social sciences. They have been used to plot the dangers inherent in gaps between rising expectations and actual experiences, trade deficits and currency values, and a whole host of other political and economic data of interest. Bremmer uses this tool to model the relationship between the stability of states (the vertical axis) and their political and economic openness (the horizontal axis). The data points for a cross section of countries produce a J-shaped curve: nations to the left of the curve's dip being less open, nations to the right being more open; those higher on the graph being more stable, those lower less stable. As a general rule, countries on the left of the curve depend on powerful individual leaders for their stability, while those on the right depend on strong institutions. Movement along the curve plots a descent into the dip of instability.

Essay Types: Book Review