REDLINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD vy Joby Warrick

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Yahoo News in this handout picture provided by SANA on Feb. 10, 2017.
(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

In his presidential memoir A PROMISED LAND Barack Obama does not reveal much about his thinking when it came to events in Syria other than that “our options were painfully limited…and Assad could count on Russia to veto any efforts we might make to impose international sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.”  This was the conundrum the US faced as it approached how to deal with the slaughter that was Syria since the Arab spring in 2011; a president who was seemingly obsessed with the fear Washington could be drawn into another war in the Middle East, and who if any of the rebel groups the US could rely on and not face blowback if Assad were overthrown.  Eventually President Obama announced his “red line” warning that if Assad continued to employ nerve agents in the Syrian civil war it would be a game changer for the US.  The warning that was issued on August 20, 2012 did not deter Assad and the American response was marginal at best.  With twenty-twenty hindsight this was one of the worst decisions the Obama administration made in relation to the carnage that was Syria and its results have been catastrophic.  In Obama’s defense had the US bombed Syria and taken out most of Assad’s chemical weapons would it have altered the war – we will never know.  The decision-making surrounding American “red line” policy its impact, and the attempt to destroy Assad’s chemical “stash” throughout 2014 is the subject of an informative new book RED LINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD by Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick which takes a microscope to American decision-making and the diplomatic and military policies pursued to try and obviate the horrors that the Assad regime was perpetrating.

Warrick’s effort is more than a narrative history of events sprinkled with keen analysis of the players and policies involved, but more a true to life thriller with a cast of characters that includes world leaders, physicians, weapons hunters, spies, and a number of heroes and villains.  Warrick’s account begins with the introduction of a CIA spy whose nomenclature was Ayman, “the chemist,” a Syrian scientist who informed his handlers that Damascus had constructed an efficient manufacturing center with a network of laboratories that had produced 1300-1500 tons of binary sarin, VX, and mustard gas.  Warrick lays out the issue of nerve agents produced by Syria and its implication for US policy makers.  The author’s approach is methodical as he examines all areas that impacted the Syrian weapons cache and what the US should and could do to mitigate the problem.  Once Assad employed nerve agents dropping three canisters on the city of Sarageb held by rebels who fought for overthrowing the Syrian regime on April 29, 2013, President Obama response had done little to deter Damascus.

(Timothy Blades’ “Margarita Machine”)

By 2012 Syria had become the most dangerous place on earth and after the April 2013 attack the US and the UN began to work on providing evidence for Assad’s WMD crimes.  Warrick introduces a series of important characters into the narrative who are pivotal to his story.  UN Team Leader Ake Sellstrom, who had experience hunting WMD in Iraq in the 1990s was sent to Syria and found evidence that military grade sarin gas had been used.  The list includes Andrew C. Weber, the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs who feared that should Assad be overthrown his 1300 nerve agents could fall into the hands of the al Nusra Front and its ally al-Qaeda in Iraq (which would soon morph into the Islamic State). Timothy Blades, an ingenious individual who headed the US Civilian Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction team developed a process referred to as “hydrolysis” and the machinery to carry out the task of breaking down and making Assad’s nerve agents inert should the US come into possession of them.  Dr. Houssam Alnahhas, also known as “Chemical Hazem,” as he prepared areas of Syria for possible chemical attacks and worked to save victims of those attacks.  Samantha Powers, the US Ambassador to the United Nations who worked tirelessly to hold Assad responsible for the atrocities he ordered but she was up against Russian and Chinese vetoes, but her work cannot be ignored as she was able to create the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons headquartered in the Hague.  By 2017 JIM’s work continued as it investigated another Syrian nerve strike against the town of Khan Sheikhoun.  Lastly, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS.  McGurk was the last American official to witness the Syrian conflict in its entirety,” from the earliest pro-democracy uprisings through the rise of ISIS; from the regime’s first experimental use of sarin to the dramatic; if incomplete, mission to destroy Syria’s stockpile; from the hopeful declaration that ‘Assad must go’ to the despairing reality of an entrenched Syrian dictatorship propped up by Russian and Iranian protector’s intent on reshaping the region in their own image.” (303) There are many other important players in the narrative, many of which must be given credit for the eventual destruction of much of Assad’s nerve WMD, and those who were a hinderance and supported Assad outright.

Warrick description of a UN investigation led by Sellstrom and Scott Cairns his Canadian Deputy reflected Syrian obstructionism.   However, while in Damascus their group witnessed the results of a chemical attack that killed at least 1400 in the Ghouta suburbs.  Warrick’s connections and knowledge allowed him to describe in detail the components of the WMD, its impact on the civilian population, Syrian governments obfuscation, and what the world was prepared to do about what was occurring in Syria.  Everyone points to the Obama administration for its almost “feckless” response to Assad’s actions.  Warrick correctly points out that the Obama administration in part placed itself in a bind in its response.  Obama, keen to avoid a major military commitment in the Middle East decided that he needed Congressional approval for any military response.  After the events in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 there was little or no support in Congress.  Further, Germany’s Angela Merkel warned Obama that the US should not act and wait until the UN investigation had run its course.  In England, Prime Minister David Cameron could not convince Parliament to support military action, and lastly many feared what could happen to the UN team still in Syria.  Facing congressional humiliation Obama was saved in part by the Russians who agreed to force Assad to turn over his nerve agents to UN authorities.

(UN chemical weapons experts will use a battery of analytical techniques)

Warrick clearly explains how the deal came about and its implications for the future.  The Russians would go along with practically everything assuming that Blades’ “Margarita Machine” was a fantasy that could only fail thereby embarrassing the US.  Warrick’s account of how the “Blades’ Machine” was built, tested, and deployed is well conceived and easy to understand.  He follows the politics behind the strategy, the actual obstacles overcome particularly those set by the Syrians, and its ultimate deployment. This section of the book is perhaps the most important for the reader as Warrick builds the tension as if writing a novel that in the end would produce a mission at sea where the machines were bolted to the decks of the ship Cape Ray, deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to receive the nerve agents from the Syrian port of Latakia, run the nerve agents through Blades’ process, and then deliver the waste to cooperating countries.  Warrick employs a reporter’s eye to describe the political difficulties, delays, and roadblocks on the ground as the UN Mission tried to secure the nerve agents and even after the mission was a success one wonders how it was achieved.  For Blades and others, it came down to ingenuity, sheer guts, and a great deal of luck.

The entire process became a race to keep the nerve agents out of Islamist hands.  This became an even greater problem when on July 14, 2014, the day the ship sailed into the Mediterranean, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced from Mosul the creation of the Islamic Caliphate that stretched from Raqqa its capital in Central Syria deep into Iraq.  ISIS would miss out on Assad’s nerve agents, but began a developing a process of their own, particularly when Assad set the example by dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas which is less toxic than sarin on his subjects.

Samantha Power during Barack Obama’s first presidential election campaign, in 2008. Photograph: Hirolo Masuike/New York Times
(US UN Ambassador Samantha Power)

Graeme Wood is dead on when he writes in the February 19, 2021 edition of the Washington Post:  “Overwhelmingly, Warrick’s emphasis is where it should be, on Assad, for whom chemical weapons were a highly developed and strategic program of terror. “Syrians died every day from bullets, blast wounds, and shrapnel injuries,” Warrick writes, “but to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas and cockroaches” — this was “a different order of savagery.” Lacking any legitimate military purpose, Assad’s chemical weapons existed to terrorize civilian populations by killing as indiscriminately as possible. Eliminating his arsenal was therefore a top international priority.”

It is clear today that the Syrian Civil War continues to torture millions of Syrians in Syria and in refugee camps in the Middle East and Turkey.  While the US concentrated on ISIS for the next two years its policies would allow Russia and Hezbollah, Syria’s Iranian ally to route many of the rebels and keep Assad in power. According to Warrick Assad would engage in over 300 chemical attacks over the next four years.  It does not take a serious imagination to believe that Assad, who turned over tons of nerve agents to the UN kept a secret stash somewhere.  Once the Trump administration came aboard and abruptly ended aid to the rebels and abandoned our Kurdish allies to be destroyed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğanit it was obvious that Putin had won and Iran’s goal of a “land bridge” across the Levant was in reach – Assad had won.

Brett H. McGurk (2).jpg
(US Special Envoy Brett McGuirk)

Warrick is to be commended for his research, clear and thoughtful writing, and describing for all to see what the truth is concerning Assad’s nerve gas war on his own people. Perhaps someday he and his enablers will be held accountable by the world community – but I doubt it.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, pictured in December. His office said he would isolate at home with his wife for two weeks.
(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

(Secretary of State James Baker III and President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990)

Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times and Susan Glasser, a staff writer for The New Yorker have written an engrossing biography of James Baker III, a man whose impact from 1976 through the election of 2000 can not be denied.  The book’s range is impressive as the authors describe a childhood under the thumb of a father whose nickname was “the Warden.” As an adult we witness the death of his wife from cancer at a young age and a remarriage that merged two families resulting in eight children, a number of which experienced numerous problems including drugs and alcohol.  Baker would give up the practice of law in Texas and move on to a political education in Washington, D.C. that produced lessons that stressed how to accumulate power and brook no opposition as he managed political campaigns, served as Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan as well as Treasury Secretary, and Secretary of State under George H. W. Bush.  Based on his resume it is obvious why the authors titled their book, THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III.

Baker and Glasser employ the tools of investigative reporters in addition to those of a historian.  They have an excellent command of the written word and have the ability to present their narrative and analysis in a deeply thoughtful manner.  Baker is the author of books including DAYS OF FIRE: BUSH AND CHENEY IN THE WHITE HOUSE; THE BREACH: INSIDE THE IMPEACHMENT AND TRIAL OF WILLIAM JEEFERON CLINTON, and an excellent biography of Barack Obama entitled OBAMA: THE CALL OF HISTORY.  Glasser is the author of COVERING POLITICS IN POST TRUTH AMERICA,  and co-authored with Peter Baker, KREMLIN RISING: VLADIMIR PUTIN’S RUSSIA AND THE END OF REVOLUTION.  For those unfamiliar with the work of the author’s they are in for a treat.

Baker is one of the most consequential political figures of the last quarter of the 20th century.  He seems to have been involved in most issues and policy decisions of the period ranging from managing successful presidential campaigns, gaining passage of the Reagan tax cuts, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Soviet Union as we knew it, the removal of Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and heading the legal team that resulted in the election of George W. Bush as president in 2000.  Each of these topics is explored in depth as the authors delve into the personalities involved, their political agendas, and the historical impact of each decision as events played out. 

James and Mary Stuart Baker with their four boys in Houston in 1964.
(The Baker family before the death of his first wife)

Two themes that dominate the narrative and analysis is how Baker earned the nickname the “velvet hammer,” and his relationship with President George H.W. Bush.  The nickname itself as the authors develop is based on Baker’s approach to achieving power, control, and at times domination of any given situation.  He comes across as a smooth, sweet talking Texan, but in reality, he played hardball whenever he felt it was necessary.  He cut his teeth on the campaign trail, the in fighting that dominated the Reagan administration, and achieving legislative victories.  His approach in the domestic area can also be seen in his conduct of foreign policy as he sought to impose his will on those who opposed him and, in many cases, it seemed as if he was president, not the then occupant of the White House.

The second theme rests on Baker’s friendship with President Bush.  The two developed a decades long friendship from the time they met at a Houston Country Club in 1961.  Baker earned the imprimatur of Bush and when he spoke or negotiated everyone knew he was speaking for the President, or earlier the Vice-President.  The authors do an excellent job describing their relationship which rested on a similar outlook, a close personal bonding that witnessed numerous vacations together in addition to policy decisions.  Baker was artful in at times manipulating Bush to achieve his aims and periodically the president grew resentful of his friend to the point that Barbara Bush never really warmed up to Baker and at times did not trust him until later in life.

Baker did not become the ultimate insider because of any fervent ideology, though he described himself as a conservative Republican.  However, more so than anyone of his generation he figured out how to employ the levers of power.  Today, in an era of extreme partisanship, “deals” are seen as a sign of weakness, but for Baker compromise to achieve an end, diplomacy, and raw power were his mantra.  One of Baker’s talents rested on how he cultivated Congress and the press, which he did assiduously.  He realized that power was in part perception and he did more to create that perception than any of his peers.  


(Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1986 as they arrive in Iceland for talks with President Ronald Reagan)

As the Cold war concluded, Baker had the skill set that fit the era whether developing a close working relationship with Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze or initiating bureaucratic intrigue to achieve a domestic goal in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  When Baker made a promise, he earned the reputation of being able to deliver because of his relationship with Reagan and Bush and his own negotiating abilities. Never in American history did a president and Secretary of State enjoy a genuine friendship before entering office.  Baker learned to operate in a political environment by employing his skill set, a skill set that was highly successful and current politicians would do very well if they would emulate him as he is best described by the authors as the “un-Trump.”

As successful as Baker was as a political insider and practitioner of power the authors develop his family history which is not one that one should emulate. He left it to his second wife to take care of the family as he worked twelve hours a day on domestic issues and once, he became America’s chief diplomat traveling thousands of miles each year.  The children of both marriages had difficulties integrating and there were numerous conflicts which would lead to difficult issues that needed to be faced, and for the most part he was absent.

The authors develop numerous scenarios that reflect Baker’s talents as a politician and negotiator.  He believed that there was no way to achieve 100% of one’s goals in any negotiation and was happy to obtain 75% or any percentage that he believed would deliver most of what he hoped to achieve.  This can be seen during the Reagan administration when he outmaneuvered the likes of Alexander Haig and Edward Meese on numerous occasions, as he worked with Democrats to save Social Security when Republicans were obstinate, or negotiating the Reagan tax cut with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill.  In all areas Baker seemed to have a superb instinct at “self-preservation,” be it dealing with the stock market crash in October 1987, his reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, or leaving US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie out to dry in the lead up to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991.  The authors point out that Baker was a realist and argued against the ideologues in the Reagan administration particularly as it related to  policy in Central America as he did his best to avoid the stain of Iran-Contra, again his antenna knew when to back off or proceed with a certain policy – it seemed he always knew which way the wind was blowing. 

baker glasser
(The authors)

Baker’s pragmatic and realistic approach is also seen as he worked to allow Mikhail Gorbachev a semblance of comfort as his country was collapsing.  Baker realized that the Soviet President had to deal with his own hard liners in the Kremlin and as he was wont to do would make subtle agreements behind the scenes that never became public.  Baker had an extremely hard edge to him as the Israeli government realized after the United States and its coalition removed Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.  Baker had used the promise of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as a lure to convince Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to join his coalition against Saddam.  After the war Baker pressured Israeli Prime Minster Yitzchak Shamir, who he disliked intensely withholding promised funding and loans to finance the hundreds of thousand of Soviet Jews who were immigrating to Israel at the time.  The end result was the Madrid Peace Conference which later impacted the signing of the Oslo Accords. 

Baker long sought to be considered a statesman not just a fixer or dealmaker.  However, the authors argue that he had no grand plan domestically or in foreign policy, but he had the knack of bringing people together and finding pragmatic ways to paper over disagreements.  The end result, no matter what Baker engaged in, solutions resulted.  Part of this success rests with a group of individuals that Baker and Glasser label the “plug-in unit,” a small group of aids that worked with him in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  They included Margaret Tutwiler, who handled the press and Janet Mullins, Robert Zoellick and Robert Kimmitt who handled policy.  Interestingly, the authors point out that though they worked closely together for years, Baker showed no interest in them as people and maintained a personal distance even among his most loyal staff.

Baker’s achievements did not come without some “black eyes.”  Baker would work with Lee Atwater a Republican firebrand who did not find a dirty trick that did not interest him.  The authors stress his role in the Willie Horton commercials in the 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis and Baker seemed to have no problem with it, in addition to his failures in dealing with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic and religious violence that ensued.  His approach in 2000 is typical.  When Al Gore’s spokesperson Warren Christopher proposed that the two sides work out a solution, Baker’s position was clear, no negotiations, Bush was president according to the Supreme Court.

Baker and Glasser had unfettered access to Baker and many of the key characters from the period.  Their numerous interviews will not be repeated down the road by future historians, and their insider access and command of primary and secondary materials is evident.  The authors do not fall into the trap of hagiography and have written a superb book that is easily the seminal work on James Baker III, and probably will remain so for years to come.

George Bush with James Baker
(James Baker III and George Herbert Walker Bush)

SAVING FREEDOM: TRUMAN, THE COLD WAR, AND THE FIGHT FOR WESTERN CIVILIZATION by Joe Scarborough

(President Harry S. Truman)

A favorite question that was asked by pundits and historians in 1989 revolved around who was responsible for the bringing down of the Berlin Wall, and two years later the collapse of the Soviet Union.  President George H.W. Bush took credit for winning the Cold War, while others argued it was due to the Reagan presidency.  In his new book,  SAVING FREEDOM: TRUMAN, THE COLD WAR, AND THE FIGHTFOR WESTERN CIVILIZATION MSNBC “Morning Joe” host, Joe Scarborough argues that it was because of the policies implemented by President Harry S. Truman which allowed the United States to become the lone superpower in the early 1990s.

For those who are conversant with the events and personalities that dominated the foreign policy debate in the post-World War era Scarborough offers little that has not been written elsewhere.  However, to the author’s credit he tells an absorbing story that created the foundation of American foreign policy that lasted for over seven decades.

One of the books dominant themes is the idea that the United States should assume the mantle of world leadership because of the vacuum created by England’s financial distress and the socialist agenda of the Labour Party.  This concept was the anti-thesis of American foreign policy since the founding of the republic and George Washington’s “Farewell Address” that called for “no entangling alliances” and became the basis of American isolationism.  The Democratic Party had been open to world leadership dating to Woodrow Wilson’s concept of economic internationalism, but the 1920s saw a fundamental change brought about by Republican disengagement on the world stage.  Scarborough argues it took men like George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Harry Truman to confront Soviet expansionism along with Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg for the United States to accept the challenge and implement a policy of containment rather than pre-war appeasement when confronted by a threatening autocracy.

Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, is greeted by Mrs. Acheson and President Truman as he arrived at Washington Airport from Europe.

(Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson shaking hands with President Truman)

Scarborough begins his argument with the situation that existed in Greece in 1946 and tries argues that aid to Greece and Turkey formed the basis of the Truman Doctrine discussed in the context of the history of American foreign relations.  In doing so, Scarborough, for me at least has written a rendition of “Foreign Policy for Dummies” as he provides a series of broad surveys of foreign policy issues in each chapter to explain events.  At times he goes a bit far exemplified by the unnecessary chapter dealing with Palestine.  Scarborough at times can be somewhat verbose as he frames situations, for example, “Soviet ambitions were set in motion.  Like a shark smelling blood in the ocean, Stalin was ready to move on British former colonies and clients.”  Further, Scarborough has the annoying habit at the conclusion of a number of chapters resorting to a false sense of drama by asking superficial questions, I assume to enhance a sense of foreboding.  I would suggest that he let the material playout, rather forcing the narrative.

As I read the book, I got the feeling that the monograph was overly interspersed with speeches, whether Truman on the stump trying to gain support for aid to Greece and Turkey, speeches by Senators and House members in their respective committees or on the floor of the Senate and House chambers, and witnesses called before Congressional committees.  At times I felt I was reading a book of speeches and dialogue linked by a narrative rather than a discussion that had great potential for insight and analysis.  Further, when one examines Scarborough’s sources, he provides extraordinarily little.  With no end notes or bibliography, he offers a short bibliographical essay that encompasses roughly sixteen secondary sources and the mention of the THE FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES (FRUS) series published by the State Department.  Further he should pay more attention to critical details like his discussion of  the Monroe Doctrine visa vie the Truman Doctrine as he leaves out the role of the British and their Foreign Secretary, George Canning.  He may argue that the Truman Doctrine was the successor to the Monroe Doctrine, but he forgets that at the turn of the century Theodore Roosevelt instituted the Roosevelt Corollary.

(Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg)

To Scarborough’s credit he writes in a noticeably clear and understandable prose.  His discussion of the debate in Congress, newspapers, and the personalities involved reflects a command of the historical material, and his coverage of political negotiations and the preparation of the American people for the passage of the Truman Doctrine and its significance is well done.    He stresses the reactionary and regressive nature of the Greek regime as an obstacle to obtaining Congressional aid and his analysis of Truman’s speech to Congress is dead on.  But again, at times he is prone to overstatement.  His key argument is strong that Truman engaged in one of the “greatest selling” jobs of any president as he convinced an isolationist leaning congress to support an internationalist policy.   

In the end we are left with a dichotomy; an incomplete narrative, but with a theme that seems to hold together in terms of the importance of the Truman Doctrine over the last seventy years or so.  If there is a lesson to be learned from Scarborough’s monograph it is the importance of pursuing bipartisan approaches to major foreign policy issues and that politicians need to weigh issues in relation to their effect on American national security, not political polls, commentary of pundits on cable news, or the demands of an autocratic leaning president.

1948_DeweyDefeatsTruman600
(Truman victorious in the 1948 presidetial election)

HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Thomas A. Schwartz

Henry Kissinger
(Henry Kissinger)

For members of my generation the name Henry Kissinger produces a number of reactions.  First and foremost is his “ego,” which based on his career in public service, academia, and his role as a dominant political and social figure makes him a very consequential figure in American diplomatic history.  Second, he fosters extreme responses whether your views are negative seeing him as a power hungry practitioner of Bismarckian realpolitik who would do anything from wiretapping his staff to the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam; or positive as in the case of “shuttle diplomacy” to bring about disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the use of linkage or triangular diplomacy pitting China and the Soviet Union against each other.  No matter one’s opinion Thomas A. Schwartz’s new book, HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY, though not a complete biography, offers a deep dive into Kissinger’s background and diplomatic career which will benefit those interested in the former Secretary of State’s impact on American history.

Schwartz tries to present a balanced account as his goal is to reintroduce Kissinger to the American people.  He does not engage in every claim and accusation leveled at his subject, nor does he accept the idea that he was the greatest statesman of the 20th century.  Schwartz wrote the book for his students attempting to “explain who Henry Kissinger was, what he thought, what he did, and why it matters.”  Schwartz presents a flawed individual who was brilliant and who thought seriously and developed important insights into the major foreign policy issues of his time.  The narrative shows a person who was prone to deception and intrigue, a superb bureaucratic infighter, and was able to ingratiate himself with President Richard Nixon through praise as his source of power.  Kissinger was a genius at self-promotion and became a larger than life figure.

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.

(Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon)

According to Schwartz most books on Kissinger highlight his role as a foreign policy intellectual who advocated realpolitik for American foreign policy, eschewing moral considerations or democratic ideas as he promoted a “cold-blooded” approach designed to protect American security interests. Schwartz argues this is not incorrect, but it does not present a complete picture.  “To fully understand Henry Kissinger, it is important to see him as a political actor, a politician, and a man who understood that American foreign policy is fundamentally shaped and determined by the struggles and battles of American domestic politics.”  In explaining his meteoric rise to power, it must be seen in the context of global developments which were interwoven in his life; the rise of Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.

In developing Kissinger’s life before he rose to power Schwartz relies heavily on Niall Ferguson’s biography as he describes the Kissinger families escape from Nazi Germany.  Schwartz does not engage in psycho-babble, but he is correct in pointing out how Kissinger’s early years helped form his legendary insecurity, paranoia, and extreme sensitivity to criticism.  In this penetrating study Schwartz effectively navigates Kissinger’s immigration to the United States, service in the military, his early academic career highlighting important personalities, particularly Nelson Rockefeller, and issues that impacted him, particularly his intellectual development highlighting his publications which foreshadowed his later career on the diplomatic stage.  However, the most important components of the narrative involve Kissinger’s role in the Nixon administration as National Security advisor and Secretary of State.  Kissinger was a practitioner of always keeping “a foot in both camps” no matter the issue.  As Schwartz correctly states, “Kissinger sought to cultivate an image of being more dovish than he really was, and he could never quite give up his attempts to convince his critics.”  He had a propensity to fawn over Nixon and stress his conservative bonafede’s at the same time trying to maintain his position in liberal circles.  Though Schwartz repeatedly refers to Kissinger’s ego and duplicitousness, he always seems to have an excuse for Kissinger’s actions which he integrates into his analysis. 

Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger
(Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump)

Schwartz correctly points out that Nixon’s goal was to replicate President Eisenhower’s success in ending the Korean War by ending the war in Vietnam which would allow him to reassert leadership in Europe as Eisenhower had done by organizing NATO.  This would also quell the anti-war movement in much the same way as Eisenhower helped bring about the end of McCarthyism.  Schwartz offers the right mix of historical detail and analysis.  Useful examples include his narration of how Nixon and Kissinger used “the mad man theory” to pressure the Soviet Union by bombing Cambodia and North Vietnam; the employment of “linkage” to achieve Détente, SALT I; and ending the war in Vietnam by achieving a “decent interval” so Washington could not be blamed for abandoning its ally in South Vietnam; and bringing about cease fire agreements following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  In all instances Kissinger was careful to promote his image, but at the same time play up to Nixon, the man who created his role and allowed him to pursue their partnership until Watergate, when “Super K” became the major asset of the Nixon administration.

Kissinger was the consummate courtier recognizing Nixon’s need for praise which he would offer after speeches and interviews.  Kissinger worked to ingratiate himself with Nixon who soon became extremely jealous of his popularity.  The two men had an overly complex relationship.  It is fair to argue that at various times each was dependent upon the other.  Nixon needed Kissinger’s popularity with the media and reinforcement of his ideas and hatreds.  Kissinger needed Nixon as validation for his powerful position as a policy maker and a vehicle to escape academia.  Schwartz provides examples of how Kissinger manipulated Nixon from repeated threats to resign particularly following the war scare between Pakistan and India in 1971, negotiations with the Soviet Union, and the Paris Peace talks.  Nixon did contemplate firing Kissinger on occasion, especially when Oriana Fallaci described Kissinger as “Nixon’s mental wet nurse” in an article but realized how indispensable he was.  What drew them together was their secret conspiratorial approach to diplomacy and the desire to push the State Department into the background and conduct foreign policy from inside the White House. Schwartz reinforces the idea that Kissinger was Nixon’s creation, and an extension of his authority and political power as President which basically sums up their relationship.

HENRY KISSINGER MEETING WITH ANWAR SADAT
(Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat)

Schwartz details the diplomatic machinations that led to “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, the Middle East, and the trifecta of 1972 that included Détente and the opening with China.  Schwartz’s writing is clear and concise and offers a blend of factual information, analysis, interesting anecdotes, and superior knowledge of source material which he puts to good use.  Apart from Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East successes Schwartz chides Kissinger for failing to promote human rights and for aligning the United states with dictators and a host of unsavory regimes, i.e.; the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile, and the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. Schwartz also criticizes Kissinger’s wiretapping of his NSC staff, actions that Kissinger has danced around in all of his writings.

Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger
(Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger)

Though most of the monograph involves the Nixon administration, Schwartz explores Kissinger’s role under Gerald Ford and his post-public career, a career that was very productive as he continued to serve on various government commissions under different administrations, built a thriving consulting firm that advised politicians and corporations making him enormous sums of money, and publishing major works that include his 3 volume memoir and an excellent study entitled DIPLOMACY a masterful tour of history’s greatest practitioners of foreign policy.  Kissinger would go on to influence American foreign policy well into his nineties and his policies continue to be debated in academic circles, government offices, and anywhere foreign policy decision-making is seen as meaningful.

After reading Schwartz’s work my own view of Kissinger is that he is patriotic American but committed a number of crimes be it domestically or in the international sphere.  He remains a flawed public servant whose impact on the history of the 20th century whether one is a detractor or promoter cannot be denied.  How Schwartz’s effort stacks up to the myriad of books on Kissinger is up to the reader, but one cannot deny that the book is an important contribution to the growing list of monographs that seek to dissect and understand  “Super-K’s” career.

Former US Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger Sits In An Office383230 04: (No Newsweek - No Usnews) Former Us Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger Sits In An Office In Washington, Dc, circa 1975. Kissinger Served As The National Security Advisor To President Richard M. Nixon, Shared The Nobel Peace Prize For Negotiating A Cease-Fire With North Vietnam, And Helped Arrange A Cease-Fire In The 1973 Arab-Israeli War. (Photo By Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)
(Henry Kissinger)

TO START A WAR: HOW THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION TOOK AMERICA INTO IRAQ by Robert Draper

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Photo is in the Public Domain.

(Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney)

In reassessing the results of the Iraq War one thing is clear, the United States made a terrible error invading Saddam Hussein’s kingdom in 2003.  If one looks objectively at the current state of the Middle East one can honestly conclude that the ultimate victor was Iran.  Iraq was a state that was held together by an authoritarian regime that dealt with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.  Once the war brought “shock and awe,” or devastation the country split apart into civil war eventually allowing Iran to ally with Shiite forces and influence its government, fostered the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), contributed to the Syrian civil war, reinforced Turkey’s goal of destroying the Kurds, and diminished the American presence and reputation in the region.  One could argue that looking back after fifteen years that the mess that was created has pushed Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, particularly the United Arab Emirates closer to Israel as they have a common enemy in Iran, but that analysis does not undo a disastrous war.  The war itself is the subject of an excellent new book by Robert Draper, a writer at large for the New York Times, entitled TO START A WAR: HOW THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION TOOK AMERICA INTO IRAQ.

The book is a detailed overview of how the United States wounded by the 9/11 attacks sought revenge against the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring al-Qaeda, but not satiated despite destroying the Taliban, the Bush administration almost immediately sought further retribution against Saddam Hussein who they tried to link the attacks on the World Trade Center.  The decision making process that is presented is often convoluted and mired in a fantasy world of polluted intelligence as men like Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, Doug Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, I. Lewis Scooter Libby, Cheney’s Chief of Staff, and ultimately President Bush pushed the United States into war against Iraq.  What emerges are CIA and other intelligence analysts bending and twisting intelligence to fit their preconceived notions to create an acceptable causus belli against Iraq.  There are a number of heroes in this process who tried to stop the roller coaster of bad intelligence and personal vendettas, but in the end, they failed leading to the most disastrous war in American history.  A war we are still paying for.

Wolfowitz, Paul

(Paul Wolfowitz)

Draper leaves no stone unturned as he pieces together almost every aspect of the decision making process that led to war.  Relying on over 300 interviews of the participants in the process, newly released documentation, command of the memoirs and secondary material, and his own experience in the region, Draper has written the most complete study of the Bush administration’s drive towards war.  Draper traces the ideological and emotional development of the participants, some of which longed to finish off the Gulf War of 1991 that they believed was incomplete, others who possessed a visceral hatred of Saddam Hussein, and others who saw an opportunity to foster a revolt that in the end would bring about American control of Iraqi oil.

The picture that emerges is a cabal led by Cheney and Rumsfeld who would accept nothing less than the removal of Saddam; a National Security Advisor, Condi Rice who was in over her head in dealing with bureaucratic infighting; Colin Powell, a Secretary of State who opposed the neo-cons in their push for war, but remained the loyal soldier; CIA Director George Tenet, a Clinton hold over trying to prove his loyalty though he seems to have known better, and a president who thrived on his “gut,” a version of human emotion and anger for an Iraqi attempt at assassinating his father.  All of these characters are flawed but each had an agenda which they refused to take no for an answer.

Douglas J. Feith

(Douglas Feith)

What is clear from Draper’s presentation is that before 9/11, despite repeated warnings from Richard Clarke and the intelligence community the Bush administration did not take the terrorist threat seriously with people like Wolfowitz arguing that CIA analysts were giving Osama Bin-Laden too much credit.  The administration ignored a combined CIA-FBI brief of August 6, 2001 warning that “Bin-Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.”  Once the attack took place the US responded with Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001 and in a short time 27 of 30 Afghani provinces were liberated from the Taliban.  As the situation in Kabul was evolving, Rumsfeld was already switching the Pentagon’s focus to Iraq.  Bush, now saw himself as a wartime leader with a newly found cause and for the first time in his career equated his situation with other wartime Presidents.  By January 2002 American assets were already being transferred to Iraq.

As the narrative evolves it is obvious that Bush’s national security team is one on dysfunction with back biting, disagreements, and power grabs.  It is clear that Rumsfeld and Cheney who pushed for war disliked and disagreed with Powell, who wanted to work through the United Nations.  Powell reciprocated his feelings toward them and their cohorts, Wolfowitz, Feith, and Libby.  Draper offers a number of chapters on these principle players and delves into their belief systems and their role in developing war plans to overthrow Saddam.  The specific evidence that decision making relied upon was fourfold.  First, a senior al-Qaeda operative, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by the United States and after failing to reveal anything of value he was turned over to the Egyptians for further interrogation.  After being coerced by the Egyptians Al-Libi would confess that two al-Qaeda recruits had been sent to Baghdad in 12/2001 to be trained in building and deploying chemical and biological weapons.  Later this “evidence” was deemed to be a fabrication by the CIA and DIA.  Second, supposedly on April 9, 2001, one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat in Prague, however after careful vetting this too turned out to be false.  Third was Rafid Ahmed al-Takari, nicknamed “curveball” by German intelligence claimed to be an Iraqi chemical engineer at a plant that designed more than 6 mobile biological labs.  Fourth, Cheney believed that Saddam had agreed to purchase 500 tons of yellow cake uranium per year from the government of Niger.  Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, the spouse of CIA analyst Valerie Plame was sent to investigate, and he concluded there was no substance to the charge.

(Scooter Libby)

The dysfunction in planning for war is obvious when Bush inquired if there was a National Intelligence Estimate for the proposed invasion. Tenet responded there was none, and he had 19 days to create one a process that normally took between four months to a year to compile.  The result was a NIE that played fast and loose with intelligence and it pulled in anything that remotely was credible to make its case for war.  The problem according to Draper is that Bush had decided in August 2002 to go to war, and the NIE of October 1, 2002 had to come up with a justification for Bush’s decision.  The final NIE consisted of badly outdated intelligence which was often fabricated.  This is not the only example of a threadbare approach to intelligence.  Once Powell, because of his gravitas and reputation was chosen to address the United Nations on February 5, 2003, a speech designed to augment a coalition and the support of the international body the die was already cast.  The problem was that the evidence that Powell used in his speech, i.e., curveball and other improbable theories provoked disdain from certain American allies and the Arab world in general.  Powell plays an important role in Draper’s narrative as he conjectures what might have occurred if the Secretary of State had refused to go along with the push toward war.  However, as many other authors have offered, Powell was a military man whose loyalty was to the chain of command, so he was coopted.  In the end the neocons were hell bent on war and regime change and Powell’s reputation visa vie Cheney, Libby, Feith and Wolfowitz there was probably little else he could do.

If planning for war was disjointed, planning for post-war Iraq was a disaster.  Rumsfeld argued “we don’t do windows,“ meaning nation building.  The Pentagon refused to make serious plans once Saddam was overthrown.  Cheney and his people argued that the Iraqi people would greet American soldiers as heroes and with a minimum of American aid could oversee their own adoption of democracy.  On the other hand, Powell and his staff argued that an occupation force would be needed probably for two to three years.  A number of sketchy characters from the Iraqi exile community emerges, particularly Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress who had not been in Iraq for decades whose machinations behind the scenes finally led to Bush’s refusal to support him as Iraq’s version of “Hamid Karzai.”  The lack of American planning or arrogance would foster a complete disaster once the American occupation was created.

Colin Powell

(Colin Powell)

If one wonders why Draper’s book should be read now Joshua Geltzer argues that it clear that “he exposes the key points about the relationship among the American president, the executive branch he leads and the intelligence he receives that burn as fiercely today as they did almost two decades ago.”*  From the evidence that Draper offers the decision for war rested with George W. Bush.  As the self-styled “decider” it was Bush as president not his cabinet and other minions who bare the ultimate responsibility for war and what occurred after the fighting ended.  Obviously, the politicization of intelligence played a major role in Bush’s decision making.  Draper’s account is extremely important , it is one “to study not just to understand a war whose repercussions loom large given the Americans, Iraqis and others who ‘eve perished – and given the through-line from Bush’s decision to the continuing American presence in Iraq and the persistent threat from terrorists there and in Syria in the wake of the US invasion.”*

It should come as no surprise that regime change is a dangerous undertaking.  All one has to do is look at Libya and Iraq.  As President Trump contemplates through his tweets about regime change in Iran, perhaps he should read Draper’s narrative before he makes a decision that would be disastrous for the American people.

*Joshua Geltzer, “Behind the Iraq War, a Story of Influence, Intelligence and Presidential Power,” Washington Post, August 21, 2020.

(Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney)

 

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED: A WHITE HOUSE MEMOIR by John Bolton

(April 9, 2018, Donald Trump and John Bolton)

In all candor I debated whether to purchase and read John Bolton’s new memoir THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED: A WHITE HOUSE MEMOIR.  Apart from stealing the title from a song from the Broadway show “Hamilton” I believe that Bolton’s approach is about maximizing his book royalties rather serving democracy, something he claims he has done throughout his years in government service.  By eschewing an appearance before the House Impeachment hearings for his own self-serving interests is rather hypocritical and Bolton showed his true colors.  In the past whether arguing for an invasion of Iraq or other foreign adventures one at least saw a man whose beliefs were clear, in the present instance I wonder except for the fact that his reputation for never finding a war he didn’t like remains.  After reading Bolton’s somewhat self-serving memoir one gets the feeling that had people listened to him the world and the United States would be in a better place.  This is somewhat arguable as I am trying to evaluate Bolton’s book in a measured and objective manner, but it is difficult.

Much of the book is about finding fault with others particularly former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and former Chief of Staff John Kelly who make up what Bolton refers to as “the axis of adults.”  Though much of the criticisms he points to Bolton always seems to emerge correct, with a little side inuendo about his own views, and nasty comments about the agendas and obstructionism of others.  Bolton argues that these men who were supposed to save the country from Donald Trump’s most inane actions in reality served him poorly as their approach to reigning him in led to second guessing and conspiracies that undermined what they were trying to accomplish.

After digesting Bolton’s 500-page diatribe concerning the Trump administration there is little I disagree with in terms of his insights into the president and his policies or lack of thereof.  There is extraordinarily little that is new and surprising if you have been following the last three and half years closely of a convoluted approach to governing and a lack of honesty and forthrightness.  Bolton is correct in finding Trump’s decision making erratic and unconventional seeing activity in the West Wing as that of a “college dorm” and is amusing when he quotes the Eagles song, “Hotel California” to describe personnel decisions as “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”  Bolton’s sarcasm and dry humor is ever present in the narrative  and his writing is somewhat “snappy” and noticeably clear.

Bolton rages against bureaucracies particularly the State Department which never seemed to operate quickly enough for the National Security Advisor and “always seemed to be giving things away.”  Bolton’s reasons for taking the position in the first place knowing what he did about Trump places him as a member of the “axis of adults” particularly in what transpired later under his watch be it the failure of US Venezuelan policy, trying to control Trump as he upended all norms in his approach to Kim Jung Un, failure to impact Russian policy, trade policies regarding China or events in Ukraine.  In every situation and decision Bolton was involved with he would recapitulate his past approaches and knowledge of the issues at hand to reinforce his arguments, i.e., Syrian use of chemical weapons and the American response.  He despises James Mattis who he argues was “looking for an excuse not to do much of anything” and refused to cooperate with any action that might be a deterrent to Bashir al-Assad.

         (Vice President Mike Pence)

To his credit, Bolton’s openness in describing certain figures is striking.  His commentary is caustic and at times nasty as he goes after South Korean President Moon Ja-in and his “soft” approach to the north.  In referencing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he points out how Abe always feared that Trump “would give away the store” in dealing with Kim.  This is also clear when describing his fears pertaining to the Helsinki Summit with Vladimir Putin as he wrote, “I was not looking forward to leaving him alone in a room with Trump.”

When boiling down Bolton’s opinion predictably his most virulent commentary focuses on Trump as anything the president seemed to want, summits with Kim, Putin, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, or Chinese President Xi Jinping became exercises in damage control.  The media has made it clear over the last three and half years that Trump seems to have this obsession with dictators and government leaders he jealously views as “strong men.”  However, as Bolton correctly points out Trump has no understanding of these “strongmen.”  They have figured out how to flatter Trump and manipulate him.  In reference to Erdogan, Trump could never quite comprehend that he was a radical Islamist who supported the Moslem Brotherhood, helped finance Hamas and Hezbollah, and was anti-Israel.  But this did not stop Trump from abandoning the Kurds who were our allies in fighting ISIS at the behest of the Turkish president.

Trump was further obsessed with withdrawing American troops from the Middle East and Afghanistan, constantly pointing out that NATO allies were not carrying their own weight, building his border wall and on and on.  If one word is used by Bolton repeatedly to describe the Trump administration it is “dysfunctional,” and his commentary just reinforces Trump’s lack of fitness for the presidency.  The lies build on other lies producing policy that supported Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammad Bin-Salman who was responsible for the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi because of a large arms deal with the Saudis which was in the interest of American national security among many examples.

(Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis)

Bolton describes a president flailing about making new threats every day, taking away security clearance away from former CIA head John Brennan, his behavior surrounding the death of John McCain, his handling of immigration-putting children in cages, and of course his total lack of leadership and falsehoods pertaining to the Covid-19 crisis.  But in making these criticisms Bolton seems to never fail to pat himself on the back.  In reference to the Venezuelan crisis he writes, “The regime wonders if the US military threat is credible, but they are most afraid when John Bolton starts tweeting.  Now that was encouraging!”

In reference to trade negotiations with China and other controversial issues over and over Trump would have people argue to try and reach decisions.  Resolution was rare and even worse according to Bolton one day there would be one outcome, then the next day another, and possibly even an hour later Trump would tweet something that would undermine the process.  In reference to Covid-19 Bolton remarks that “the NSC biosecurity team functioned exactly as it was supposed to.  It was the chair behind the Resolute (Trump’s desk) that was empty.”  Bolton’s description comes across as if he were guiding a child prone to tantrums when he did not get his big deal with China etc., but what he was most afraid was that after abandoning the Kurds, Taiwan could be next.  Bolton repeatedly points out Trump’s lack of historical knowledge and perspective which led to lectures but more importantly an inability for Trump to engage material based on the past and had rather negative implications for negotiations in the present, as well as developing sound policy.

(Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and his wife)

It is clear from Trump’s own remarks he had no compunction bout asking foreign leaders for help for his reelection in 2020.  Remarkably during negotiations with Xi “he then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.  He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”   Further, the reference to a Trump tweet that led to a meeting with Kim at the Korean DMZ Bolton’s view is clear in reference to the president, “he couldn’t tell the difference between his personal interests and the country’s interests.”

John F. Kelly, former Chief of Staff
John Kelly official DHS portrait.jpg

It is interesting that Bolton left the details of the Ukraine debacle to the end of the book hoping to maintain the reader’s interest.  His chapter dealing with Ukraine possesses a great deal of detail, but his commentary is somewhat verbose and does not get to the core of the evidence as he hides behind his own bewilderment.  His excuse for not testifying is that it would not have made a difference because Republicans in the Senate would never have voted for impeachment, instead he argues that the House Democratic impeachment leaders committed malpractice and are responsible for their own failure to succeed.  Bolton’s rationalization does not hold water as his checkbook seemed to be his only driving force.

In the end Bolton’s book is a monument to his own ego.  He has written a book based on the fastidious notes he has taken providing minute and, in many cases, extraneous information that was not necessary.  Bolton does provide some interesting insights and pure gossip, but the book’s length and structure leads one to doze at times trying to get through details that were best left on the editor’s floor.

Donald Trump, left, flanked by national security advisor John Bolton, right, speaks at the White House in April 2018.

(Donald Trump and John Bolton)

 

 

THE WORLD: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION by Richard Haass

UN Headquarter - United Nations - New York, NY

(The United Nations building in NYC)

As the American presidential election seems to creep closer and closer it is difficult to accept the idea that a substantial part of the electorate remains ignorant when it comes to knowledge of American foreign policy, or is apathetic when it comes to the issues at hand, or believe that Donald Trump has led the United States effectively in the realm of world affairs.   It is in this environment that Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and author of a number of important books, including, WAR OF NECESSITY, WAR OF CHOICE: A MEMOIR OF TWO IRAQ WARS, and A WORLD IN DISSARAY: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY AND THE CRISIS OF THE OLD ORDER has written a primer for those interested in how international relations has unfolded over the last century, and what are the issues that United States faces today.  The new book, THE WORLD: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION may be Haass’ most important monograph as he is trying to educate those people who have not had the opportunity to be exposed to his subject matter in the past, and make them more literate followers of international relations in the future.

Haass states that his goal in writing his latest work is to provide the basics of what “you need to know about the world, to make yourself globally literate.”  At a time when the teaching of and the knowledge of history and international relations is on the decline, Haass’ book is designed to fill a void.  He focuses on “the ideas, issues, and institutions for a basic understanding of the world” which is especially important when the Trump administration has effectively tried to disassemble the foundation of US overseas interests brick by brick without paying attention to the needs of our allies, be they Kurds, NATO, the European Union, and most importantly the American people with trade deals that are so ineffective that $29 billion in taxpayer funds had to be given to farmers because of our tariff policy with China.  Perhaps if people where more knowledgeable the reality of what our policy should be would replace the fantasy that currently exists.

 

 

Xi Jinping with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 28 September 2010

Haass has produced a primer on diplomatic and economic history worthy of a graduate seminar in the form of a monograph.  Haass’ sources, interviews, and research are impeccable from his mastery of secondary materials like Henry Kissinger’s A WORLD RESTORED: METTERNICH, CASTLEREAGH, AND THE PROBLEMS OF PEACE, 1812-1822 and Jonathan Spence’s THE SEARCH FOR MODERN CHINA.  Haass has created an educational tool that is a roadmap for those who would like to further their knowledge on a myriad of subjects.  Further, the author offers a concluding chapter entitled, “Where Do You Go for More” which augments his endnotes that should be of great assistance to the reader.

(Vladimir Putin)
Haass’ writing is clear and evocative beginning with chapters that review the diplomatic history of a number of world regions which encompasses about half of the narrative.  He returns to The Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 as his starting point.  Haass then divides history into four periods.  First, the roughly three hundred years from the early seventeenth century to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  Second, 1914 to the end of World War II in 1945.  Third, the Cold War, roughly 1945 to 1989.  Lastly, the post Cold War period to the present.  In each section he reassesses the history, major players, and issues that confronted the world community at the time drawing conclusions that are well thought out and well grounded in fact, the opinion of others, and documentary materials available.

A case in point is Haass’ analysis of China focusing on her motivations based on its interaction with the west which was rather negative beginning with the Opium War in 1842 to the Communist victory in 1949.  In large part, China’s past history explains her need for autocracy and an aggressive foreign policy.  Haass delves into the US-Chinese relationship and how Beijing unlike Russia embraced integration with the world economy stressing trade and investment in the context of a state-controlled economy that provides China with advantages in domestic manufacturing and exports.  A great deal of the book engages China in numerous areas whether discussing globalization, nuclear proliferation, trade, currency and monetary policy, development, and climate change.  A great deal of the material encompasses arguments whether the 21st century will belong to Asia, with China replacing the United States as the dominant power on the globe.  Haass does not support this concept and argues a more nuanced position that depending on the immediate political needs of both countries will determine the direction they choose.  The key for Haass is that the United States must first get its own house in order.

Haass carefully explains the fissures in US-Russian relations as being centered on Vladimir Putin’s belief that his country has been humiliated since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Haass’ argument is correct and straight forward as Putin rejected the liberal world that sought to bring democratic changes to Russia and integrate her economy into more of a world entity.  Putin’s disdain and need to recreate a strong expansionist military power has led to the undermining of elections in the US and Europe.  Putin’s “feelings” have been exacerbated by NATO actions in the Balkans in the 1990s and its expansion to include the membership of former Soviet satellites like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The end result is that Moscow pursued an aggressive policy in Georgia, the Crimea, and eastern Ukraine resulting in western sanctions which have done little to offset Putin’s mind set.

Haass is on firm ground when he develops the economic miracle that transpired in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea as the reduced role of the military in these societies, except for China have contributed greatly to their economic success.  Their overall success which is evident today in how they have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic is laudatory, but there are a number of pending problems.  The China-Taiwan relationship is fraught with negativity.  Japanese-Chinese claims in areas of the South China Sea and claims to certain islands is a dangerous situation,  the current situation on the Korean peninsula is a problem that could get out of hand at any time.  Lastly, we have witnessed the situation in Hong Kong on the nightly news the last few weeks.

The Syrian situation is effectively portrayed to highlight the tenuousness of international agreements.  It is clear, except perhaps to John Bolton that the US invasion of Iraq has led to the erosion of American leadership in the Middle East.  American primacy effectively ended when President Obama did not enforce his “red-line” threat concerning Bashir al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and President Trump’s feckless response  to the use of these weapons in 2017.  The result has been the elevation of Iran as a military and political force in the region, as well as strengthening Russia’s position as it has supported its Syrian ally in ruthless fashion.  Haass’ conclusion regarding the region is dead on arguing that its future will be defined like its past, by “violence within and across borders, little freedom or democracy, and standards of living that lag behind much of the world.”

Map of Africa Political Picture

In most regions Haass’ remarks add depth and analysis to his presentation.  This is not necessarily the case in Africa where his remarks at times are rather cursory.  This approach is similar in dealing with Latin America, a region rife with drug cartels, unstable economies, and state weakness which is a challenge to the stability of most countries in the region.

One of the most useful aspects of the book despite its textbook type orientation is the breakdown of a number of concepts in international affairs and where each stand relative to their success.  The discussion of globalization or interconnected markets has many positive aspects that include greater flows of workers across borders, tourism, trade, and sharing of information that can help negate issues like terrorism and pandemics.  However, globalization also means that for certain issues like climate change borders do not matter.  Global warming is a fact and though some agreements have been reached the self-interest of burgeoning economies like China and India that rely on coal are a roadblock to meaningful change.  Interdependence can be mutually beneficial but also brings vulnerability, i.e., trade agreements can result in job loss in certain countries and increased unemployment, Covid 19 knows no borders, as was the case with the 2008 financial crisis.  Haass is very skeptical that mitigation of climate change will have a large enough impact, he also discusses the negative aspects of the internet, and the world-wide refugee problem adding to a growing belief that future international relations will carry a heavy load and if not solved the planet will be in for major problems that include global health.  Haass’ conclusions are somewhat clairvoyant as I write this review in the midst of a pandemic, which the author argues was inevitable.

Image of Map and Wallpapers: Asia Map

Haass shifts his approach in the final section of the book where he considers diplomatic tools like alliances, international law, and vehicles like the United Nations as governments try and cope with the problems facing the world.  In this section he focuses on the features of order and disorder or order v. anarchy to provide tools that are needed to understand both the state of play and the trends at the regional and global levels.   He breaks down issues as to their positivity and negativity as he does in other areas of the book, but here he makes a case for American leadership supported by military power as the best hope for stability and progress.  But even in making this argument, Haass presents certain caveats that must be considered.  For example, do nations have the right to interfere in a sovereign country to prevent genocide, can a country’s sovereignty be violated if they are providing resources and protection to terrorist groups, or does an ethnically like minded people deserve to have their own country based on self-determination.  Apart from these questions is the issue of enforcement.  Does international law exist since there is no uniform vehicle to force compliance, and what tools are available to convince nations to support decisions by international bodies or groupings.

All in all Haass has written a primer for his readers, but does this audience even understand the complexities of foreign policy and do they have the will to learn about it and then elect representatives who themselves have a grasp of issues to direct the United States on a well-reasoned path that can maintain effective global activism?  Only the future can answer that question, but for me I am not that optimistic in terms of the American electorates interest in the topic or its commitment to educating itself.

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2007 file photo, the flags of member nations fly outside of the United Nations headquarters. In a move likely to upset Israel's government, the Palestinians are seeking to raise their flags at the U.N., just in time for Pope Francis' visit in September 2015. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY by Andrew Bacevitch

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s I enjoyed a sense of security knowing where to focus my fears and angst.  The Soviet Union was the enemy and policymakers developed the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that carried us through threats like the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Fast forward to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and my security blanket was gone – the Cold War was over.  In what President George H.W. Bush referred to as the unipower world, Americans now have to decide who the enemy was, since it was hard to imagine a world without one.

Andrew Bacevitch in his latest book, THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY examines the post-Cold War period as American policymakers struggled with which direction US foreign policy should go.  Bacevitch a retired army officer and graduate of West Point, in addition to being a professor emeritus from Boston University concludes that the path chosen carried a certain amount of hubris that led to numerous errors squandering our supposed victory that began when Boris Yeltsin faced down a coup attempt by elements in the Kremlin that could not accept defeat.

Former President George H.W. Bush smiles during the second day of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

(President George H. W. Bush promised a New World Order)

 

According to Bacevitch the United States chose the path of globalization or unrestricted corporate capitalism designed to create maximum wealth.  Second, it fostered global leadership, or hegemony and empire.  Third, we called for freedom, emphasizing autonomy.  Lastly, presidential supremacy as the prerogatives of the legislative branch declined.  In making his case, Bacevitch provides historical context for each and integrates a comparison of his own career with that of Donald Trump.  In so doing Bacevitch seeks to explain how someone like Trump could be elected president and he will argue it could have been predicted based on events that took place in 1992 and after. For Bacevitch the villains who are responsible for basically continuing America’s path after the Cold War are the elites who pushed  a consensus that raised expectations, and when they went unfulfilled, outraged voters turned to Donald Trump.

The election of 1992 is a watershed in American history as President George H.W. Bush despite overseeing the end of the Cold War, prevailing against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, gaining an 89% approval rating, and promised a “New World Order,” lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.  The election produced three insurgencies that directly relate to the election of 2016.  Former Nixon speech writer and newspaper columnist Patrick Buchanan, and millionaire H. Ross Perot were both verbal “bomb throwers” who represented an “America First” approach to foreign policy and a populist economic message.  Buchanan gave Bush a scare in the New Hampshire primary and Perot garnered 19% of the vote in the election.  The third member of this insurgency was actually Hillary Clinton who worked to do away with white male domination in society as she put it, a vote for Bill Clinton was “two for the price of one.”  Her battles in the White House reflect how Republicans, and right-wing political elements feared her.

headline photo

Bacevitch’s analysis throughout the narrative is based sound logic and a very perceptive view of American society and the conduct of foreign policy.  He takes the reader through the historically impactful ideas of Alfred Mahan, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Rudyard Kipling who explained the need for American expansion and nationalism.  In his discussion of “thinkers,” he points to Francis Fukuyama who created a secular ideology to justify American hubris in the 1990s and after.  Bacevitch also delves into the 1940-1992 period offering analogies that make a great deal of sense as he explains how the US emerged from WWII as the dominant power in the world, but shortly thereafter the Soviet Union became an ideological and military threat.

THE FREE TRADE ACCORD; Nafta: Something to Offend Everyone

Credit…The New York Times Archives

As one becomes immersed in Bacevitch’s narrative you begin to question the path the United States chose.  The expectations of the American economy after the Cold War was extremely bullish.  Globalization was seen as the key element to achieving economic domination and the spread of American values.  Global leadership was seen as policing this new American economic empire and a vastly increased military budget would fund the military who would police the world and enforce American hegemony.  As Colin Powell has written, “Our arms should be second to none.”  As the US led the way in techno-warfare a large conventional force was no longer needed.  Bacevitch discusses the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  “It purported to describe the culmination of a long evolutionary march to perfection.  Globalization promised to reduce uncertainties that had plagued operation of the market.  In a similar manner, the RMA was expected to reduce—and perhaps even eliminate—uncertainties that had long plagued the conduct of war and had made it such a risky proposition.  The nation that seized the opportunities it presented would enjoy decisive advantages over any and all adversaries.”  The problem with techno-militarism is that “smart bombs,” drones and other “toys” are not as precise and predictable as policy makers are convinced of.  Washington also engaged in a “kulturkampf” as it tried to spread its values creating a backlash seemingly everywhere it went.

This approach led the United States to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the support of numerous repressive dictatorships, a war in Afghanistan that continues today, and other policies that today is making the United States a pariah among its allies and a joke in relation to Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.  Bacevitch sums up the post-Cold War period very nicely, “the spirit of the post-Cold War era prioritized self-actualization and self-indulgence over self-sacrifice.”

Bacevitch saves his most trenchant remarks as he places the last three presidents under a microscope and renders the following judgements that make a great deal of sense.  By the time Bill Clinton left the White House white males still ruled Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood still saw further power to be garnered and making money was king.  Gays could neither marry nor serve in the military.  Checks on corporate capitalism all but disappeared. Americans learned to take war in stride observing from a comfortable distance with the volunteer army that targeted a miniscule part of the population.

 

(President George W. Bush shortly after his “Mission Accomplished Speech”

Under George Bush, the central theme of his administration was war, a complement to globalization and another means of bringing the world in line with American goals.  Clinton may have dabbled in war, but Bush went at it whole “hog.”  The Bush Doctrine argued after 9/11 that American prerogatives where beyond reproach.  American values were universal, and compliance was almost compulsory as resistance was futile.  When the US went to war, they did it with a sense of righteousness that was hard to fathom.  We saw ourselves as the global peacemaker, but in reality, we categorized them, i.e.; “axis of evil” rather than engage them.  Finally, Bush saw himself as a unitary executive and the world order that the Washington constructed was preordained.

Barrack Obama did not fair much better in Bacevitch’s estimation as he paved the way for a powerful backlash resulting in the election of Trump.  He saved globalized neo-liberalism with his $787,000,000 bailout.  His administration never reassessed globalization as a policy that caused the “great recession.”  After Bush’s failures, Obama gave using the military a new lease on life.  Obama vowed to win the war in Afghanistan and even promoted an Iraqi type of “surge” that was unsuccessful.  Hostilities continued in Iraq, civil war decimated Syria and part of Obama’s legacy was the continuation of wars.  Under Obama, the concept of “forever wars” took hold.  “Hope and change,” became “more of the same.”  He did become a cultural warrior celebrating diversity, empowering women, and exploring the variable nature of identity, but over all his administration was a missed opportunity.

One may disagree with Bacevitch’s assessment of the last few decades, but one must really think hard about the following.  The wars that continue are working class wars with a volunteer army that the elites have little to do with.  Globalization accelerated the de-industrialization of America as we exported more jobs than we created.  The disparity in wealth and income is abhorrent as 43 million people are below the poverty level, credit card debt is $8377 per household, and most retirees have just $5000 in savings.  After the Trump tax cut of 2018, the 1% keeps more and more of its wealth.  In this situation it is understandable that economic populism has run rampant.

Bacevitch has written a very thought-provoking book that demands that we reexamine our pre-2016 policies to understand what has been transpiring in American foreign policy since Trump assumed the presidency.  If the book has a weakness it is that Bacevitch’s criticisms are seemingly correct, but he never offers an alternative to what he criticizes.

(The inauguration of Barrack Obama as President)

Though the book appears to be a work that focuses on American foreign policy, it also shines a light on American social and cultural history.  A chapter entitled, “Al, Fred, and Homer’s America – and Mine!” provides insights into American society in the late 1940s and 50s through movies and social class issues.  There are constant references to literary works, the dismantling of our industrial base and how unwinnable wars tore apart our social fabric that bound all elements of society together.  The references to cultural tools is used as a vehicle to explain in part the partisan divide that developed in our country and in the end all of these references be it to John Updike’s character, Harry Angstrom or others rests on the author’s belief that the United States had an opportunity to alter its path.  However we chose not to and let the mistakes of the last 40 years continue to the point that even Trump with all his criticism and bombast about allies and wars has committed even more troops to the Middle East, and funded the techno-military component of the Defense budget to the maximum.  Bacevitch is a harsh critic and does not hold back, but it would be nice to know exactly what policy changes he would make.

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES by Paul Richter

Image result for photo of robert ford and ryan crocker(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Steven)

The past two weeks the American people witnessed the professionalism and commitment to American national security on the part of diplomatic personnel before the House Intelligence Committee.  Career diplomats like acting Ambassador to the Ukraine, William B. Taylor, Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, Fiona Hill, a former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs, and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch who was fired as ambassador to the Ukraine by President Trump, along with a number of others displayed their honesty and integrity as they were confronted by conspiracy theories and lies developed to defend administration attempts to coerce and bribe Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage him to launch investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.  The preciseness of their presentations left no doubt as to their credibility and points to the importance of having experienced professionals advising and carrying out American foreign policy.

In our current political climate it is very difficult to conduct foreign policy in a more traditional manner when you have a president who makes decisions from his “gut,” or spur of the moment as he did when he recently allowed Turkey to expand into Syria and crush the Kurds.  It is interesting to compare how “normal” foreign policy should be conducted and how important these diplomats are.  The publication of Paul Richter’s new book, THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES  is important because it supports the kind of work that was performed by the witnesses before the House Impeachment Inquiry and reflects the antithesis of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy.

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(American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford)

Richter has chosen to explore the careers of four American ambassadors who since 9/11 contributed to what insiders’ term “expeditionary diplomats” who have served in battle zones in the Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and Libya.  Because of the nature of these conflicts these career professionals have been involved with traditional diplomacy in addition to helping generals and spy chiefs decide how to wage war, as well as try to end them.  When Washington found itself with a country on the edge with no real plan it was these diplomats who helped improvise and make policy decisions.

Ryan Crocker emerges as America’s most knowledgeable source on Iraq throughout his career having served there when Saddam Hussein came to power in 1980 and in 1998, yet he was left out of planning sessions dealing with the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  Richter reviews Bush administration ignorance and agendas that are all too familiar, but Crocker’s warnings about an invasion all came to fruition; sectarian warfare, violence and looting, and the emergence of Iran as the region’s dominant player.  Crocker left Iraq in August 2003 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for almost three years.  He would return to Iraq and worked well with General David Petraeus replacing Robert Ford as ambassador as they oversaw the somewhat successful surge between 2007 and 2009.    Ford another exceptional diplomat, whose experiences reinforce the arrogance and outright stupidity of Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and numerous others in the Bush administration.  The reduced role of Colin Powell and the State Department is plain to see, and Crocker and Ford did their best to overcome America’s mistakes.

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(American Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker)

Richter successfully highlights the importance of the diplomats as they tried to keep a lid on the violence in Iraq and nudge the government toward democracy.  Their contact within the Iraqi government, outside militias, and other groups is evident, and their role was extremely important  when compared to personnel in Washington who at times seemed to have no clue.  Crocker’s success rested on the respect that the Iraqis including President Maliki had for him.  He thought nothing of traveling to meet all elements in the Iraqi ethnic puzzle as a means of trying to keep the fractured country together. According to Emma Sky, a British Middle East expert, Crocker “had provided the strategic direction and guidance the military so craved from civilian leaders, and so rarely received.”  It is not surprising that once Crocker left Iraq in February 2009 the situation deteriorated according to Richter because of the changes in approach implemented by his replacement, Christopher Hill, and the overall policy pursued by the Obama administration.

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

By 2011, Crocker shifted his focus to Afghanistan and returned to government service after being chosen by President Obama to try and work out agreements for a strategic partnership. Obama’s goal was to reduce US troop levels from 150,000 to 15,000 and turn the fighting over to Afghan troops as much as possible.  Crocker’s relationship with Karzai was tested as the Afghanistan president reaffirmed old grudges against Washington as he tried to maneuver among militias, the Taliban and his administration’s corruption.  Once again Crocker did give it his best under extremely trying conditions.

Perhaps America’s most important ally in the war on terror was Pakistan, a country that could never be relied upon with its own agenda visa vie the Taliban, al-Qaeda, India, and numerous militias.  Richter is correct when he describes the Pakistani-American relationship as a bad marriage with both partners cheating but had no choice but to stay together.  Anne Patterson entered this quagmire in 2007 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for three years.  Her main goal was preventative.  She needed to help keep the country’s politics from becoming so chaotic or dangerous that the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, would feel the need to install new leaders to restore order.  During her term as ambassador she successfully played the role of political counselor, military advisor, banker, and sometimes psychotherapist.  Richter takes the reader through all the crisis attendant to the United States-Pakistani relationship dealing with the duplicitous Parvez Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and her husband’s attempts to succeed her as President, the Mumbai attacks and numerous others.  She did her best to keep the lid on and for the most part did an admirable job.  For the latest work that deals with the topic in full see Steven Coll’s THE DIRECTORATE: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S SECRET WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN.

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(American Ambassador to Pakistan and Egypt Anne Patterson)

Patterson would be sent to Egypt with the onset of the Arab Spring.  Once the country politically imploded and Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, she moved from the conflagration in Islamabad and found herself amidst another crisis situation.  Egypt was the cornerstone of US security strategy for the Middle East by maintaining peace with Israel, fighting counterterrorism, and keeping sea lanes open for the transport of oil.  The fall of Mubarak caught the Obama administration by surprise.  After the revolution, Washington continued to be blindsided by developments in Egypt.  Patterson would arrive when the Egyptian military and civilians were furious at the Obama administration whom they felt had abandoned their country.  She was plain speaking and knowledgeable and with a reputation in the State Department that one colleague described as “bad ass” and she was eventually able to earn respect from Egyptian military and intelligence leaders.  Further she had to diffuse the Egyptian belief that the US was involved in a conspiracy to push democratic reform.  Further she was confronted with the harassment and intimidation by Egyptian authorities against American backed reform NGOs and Embassy staff which she worked to deflate so she could try and influence Egyptian government actions even as Washington seemed to dither.

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(Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi)

Following the Moslem Brotherhood victory with the election of Mohamed Morsi as President, Patterson met with the new Egyptian leader and tried to pin him down as to his views on Israel, human rights, etc.  She did her best to work with Morsi and even gave him a certain leeway, all for naught as Morsi had an overstated view of his own importance.  His major error was to appoint the ruthless General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Defense Minister.  As Morsi became more authoritarian, she tried to curb his lack of political skill and quest for more and more power to no vail.  With the Arab Emirates and Saudis working with the Egyptian military Morsi was arrested and a coup brought Sisi to power.  The entire episode was not the Obama administrations finest hour.  Granted they had little leeway with Morsi, but they did not do enough to try and steer him toward a more democratic approach.  The problem as Patterson pointed out was not that Morsi was an Islamist extremist, “but that he simply didn’t know what he was doing.”  Patterson was vilified by reform groups, foreign leaders and certain members of Congress as having assisted in bringing Morsi to power, criticism that is unwarranted but reflected that Patterson was damned no matter what course she chose.

Image result for photo of obama with anne patterson(Egyptian demonstrations against American Ambassador Anne Patterson)

Perhaps the most unsolvable problem facing American diplomats discussed in Richter’s narrative is Syria.  Robert Ford was placed in the breach as the Arab Spring left its mark on the country and civil war ensued due to the forty-year repressive and murderous reign of the Assad family.  Obama came to the presidency naively hoping to engage the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Ford was the first American ambassador to Damascus since 2006.  Ford had a working relationship with the Syrian opposition, and he advised them to focus on reform not regime change.  In his heart of hearts, Ford realized that Assad would never give up power.  Ford’s secondary role was to educate Washington concerning events in Syria, but the Obama administration policy was faulty as it called for Assad to resign, publicized a “red line” as a response to the use of chemical weapons, and opening the door for Russia.  Ford did his best, risking his life repeatedly confronting Assad and developing relationships with the opposition, but by December 2011 he would return to Washington where he worked to try and merge the different opposition groups.  This task was impossible because at the same time jihadist opposition began to infiltrate into eastern Syria enabling them to seize control of the uprising from more moderate Syrians. Ford argued to no avail that Obama administration needed to arm more moderate elements or Jihadists in eastern Syria would join those in western Iraq.  Obama refused to supply weapons for more moderate elements and with Iranian and Russian aid the moderates had nowhere to turn to but Islamists for help.  For Ford, the lack of weapons aid made a radical take over a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When Obama did little about Assad chemical attacks it further fueled opposition by moderates and members of Congress.  Richter describes Ford as a pinata as he was bashed by everyone for the lack of US aid including Senate Foreign Relations Committee members.   Finally, in total frustration he left the Foreign Service in 2014.

 

The diplomat most familiar to the American people was J. Christopher Stevens who was killed in a jihadist raid in Benghazi in 2012 fostering a partisan uproar in Washington as Republicans used his death as a political vehicle against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  According to Richter the details of how Stevens died and who is responsible remains open to conjecture, but one thing is certain, there is plenty of blame to go around.  When Stevens accepted the assignment, he knew what he was getting into, but his career long love of the Libyan people clouded his vision.  Stevens had to start from scratch to carve out his own rules for working with the Libyan opposition who he met with frequently earning their trust even though they did not always follow his advice.  The problem was the inability of the opposition to control the varied militias who had access to weaponry left over from the Qaddafi regime.  At the time, according to Jake Sullivan, a Clinton foreign policy advisor; “post-conflict stabilization in Libya, while clearly a worthy undertaking at the right level of investment, cannot be counted on as one of our highest priorities.”  Stevens concern that the administration wasn’t paying enough attention to what was going on in Benghazi in the eastern region around it would result in his death.  In discussing Stevens, as with Crocker, Ford, and Patterson, Richter provides a nice balance of historical detail, Washington policy and his own insights and analysis which are dead on.

If one wants to gain an understanding of the problems the United States faced in the Middle East and Afghanistan after 9/11 in a succinct and compact approach, then Richter’s monograph should be consulted.  At a time when American decision makers made what proved to be disastrous decisions that we are still confronting today, it is refreshing to explore the careers and work of four individuals who devoted their lives to unravel and try and rectify these mistakes, and one who gave his life believing in the importance of his work and having the ability to the tell truth to power.

The late U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, left, shakes hands with a Libyan man in Tripoli, Libya, in a photo posted on the U.S. Embassy Tripoli Facebook page on Aug. 27. | AP Photo
(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and a Libyan citizen)

 

THE EDUCATION OF AN IDEALIST by Samantha Power

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(Samantha Power at the United Nations)

Toward the end of my teaching career I had the opportunity of meeting Samantha Power and she proved to be a warm individual with a sardonic sense of humor.  The occasion was a Model Congress trip to Washington with over thirty teenagers who were role playing our legislative branch of government with over 1000 other students from all over the United States.  During our Saturday afternoon break we walked over to the White House and met with Ambassador Power in her office where she proceeded to spend a few hours with us reviewing the national security process in the Obama administration and engaged my students with the myriad of foreign policy issues then facing the United States.  The afternoon session is something that my students have still not forgotten and neither have I as Power took the time to try and educate a group of teenagers and make them aware of the importance of protecting American national security and the importance of promoting human rights worldwide.  Up until that time my familiarity with Power was as an academic having used her Pulitzer Prize winning book “A PROBLEM FROM HELL”: AMERICA IN THE AGE OF GENOCIDE as a class text, and CHASING THE FLAME: ONE MAN’S FIGHT TO SAVE THE WORLD, the poignant story of Sergio de Mello who worked for the United Nations to try and bring peace to Iraq, Bosnia, Cambodia among others before he was killed in Iraq.  Her latest effort is a personal memoir, THE EDUCATION OF AN IDEALIST where Power describes her life’s journey from immigrating from Ireland as a child, war correspondent, to presidential Cabinet official in a deeply personal way, but also providing incisive analysis of the issues she has dealt with during her career.

Power was raised in a loving but dysfunctional family.  Her mother was a doctor and father a dentist.  She received support from both parents, but her father’s alcoholism would ruin the marriage and form a cloud that hovered over Samantha’s childhood.  Despite her father’s addiction he was an attentive father who took her to Hartigan’s Pub on a regular basis where he spent time with her, but mostly she read her books.   Once her mother had enough, she emigrated to the United States when Samantha was nine leaving her father behind.  The situation created deep emotional issues for Power throughout her remaining childhood and adulthood which she explores in a deeply personal and at times sad manner that would impact her relationships with men until she met Cass Sunstein.  Power uses her memoir as sort of a catharsis as she explores her unresolved issues with “abandoning her father” who would later die from his disease at a young age.  Power deeply ponders if she had remained or at least had a closer relationship with her father might he have survived.  The guilt involved plagued her for years.

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(Power with President Obama)

The memoir explores many personal issues that makes the telling of her life story more human than most.  She engages the reader through her relationship issues with men and how her courtship with Cass Sunstein evolved and what finally achieving a secure family meant to her.  Her discussion of her pregnancy and the birth of her son Declan is a mirror to the type of mother she will become.  Her vignettes about breast feeding in the “old boys network” of the State Department is priceless as is her discussion of the “support group” that was developed by woman who served on the National Security Council is entertaining, but projects the reality of women whose career paths took them into a male stronghold.

Power’s future political views can be seen developing early on as she dealt with her school’s racial integration in Dekalb County, Georgia while in Middle School.  Her education would bring her to Yale and travels to Eastern Europe where she saw the effects of the rise of liberal democracy in Czechoslovakia and Poland, but not in Yugoslavia.  She would intern at the National Security Archive, a liberal NGO involved with Freedom of Information requests.  With the guidance of Mort Abramowitz, a former Ambassador to Thailand and Turkey, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research and Fred Cluny, a human rights activist, Power became a journalist where she witnessed the horrors of the Bosnian Civil War in 1993.  She encountered the siege of Sarajevo, the massacre at Srebrenica from her base in Zagreb, Croatia which greatly impacted her views on human rights and what could be done to prevent this type of ethnic cleansing from breaking out elsewhere.

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(Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power)

Her book “A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA AND THE AGE OF GENOCIDE altered her career trajectory and her life’s path.  She raised questions about the nature of individual responsibility in the face of injustice, as she calls “upstanders v. bystanders.”  Power interestingly points out that many critics have argued her monograph was a justification for the invasion of Iraq.  In reality she condemns the United States for doing nothing about the different genocides she has researched particularly when there were options that Washington could have chosen to lessen the impact of events that resulted in so many deaths.

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(Power with her son Declan and daughter Rian)

Power describes in detail her relationship with Barack Obama for whom she became a foreign policy fellow on his Senate staff in 2005.  She explores Obama’s rise to the presidency and her role as a staffer during the campaign and the pitfalls that resulted, i.e.; calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” which caused her temporary exile from the Obama team. During the Obama administration she would become the Human Rights expert on the National Security Council, worked closely with Ambassador Susan Rice at the United Nations, developed an office in charge of aiding Iraqi Refugees, and eventually replaced Rice at the United Nations.  In discussing all of her positions she delves into her frustrations of policies she was not able to impact, the National Security process within the Obama administration, and her successes and failures.

Important issues are dissected throughout parts of her book that deal with the Obama administration.  Power does a nice job providing the historical context of each crisis that the Obama administration was presented with.  Be it Libya, “genocide” controversy with Turkey,  Assad’s use of Sarin gas during the Syrian Civil War, or Putin’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and seizure of Crimea she is able to place contemporary crisis’ within a larger historical narrative. The issue of Libya is front and center as Colonel Muammar Qaddafi is overthrown and the ensuing violence would result in the death of US Ambassador Christopher Hill at Benghazi which created a firestorm set by Republicans.  Power lays out Obama’s thinking and belief that the US had led the movement that stopped the massacre of Libyan civilians and it was now Europe’s turn to carry the load.  He did not want to commit US troops and Power concludes there was probably little Washington could have done to prevent events that transpired following Qaddafi’s death. Of all the sections in the book it seems that the death at Benghazi are given short shrift.  I would have expected Power to offer further insights to what transpired and how the issue would dominate politics up until and throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.

Image result for images of syrian civil war(an image from the Syrian Civil War)

The Syrian Civil War probably did the most to damage the Obama administration’s reputation in the world and at home.  First, when learning of Assad’s use of chemical weapons Obama put forth his “Red Line” that if crossed would result in a military response by the United States.  Obama with reasons explained by Powers would backtrack and pursue Congressional approval for US air strikes which was not forthcoming.  In the end Vladimir Putin for his own reasons would agree to a UN Resolution to destroy a significant amount of Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, but the damage was done, and Obama’s foreign policy became a further target for Republicans.  Power supports Obama’s rationale, but in retrospect she argues that the United States should have followed through and bombed Syrian targets designated by the Pentagon, and at least attempted to mobilize a group of countries to oversee a “no-fly zone.”  This would have provided some security for Syrian civilians, but with the numerous factions, the role of Russia, and the vagaries of war anything that might have been tried would not have ended the civil war.

Among other frustrations that Power had to work through professionally was the issue of the Armenian genocide that dates back to World War I.  As I write Turkish planes and troops are killing hundreds of Syrian Kurds and fostering a migration of thousands.  This is a pattern in Turkish history, and when the issue of the April 24, 2009 anniversary of the 1915 genocide of Armenians arose Power worked to include the word “genocide” as part of the American government’s characterization of the event.  Power describes how difficult it was to change American policy, from which she failed.  But at least there was a decision-making process, unlike the current administration when it decided to give Istanbul free rein to kill Armenians once again.

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(Power condemning the Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine at the UN Security Council)

Perhaps the most egregious issue that Power dealt with was Ukraine.  In 2014 Putin’s Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine and seized the Crimea.  Power reviews the machinations behind the scenes at the United Nations and inside Obama’s National Security apparatus nicely but what is most fascinating is how she evokes some sympathy for Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations.  She explores how the ambassador tried to defend positions that he knew were totally indefensible.  At times she would surreptitiously meet with Churkin and try to reach an accommodation dealing with eastern Ukraine.  Churkin’s usual defense was that Putin was monitoring negotiations and his view was clear; if the western countries embraced a particular cause, then as if by reflex Moscow would pursue the opposite position. An excellent example came with the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenican genocide which Putin refused to label “genocide” in the Security Council.  Power would gain a measure of revenge when she worked to block Russia from occupying a seat on the Human Rights Council by one vote!

Overall, Power has delivered an exceptional memoir that reflects her humanity and honesty.  She puts forth her feelings for the reader to engage and comes across as a warm-hearted person who has overcome emotional baggage that she carried around for years.  This book is not your typical memoir and I commend it for its depth of analysis, insights into the human condition, and exploration of how difficult it is for America to lead in a world dealing with problems that Trumpist isolationism exacerbates resulting in a vacuum that Iran, Russia, and China are already beginning to fill.  Power’s work at the United Nations should be a model for an American Ambassador to the United Nations, for evidence review her work in dealing with the Ebola crisis in Africa.  It is not about being liberal or conservative it is about what is best for the United States and humanity in general, not a platform for racism and demeaning allies.

Thomas Friedman sums it up best in describing Power’s book,

It’s an unusual combination of autobiography, diplomatic history, moral argument and manual on how to breast-feed a child with one hand while talking to Secretary of State John Kerry on a cellphone with the other. The interweaving of Power’s personal story, family story, diplomatic history and moral arguments is executed seamlessly — and with unblinking honesty.

and,

When it comes to striking that right balance between idealism and realism, this book is basically a dialogue between the young, uncompromising, super idealistic Power — who cold-calls senior American officials at night at home to berate them for not doing more to stop the killing in Bosnia — and the more sober policymaker Power, who struggles to balance her idealism with realism, and who frets that she’s become one of those officials she despised.*

  • Thomas Friedman, “What Samantha Power Learned on the Job,” New York Times, September 10, 2019.
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