ON DESPERATE GROUND: THE MARINES AT THE RESERVOIR, THE KOREAN WAR’S GREATEST BATTLE by Hampton Sides

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(American Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, December, 1950)

Hampton Sides latest book, ON DESPERATE GROUND: THE MARINES AT THE RESERVOIR, THE KOREAN WAR’S GREATEST BATTLE has met, or even surpassed the high standards for excellent narrative history that he has set in his previous works.  The book is based on extensive interviews, memoirs, command of secondary sources, and the ability to place the reader along side historical decision makers and the soldiers who carried out their orders.  Whether Sides is writing about James Earl Ray and the assassination of Martin Luther King; the last survivors of the Bataan Death March; a biography of Kit Carson; or the late 19th century voyage of the USS Jeanette to the unchartered Artic waters, he tells his stories with uncanny historical accuracy and incisive analysis.

In his current effort Sides conveys the authenticity and intensity of war on the Korean peninsula.  His portrayal of the bravery of America soldiers is clear and unsettling as the realism of combat is laid bare for all to see.  At times it is difficult to comprehend what these soldiers were able to overcome and reading the book during the week of Veteran’s Day makes Sides work that more relevant.

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(Major-General Oliver Prince Smith)

Sides integrates all the important historical figures into his narrative, including American Marines and members of the US Army.  We meet the egotistical General Douglas MacArthur and his staff of sycophants and supplicants.  MacArthur can carry out the Inchon landing against all odds, but this logistical miracle seems to fuel is insatiable need for further glory.  Fed by men like General Ned Almond whose main goal was to carry out MacArthur’s wishes, sluffing off any advice or criticism by other planners the only result could be the disaster that encompassed American soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir and along the Yalu River.  Disregarding intelligence that went against his own staff, MacArthur and Almond would push on disregarding and ignoring contrary opinions.  President Harry Truman appears and seems to go along with MacArthur, particularly at the Wake Island Conference until proof emerges that over 250,000 Chinese Communist soldiers have poured into North Korea from mid-October 1950 onward.

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(Major-General Edward “Ned” Almond)

Perhaps Sides most revealing portrait in explaining how American soldiers met disaster in the Chosin Reservoir region was his comparison of the views of Major-General Oliver Prince Smith, the Commander of the First Marine Division, a by the book Marine who described MacArthur as “a man with a solemn regard for his own divinity;” and Major-General Edward “Ned” Almond, MacArthur’s Chief of Staff.  All Almond cared about was speed, disregarding the obstacles that Smith faced in planning MacArthur’s assault on northern Korea.  Smith was a deliberate and  fastidious planner who resented Almond’s constant goading.  He felt that Almond strutted around (like MacArthur!) and made pronouncements based on minimum intelligence.  Almond was a racist who down played the abilities of Hispanic American troops and thought very little of the fighting ability of the Chinese.  For Almond’s part he viewed Smith as an impediment to his overall goals of carrying out MacArthur’s wishes.  He believed that Smith was overly concerned with planning minutiae, and his deliberate approach detracted from his grand plans.

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(General Douglas MacArthur watching the Inchon Landing)

Sides portrayals of American soldiers and the their character provides insights and provide a mirror for the reader into the person’s abilities and their impact on their units, individual bravery, and the success or failure of their unit, battalion, or company’s mission.  Studies of Lee Bae-Suk, a Chinese-American who escaped North Korea as a teenager and enlisted in the Marines; Captain William Earl Barber, Commander of Company F, 2nd Battalion role protecting the Toktong Pass, a key route to the Chosin Reservoir, and a student of Sun Tzu as was Mao Zedong; the exploits of Seventh Marines’ Company E, known as “Easy” Commander, First Lieutenant John Yancy at Hill 1282; Lieutenant Chew-Een who led the column to rescue Fox Company encircled by Chinese troops; the Jersey contingent of private Kenneth Benson and Private Hector Cafferata, Jr.’s heroism in Fox Company; Lieutenant Thomas Hudner who would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery for his attempt to rescue Ensign Jesse Brown who hailed from a Mississippi sharecroppers background to become the first African-American fighter pilot in the US Navy; are among many along with other portrayals that are eye opening, as so many soldiers continued to fight on against all odds, despite wounds that would not have allowed most to even stand upright.

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at their Wake Island meeting)

Sides description of combat is almost pure in of itself, but completely unnerving.  A prime example is the fight for Hill 1282 and the rescue attempt of Fox Company.  The Chinese would attack American soldiers in human waves by the thousands paying little, or no attention to casualties as Marines repeatedly cut them down.  The carnage and suffering are hard to comprehend as is the bravery of US Marines fighting in sub zero temperatures in the middle of the night to protect a small piece of geography in northern Korea against an enemy, lacking in communications using the unnerving sounds of bugles, cymbals, whistles and such to organize their attacks.  Battles are seen through the eyes of the participants and the will and desire of each man is on full display.

Sides has written an excellent narrative military history, but on another level, he has produced a study that highlights the relationship between men in combat and how they rely upon each other for their survival.  It is a book about heroes, the idiocy of war, and the incompetence of decision-making by people at the top who are willing to send men to their deaths, in many cases without batting an eye.  The book reads like a novel, but it presents history as truth, that cannot be denied or dismissed.

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(US soldiers retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, December, 1950)

 

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FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward

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What is one to think of a book whose closing line is a quote from John Dowd, who resigned as President Trump’s lawyer in March 2018, that states “the president is a fucking liar.”  The book in question is FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward, and like his other books it is based on his own reporting, extensive interviewing, gathering information directly and indirectly from other publications and news accounts.  Woodward’s narrative covers the Trump presidential campaign through the resignation of Dowd, and presents, perhaps the most dysfunctional White House in American history.

Recently, the public has been bombarded with books dealing with the rise of the Trump presidency.  What sets Woodward’s monograph apart is the author’s reputation and history of access to sources that others do not employ.  The book presents an administration that Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly describes as “crazy town,” and the former aide to the president, Rob Porter defines Trump as a “professional liar.”  Woodward’s command of the material is excellent and integrates all the characters discussed daily by cable news and the print media.  The plight of Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Hope Hicks, and many others is present for all to see as they try and protect the president from himself.

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(Gary Cohn, Trump’s former top economic advisor)

From the start outset the narrative Woodward presents a scary scene as Trump wants to withdraw from the US-South Korean Trade Agreement, an action which could have grave national security consequences in dealing with Kim Jong Un and North Korea.  The situation is offset by the head of Trump’s Economic Council, Gary Cohn who steals the letter telling South Korean President Moon of his intentions from the president’s desk.  This type of behavior is just the tip of the ice berg as Woodward recounts the daily machinations of the West Wing.

Much of what Woodward writes has appeared in some form or another elsewhere for those who followed the 2016 election and the first 15 months of the Trump presidency.  For some the book may be repetitious, but Woodward has done an excellent job of integrating new material that he has uncovered with that of other accounts.  Woodward provides numerous tidbits that will make the reader wonder what is going on at the White House.  Gary Cohn plays a major role in trying to steer Trump toward economic policies that are sound and will not destroy trade with our allies, and China.  For Cohn, seen by his opponents in the administration as a New York Democrat and a “globalist,” believes that Trump had no basic understanding of how the US economy works.  Trump just wanted to print more money and had no concept of how the debt cycle worked.  For Trump, deficits worked as bankruptcies in his real estate businesses, and large deficits in the federal budget could work the same way – hence the massive tax cuts passed by Congress.

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(Peter Navarro)

Large swaths of FEAR are spent detailing tariff and trade issues.  For years Trump believed that China, South Korea and others had been taking advantage of the United States – as president he would rectify that situation.  Woodward provides interesting details dealing with the clash of Cohn with Peter Navarro, a Trump appointee over deficit spending.  Cohn lays out the arguments carefully for the president as if speaking to a ninth grader.  Ninety-nine percent of economists supported Cohn’s views dealing with NAFTA, the US-South Korean Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization etc.  Cohn prepared a short paper to explain his position, but Trump does not read and did not accept Cohn’s facts concerning the service sector of the US economy.  Cohn asked Trump why to do you have these views, Trump replied, “I’ve had these views for thirty years.”  Rob Porter who supported Cohn against Navarro and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross as they tried to explain the interrelationship between American trade policies and American national security.  They, along with Secretary of Defense, James Mattis argued in the case of South Korea that the US had 28,000 troops along the DMZ with North Korea which served as a tripwire for American defense.  Trump was obsessed with the $18 billion trade imbalance with South Korea and wanted Seoul to pay for the THAAD missile system designed to protect our ally, which also protected our troops.  In fact, Seoul did pay $8 billion of the $10 billion cost.   Cohn and Porter repeatedly rehashed their economic and national security arguments to no avail as Navarro and Ross refused to accept the concept that increased tariffs would result in a tax for American consumers.  Navarro and Ross argued that the tariff increase would help Trump with big businesses and unions and would be good for the 2018 midterm elections.  Cohn believed he “was banging his head against the wall,” though he would not resign until the massive tax cut for the upper classes would be implemented.  Cohn had his agenda and he would swallow the events of Charlottesville and Trump’s response, to push through the tax cuts.

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(Trump Chief of Staff, John Kelly and Rob Porter, former presidential aide)

Woodward spends a great deal of time examining the role of Rob Porter who was a restraining influence on Trump.  Once he left because he physically abused his ex-wife the leash on Trump became very loose.  Kelly and Tillerson tried to reign the president in, but both failed.  Tillerson was fired or quit, depending on who you believe, and Kelly remains at his post with little or no influence on the president.

Woodward reinforces the role of Jared and Ivanka Kushner who seemed to live in their own “silo.”  Woodward describes how Trump ordered the assassination of President Bashir Assad of Syria as he said, “let’s go in, let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” but was talked out of it.  Trump’s erratic behavior dominates the book from campaign rallies to Charlottesville, to reacting to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, his relationship with Steve Bannon, meetings with John Dowd, his theory that you must deny everything repeatedly no matter what the accusation and the facts are, his comments about Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, etc.  Trump comes off as the ultimate narcissist, a behavior that continues to this day.

For Trump, real power was based on fear, and Woodward captures this emotion exceptionally well in the president.  Woodward writes in his breezy newspaper style and makes the book, no matter how disturbing, an easy read.

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THE FIGHTERS: AMERICANS IN COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ by C.J. Chivers

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(US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan)

Recently, C. J. Chivers appeared on Book TV/C-SPAN and describes how he went about writing his new book, THE FIGHTERS: AMERICANS IN COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ.  After 9/11 the US military mission was to root out and defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Chivers, a New York Times investigative correspondent argues that the mission was accomplished in a few weeks, but after seventeen years, we as a nation still find ourselves supporting the governments in Kabul and Baghdad with thousands of troops.  During those seventeen years over 2.7 million soldiers fought in Afghanistan and Iraq with over 3,000 deaths and 10,000 wounded.  Based on our present circumstances in both countries it is important to understand the experiences of American forces and gain insights into their lives before, during, and after their service.  Chivers engages this task and the result is a powerful book that should be the standard in trying to explain what has happened to the American military and their soldiers during the last seventeen years.

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(author, C.J. Chivers)

Chivers’ approach is broad based.  He relies on interviews of the combatants and narrows it down to six to eight individuals.  They were chosen to represent as many areas as possible; he has chosen soldiers from different phases of the wars discussed; he focuses on the different enemies the US was confronted with; he explores different regions in the combat areas; the characters represent career soldiers from before 9/11, and those who joined because of the attack at the World Trade Center.  Further, he explores the individual MOS of each character, how each soldier readjusted to civilian life, and their views about the wars before, during, and after their involvement.  By using this approach Chivers can dig down and engage the human emotions involved, how combat affected his characters, and how the wars affected their families.

Chivers’ research rests on numerous interviews conducted over a six-year period, diaries maintained by the participants, newspaper accounts, and other primary materials that were available.  The author concludes that the men and women who fought represent only 1% of our country.  The American people do not know that 1%, and most do not know anyone that knows them.  This is important because that being the case the war does not touch most of us, therefore when decisions were made to fight the public debate was minimal.  Perhaps if we had a draft and more people had “skin in the game” the public would be more involved, and it would not be so easy to engage in warfare.  Chivers’ goal is an effort to remedy this situation “in part through demystification.”  In doing so he rejects the views of senior officers.  “It channels those who did the bulk of the fighting with an unapologetic belief that the voices of combatants of the lower and middle rank are more valuable, and more likely to be candid and rooted in battlefield experience, than those of the generals and admirals who order them to action—and often try to speak for them too.”  Chivers is correct when he states that the history of warfare can be summed up with “too much general and not enough sergeant.”

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Chivers offers a critical indictment of American decision making and policies that led to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the errors that have ensued during the wars themselves.  The lies, political machinations, career enhancing decisions, and general stupidity of what has occurred over the last seventeen years is on full display.  The author presents six major characters, across numerous military fields in making his arguments.  Chivers begins with Lieutenant Layne McDowell, a combat pilot; he goes on to include Sergeant First Class Leo Kryzewski, a Special Forces team navigator; Hospital Corpsman Dustin E. Kirby; Chief Warrant Officer Michael Sebonic, a helicopter commander; Specialist Robert Soto, an eighteen year old radio operator in an infantry unit; and Lieutenant Jarrod Neff, an infantry unit commander.  Chivers allows the reader to get to know each character in a personal way, that when things go wrong they feel the pain that each soldier experiences.  Chivers describes numerous ambushes, mortar attacks, IED explosions, rocket attacks, remote explosions, suicide bombs, and how soldiers tried to cope, especially the after effects.  In effect, Chivers describes the “rawness of combat” and war itself and the difficulties endured by those who served.

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(Hospital Corpsman Dustin E. Kirby after the war)

Perhaps the most poignant description in the book is when Petty Officer Dustin “Doc” Kirby spoke with the father of a soldier whose life he had saved, Chivers writes “The voice on the other end was breaking.  Bob Smith was talking through tears.  He pushed on.  ‘My son would not be alive if not for you…. And if I am breathing, you will have a father in Ohio.’  Kirby’s guilt began to lift.”

The military bureaucracy, “chicken shit” attitudes by higher ups, and poor decision-making where things that soldiers had to deal with daily to survive.  For those in combat it came down to the battlefield’s baseline mentality: “They looked after themselves, platoon by platoon, squad by squad, truck crew by truck crew, each marine having the others back, and staying wide of the higher ups.”  If one theme dominants Chivers’ narrative it is that each soldier saw his fellow soldier as a brother to be treated and cared for as they would wish to be treated and cared for themselves.

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(President George W. Bush)

All of these points are encapsulated in the description of Operation Mostar in one of the most dangerous areas of Helmand province as part of the 2010 troop surge in  Afghanistan.  Lt. Jarrod Neff must prove himself as a unit commander to his Marines having been transferred from an intelligence unit.  Neff’s experiences point out the number of important issues related to the war.  After spending billions on training an Afghan National Army, at the time of the surge they remained poorly trained, not trustworthy to the point many were suspected of being Taliban spies, and though they were to take the lead in certain operations, the Marines refused to allow it.  Chivers description of Marine training, readiness and peoperational planning provides a human element in contemplating the violence and death American soldiers were about to deal with.  As Chivers takes the reader through the assault on Marja one can only imagine how our troops can cope with what is happening around them.  The most devastating aspect of the fighting was an errant American bomb that blew up a civilian house resulting in numerous casualties with body parts strewn all around.  What made it worse is that the house contained women and children.  It would fall to Neff’s men to clean up and complete a “body death assessment.”  Chivers points out, that to this day the military has refused to release the investigative report about the incident.

Chivers has written a masterful work that describes the atmosphere that exists in combat and what life was like for those soldiers who returned home.  After reading this book the reader will become angry because of government policies, incompetence, and blindness when it came to American involvement in carrying out these two wars.  The book should now be considered the standard for anyone who wants to vicariously live the life of an American soldier today and understand where US policy went wrong.

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(US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan)

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: AMERICA’S GRAND STRATEGIST by Justin Vaisse

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(Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor)

When one thinks about the most influential people in the conduct of American foreign policy since World War II, the term the “Wise Men” comes to mind.  Historical figures like Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy, Charles Bohlen, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, and Averill Harriman helped direct US policy during the Cold War but by the 1960s a new foreign policy elite began to replace the establishment.  The opinions of the wise men were still consulted but a new generation of individuals emerged.  Contemplating the new elite, the name Henry Kissinger seems to be front and center as the dominating force under Presidents Nixon and Ford, but a person with a similar background story hovered in the wings, Zbigniew Brzezinski.  There are numerous biographies written about Kissinger, but up until today none of Brzezinski.  Justin Vaisse, who directs the policy planning staff in France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a workmanlike translation by Catherine Porter has filled the void with the new biography, ZBIEGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: AMERICA’S GRAND STRATEGIST.

Vaisse’s book is more than a biography of his subject. It does review and assess Brzezinski’s private life as a traditional life story might do, but places its greatest emphasis an intellectual survey of President Carter’s National Security head’s ideas and how they affected his policies and America’s interests around the world.  The book is sure to be considered an important contribution to the literature that tries to explain and assess America’s strategy and impact in the foreign policy sphere during the Cold War, and is certain to be the most important book that encapsulates Brzezinski life’s work to date.

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(Brzezinski playing chess with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David)

The author follows the trajectory of Brzezinski’s career from a rising academic at Harvard University to a distinguished professorship at Columbia, a career move that was in the end a disappointment at not gaining tenure in Cambridge, but more importantly it brought him into the New York foreign policy community nexus that led to his association with the Council of Foreign Relations and its publication arm, Foreign Affairs.  The late 1950s saw Brzezinski evaluating US policy through numerous articles and trying to gain access to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson offering ideas and policy recommendations which included some domestic insights.  By this time he realized that he did not want to rely on an academic career for his life’s work, but sought to have a major impact on actual policy and events. During the Johnson administration he became a member of the Policy Planning Staff and his views coincided with Johnson and McNamara’s on Vietnam.  He offered views on the Third World, East-West relations, and the importance of China which he grew interested in to broaden his reputation and not being pigeon holed as only a Sovietologist.  By 1968 the foreign policy establishment underwent change and Brzezinski was at the forefront as the new elite began to emerge.

Kissinger and Brzezinski were the masterminds of the new elite.  They knew how to build on the capital they had accumulated in academia, the media, society and politics, resulting in public visibility, networking, and political status as advisors to both Republicans and Democrats.  As Vaisse traces Kissinger’s career one can see early on, i.e., the 1968 presidential campaign, what a duplicitous egoist Kissinger had become.  As David Habersham described him. He was “a rootless operator in the modern superstate.”

 

Brzezinski’s ego was quite developed, but nowhere near his former colleague.  Brzezinski’s greatest asset was his intellectual brilliance.  By 1968 he had joined the Humphrey for president campaign as the main foreign policy strategist and advisor.  This association allowed him to be perceived as a universal expert as he helped form, along with David Rockefeller, the Trilateral Commission, taking residency in Japan for a year to enhance his portfolio, and warning Democratic Party leaders to be careful of the leftwing movement of the party that would result in the McGovern debacle.  By this time Brzezinski was an excellent tactician and part of his strength was his ability to build on his academic research to implement policy recommendations.

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(President Carter, Brzezinski, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance)

The author dissects Brzezinski’s intellectual impact through his writing.  I remember reading the SOVIET BLOC:  UNITY AND CONFLICT years ago in graduate school, which he had revised to add a section on the developing Sino-Soviet conflict and its impact on US strategy.  In addition, his BETWEEN TWO AGES: AMERICA’S ROLE IN THE TECHNOCRATIC ERA argued that the Soviet Union was in gradual decline as it was missing the train of the technetronic change, where the US was coming aboard fully, which would allow Washington to meet the needs of the Third World.  Many have argued that Brzezinski’s views on the Soviet Union stemmed from his Polish heritage and Catholic faith.  But when one examines his views, it cannot be denied that his family history influenced his intellectual development, but his ideas and recommendations were too nuanced to be hemmed in by any obsession with Moscow.  His goal was to be objective and allow any perceived prejudices as an advisor to cloud and diminish his credibility.  Vaisee argues for the most part he was able to accomplish this despite being labeled by many as an anti-Soviet hawk.  A case in point is his view of Détente, negotiated by the Nixon administration in 1972, but by the time Brzezinski became President Carter’s National Security Advisor it was clear that Moscow was pushing the envelope in the Horn of Africa, Angola, and Cuba and he advised Carter to take a more adversarial position.  This brought him in conflict with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance who rejected this hard line approach, particularly when Brzezinski wanted to manipulate the “China Card” in dealing with the Soviet Union.

There are many aspects of the book that are fascinating.  These areas include a comparison of Kissinger and Brzezinski’s rise to prominence; Brzezinski’s excellent relationship with President Carter; whether Brzezinski can be considered a neo-conservative; and an analysis of Brzezinski’s predictions of a period of twenty years-discussing those that turned out to be accurate and those that did not.  What is clear is that Brzezinski’s view of the Cold War remained fairly consistent for decades.  He always favored the preservation of a strong military.  Second, the role of nationalisms and divisions within the communist bloc which led him to endorse policies that would exacerbate those issues, and finally, the role of ideology, which led him to support the actions of American radio broadcasts aimed across the Iron Curtain.

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Vaisse argues forcefully that Brzezinski worked hard to restore America’s leadership in the Third World, especially trying to reach an accommodation in the Middle East, normalize relations with Latin America, and push for a rearrangement in Southern Africa.  The Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal Treaty, the opening with China, and emphasis on human rights went a long way to achieve these goals.  Many point to the uneven policy with Iran that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Soviet Brigade in Cuba, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan as Carter’s legacy.  But one must remember that American policy toward Iran was dysfunctional and based on a false premise dating back to the overthrow of Mohammad Mossedegh in 1953 which the Carter administration continued.  Further, many accused Brzezinski of creating a trap that lured the Russians into the quagmire of Afghanistan which in the end helped bring down the Soviet Union. Whatever the historical record, the collective memory that deals with the Carter administration’s foreign policy is the humiliation at the hands of Iran during the hostage crisis, and one of projected weakness overseas.

For those who argue that Brzezinski was responsible for starting the new Cold War after Détente failed, Vaisse points out that the Russian archives dealing with the period reflect that the Soviet leadership had “become sclerotic, and a prisoner almost of the institutional dynamics of their own system.”  In fact the disastrous decision to invade Afghanistan was made by a small group in the Politburo which ignored the opposition of the military, Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and those in the embassy in Kabul.  As far as disagreements and controversy surrounding the Vance-Brzezinski relationship, the author provides details and analysis of their policy differences and its effect on overall American strategy.  The key for Vaisse is how President Carter managed their conflict and at times he could not make overall strategic judgements which led to confusion inside the administration and how our allies and adversaries perceived us.

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(Henry Kissinger)

The strength of Vaisse’s effort lies in his assiduous research and careful analysis of Brzezinski’s books and journal articles, be they purely academic or writings that targeted a more general audience.  The author examines all of his major books and opinions in journals and his conclusions and insights are based on this approach.  Vaisse does not get bogged down in family issues, but concentrates on career developments and why certain life decisions were made.  No matter what you think about the life and work of Brzezinski, one must agree that his impact on US foreign policy was just as, or almost as important as that of Kissinger, the difference being that Brzezinski stayed in the background more, though he was not shy about seeking the bright light of publicity at times.  For Vaisse the key to understanding Bzrezinski’s staying power was an enduring legacy of strategic vision and political independence which is evident throughout the book.  Apart from a somewhat trenchant style the book should be considered the preeminent work on Brzezinski and will be sought out by those interested in his life for years to come.

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WAR ON PEACE: THE END OF DIPLOMACY AND THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN INFLUENCE by Ronan Farrow

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The advent of the Trump presidency has wreaked havoc with the traditional American approach to foreign policy that has been in place roughly for the last seventy years.  Under the leadership of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the Foreign Service has been gutted as have the careers of life long diplomats leaving the United States with a lack of qualified personnel to conduct the daily work of the State Department, an essential component for an effective foreign policy.  This is in large part due to the paucity of regional experts, professional negotiators, and has resulted in the rising lack of trust in American foreign policy worldwide.  A case in point is the current American-North Korean nuclear talks and announced summit for June 12.  One day it is on, one day it has been cancelled, a process that should be based on months of preparation seems to be evolving around the whims and/or transactional nature of President Trump’s decision making.  Another example is the American withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal, with no thoughtful policy to replace it.  The appearance of Ronan Farrow’s new book, WAR ON PEACE: THE END OF DIPLOMACY AND THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN INFLUENCE comes at an important time in US diplomatic history as our reputation keeps declining worldwide due to the machinations of the Trump administration.  Farrow’s thesis is an important one as he argues that the decline in State Department influence and the diplomatic community in general did not begin with Trump, but has evolved over the last two decades and it is a bipartisan problem, not to be blamed on one party.

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(Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump)

Farrow’s thesis is very clear in that the reduction of the role of diplomats at the State Department was underway during the tenure of Secretary of State James Baker under President George H. W. Bush, continued under Bill Clinton as the need to achieve budget savings was paramount as we refocused on domestic economic issues.  During the 1990s the international affairs budget declined by 30% employing the end of the Cold War as a means of rationalizing the closing of consulates, embassies, and rolling important autonomous agencies into the State Department.  By the time of the Islamic State twenty years later many experts in that region and subject matter were gone.  After 9/11 the State Department was short staffed by 20%.  Those who remained were undertrained and under resourced at a time we were desperate for information and expertise which were nowhere to be found.

Farrow is correct in arguing that the Trump administration brought to a new extreme a trend that had gained momentum after 9/11.  With crisis around the world the US “cast civilian dialogue to the side, replacing the tools of diplomacy with direct, tactical deals between our military and foreign forces.”  In areas that diplomats formally where at the forefront in policy implementation, now they were not invited into the “room where it happened.”  “Around the world, uniformed officers increasingly handled negotiation, economic reconstruction, and infrastructure development for which we once had a devoted body of specialists.”  The United States has changed who they bring to the table, which also affects who the other side brings to negotiate.

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(Former Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condi Rice)

Restaffing under Secretary of State Colin Powell during George W. Bush’s presidency saw the repackaging of traditional State Department programs under the umbrella of “Overseas Contingency Operations” and counter terrorism.  Since 2001 the State Department has ceded a great deal of its authority to the Defense Department whose budget skyrocketed, while the budget at State declined.  As a result diplomats slipped into the periphery of the policy process especially in dealing with Iraq as Powell and his minions at State were squeezed to the sidelines by Vice President Dick Cheney who ran his own parallel National Security Council.  Interestingly, the process would continue under President Obama who liked to “micromanage” large swaths of American foreign policy.  Obama also favored military men as appointees, i.e.; Generals Jim Jones, David Petraeus, James Clapper, Douglas Lute to name a few.

Farrow’s book is an in depth discussion of how US foreign policy has been militarized over the last twenty years.  He discusses how this situation evolved, who the major players were and how they influenced policy.  Further, he explores how it has effected US foreign policy in the past, currently, and its outlook for the future, particularly when Washington leaves behind the capacity for diplomatic solutions as it confronts the complexities of settling the world’s problems.

Farrows is a wonderful story teller who draws on his own government experience and his ability to gain access to major policy makers – a case in point was his ability to interview every living Secretary of State including Rex Tillerson.  At the core of Farrows narrative is the time he spent with Richard Holbrooke who brokered the Dayton Accords to end the fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s, and was a special representative working on Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Obama.  Holbrooke was a driven man with an out sized ego but had a history of getting things done.  From his early career in Vietnam through his work at State with Hillary Clinton, who held the job he coveted.  Holbrooke saw many parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan.  First, we were defeated by a country adjacent to the conflict.  Secondly, we relied on a partner that was corrupt.  Lastly, we embraced a failed counterinsurgency policy at the behest of the military.  These are the types of views that at times made Holbrooke a pariah in government, but also a man with expertise and experience that was sorely needed.  His greatest problem that many historians have pointed out is that he was not very likeable.

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(Nuclear talks with Iran)

During the Obama administration Holbrooke butted heads with most members of the National Security Council and the major figures at the Pentagon.  He worked assiduously to bring about negotiations with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan.  No matter how hard he tried he ran into a brick wall within the Obama administration.  Secretary of State Clinton would finally come around, but the military refused to partake, and lastly his biggest problem was that President Obama saw him as a relic of the past and just did not like him.

An important aspect of the book is devoted to the deterioration of American-Pakistani relations, particularly after the capture and killing of Osama Bin-Laden and the episode involving CIA operative Raymond Davis.  The lack of trust between the two governments was baked in to policy, but events in 2011 took them to a new level.  Farrow’s monograph makes for an excellent companion volume to that of Steve Coll’s recent DIRECTORATE S which is an in depth study of our relationship with Pakistan concentrating on the ISI.  Like Coll, Farrow hits the nail right on the head in that Pakistan reflected the difficulties of leaning on a military junta, which had no strategic alignment with the United States, particularly because of India.

Once Trump took over the “fears of militarization” Holbrooke had worried over had come to pass on a scale he could never have imagined.  Trump concentrated more power in the Pentagon, granting nearly total authority in areas of policy once orchestrated across multiple agencies.  The military made troops deployment decisions, they had the power to conduct raids, and set troop levels.  Diplomats were excluded from decision making in Afghanistan as 10 of 25 NSC positions were held by current or retired military officials, i.e., White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly; Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; until recently National Security advisor H.R. McMaster among a number of other former or serving military in his cabinet.  However, one member of Trump’s military cadre is dead on, as Secretary of Defense Mattis has pointed out that “if you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Farrow zeroes in on US, Syria, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and policies toward Egypt and Columbia to support his thesis.  The US had a nasty policy of allying with warlords and dictators in these regions and negotiations were left to the military and the CIA.  Obama’s approach was simple; conduct proxy wars, he described our foreign military or militia allies as our partners who were doing the bidding of the United States.  Yemenis and Pakistanis could do our work, why send our own sons and daughters to do it was his mantra.  The Trump administration has continued this policy and closed the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and has left the position of Assistant Secretary for Southern and Central Asia vacant – makes it difficult to engage in diplomacy/negotiations.  As in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance and other warlord groups, the US approach in Somalia was similar.  First, we “contracted” the Ethiopian military in Eritrea to invade Somalia and allied with a number of warlords.  In both cases, military and intelligence solutions played out, but the US actively sabotaged opportunities for diplomacy and it resulted in a destabilizing effect “continents and cultures away.”  One wonders if American policy contributed to the growth of al-Shabaab in the region – for Farrow the answer is very clear.

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(North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un)

Farrow accurately lays out a vicious cycle; “American leadership no longer valued diplomats, which led to the kind of cuts that made diplomats less valuable.  Rinse, repeat.”  Farrow’s thesis is accurate, but at times perhaps overstated as in most administrations there are diplomatic successes (at this time we are waiting for North Korean negotiations – which all of a sudden has gone from a demand for total denuclearization to a getting to know you get together); Obama’s Iran Nuclear deal, Paris climate deal, opening relations with Cuba are all successes, despite Trump’s mission to destroy any accomplishments by the former president.  Farrow’s book is a warning that new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should take to heart, if not all future negotiations will rest with people who have not studied the cultures and societies of the countries they would be dealing with.  Dean Acheson wrote PRESENT AT CREATION detailing his diplomatic career and the important events following World War II, I wonder what a diplomat might entitle a memoir looking back decades from now as to what is occurring.

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FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE by Michael McFaul

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(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama)

Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has chosen a crucial moment in our relationship with Moscow to write his part memoir, narrative history, and analysis of what has transpired over the last twenty-five years between the United States and Russia.  Today, it appears that relations between the two countries deteriorates each day as Russian President Vladimir Putin pursues his agenda, and President Donald Trump does nothing about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  However, McFaul argues in his new book, FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE that by 2010 it appeared that American-Russian relations were improving as Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev had reached an important accord dealing with the reduction of nuclear weapons.  This optimism came to a quick close as Putin returned to the presidency after four years as Prime Minister.  The question must be raised – why did relations between Russia and the United States reach the depths of the Cold War seemingly overnight?

According to McFaul, the answer seems to lie in the reassertion of Russian power fostered by a new ideological conflict with the United States, one in which Putin’s autocratic government, “champions a new set of populist, nationalist, and conservative ideas antithetical to the liberal, international order anchored by the United States.”  This order is in decline as Russian military, economic, cyber, and informational capabilities have expanded.  Proxy wars in the Ukraine and Syria, and Russia’s audacious intervention into the 2016 election have created a situation that is not as dangerous as the worst moments of the Cold War, but certainly just as tense or more so.

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(picture captures well the Obama-Putin relationship)

In trying to explain this massive shift in US-Russian relations, McFaul is uniquely qualified to provide insights.  McFaul is a scholar of Russian history at Stanford University, in the past he worked with NGO’s that tried to create democratic institutions in Russia, he was a member of Obama’s National Security Staff, and finally was Ambassador to Russia.  McFaul’s unparalleled knowledge and experience provide the background for his important new book.

McFaul provides insights from his early career as he worked as a “community organizer” in Russia for the National Democratic Institute, an American democracy promoting institution that assisted Democratic elements in Russia going back to 1991, to his later career as Ambassador to Russia.  In between he offers an intimate portrait of the attempted evolution of Russian autocracy toward democracy, the ins and outs of developing national security policy, and the intrusive nature of being an American ambassador in Russia.  Along the way McFaul examines his personal life, how his career impacted his family, and how they adapted to constant lifestyle changes.  His portrait is a combination of his own world view, the theoretical approach of an academic, and the bureaucratic world of diplomacy.  He conveniently offers the reader an escape hatch, stating the book is written in such a way that if certain parts become boring, he suggests that one could skip certain sections and not lose the continuity of the narrative.

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(Russian President Dimitri Medvedev)

McFaul offers a series of meaningful observations throughout the book. For example, as the democracy movement took hold in Russia in 1991 under Boris Yeltsin, the Bush administration supported the more conservative Gorbachev.  Gorbachev would allow the Berlin Wall to come down, withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan, allowed the reunification of Germany, and did not oppose Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.  Despite this, Yeltsin garnered 60% of the popular vote, and Gorbachev position become mostly honorific. Another example is McFaul’s belief that the KGB was adamant that his work with the democracy NGO was a front for the CIA and helps explain Putin’s hatred of McFaul almost twenty years later.  Further, McFaul argues that the United States did not do enough to assist the Russian economy in 1993 and by not doing so contributed to the economic collapse which was then blamed on Russian proponents of democracy.

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(President Obama and former Ambassador to Russia and author, Michael McFaul)

Once the Obama administration took office in 2009 McFaul oversaw the new policy of a “reset” with Russia as a means of improving US security and economic objectives.   With President Medvedev in power strides were made, but even as progress occurred everyone was aware that Putin was still the “power behind the Russian throne.”  Throughout the book, no matter how intense the material becomes, McFaul does attempt to lighten the mood with humor and how his family was faring.  McFaul describes the almost tortuous detail that went into the preparation of American foreign policy, an approach that does not contrast well with President Trump’s “fly by the seat of his pants” approach.  Obama’s goal was to cooperate with Russia on issues of mutual interest, without downplaying our differences, a fine line to walk particularly after Russia invaded Georgia.

McFaul was always “in the room where it happened” in all the meetings between Obama and Medvedev, and later with Putin.  He was the “note taker” – the memorandum of conversation in all meetings and is a prime source that witnessed the collapse in relations.  Once Putin resumed the Presidency the contempt between him and Obama was readily apparent.  After Obama’s first meeting with Putin it was quite clear the “reset” with Russia was at an end.  Despite the downturn in relations Putin did go along with sanctions against Iran and UN action against Kaddafi in Libya.  But this cooperation was short lived when Kaddafi was captured and executed.  According to McFaul, the overthrow of Kaddafi was too much for Putin who argued he supported UN action to save the people of Benghazi, not regime change.

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(Russian troops in eastern Ukraine)

Perhaps McFaul’s most important chapter is “Putin Needs an Enemy-America, Obama, and Me.”  The chapter offers the underpinning of Putin’s disdain for McFaul and the United States in general under Obama.  This disdain would foster Russian actions during the 2016 presidential election as Putin hoped to elect Donald Trump who would then alleviate Obama’s economic sanctions against Russia.  Putin’s hatred of McFaul was unprecedented in that it led to overt harassment, sometimes becoming physical, a media campaign against him personally to disparage everything about him including his sexuality, and being followed and spied upon constantly.  McFaul’s overall theme rests on the idea that American policymakers hoped that Putin’s anti-Americanism would recede after the 2012 Russian elections.  Surprisingly it did not as there was a strategic shift in the Kremlin’s orientation.  It was launched in response to Obama’s actions, his belief that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was responsible for demonstrations against his rule, but more importantly, to increase his personal popularity as a means of weakening his western oriented opponents.

For Putin, the United States was an enemy, not a partner, he saw Washington as a promotor of regime change everywhere, including Russia, and he blamed the United States for everything bad in the US and Russia.  McFaul’s insights seem dead on as we watch Putin’s support for Bashir Assad in Syria, and the regime in Teheran.  For Putin any regime change of an autocratic leader is a direct threat to him.  The United States continued to try and maintain some semblance of the “reset” as McFaul recounts, but this policy was doomed because of Putin’s hardened attitude.

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(Russian bombers deployed over Syria)

McFaul spends a great deal of time on the Syrian quagmire that rages on to this day.  McFaul criticizes the Obama administration for not pushing harder for Assad’s ouster in 2011.  We could have armed the moderate opposition in a serious way just as soon as the political standoff turned violent. Obama’s refusal to enforce the red line over chemical weapons made the US look weak and the president allowed himself to be played by Putin who supposedly got Assad to get rid of 98% of his chemical weapons.  We seemed to have overestimated Putin’s influence over Assad, however, for Moscow, Chechnya was the model where Putin supported Ramzan Kadyrov’s brutal tactics in order to remain in power.  We continue to witness this approach in Syria on a daily basis.

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad and Vladimir Putin)

According to McFaul, thirty years of improved Russian-American relations ended in 2010 in part because of balance of power politics, American actions, some of which were in error, and Russia’s inability to consolidate democracy, integrate itself into the west, and reorient its own domestic politics.  No matter the cause of the end of the “reset,” we must deal with the offshoot of that policy in the Ukraine, Syria, and Russian-Iranian relations.  McFaul left Moscow with a feeling of incompleteness as his life’s goal of improving relations had to be put on hold, and it interesting that McFaul left Russia at the same time Putin annexed Crimea and moved into eastern Ukraine.

McFaul’s monograph is an important contribution to the plethora of material that has tried to explain US-Russian relations over the past three decades.  McFaul’s approach is clear, scholarly, and personal and should answer the questions surrounding the down turn in US-Russian relations that began in 2010, and the implications of the Trump presidency as we try and cope with Putin’s continued aggressiveness against American domestic and foreign interests.

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DIRECTORATE S: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN, 2001-2016 by Steve Coll

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(Bagram US Air Force Base, Afghanistan)

In 2004 Steve Coll earned his second Pulitzer Prize for GHOST WARS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE CIA, AFGHANISTAN AND BIN LADEN, FROM THE SOVIET INVASION TO SEPTEMBER 10, 2001.  The book provided a reliable analytical approach as it explained what led to al-Qaeda’s rise amidst Afghanistan’s civil war which culminated with the attack on September 11th.  Coll’s new book DIRECTORATE S: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S SECRET WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN, 2001-2016 picks up where GHOST WARS leaves off and attempts to deal with a number of important questions pertaining to a war that caused the death of over 2400 soldiers and contractors with more than 20,000 wounded, many of which suffered life altering injuries.

In his latest volume Coll effectively explains how the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 fostered a revival of al-Qaeda and the eventually the Taliban, allied terrorist networks, and branches of ISIS.  Further, he examines the connection between American, Afghan, and Pakistani policies, and the failure to eliminate jihadi terrorism.  Coll concentrates on the CIA, ISI, and Afghan intelligence services in developing his analysis and narrative.  Coll interviewed over 500 people for the book, made numerous trips to the region, and has excellent command of the research provided by scores of journalists and scholars who have also written on aspects of the Afghan War, the roles of Pakistan, and the United States government.

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(Hamid Karzai, President, Afghanistan 2004-2014)

Coll’s harshest criticism rests with the Pakistani government and its duplicitous intelligence service that was obsessed with India.  The ISI (Inter Service Intelligence) was responsible for the creation of the Taliban going back to the 1990s.  Coll explains the relationship between the Taliban and ISI, the different agendas of each, and the most important personalities involved, from Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, to Ashfaq Kayani, the head of the ISI, to Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghani N.D.S.  The ISI is broken down into different directorates and Coll concentrates on Directorate S which was the locus of Pakistan’s covert operation to aid the Taliban in Afghanistan, aid Kashmiri guerillas against India, and other violent Islamist radicals.  For Pakistan, the Taliban was their ace in the whole because from President Parvez Musharraf on down they believed that the US did not have the staying power to remain in Afghanistan. They needed to have a major player in the Afghanistan game, particularly after 2006 when the Taliban’s resurgence began and affect daily life in Kabul and other major Afghani cities.

Coll is also very critical of the United States.  These observations rest in a number of areas.  First, the refusal to commit the necessary ground forces to capture Osama Bin-Laden in December, 2001 when he was trapped in Tora Bora.  The CIA pleaded for 2-3,000 troops to help close off escape routes to Pakistan.  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not be moved and with President George W. Bush’s backing refused to “put boots on the ground.”  Second, it seemed almost immediately the US turned its attention to Iraq and its commitment and aid to the Kabul government receded, and reaffirmed that it did not want to get involved in nation-building in Afghanistan.  With no concrete plan for Afghanistan once the Taliban was removed, only a weak, corrupt government under Hamid Karzai would evolve.  Third, American intelligence failed in its lack of comprehension of Pakistani fears and motivations.  The US used economic and military aid to Pakistan as a means of gaining cooperation, but never really held the Islamabad government with their feet to the fire.  There was always a rationalization to back off; fear of the Islamist generals in the ISI, and reasoning that if the Pakistani army went after Taliban and other Islamists in North Waziristan full force, it would backfire on the regime.  Fourth, the US was caught off guard with the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan.  Fifth, the strategy pursued and willingness to accept collateral damage could only alienate Afghani citizens, and the treatment of jihadi prisoners just exacerbated existing tensions.  Many authors have pointed out these mistakes, but Coll offers a strong synthesis and explanation of these and other policy decisions made by Washington that others do not.

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(Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad of Iraq and envoy to President Karzai)

Coll’s approach is comprehensive and he integrates all the major characters into his narrative.  He provides background for each individual and their historical context.  The major players include CIA operatives, Station Chiefs, and agents present throughout the book.  Further, we are introduced to the various Taliban leaders and tacticians, those of al-Qaeda, and ISIS.  The American military’s planning, or lack of it, from General Tommy Franks to Donald Rumsfeld is presented.  The Pakistani leadership under Musharraf and a number of ISI generals are explored in detail and the reader is given an accurate picture of Pakistani goals, particularly those that did not line up with the United States.  Perhaps one of the most interesting characters introduced is Zalmay Khalilzad, who grew up in Afghanistan and knew Karzai from his early career.  He was multi-lingual and was able to work with the Afghani president.  He opposed American occupation plans for Iraq and his role was to “mentor” Karzai after he was elected in 2004.  Since the United States did not have an Afghan policy, Khalilzad had to make one up as he went along.  Bush would appoint Khalilzad as ambassador to Iraq in May, 2005, a time when the Taliban was reconstituting, a major error.

One of the major themes of the narrative was the lack of trust between Washington and Kabul.  The longer we remained the harder it became to bend the Afghans to our will.  As the United States went behind his back to cut deals to get things done, the more the somewhat paranoid Karzai would turn against us.  Karzai’s regime was corrupt and elections were questionable, but he was the only game in town for a long period of time.  Another major theme was the relationship between Washington and the Pakistani Army, which dominated all policy decisions.  As Andrew Bacevitch has pointed out; “pacifying Afghanistan was always going to pose a challenge.  Absent full-throated Pakistani collaboration, it would become next to impossible.”* The Pakistani military believed that Afghanistan was vital to its national security and would not do things that they felt would compromise that position, i.e.; close off its borders and not allow sanctuary to jihadists (when those jihadists could be used against India in Kashmir).  The US would provide aid and knew it was being had, but there was little they could do about it.

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(President Parvez Musharraf, Pakistan)

Coll makes a very important observations in dealing with Pakistan throughout the period. It was very difficult to interpret their policy goals because they seemed to shift often as Directorate S engaged a number of militant groups “for different purposes at different times.”  Decisions made to affect the tribal areas with radicals were made for defensive and tactical reasons to stop attacks on themselves or resupply areas.  Other times, the I.S.I. made deals for strategic reasons to influence Afghanistan or attack Indian targets.  This inability to understand what motivated Pakistan reflects Coll’s attempt to explain and present an objective view in dealing with their actions that seemed to be opposed to American interests.

America’s relationship with Pakistan went through a number of phases during this period.  Coll is correct as he describes each phase.  A case in point is 2008 as the Bush administration grew tired of what it perceived as ISI and Pakistani military duplicity.  As more attacks emanated from the Frontier regions, i.e.; truck bomb at the Danish Embassy in Kabul, the US decided to step up targeted assassinations, drone surveillance, and troops in North Waziristan.  The Pakistani’s were not happy, but they remained quiet; however, no reform of the ISI would be forthcoming.  The Pakistani government explained there were “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” but could not differentiate between the two.  Pakistan as always had its own agenda, and if they did cooperate with the US, jihadists would attack, i.e., the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.  For the ISI, Taliban radicals were still useful in destabilizing Afghanistan and providing recruits for Kashmir so there was no clear motivation to change.

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(General Ashfaq Kayani, Head of the ISI)

The next major phase that Coll discusses is how the new Obama administration grappled with Afghanistan and Pakistan.   From the outset a three pronged strategy was employed.  One, counterinsurgency based on the principle of clear-hold-transfer performed by ground troops.  Two, CIA run independent drone war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban hold up in Waziristan.  Three, a diplomatic strategy designed to talk with Mullah Omar’s lieutenants about peace.  The problem was very little of this was synchronized.  Coll is correct in that the dominant problem faced by the Obama administration in trying to achieve any progress with the war is best described as “triangular distrust.”  Karzai was afraid the US would make a deal with Pakistan behind his back – the Pakistanis, obsessed with India believed that Karzai was to close with New Dehli – Washington had little faith in Karzai’s corrupt regime, the ISI, and the Taliban.  Secretary of State Clinton was frustrated with Obama because the US did not have an “end of state vision” or a real Pakistan strategy or reconciliation strategy, just words and process, particularly after the failed bombing by a Pakistani trained terrorist in Times Square.  After Obama agreed to a surge of 30,000 troops, he also announced they would be withdrawn within 18 months which caused confusion as to US policy.  Coll describes it as “going in – while going out,” a policy designed for domestic consumption, but did not sit well with the Pentagon and US allies.  According to Coll Obama’s policy was “a system of parallel policies and priorities running on diverse premises.” (433)

Perhaps the most disturbing chapters dealt with the ”insider killing spree” by Afghan soldiers against Americans, be they soldiers, contractors, or civilians.  US authorities seemed at a loss to explain its constant increase because there was no precedent for this type of behavior in the history of modern counterinsurgency.  The Pentagon and State Department conducted a number of studies and investigations, but it became obvious that the US had overstayed its welcome as we were not only fighting the Taliban, seeking out al-Qaeda, but also fighting Karzai’s soldiers.  Studies finally concluded it was not cultural incompatibility that caused the killings, but defections to the Taliban who instructed defectors to kill NATO soldiers as proof of their sincerity as they switched sides.

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(Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton)

Overall “America failed to achieve its aims in Afghanistan for many reasons: underinvestment in development and security immediately after the Taliban’s fall; the drains on resources and the provocations caused by the US-led invasion of Iraq; corruption fed by NATO contracting and CIA deal making with strongmen; and military hubris at the highest levels of the Pentagon.”(667)  The end result there are about 9,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan with the increasing possibility that more will join them.

In 2001 President Bush announced Operation Enduring Freedom and vowed the United States would remain in Afghanistan until it finished the job, but 17 years later Vice-President Pence stated, “We’re here to stay….until freedom wins.”* If we examine the result of our blood, sweat, and tears, what we see is opium production on the rise in Taliban held areas, increasing corruption, a lack of effectiveness on the part of the government, and instability in Kabul.  Coll has written an excellent analysis of what went wrong with US policy, by mostly concentrating on the role of intelligence agencies operating in the region, many times at cross purposes.  Will this book impact American strategy, it seems not, based on President Trump’s commitment to send more troops.  If you would like a greater understanding of what went wrong consult Coll, but do so knowing what he states should make you angry.

*Andrew Bacevitch, “The Never-Ending War,” New York Times, February 18, 2018

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(Bagram US Air Force Base, Afghanistan)

FAREWELL TO KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by Christina Lamb

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

Christina Lamb begins her heartfelt memoir of 27 years of reporting from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington in FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by describing the British withdrawal ceremony in Helmand province, Afghanistan that for her symbolized the transfer of power to the Afghan army.  It might have been a happy occasion, but for Lamb it reminded her of the numerous errors in British policy in the region, the 453 British soldiers who were killed, the hundreds who had lost limbs to roadside bombs, and those psychologically scarred for life.  Lamb also points to the tens of thousands of Afghans who had lost relatives, homes, and who had become refugees.  By October, 2014 England was ending its 4th war in Afghanistan dating back to the 19th century, but this was their longest and leadership was determined to remove all evidence that they were ever there.  What remained was a war that continues today, and it seems as if it has come full circle as there are current reports that the Russian government is supplying weapons to the Taliban, an organization who as mujahedeen had defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Lamb presents an excellent history of a period of Anglo-American foreign policy that is wrought with mistakes, ignorance, and doing too little too late.  In so doing, Lamb discusses an exceptional amount of information and analysis interspersed with her personal observations of her tenure in southwest Asia.  She follows the story from the Soviet invasion of 1979, their ultimate defeat, the failure of the United States to maintain interest in the area, the rise of the Taliban, the American invasion, the tragedy of Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, the Mumbai attack, the killing of Bin-Laden, and the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops by 2014.  What is amazing is that Lamb seems to be everywhere that major events are transpiring.  Further, her “army” of contacts and sources make her writing indispensable to understand the history of the region.

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One of her most telling comments among many throughout her narrative is that the United States had spent more money in Afghanistan than it had on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.  Lamb watched events in Afghanistan for over 13 years and wondered how a war could be fought when there was no real border with Pakistan, which provided the enemy with safe haven.  Further, she was incredulous when the United States fought a war on the “cheap,” committing few troops and soon becoming distracted by a new war in Iraq of its own making based on false information.  In addition, the US turned a blind eye to its “supposed” ally, Pakistan whose intelligence service, the ISI had created the Taliban and provided an escape route for Osama Bin-Laden when American Special Forces had him cornered in Tora Bora in December, 2001.  The entire operation and decision making can be summed up in one term, and I apologize if it insults some – a “cluster-fuck.”  Much of Lamb’s analysis reminds me of Francis Fitzgerald’s FIRE IN THE LAKE, as the United States seemed purposefully ignorant of the culture that they were up against and did little to rectify it until it was too late.

Throughout her memoir Lamb describes the beautiful landscapes that she experienced, be it the Hindu Kush or the flowers and beautiful kites of Kabul.  Despite all the tragedies that she witnessed she always seems to return to the joys that mother-nature afforded.  It seems to me the major tragedy was how the Bush administration brushed off all warnings concerning a possible al-Qaeda attack from CIA Director George Tenet, Richard Clarke, Clinton’s terror advisor, members of the Northern Alliance, and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Bush advisors saw this as sour grapes since the Russians had been defeated in Afghanistan by Bin-Laden and Company and the result was 9/11.

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(Pakistani President Parvis Musharraf)

Lamb describes numerous characters who are germane to her story.  The first, is indicative of the myriad of types she ran across.  Wais Faizi, who managed the Mustafa Hotel and had lived in the United States, was known as “the Fonz of Kabul,” and drove around in a 1968 Chevy Camaro convertible.  More significant was her relationship with Hamid Karzai who at the outset warned that the ISI was funneling American aid money to the Taliban.  Lamb follows Karzai’s political career and his tenuous relationship with the United States and Pakistan throughout his presidency.  James Dobbins, the United States Special Negotiator for Afghanistan is introduced with his requests from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 25,000 American troops to stabilize Afghanistan once the Taliban were on the run.  His response sets the theme for US policy – they were already planning for Iraq by December, 2001 and stated that “we don’t do police work.”  CIA operative Gary Bersten is another character that is symbolic of American negligence in response to 9/11.  Bersten was with a small group of special operatives working with Afghan tribal forces trying to root out al-Qaeda and Bin-Laden from Tora Bora.  He requested troops to seal the Afghani-Pakistan border to block their escape.  Rumsfeld and the Bush administration refused as General Tommy Franks was already gaming the coming war in Iraq.  A 2009 Senate report reinforced Bersten’s view that the United States had passed on killing Bin-Laden – we can only conjecture how history might have been altered had we not done so.

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(Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)

Of course Lamb describes the duplicity of General Parvis Musharraf, the Pakistani leader who the US tried to convince to turn against the Taliban.  But he had his own difficulties with the Islamized leadership of his military and the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban.  Musharraf did his best to squeeze the United States and in the end both sides gained what it wanted.  Lamb’s explanations are clear, succinct, and easily understood with vignettes that are priceless, i.e., according to Undersecretary of Defense Richard Armitage on the topic of whether the Pakistanis could be trusted, “with Pakistan you get part of the story, never the whole story….How do you know when the Pakistanis are lying?  Their lips are moving.”

Lamb’s discussion of the ISI-Taliban relationship goes back to 1979 and is developed through the Taliban’s victory in 1994.  In a chapter entitled “Meeting Colonel Imam” Lamb lays out the history of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the development and training of the Taliban under the leadership of Amir Sultan Tamar, a Brigadier General in the Pakistani army who had trained with American Special Forces in 1974.  Tamar reviewed the history of ISI control of the Afghan war against the Soviets and how they trained and armed the Islamic resistance.  The ISI pulled the wool over American eyes as they controlled weapon distribution and strategy against the Soviets until they forced them out in 1989.  The American role and naïveté is plain for all to see.  Once the Soviets left, and the US turned away from Afghanistan, the ISI and its Taliban allies would achieve power in Kabul.  Lamb’s analysis and depth of knowledge contribute to an understanding of how the US was duped by the Pakistanis in the 1980s, a process that would continue for decades.

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(Kabul, Afghanistan)

In reading Lamb’s memoir one can only become frustrated and angry.  She castigated British policy makers as on a number of occasions they placed their soldiers in untenable situations without the proper equipment.  Her discussion of Sangin, the world’s largest narco state, is unnerving and resulted in numerous deaths that could have been prevented.  Her comments at times are sarcastic and acerbic as she describes what was supposed to be the “post-Taliban world.”  Her access to Karzai allows her to pinpoint the problem that is Afghanistan; corruption, tribal rivalry, the lack of border control, and his relationship with Pakistani President Musharraf.  Lamb confronts Karzai repeatedly and receives the same tired answers dealing with security and trying to balance the different tribal interests.  The greatest problems seem to center on Islamic infiltration of the Pakistani military, and the radicalization of South Waziristan on the Pakistani border.  This created sanctuary and infiltration routes for the Taliban to return to Afghanistan.  By 2007 they had returned in full creating a renewed Afghani civil war.

Lamb zeroes in on the British role in Helmand province and the problem created by the drug trade. Helmand produces 95% of the opium smuggled into Europe.  Further, since the opium poppies grown by Afghani farmers are their only source of income it becomes almost impossible to make positive inroads because there is no substitute to support their families.  Lamb’s discussion of the interrelationship between the drug trade, the warlords, government corruption, the Taliban, and plight of the farmers is excellent.

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(Taliban fighter, Helmand Province)

One of the most poignant and aggravating chapters in the book deals with the murder of a young female poet, Nadia Anjuman by her husband.  Lamb uses her life story as a vehicle to describe the lives of women under the Taliban and Karzai regimes.  Using the Herat Literary Society to focus on the treatment of women, Lamb describes the lives of women from the lowliest wife, to a woman who created a factory to produce jam, to the only female prosecutor in Afghanistan, to an outspoken female member of parliament, all who lived in fear for their lives.  On paper it may have appeared that the plight of women improved once the Taliban was defeated, but today the reality is the opposite.

Lamb takes the reader through Afghan history since the 19th century by presenting an “assassination tour,” describing the deaths of most Afghani kings and presidents.  It is no wonder that Karzai is called the “mayor of Kabul.”  Violence in Afghanistan increased in 2006 as the Taliban began to adopt Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics from Iraq – ieds, suicide bombers etc.  Lamb also provides repeated examples of Pakistani duplicity by allowing rocket attacks from its territory, supplying weapons and safe haven for the Taliban, and the two-faced approach of President Musharraf, despite receiving $100 million in aid per month.  The end result is 2.6 million Afghani refugees in Pakistan.  Dealing with Musharraf was surreal, almost an alternate reality as the US tried to influence his actions.  For the Pakistani president it was more important to keep his border with Afghanistan calm so he could concentrate on Kashmir and India.  The assassination of Benazir Bhutto fit the pattern of violence that was growing worse within Pakistan under Musharraf.  Her return in 2007 angered the Pakistani military who saw her as a political and economic threat, ultimately causing her death.  The military denied complicity, but all the evidence seems to lead to their leadership.

According to British General Martin Carlton-Smith, by 2008 the goal of ending the insurgency in Helmand was giving way to reducing it sufficiently in order for the Afghan army to take control in some manageable way.  London realized that the only solution was by negotiating with the Taliban.  A political settlement was the only way to bring peace as it had done in Northern Ireland.  For Lamb it was the first time higher ups had admitted the war could not be won militarily.  When these comments went public, taken in association with British withdrawal from Basra in Iraq in September, 2007, and major disagreements between the US and British commands, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saw it as defeatism.

However, by 2008 the Taliban controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan and grew increasingly daring as they set their sights on Kabul with a series of devastating suicide bombings and assassinations.  Evidence emerged that attacks on the Indian embassy and the Kabul Serena Hotel were directed by Pakistani handlers.  A CIA investigation led to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, a group with strong ties to the ISI.  With the attacks the US could no longer ignore what their Pakistani ally was perpetrating.  For Washington it served as a wake up for the reality that was Pakistan.

By 2009 Lamb was transferred to Washington as she was fascinated by the new Obama administration.  What followed was the disjointed policy of a president who wanted to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama was a conflicted president who had no desire to continue fighting.  He distrusted his military leadership and the feelings were reciprocated.  Lamb presents Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and their larger than life personalities and strategies.  But the overriding concern was Obama’s view of wars that he had little interest in continuing.  In addition, Lamb is correct that the problem was not military but political, especially in Afghanistan where the government was the fifth most corrupt regime in the world and the people had no faith in “Karzai Incorporated.”  Petraeus knew early on that for counter-insurgency to work you needed local partners.  Instead he had Karzai and Musharraf’s successor, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower.  Lamb concludes that Obama and Joe Biden, his Vice President were out of their league and despite agreeing to a surge of 30,000 troops he set a deadline for their return – telegraphing to the Taliban to hang on for two more years.  After accompanying Biden to Islamabad, US Senator Lindsay Graham summed it up best, “the whole fucking place is burning down here, pal!”

There is a sadness to Lamb’s account in that so many errors were made and so much duplicity existed as she encounters the myriad of factions that existed in the region.  By 2014 when her story ends things have grown increasingly worse, more so than they might have been before 9/11.  For Lamb, the region is like a magnet whose pull she could not escape.  Even when all seemed lost she is drawn to one final visit.  There have been many books written about events in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but Lamb‘s account must be placed very close to the top of the list, particularly because of her values and journalistic expertise.

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE by Stephen Kinzer

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(Mark Twain)

Stephen Kinzer is a prolific writer and historian among whose books include ALL THE SHAH’S MEN an excellent study that explains the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and the origins of our conflict with that country.  Other books; THE BROTHERS, a fascinating dual biography of Allen W. and John Foster Dulles, men who significantly impacted American intelligence gathering and foreign policy throughout the 1950s; and OVERTHROW, a study that explains how Washington conducted a series of coups from Hawaii to Iraq to install governments that it could control.  If there is a theme to Kinzer’s books it is that the United States has conducted a series of forays into foreign countries that reek of imperialism and have not turned out well.  His latest effort, THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE follows the same theme and tries to bring about an understanding of why and how the United States began its journey towards empire.

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(President Theodore Roosevelt)

From the outset Kinzer describes a conflicted American approach toward foreign policy.  It appears that Americans cannot make up their minds on which course to follow: Should we pursue imperialism or isolationism?  Do we want to guide the world or let every nation guide itself?  This inability to decide has played itself out from the end of the nineteenth century until today as we try and figure out what avenue to take following the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its ramifications.  Kinzer argues that “for generations every debate over foreign intervention has been repetition,” however, “all are pale shadows of the first one” that began in 1898 is developed in THE TRUE FLAG.  Kinzer zeroes in on one of the most far reaching debates in American history that was fostered by the Spanish American War, not the Second World War as most believe; should the United States intervene in foreign lands, a debate that is ever prescient today.

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(Henry Cabot Lodge)

Following the results of the war against Spain, the United States found itself in possession of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and was about to annex the Hawaiian islands, leading to a fever of empire among many Americans in and out of government.  Kinzer traces the political machinations that resulted in the new American Empire.  He also takes the reader behind the scenes that resulted in decisions that led to what President McKinley termed “benevolent assimilation” for the Philippines, or a more accurate description, a race war to subdue Filipino guerillas led by Emilio Aguinaldo.  Kinzer has full command of the history of the period politically, militarily, and economically.  He has extensive knowledge of the secondary and primary materials, and writes with a clear and snappy prose that maintains reader interest.

What separates Kinzer’s narrative and analysis from other studies dealing with this topic is his focus on the debate over American expansionism that created the Anti-Imperialist League to offset the arguments of the imperialists in and out of Congress.  He provides a blend of both arguments integrating a great many heated speeches and articles that the protagonists engaged in and produced, even describing a fist fight in the Senate between the senators from South Carolina over a vote that ratified the Treaty of Paris.  Kinzer focuses on a number of important historical characters that include; Theodore Roosevelt who used the Spanish-American War as a vehicle to advance politically; Henry Cabot Lodge, a strong believer in the “large policy” of imperialism as the Senator from Massachusetts; William Randolph Hearst whose newspaper helped incite the war, and would later turn against imperialism as he sought a political career; President William McKinley who supposedly received divine guidance to pursue his expansionist agenda; Mark Twain, writer and satirist who initially favored expansion, then became the “eviscerating bard” against empire; William Jennings Bryan, the “free silver” commoner from the Midwest who was defeated three times for the presidency; Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in America, but opposition to imperialism for him was almost a religious cause; and Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who fought in the Civil War and served as Secretary of the Interior among many important positions during his career.

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(Andrew Carnegie)

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Kinzer’s narrative discusses the two opportunities that Bryan had to stem the imperialist tide.  Bryan was an avid opponent of expansion from the moral perspective, but he would cave to political ambition on two occasions.  The first, during the debate in Congress over the Treaty of Paris which would cap America’s territorial aggrandizement from the war.  At the last minute Bryan decided to support the treaty and America’s possession of the Philippines.  Second, as the Democratic candidate for president in 1900 he refused to leave out his “free silver” plank from the convention platform and concentrate on the anti-imperialist message.  By not doing so he scared away eastern business opponents of expansion and a number of allies in the Democratic Party.  The result was the passage of the treaty and the reelection of McKinley.

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(President William McKinley)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is Kinzer’s treatment of Mark Twain.  Kinzer offers a detailed discussion of Twain’s arrival from Europe on October 15, 1900 in the midst of the imperialism debate and his transition to his anti-imperialism stance.  A number of Twain’s writings and comments are presented and analyzed and compared with those of Theodore Roosevelt, whose ascendancy to the presidency after McKinley is assassinated, effectively kills the Anti-Imperialism League.  Twain’s writings detail his disgust for events in the Philippines and the disaster that ensued.  Twain is presented along with other famous writers and poets whose anger at expansion and its results knew no bounds.   However, the work of Finley Peter Dunne and his Mr. Dooley character, written with an Irish workman’s accent is probably more important in that it reached the illiterate masses, while others appealed to the social and political elite.

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Kinzer’s narrative packs a great deal into 250 pages and it is a fast read.  However, do not   evaluate this book by its length because it presents an excellent synthesis and analysis of the important events, personalities, and policies of the 1898-1902 period as America debated if it should become an empire, the type of debate that was missing in the United States as we contemplated invading Iraq in 2003.  A war that we are still paying for today.  In the end many of the predictions set forth by the anti-imperialists have come to pass, just examine American foreign policy since the end of World War II.  We as Americans must answer the question: “Does intervention in other countries serve our national interest and constitute global stability, or does it undermine both?” (229)

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(Mark Twain)

A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese.  Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians.  However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the American role in that conflict that witnessed 15-20 air sorties a day against that small Southeast Asian country between 1960 and 1968, that was raised to 300 sorties a day once Richard Nixon took office, resulting in the death of over 200,000 Laotians and 700 Americans.

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By January 1961 Laos appeared to be on the precipice of falling to communism.  Bill Lair, a ten year CIA operative flew up to the central highlands to inaugurate a bold plan labeled, Operation Momentum.  The plan called for the operation and training of Hmong tribesmen, led by Vang Pao, an anti-communist officer in the Laotian army who would lead these men against the Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam.  The civil war in Laos had been raging on and off since the French were vanquished by North Vietnam in 1954, and Laos was declared a neutral country by the Geneva Convention of that year.  Even though Laos was a small country the Eisenhower administration, firm believers in the domino theory, and that a pro-western state in Laos could serve as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, an American ally.  Further, Laos would make it easier for the US to assist South Vietnamese forces that could help bleed Hanoi’s troops as they continued to fight the Vientiane government, and lastly it would block any communist threat to India and Southwest Asia.  Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA chronicles Operation Momentum and its impact on the region and the implications for American strategy to deal with communism for decades.  In addition, it raises the specter of a CIA run war through para military operators, something that continues today.

Operation Momentum was the first secret covert run war by the CIA in American history.   Laos provided the CIA with the opportunity to increase the agency’s powers.   According to Kurlantzick, it saw the Laotian situation as an inexpensive war in terms of money and lives to create a template for proxy wars around the world as presidents looked for ways to continue the Cold War without going to Congress for funding or involving American troops.  For the CIA, after Laos, paramilitary operations would become an essential part of the agency’s mission.

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(North Vietnamese troops fighting South Vietnamese troops on Laotian territory)

Kurlantzick presents a balanced and interesting narrative as he provides the background history that led to the Laotian civil war involving the Royal Laotian Army, smaller armies of different Laotian tribes, Vang Pao’s 30,000 strong Hmong army, North Vietnamese troops, and American bombing and supplying and training of anti-communist forces.  As the narrative is developed the reader is introduced to a number of important characters.  First of which is Bill Lair, a career CIA operative who believed the key to helping the fight for democracy in Indochina was to allow the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese to do their own fighting.  The US could assist them with equipment and training, but should not be out front and appear to replace the French as a colonial power.  Lair and his CIA cohorts were thrilled with the success of Vang Pao’s army in that they finally found an indigenous force that would take it to the communists.  Pao was a loose cannon, but Lair knew how to control him.  This relationship was successful until Washington decided to expand its operations in Laos and Vietnam under leadership of Ted Shackley who arrived as CIA Laos Station Chief in July 1966.  Lair was against an increased ground war with massive bombing as he correctly believed that it would be unsuccessful in interdicting North Vietnam’s supply efforts to South Vietnam through Laos.  The author’s presentation of Lair’s story is invaluable in understanding what transpires in Laos until he resigns from the CIA in August 1968.  Once Lair resigns no one can control Vang Pao, and his forces who pursue a reckless strategy that has grave consequences.

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(North Vietnamese troops moving supplies through Laos to South Vietnam)

Other important figures that Kurlantzick introduces are Tony Poe, a career soldier who trained and recruited Hmong tribesmen going back to 1961.  After Lair resigned he developed his own 10,000 man force made up of an amalgam of tribes who he could not hold together because tribal ethnic conflict and as a result were not an effective fighting force.  Perhaps the most important character in this drama was Ambassador William Sullivan, an American Foreign Service career officer who was Ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969.  Sullivan was sent to Laos to organize the war against the Pathet Lao and became the first American ambassador to run a war from his office.  Sullivan reigned in the CIA and made all operatives report to him what their plan of action was.  He would approve, and even choose targets for the war, something no ambassador had ever done before.  If someone did not comply, because of his relationships in Washington, they would be transferred out.  Once Shackley came aboard, Sullivan supported an expansion of the war and a massive increase in bombing which was further expanded once Richard Nixon entered the White House, as Nixon had his own realpolitik for Indochina involving Communist China, and the Soviet Union in achieving the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

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(William Lair, CIA operative in Laos after he retired)

Kurlantzick tells a fascinating story that at times reads like fiction.  There is some repetition of information, and a few factual errors, i.e.; the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, and according to historian Fredrik Logevall, he misstates the number of American military advisors in Vietnam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he offers no evidence that Kennedy “repeatedly told aides he would not tolerate the loss of South Vietnam during his presidency. (Fredrik Logevall, “Laos: America’s Lesser Known Human Political Disaster in Southeast Asia,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017)

The most disturbing aspect of the war that Kurlantzick brings out has to do with the surreptitious American bombing of Laos.  According to the author by 1969 the United States had dropped more bombs on Laos than it had on Japan during World War II.  Further, by “1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched 580,000 bombing runs in Laos.  A high percentage of these bombs were antipersonnel or fragmentation bombs—which exploded into hundreds of small, deadly metal pellets on impact—antipersonnel mines, and bombs that caused widespread fires.” (177)  Kurlantzick uses the massive bombing of the Plan of Jars during the summer of 1969 to highlight the devastation that resulted in the deaths and maiming of Laotian civilians.  The overall bombing campaign killed civilians in disproportionate numbers and what is even more damning was the American policy of dropping excess ordinance over Laos when they could not find targets in North Vietnam and did not want to return to Thai bases with undropped bombs.  In addition, Kurlantzick describes how Laos was used as a training site for bomber targeting and the indiscriminate dropping of bombs to be rid of them.  America’s disdain for the Laotians can also be seen in the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam as Henry Kissinger and company sacrificed its Laotian allies in order to achieve a semblance of peace with Hanoi.  By the time the Americans left Saigon, a similar withdrawal occurred in Vientiane, as by 1973 Washington had washed its hands of its former ally with devastating consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees and the poor people left behind.

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(William Sullivan, American Ambassador to Laos, and later to Iran)

Despite the fact that it appears that Operation Momentum was a failure when the Pathet Lao was victorious, the CIA saw it as an unqualified success.  The CIA argued that the operation occupied over 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans.  Further, it allowed the CIA to develop its war fighting skills to the point where paramilitary operations equaled intelligence gathering as its joint mission.  The paramilitary component could be seen during the Reagan years in arming the mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and arming and training of the Contras to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  After 9/11 paramilitary operations seem to have become the center of CIA activities.  Today these operations are involved in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Pakistan.  Whether through drone attacks under the aegis of the war on terror or training and supplying weapons, Operation Momentum created the CIA template for its paramilitary wars in the 21st century.

Kurlantzick offers a well-researched narrative that helps fill the vacuum of historical monographs pertaining to the war in Laos.  Recently, we were reminded of the cost of that war when Barak Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and announced an increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance that is still plaguing the Laotian countryside.  Kurlantzick has written an important book that fills in a number of gaps when one thinks back to the events in Southeast Asia between 1960 and 1975 which sadly younger generations seem to be ignorant of.

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)