Monday, January 16, 2017

A Failure of Partnership: A Review of "Hero of the Empire" by Candice Millard

By Benjamin Spacapan

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Biographies of Winston Churchill in his youth are always ripe with tales of the leadership, valor, and brash self-promotion of the soldier / correspondent. Millard’s Hero of the Empire is no different. She covers Churchill’s time as a correspondent, POW, and British officer in South Africa with an engaging and energetic vigor. She fairly describes Churchill’s sometimes off-putting tendencies for self-aggrandizement, but dedicates the bulk of Hero to exploring the desperately ambitious character that drove Churchill into four separate wars and eventually the Prime Minister’s office.

Millard’s work is most interesting, however, in its discussion of the British war against the Boers in South Africa. Millard’s illustration makes for easy comparison to modern relations between developed and developing nations, between colonizers and natives, and between invading foreign armies and local guerilla fighters. At the turn of the 20th century in South Africa, the British dealt with all three issues and largely bungled each of them.

English contempt for the Boers, whom they dismissed as backward, was evident in their relationship. Few British were more vehement in their criticism of the Boers than Winston’s own father, Randolph Churchill. He upbraided the Boers for their treatment of native Africans and wrote, “The Boer farmer…is perfectly uneducated. His simple ignorance is unfathomable, and this in stolid composure he shares with his wife, his sons, his daughters, being proud that his children should grow up as ignorant, as uncultivated, as hopelessly unprogressive as himself” (Millard, p. 144). Unsurprisingly, this made for poor relations between the young Boer state and the British Empire.

There were obvious areas in which the British could have, and should have, worked with the Boers to become more progressive, particularly for better rights and treatment of native Africans. Instead, there was no real cooperation because the Boers constantly chafed under unequal treatment from the British. Similarly, if developing nations are not made equal partners in their own development today, there is little hope of true progress and cooperation. Western and Asian states must be cognizant of the effects of their judgements on emerging partners and work to move forward together.

By failing to change the power dynamic between Boers and native Africans, the British not only neglected to right a great human rights wrong but also failed to galvanize support for their rule among the majority African population. Winston Churchill observed that Boer opposition to British rule was grounded in fear that the British would upend traditional Boer subjugation of African natives. He wrote, “British government is associated in the Boer farmer’s mind with violent social revolution. Black is to be proclaimed the same as white. The servant is to be raised against the master” (Millard, p. 240). One can see why Boer farmers, who had long profited from power over the natives, would be committed to the status quo, but the British could have demanded a shift in the power structure at the close of the war.

Instead, the British allowed their new Boer subjects to further stratify society, passing the Native Land Act in 1913 which forced native Africans, 67% of South Africa’s population, onto 7% of its land (Millard, p.311). Perhaps the British felt that they would not have been able to bring an end to the vicious Boer guerilla war or that they would have faced another insurrection if they had demanded the Boers extend broader rights to the Africans. In either case, the British decision represents a distinct lack of foresight. Had they elevated the Africans, keeping the Boers from falling back on segregation to maintain power, the British might have built a powerful allied group within South Africa. They would have made allies out of men like Solomon Plaatje, first secretary-general of the African National Congress (Millard, p. 311). Instead, the relationship between Britain and its African and Afrikaner subjects remained cautious at best. Today, Western and Asian nations cooperating with developing countries should also work for greater human rights in their partner states. Even from a strictly self-interested perspective, such progress can generate long-term friends in strategically important regions among formerly subjugated and persecuted peoples.

Finally, the British army underestimated the relative warfighting abilities of their adversaries. Churchill wrote that British officers traveling to the war in South Africa “could not conceive how ‘irregular amateur’ forces like the Boers could make any impression against disciplined professional soldiers” (Millard, p. 63). Like many foreign invading armies, the British failed to acknowledge the strengths of the Boer fighters, and to properly adjust to the terrain and climate. This British dismissal of Boer fighting capabilities was shocking because recent British wars in Afghanistan and in Sudan—against irregular amateur forces—had been particularly bloody affairs and because the British had already lost a war against the Boers at Majuba.

In the case of South Africa, the British were unprepared for three key Boer advantages. First, the Boer army wielded modern Mauser rifles, which they bought by the tens of thousands in the 1890s and were a significant upgrade over those of the British (Millard, p. 68). Second, the Boers easily outmaneuvered British forces, “with little more than men, horses and Mausers,” whereas “the British army moved at a glacial pace, weighed down by the sheer number of its possessions” (Millard, p. 81). Similarly, the British were unable to cope with or learn from the Boers’ effective use of terrain. At Colenso, the greatest Boer victory of the war, the British made a series of costly mistakes because they refused to learn from Boer tactics. Millard writes, “Although in the past week alone they had already lost two battles to an invisible and devastatingly effective enemy, the British army had continued to fight in line formation” (Millard, p. 257). While the Boers relied heavily on scouts, the British, “who did not even have a reliable map of the area, had shown little interest in reconnaissance” (Millard, p. 259). Additionally, the British preoccupation with honor led to repeated battlefield blunders. The most devastating was that of Colonel Long, who rushed his 18-gun artillery brigade into the front of the British line and withering Boer crossfire, losing the entire battery (Millard, p. 263). Similar mistakes plagued Western and Soviet armies throughout the late 20th century. The rise of the helicopter began to solve the problem of mobility, and invaders finally learned to be more adaptive, but it took many bloody and potentially unnecessary conflicts to engrain these lessons.

The British also made crucial errors when fighting Boer guerilla at the close of the war. Lord Roberts, commander of the British forces in South Africa, left long before the end of the guerilla conflict, declaring the war over (Millard, p. 307). This particular decision mirrors the embarrassing American mistake in Iraq almost 100 years later. Further, frustrated British forces burned farms to deny Boer guerillas access to food and support and gathered Boer and native civilians in concentration camps (Millard, p. 307). Over 45,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, died in the poorly provisioned British camps (Ibid.). While these tactics did actually hamper Boer guerilla activities, the victory did not justify the human cost. In Vietnam, American forces tried similar tactics to bring civilians into protected areas and deny support to the Viet Cong. While the American strategy included much improved civilian protections and provisions than that of the British in South Africa, it still led to a number of well-documented excesses more than 70 years after the Boer War.

The British campaign in South Africa, while ultimately victorious, exemplified a number of the mistakes that plagued developed-developing world relations throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. In times of peace, established countries often treat their developing partners with disrespect and fail to use their influence to improve support for human rights. In times of war, invading developed forces often fail to adapt and learn from their enemies. Most damagingly, armies of the developed world have still not learned to effectively quell guerilla resistances. The same problems chronicled by Millard and witnessed by Churchill at the turn of the 20th century remain unsolved almost 120 years later.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Chicago Blackhawks' Smaller Off-Season Moves

Benjamin Spacapan is a Princeton graduate who received an All-Ivy Honorable Mention for his 2011 rugby season. In addition to rugby, Benjamin Spacapan maintains an interest in hockey and follows the Chicago Blackhawks.

While arguably a big move, Andrew Shaw of the Chicago Blackhawks was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for a pair of second-round picks. Shortly after the season, Coach Joel Quenneville had referred to the 25-year-old as “irreplaceable,” but his reported demand of $4.5 million per season was too much. The Hawks opted to sign 26-year-old Markus Kruger for $3.5 million. 

The Hawks picked up fan favorite Jordin Tootoo for just $750,000. He’s not likely to light up the scoreboard much this year, but you can count on him to infuriate opposing goalies and defensemen by crashing the net and mucking it up in the corners. 

Furthermore, journeyman defensemen Michal Roszival and fourth-line forward Brandon Mashinter were contracted for the season for a combined total of less than $1.2 million.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Rising Revisionists: Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell’s "The Unquiet Frontier"

--By Benjamin Spacapan

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    In The Unquiet Frontier, Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell paint a dire picture of global security: Chinese, Russian, and Iranian troops nipping at the heels of a retreating American-established global order. Though distinctly pessimistic, Grygiel and Mitchell clearly explain “probing,” subversive actions by revisionist powers which feel they would be advantaged by a revised global order (read: Russia, China, and Iran), and then make cogent arguments for how to deter such aggression. Crucially, they identify probing as an attempt to determine American commitment to its allies (Ibid., 54). In response, they argue that America should strengthen its alliances with frontline states—the Baltics in Europe, Gulf States in the Middle East, and Japan, South Korea, and Philippines in Asia—to deter future probing and ensure that these regions do not devolve into full-scale war.
According to Grygiel and Mitchell, “the probing power is not interested in ‘making war’ with the rival, and therefore a probe is not a full-out attack on a rival’s ally or supported state” (Ibid., 55). As a result, they argue it is cheaper for America to maintain alliances and deter aggressors rather than withdraw from its global commitments and risk war with a strengthened enemy which can no longer be ignored. NATO’s recent decision to stage forward battalions in the Baltic States and Poland affirms Western commitment to the edges of NATO, in line with Grygiel and Mitchell’s advice. Following Grygiel and Mitchell’s reasoning, it also convinces Russia that because NATO will protect the rule of international law, a policy of continued expansion is not worth a potentially disastrous war.
Grygiel and Mitchell suggest that in the modern age, “oceans are not uncrossable, and technological developments, such as airpower and intercontinental ballistic missiles, combined with growing ease and frequency of mobility of goods and people, make hemispheric security a dangerous illusion. To indulge in the temptation of geopolitical insularity is to court disaster” (Grygiel and Mitchell, 20). To apply Grygiel and Mitchell’s logic, it is far less dangerous for America to handle comparatively small problems, like Russian paramilitaries in Ukraine, than to fight a potential global war if Russia expanded its sphere undeterred.
Mitchell and Grygiel describe offshore balancing, the alternative to their proposed strategy, as a withdrawal of American troops and support from all but the closest American allies. To replace American alliances, offshore balancers suggest that the U.S. make quick, powerful strikes when absolutely necessary to protect the balance of power. “The result is a preference for some variant of isolationism, usually advocating no long-term military presence abroad combined with sporadic, limited, and quick interventions to restore an equilibrium of power in Eurasia” (Ibid., 18). Unfortunately for offshore balancers, history has shown that these interventions are rarely limited or quick.
America surrendered the ability to deter conflict or halt the rise of regional hegemons after withdrawing from Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Nazis initially rose to power on the back of popular German feeling that they were cheated by the existing global power structure. In an effort to overthrow this structure, revisionist Nazi Germany expanded its territory and power until met with a determined resistance. Unfortunately, this resistance didn’t materialize until Germany was powerful enough to sustain a global total war, hardly the ‘quick intervention to restore the Eurasian equilibrium’ promised by proponents of offshore balancing. While a powerful force at home may serve as a theoretical deterrent, in practice a revisionist gradually expands control of the surrounding region until it amasses the power to strike out more broadly. If the Western powers stopped revisionist Nazi Germany when Hitler militarized the Rhineland, annexed Austria, or even occupied the Sudetenland, they may have averted the catastrophic war and atrocities that followed.
As Grygiel and Mitchell write, “continental-sized powers are nearly impossible to defeat, especially when they are an ocean away from their would-be conquerors” (Ibid., 18). Applying Grygiel and Mitchell, America cannot again repeat the failures that led to global war. By basing troops from Korea and the Philippines in the Pacific to Estonia and Poland on the Baltic, America affirms its commitment to these frontline allies, stopping naked aggression before it begins. However, if America is willing to tactfully confront global probing in international gray areas, it may also be able to preserve relative global stability. In Ukraine, America can support and advise the Ukrainian military, work with the government to build stronger civic institutions and reduce corruption, and encourage private foreign investment to jump-start the economy. Such tactics would strengthen a potential buffer to revisionist Russian aggression, increasing the costs of further probing and deterring increased expansion toward the borders of NATO.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Bridging the Great Pacific Divide: Hank Paulson, Jr.’s Dealing with China

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In Dealing with China, Hank Paulson explores opportunities for cooperation between the world’s two largest economies through an account of the former Goldman Sachs chief and Treasury Secretary’s longstanding relationships with Chinese business and political leaders. According to Paulson, despite increasing military and diplomatic tensions in the Western Pacific, cooperation between American and Chinese businesses can maintain close connections between the two nations.

Paulson’s work is an impassioned argument against popular anti-Chinese and anti-globalization rhetoric which has become common in Congress and the ongoing Presidential campaign. Paulson declares, “If we got the economic relationship right, the rest of our issues would follow…Alternatively, if economic relations spun out of control--through protectionist legislation that sparked a trade war…it would fray the overall relationship. We would find it easier to solve almost any major global problem with the Chinese on board” (Paulson, 183). He continues, “If we attempt to exclude, ignore, or weaken China, we limit our ability to influence choices made by its leaders and risk turning the worst-case scenarios of China skeptics into a self-fulfilling reality” (Ibid., 379). Paulson presents an honest call for strong past and future American-Chinese relations.

Hank Paulson emphasizes the importance of understanding Chinese motivations and perspectives, which differ significantly from those of American policymakers. Most current high-ranking Chinese leaders were forced into manual labor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution of their youth, and some taught themselves while working long, hard days rather than attend college. As a result, Paulson notes “The Chinese think long term and strategically, we should do the same” (Ibid., 182). American leaders, on the other hand, tend to only think as far as the next election, often choosing options that are not necessarily best in the long term for a short-term boost in the polls.

Similarly, while American policymakers hope that increasing economic freedoms and growth will lead to a more open and democratic system in China, the Chinese understand the connection between economic growth and politics differently. Paulson relates, “The Communist Party…essentially made a deal with the people to provide prosperity in return for continued political power. The Chinese leaders’ credibility with their citizens [is] rooted in economic opportunity, job creation, and an ever-improving standard of living” (Ibid., 183).

Contrary to American hopes, the Chinese economic reforms have in some ways served to concentrate power. Chinese President Xi Jinping “created a small group in the Party to direct the design and execution of the reform process outside of normal government channels” (Ibid., 329). Given the size of the Chinese bureaucracy and intertwined relationship system that empowers many to take positions for which they are not qualified, leaders such as Xi feel the need to reach outside normal structures to enact change. As such, Xi said:
“The very essence of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. And this makes China quite different from the United States and other countries that believe we should have a multiparty system. Because we have one-party rule, we need to be a good party. So we have three tasks: self-improvement, self-purification, and self-regulation” (Ibid., 350).
To this end, Xi launched a major anti-corruption campaign across the country and consolidated power among his protégés and those loyal to them. In the interim, he has also consolidated power in extra-governmental committees to take on specific issues, as with economic reform.

Paulson notes that the major driver of corruption and illicit activity is a “flawed system that concentrates too much power in the hands of the Party and state, and leaves too wide a gap between the law and its enforcement” (Ibid., 363). Therefore, Xi’s centralization of control may increase the risk that his newly minted elite are tempted to profit from their influence. When discussing Xi’s closest allies, Paulson can be overly calculated, criticizing leaders who fell from grace but rarely mentioning anything negative about Chinese leaders in power.

Despite Paulson’s deep connection with China, he is candid about the tension surrounding China’s regional expansion. He writes, “Americans should have no illusions that over the next decade we will face not just an assertive and nationalistic China but a more potent and capable one” (Ibid., 388). To deal with this, he writes, “the U.S. must continue to invest in a state-of-the-art military capable of projecting power and bolstering deterrence” (Ibid., 388). He cautions would-be protectionists, however, that “to prevent security tensions from riding our relationship off the rails, it is more important than ever that we deepen our economic interactions” (Ibid., 388).

The centrality of the economic relationship is a key takeaway from Paulson’s narrative, and some might say career. In spite of the growing rivalry between the American and Chinese militaries, stoked by Chinese expansion into American allies’ island chains and waters in the East and South China Seas and divergent interests on the Korean Peninsula, the American and Chinese economies have become fully intertwined.

During the financial crisis, Paulson notes that Chinese government control of the major domestic banks and financial institutions was ironically crucial when keeping those entities from dumping securities of U.S. government and commercial institutions. He writes, “The ‘guidance’ given by the Chinese government stemmed some of the panic in the markets. And the financial world ought to be grateful for that” (Ibid., 255). However, Paulson is defensive about his own record in relation to the crisis: “I believe I had done my best to prevent the 2008 financial crisis from turning into another Great Depression, but the withering criticism we received from the press—and some in the Obama White House—stung me deeply” (Ibid., 271). The next time the developed economies are on the brink, whether it be in the financial world or in the global fight against terror, it will be important that Chinese and American officials again put aside their differences and work together to avert disaster. 

--By Benjamin Spacapan

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Uncertain Europe: George Friedman's "Flashpoints"

In Flashpoints, George Friedman projects the next decade’s potential European conflicts using history as a guide. Friedman focuses on the history and demographics of “borderlands,” which he defines as ranging from the wide band of countries between Germany and Russia to the intermingled Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox of Bosnia. His work is a comprehensive and engaging look at the past and potential conflicts along European borderlands. Importantly, Friedman does not suggest that “conflict” is necessarily full-scale war, but allows that it can include economic competition, asymmetric fighting, and internal strife.

Flashpoints is organized in a logical region-by-region structure with each region and its borderlands discussed in their turn, but Friedman’s work is defined by a few key themes. He suggests that the return of nationalism to Europe is the greatest continental danger because it weakens EU supra-nationalist bodies and increases both internal violence against immigrants and international conflict between Russia and NATO. Secondly, he argues that the imbalanced economic situation between Northern and Southern Europe since the 2008 financial crisis is driving European disintegration. Over all of this, he draws parallels to European historical instability and posits that the continent is doomed to repeat the divisions of its past.

Friedman warns that the simmering violence in Ukraine could entangle Russia and NATO and discusses the explosive situation in the Caucasus. He also explores longstanding British resistance to the Continent, rising animosity in debt-ridden Southern European against German domination of the EU, and diverging German and French interests as threats to European integration. Because none of these are likely to result in all-out war, Friedman makes a strong case that non-military friction could play a larger role in shaping European’s future than any near-term armed conflagration.

Mr. Friedman channels Henry Kissinger, reminding readers of the differences between Russian and American views of one another’s actions along the NATO-Russian borderland. American and Western leaders at least outwardly explain support for Ukraine’s pro-Western government as simply furthering human rights and corruption-free (or less corrupt) democracy. Friedman lays out Russian thinking, focused on realpolitik and national preservation. He writes:

“If Ukraine were a member of NATO, and if NATO ever resurrected its military power, Russia would be wide open to invasion. Russia was not about to dismiss this possibility. When the United States began supporting political groups in Ukraine that were pro-democracy in the eyes of the Americans and Europeans, the Russians saw this as an attempt to seat an anti-Russian government in Kiev and pave the way for the breakup of the Russian Federation” (Friedman, 118).

Tension between Russia and NATO is magnified by each side’s inability to understand the other’s interests. Friedman continues, “Americans were oblivious to how the Russians saw this interference. The Russians, on the other hand, did not believe the Westerners were that naive” (Ibid., 175). However, it is also naive to assume that either party would change course even if it accepted the other’s interests. Friedman shows that conflicting NATO and Russian aims are based on fundamentally different interests and historical experience.

As Friedman declares, the battle for the Ukraine will decide whether the borderland between the EU and Russia lies on the border of Russia itself. He suggests, “Vladimir Putin is a man trained not only in the permanence of geopolitical realities, but also in the planning for the worst-case scenario,” and, “Russia is looking to secure itself, not expand” (Ibid., 178-179). Despite NATO protestations that it is a defensive organization, Putin must consider that Western goals might change, and must prepare Russia to defend itself with its time-tested strategy of defense in depth.

After the Cold War, Eastern Europe joined NATO and the EU seeking to benefit from NATO protection against Russia, join in EU prosperity, and secure constitutional liberalism at home (Ibid., 179). However, Friedman argues that with NATO unable to effectively project power into eastern Ukraine and the Georgian borderlands, a splitting EU, and the rise of pseudo-authoritarianism in parts of Eastern Europe, countries that previously sought Western protection may have to look elsewhere.

Outside the brewing conflicts of Eastern Europe, Friedman highlights economic issues that are breathing life into old nationalist conflicts on the European Peninsula. Friedman notes that Germany exports 35-40% of its GDP, half of which is sold in the EU (Ibid., 122). As a result, Germany needs the EU far more than the casual observer might realize.

Nonetheless, Friedman writes that Germans did not feel that they should bear the burden of Southern European (Greek, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese) overspending, and pushed these governments to deal with seemingly insurmountable debt through deep spending cuts and widespread austerity. Friedman cites the destruction of middle class and professional jobs as an unexpected negative effect of German-directed austerity. He continues that austerity broke the EU social contract that its members’ populations would have a shared fate and would enjoy a certain level of prosperity (Ibid., 125).

Friedman seems to discount the German perspective that a complete bail-out without austerity would (a) present a dangerous precedent to other EU members which sought to live outside their means and survive on handouts from larger nations (not unlike arguments against bailing out some major American corporations during the financial crisis) and (b) not fix structural issues in these countries responsible for the crushing debt. Should the EU decide to bail these countries out, it would not be able to effectively regulate their actions. The middle course taken by Germany of austerity combined with debt forgiveness seems a more reasonable track.

Friedman shares key insights on how Germany’s decision rekindled nationalist animosity between Northern and Southern Europe, and even between France and Germany. Friedman’s worst-case projection, that increasing nationalist anger in Southern Europe “will leave Germany stiffed on the debt, assert Germany and its German partners in their countries to be the guilty party, and seize and redistribute the assets” (Ibid., 158), has not yet materialized. If it does, one must take seriously Friedman’s warning that Germany might be forced to invest in its military and assert itself through hard power.

If Germany does not enforce its claims in Southern Europe, Friedman suggests that an alternative is to tie its economy to Russia. To do so, Germany would need to accept Russian interests in Belarus and Ukraine. Friedman writes that this would push Poland closer to the U.S. for protection (Ibid., 159). Since Friedman’s writing, the Ukrainian conflict has instead pushed Germany away from Russia, closer to the US and its Eastern European partners. Regardless of the resolution to the debt situation in Southern Europe, it seems that Germany has already closed the door to cooperation with Russia.

Friedman’s work is a well-organized and expert account of the troubles on the European continent. He clearly lays out the dangers to European integration and continued peace. However, Friedman’s overall warning of a coming split in Europe, which at worst will rekindle deadly nationalist rivalries and at best render the EU and NATO shells of themselves, seems overly pessimistic. He astutely summarizes German interests which no longer align with those of many other EU states and argues that a resurgent Russia will not back away from its goal of a more secure perimeter. But by discounting the possibility of a middle ground, Friedman also paints the European picture in black and white.

Many would argue that the European situation is actually an even gray. The Germans can forgive some debt and back meaningful stimulation in Southern Europe, as long as the Greeks, Spanish, and Portuguese are also willing to undergo a painful but measured amount of austerity. The British will likely (hopefully) remain a part of the EU. The conflict in Ukraine is unlikely to result in another government overthrow, though Russia will continue to control the Crimea and pro-Russian groups will operate across the eastern part of the country. The Baltic States are under pressure as the Russian military and NATO each posture to demonstrate their capabilities, but neither is likely to attack. Europe may not enjoy the widespread peace, growth and (in most cases) relative prosperity it did from 1993 to 2008, but it also is unlikely to devolve into a squabbling mess. Calls such as Friedman’s are an important alarm, but his dark predictions must be read with an attentive but respectful skepticism.

Check out the new blog at Same rambling articles, but a pretty new background!

--By Benjamin Spacapan

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Expatriate’s Return: A Review of Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s Ally

AllyMichael Oren is a renowned historical scholar, famous for his prescient works on the history of the interaction between America and the Middle East, a field for which he is uniquely qualified. In Ally, Oren explores his own life, a much more difficult endeavor for most scholars. Oren’s story spans from his youth in West Orange, New Jersey to his service in the Israeli paratroops and posting as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. The work is meticulously well written and witty, biting in its criticism and unabashed in its opinions, and serves as an inside look at one of the most important foreign diplomatic postings in the United States.
Despite being forced to give up his U.S. Passport as a foreign diplomat, Ambassador Oren truly is a man of two nations, and this contrast is evident throughout the book. In this capacity, he is well suited to convey not only the points where the Israeli and American governments disagree, but also the subjects on which Israelis and Americans misunderstand each other. Oren’s description of many Israelis’ confusion with the election of President Obama is an important difference between Americans and Israelis, and it’s notable that Oren so openly leans, at least intellectually, to the Israeli perspective. He writes, “[Some Israelis] could not understand why Americans would choose a candidate lacking in any military, administrative, or foreign policy experience” (Oren, p. 43). His flippant but accurate explanation of this difference captures his own ambivalence toward certain aspects of Americans’ decision making: “Americans prefer their presidents to be eloquent, attractive, and preferably strong-jawed. Such qualities, in the life-and-death stakes of Israel, are irrelevant” (Ibid.).
Oren’s distaste for Americans’ leadership showed through like thin strips of daylight in his attempts to remain impartial, particularly in his discussion of trying to understand the President. He writes, “Vainly, I scoured Dreams from My Father for some expression of reverence, even respect, for the country its author would someday lead. Instead, the book criticizes Americans for their capitalism and consumer culture, for despoiling their environment and maintaining antiquated power struggles” (Ibid., 97).
Ambassador Oren also recounts Senator Joe Liebermann brushing aside threats to accuse Oren of interfering in American politics from U.S. Administration advisor David Axelrod as nothing to worry about because, “It’s just Chicago politics” (Ibid., 141). As a scholar who spent most of his career writing non-fiction history, Oren cannot have included these incidents by accident, but rather as calculated reflections of his own feelings toward the American leadership.
Oren’s account of the relative souring of the relationship between the Obama Administration and the Israeli Government exemplifies his greatest challenge in attempting to remain neutral enough to paint a full picture of the situation. Despite his interest in maintaining the image of the U.S. Government as having been the main instigator of this divide, he remarks early in his work that, “Unlike the White House, which is accessible to a range of Israeli officials, the Hill is the Ambassador’s exclusive domain” (Ibid., 84). This point is important because Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, focused primarily against the U.S. Administration’s proposed nuclear agreement with Iran and in defiance of the President’s wishes, occurred during Oren’s time as Ambassador.
The key sticking points between Administrations concerned the approach to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and Iranian nuclear buildup, rife with back-room conversations between President Obama and Palestinian PM Abbas or Iranian officials and Netanyahu lectures to Obama in the White House. Neither side of the Alliance’s leadership was able to work together effectively, despite the attempts of Ambassador Oren.
Oren further disagrees with the Administration’s response to the conflict in Syria. He quotes President Obama, “When you have a professional army [the Syrian Army] that is well-armed…fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protestors…the notion that we could have…changed the equation on the ground there [in Syria] was never true” (Ibid., 308). Oren contrasts this statement with the American Revolution, fought by farmers and carpenters against a professional army, and writes that the Syrian episode “revealed the president’s determination to withdraw from the Middle East irrespective of the human price” (Ibid.). When American leadership failed to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, Oren writes, “The entire Middle East, and especially the Iranians, now knew that America would dither before enforcing an ultimatum” (Ibid., 344). Clearly frustrated, Ambassador Oren sums up the situation with a quote from a call he received from Senator John McCain, “This is the most fucked-up thing I’ve seen in my entire political career” (Ibid.).
Oren was unequivocal in his disdain for the Administration’s handling of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The Ambassador describes Obama, Netanyahu, and Iran as Chamberlain, Churchill, and Nazi Germany, “The man who would be Churchill, who once likened Obama’s policies to Roosevelt’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz, was now identifying new Neville Chamberlains seeking to appease, rather than defeat, evil” (Ibid., 372). He writes, “I sensed that the same commander in chief who sought congressional authorization for warlike actions against Syria and the Islamic State would try to side-step the Senate in signing what he portrayed as a peace agreement with Iran” (Ibid., 361).
Ambassador Oren’s insight into what both governments can do to better understand one another and the ways in which Americans’ views have hampered their ability to project influence in the Middle East are more constructive points. When discussing American diplomatic pressure on Israel, Oren wrote, “Unlike in the West, where security is measured in tanks, jets, and guns, security in this part of the world is largely a product of impressions. A friend who stands by his friends on some issues but not others is, in Middle Eastern eyes, not really a friend” (Ibid., 88).
This difference of opinion continued during the Arab Spring, when the U.S. media embraced democratic movements across the region, including in countries ruled by longtime American allies. Ambassador Oren writes, “Such exuberance could not be overlooked by the press-sensitive Obama administration” (Ibid., 199) and allows,
“Flagrantly brutal and corrupt, Mubarak was nevertheless America’s loyal friend for more than thirty years. And after a single week of demonstrations that, though highly publicized, involved a fraction of Egypt’s 85 million inhabitants, the United States abandoned him. That single act of betrayal—as Middle Easterners, even those opposed to Mubarak, saw it—contrasted jarringly with Obama’s earlier refusal to support the Green Revolution against the hostile regime in Iran. Other American allies in the region [read: the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council] took notice. So, too, did America’s foes” (Ibid., 199).
While Oren’s portrayal of the destruction of America’s image in the Middle East is striking, his implication that the current American leadership may have sought to shirk the duties associated with global leadership is much more concerning. He quotes Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger questioning, “What makes you think anybody in the White House still cares about American hegemony in the Middle East?” (Ibid., 94), and almost as if in response, President Obama, “Whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower” (Ibid., 237). A historian, Oren cannot contain himself from highlighting the differences between this outlook and the stance of former American Presidents whom he identifies as world leaders such as Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton.
In between recounting his years in Washington, which make up the bulk of his memoir, Oren peppers Ally with what he sees as the important intersection between his own field, history, and world leadership. According to Ambassador Oren, “Netanyahu, it turned out, had read my book Power, Faith, and Fantasy and was impressed by my knowledge of America’s history in the Middle East.  He regarded understanding the past as the key to interpreting the present.  That was perhaps the main reason I even merited an interview [for Ambassador]” (Ibid., 57).
Most importantly he shows that rather than any maliciousness on either side, the recent troubles in the new relationship were due to a fundamental lack of understanding. Oren writes that former senior U.S. Administration officials caused the Israeli national security advisor to “blanche” when they suggested that the “Libyan people will always remain grateful for the freedom they received from America” (Ibid., 302). The Ambassador’s implication is that, to the contrary, the ensuing power vacuum in Libya actually allowed radical militant groups including Islamic State to establish a base of power.
Toward the end of his work, Ambassador Oren recounts a distinctly Kissingerian point for which I personally greatly respect the former Secretary of State: the necessity of viewing any international issue not from your own perspective, but from that of the party with whom you are engaging. Oren cautions, “Israeli decision makers must never lose sight of how the Middle East—indeed, the world—looks from Washington” (Ibid., 375).
Above any political grievances between Administrations, Ambassador Oren highlights the special nature of the American-Israeli alliance, which has endured many American Presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers, and will endure many into the future. He writes, “The presence of an American ally at the world’s most strategically crucial crossroads, deploying an army more than twice the size of Britain’s and France’s combined, cannot be undervalued” (Ibid.).
Oren’s point should not be missed, and if anything is taken away from Ally, it should be the absolutely indispensable nature of the American-Israeli alliance. America must keep all its Middle Eastern allies close, particularly the longstanding and insightful Hashemites in Jordan and the powerful, wealthy, and independent monarchs of the Gulf, but these alliances are neither as deep nor as close as the American alliance with Israel.
Equally important, Oren highlights the value of American strength to Israel and American allies more broadly. Sounding similar to scholar Vali Nasr, with whom Oren would almost definitely disagree on many foreign policy points, the Ambassador highlights the long-term importance of the Middle East to America: “Just as Israel benefits from a strong America—an America viewed as strong from Ukraine to the South China Sea—so, too, does the United States gain from a secure and powerful Israel. For all the talk about ‘pivoting to Asia,’ the United States will remain inextricably linked to the Middle East, for it will follow them home” (Ibid., 376).


-- By Benjamin Spacapan

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Unapologetic Diplomat: A Review of Vali Nasr’s "The Dispensable Nation"


Diplomats are typically known for couching their aims and opinions in even, inoffensive terms designed to convey meaning without alienating. Mr. Nasr, a former high-ranking diplomat in Richard Holbrooke’s AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) group within the State Department, has dispensed with this approach in his memoirs, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Mr. Nasr appears to find it difficult to hide his bitterness with what he purports to be a major failure on the part of the Administration, particularly when it comes to Middle Eastern policy. Nasr writes that continued sanctions against Iran and a general reluctance, verging on refusal, to engage the Iranian regime on Afghanistan was a serious failure by the Administration, “which showed a lack of imagination in managing both those challenges” (Nasr, Location 934). Nasr’s work contrasts starkly with the recent works of Secretaries Panetta and Gates. One of the most positive characteristics of Gates and Panetta’s works was their tendency to refrain from passing judgement on the Administration. Their criticism of the Executive largely came in questioning the consolidation of power among a few members of the National Security Staff. In a world full of pundits who seek to color history with their own lenses, both Secretaries wrote books which laid out their version of the facts without excessive spin. While one can feel their patience wear increasingly thin as they recount the sequence of events during their time in office, both of their works start out positively, whereas Mr. Nasr’s disappointment is palpable from the beginning of The Dispensable Nation.
      Nasr asserts that the military was allowed to run rampant by an administration too timid to control it. In regard to the American decision to sever close ties with Pakistan after years of rocky relations, Nasr writes,” Ours was not just an empty bluff, it was worse than that—it was folly we believed in and crafted out policy on, and all Pakistan had to do was wait for reality to set in…We did not have to break the relationship and put Pakistan’s stability at risk…We have not realized our immediate security goals there and have put our long-run strategic interests in jeopardy. Pakistan is a failure of American policy, a failure of the sort that comes from the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies” (Ibid., Location 1612). Gates and Panetta, alternatively, both felt that the Administration hamstrung the military and failed in Iraq by allowing relations to deteriorate to a point when US troops withdrew from the country altogether. The Secretaries largely refrain from sweeping language, with the exception of their horror at what they characterize as an American abandonment of our duty in Iraq. Nasr is clearly a gifted academic and diplomat, but his broad stroke denunciations of the Administration’s decisions do at times, feel less like careful consideration of all aspects of policy affecting a decision and more an embittered complaint that his team’s specific aims were not achieved. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Nasr is not-so-subtlety arguing that the Administrations problems could have been solved had they just listened to Nasr and Holbrooke’s team.
Partially as a result of this, the work is certainly less fulfilling than those of Gates and Panetta. Because Nasr chooses to be so clearly biased in certain places, one is tempted to question objective analysis throughout the rest of the work. However, as a critique of the national security and foreign policy team in the White House, Nasr’s piece is valuable in that it highlights the deeply divided stances of at least some members of the diplomatic apparatus and the defense department. Similarly to the Defense Secretaries, he critiques the Administration for centralizing too much of the decision making, but he disagrees with those decisions for almost directly opposing reasons from the leaders of Defense. Where they feel the Administration has not gone far enough, Nasr argues it went too far, and vice versa. Importantly, his work contrasts with those of Gates and Panetta to show that the Administration took something of a middle road in its decision making between State and Defense. By looking at criticism from both sides, we find that perhaps the Administration was not ignoring its advisors as much as trying to find a way to mediate a series of heated debates.
      Though clearly flawed in certain ways, Nasr’s work is an insightful critique of American policy and provides an interesting warning regarding President Obama’s stated policy to pivot away from the Middle East and toward the Pacific. He cogently argues that if America does seek to counter the growth of Chinese influence globally, it is important to do this not only in East Asia but also in those areas of the world where Chinese influence is quickly increasing. In particular, he notes that if Chinese influence on the Gulf Monarchies were to continue to grow unchecked, as it has in Pakistan and Africa, “Chinese interest in Middle Eastern energy sources [would] threaten to put at a disadvantage the very allies—India, Japan, South Korea, and even much of Europe—that America needs to balance China. If these countries became dependent on China for their energy supplies they would have to align their foreign and economic policies with China, which would mean moving away from the United States. That would put a big dent into our plans for containing China in the Asia Pacific and ensuring the region’s continued prosperity and openness” (Ibid., Location 3876). His appraisal seems prophetic in light of the recent tour of the Middle East undertaken by Chinese President Xi Jinping. With stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, the trip illustrates China’s strategy to bridge both sides of the dangerous Shiite-Sunni divide in which America has taken a decidedly Sunni bent. China is the largest trading partner with all three powerful Middle Eastern states (“Xi Jinping’s tour of the Middle East shows China’s growing stake there.” The Economist, 20 Jan. 2016. Web.) Nasr reminds his readers that the world has become far too interconnected to allow us to focus on any particular region at the expense of the rest. To do so would be to apply 20th century Containment policy on a fluid 21th century world, no more useful than trying to grab a handful of water.
       It’s unsurprising that Nasr left the Administration embittered. Brought into government on a wave of hope for change and into a State Department led by respected personalities such as Secretary of State Clinton and Ambassador Holbrooke, Nasr expected to be able to achieve what he saw as a triumphant success in American relations with the Middle East. What he found, instead, were the harsh realities of a region and US government pulled apart by various entrenched and opposing interests. Nasr’s very unwillingness to recognize the validity of competing interests in the Administration highlights the desperate need for American leaders, across agencies and the White House staff and throughout both parties, to see that in order to engender compromise and success globally, we must first be willing to reach out with compromise at home.

--Benjamin Spacapan