Few issues arouse as much debate as the Iraq War. The decision to invade in 2003 was a milestone for U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics. Advocates of the war believed that the prior status quo was unsustainable, and that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime was a ruthless anachronism. The fact that Saddam had not abandoned his interest in so-called weapons of mass destruction made his removal all the more necessary. Critics warned, however, that regime change was not in the U.S. national interest, and that by invading the country that U.S. would set in motion events it could not control. Years of grisly civil violence seemed to vindicate their warnings. The critics took their arguments further in the aftermath, casting the war as symptomatic of a deep and enduring interventionist bias in American grand strategy.

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One of Donald Trump’s superpowers is to dominate all spheres of American life, and the book industry is no exception. The nonfiction market is littered with best-sellers about life in the Age of Trump. The past two years have generated numerous genres of political tomes: the tell-alls by those who have served in his administration,[1] the hosannas to his political greatness,[2] and the journalistic accounts of his norm-defying 2016 campaign and chaotic first two years as president.[3]

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An MQ-9 Reaper taxis after a mission in Afghanistan.

Beware the grim reaper?

Analyses of drones often generate more heat than light, but Aqil Shah’s article is a welcome change. Shah argues U.S. drone strikes do not cause “blowback” in Pakistan or anywhere else, basing his claims primarily upon field interviews conducted in Pakistan. As he summarizes, “I find no evidence of a significant impact of drone strikes on the recruitment of militants either locally or nationally” (49).

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Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Steven Teles, and Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., have written an important, nicely crafted, and provocative policy paper, representing the views of a new American political “Center,” which they have summarized for a broader audience and which has received significant praise and commentary.[1] In short, from a libertarian-oriented perspective, the paper offers a public-spirited, moderate, and appealing alternative to the partisan extremes that have been offered and debated by small government/pro-market oriented conservatives, on the right, versus supporters of big, welfare-state oriented government on the left. This alternative is presented as new centrist ideas that have the potential to move toward solving problems and mitigating the ideological conflict over pressing economic and social welfare issues, as well as related issues, on which President Donald Trump and his administration have caused unprecedented turmoil. That the report takes on the political right as well as the left suggests that it may well be on to something that the authors hope can restore lost trust in government and its leaders, who have been consumed by partisan polarization, wave elections, nationalized politics, and political incivility, with no way out in sight.[2]

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This roundtable debates ideas and evidence in Diane Pfundstein Chamberlain’s recent book, Cheap Threats; Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States. Pfundstein Chamberlain’s book considers the important puzzle described in the title, and in doing so puts forth a surprising new theory of coercive diplomacy. The reviewers praise some aspects of the book, but they raise concerns about both theory and evidence. Pfundstein Chamberlain responds comprehensively to the critiques. The debate is particularly interesting because the reviewers, though all experts in coercion and/or deterrence, approach the book from quite different angles.

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Official portrait of US Ambassador Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson [close up]In a favorable review of The Kremlinologist, the fine recent biography of the great American diplomat and Soviet expert Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson that was written by his daughters, David Foglesong added this curious cavil. “The Thompsons argue that the Cuban missile crisis stemmed from [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev’s seeing ‘an irresistible opportunity to use missiles to solve all his problems’—including Chinese criticism, Soviet military complaints, and East German instability, as well as Cuban vulnerability—even though they acknowledge that there is very little documentary evidence to support that thesis.”[1]

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In Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, David Hendrickson, a prolific and provocative scholar, offers an eloquent root-and-branch critique of American foreign policy, focusing chiefly on the post-Cold War decades.[1] In essence, Hendrickson contends that the precepts and practices of U.S. statecraft have corroded Americans’ liberty at home and increased the threats they face from abroad. Be it the current configuration of U.S. alliances, the worldwide military presence of the United States, American leaders’ attempts to reshape—especially by military means—the internal order of states, or the magnitude of expenditure on the national security apparatus, Hendrickson calls for a break with a status quo to which, he believes, Republicans and Democrats are both committed, though not always to the same degree.

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When the World Seemed New coverMore time has transpired between the fall of the Berlin Wall and today than the entire duration of that iconic Cold War barrier. Meanwhile, George H.W. Bush, the main subject of Jeffrey Engel’s When the World Seemed New, became the longest-living U.S. president, while there are undergraduates this semester who were born during the presidency of his son, George W. Bush. In short, this book can make a lot of readers feel old.

It should also makes us feel hopeful. “Tomorrow our children will go to school and study history and how plants grow,” President Bush said in his 1992 State of the Union address. “And they won’t have, as my children did, air raid drills in which they crawl under their desks and cover their heads in case of nuclear war.”[2] Scholars can forever debate the causes and consequences of the end of the Cold War, yet one ought not lose sight of the fact that good and incredible things happened.

 

 

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It has become accepted wisdom in Washington, D.C., and among many international relations scholars, that East Asia is a region rife with geopolitical rivalry, and that the United States and China are destined for protracted great-power competition and perhaps conflict. In his newest book, David Kang offers a sharply contrarian viewpoint. He argues that East Asia is far more peaceful and stable than it seems, that China’s rise is not particularly threatening to most East Asian states, and that the United States will only find itself in an intense competition with China if it makes unwise policy choices that turn that danger into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The United States should, therefore, refrain from the temptation to double-down on its East Asian security commitments and efforts to check China’s rise; it should adopt a more restrained posture that minimizes rather than embraces great-power competition.

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According to one of Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s successors, James Schlesinger, “The list of secretarial responsibilities is so imposing that no single individual can totally fulfill them all.”[2] Given the challenges inherent in the role, Laird was remarkably successful at establishing priorities for his tenure, attaining his key goals, and leaving office on his own terms.Continue reading