My copy of Julian Zelizer’s book Arsenal of Democracy arrived in the mail at about the same time late in 2009 that Barack Obama gave his address at West Point expanding U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Obama had inherited the war, and his choices ranged from bad to worse. But the one he selected, a middle-course option that would send 30,000 additional troops and called for removing them in eighteen months, was difficult to comprehend if the geopolitical stakes in Afghanistan were really as high he claimed they were. It was hard for me to see how an increase of that size, even if accompanied by a boost in NATO troops, could really do the job in the vast and forbidding Afghan terrain. By announcing a deadline, moreover, the president signaled to anti-American forces in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) that they could count on a U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and hence could bide their time until then.
Tag: United States
Justin Vaïsse has emerged in recent years as perhaps the most perceptive French analyst of current American politics and foreign policy. But he is a historian by training, and in writing his book on neoconservative movement, his primary goal was to understand the neoconservative movement as a historical phenomenon. The book is not a polemic or a journalistic account. It is a scholarly analysis, based not just on published materials, but also on a series of interviews and on a good deal of archival work, especially in the Rosenblatt papers at the Johnson Library and in the papers of the Committee on the Present Danger at the Hoover Institution. Given that sort of approach, Vaïsse, as John Ehrman writes in his comment, is able to deal in a fair-minded way with a topic that “seems to arouse great passions.” Robert Kaufman, the most critical of the four reviewers here, basically agrees. Vaïsse, he notes, “has raised the tone and the substance of the debate about who neoconservatives are and what neoconservatism means.”
Norman Graebner, Richard Dean Burns, and Joseph M. Siracusa, have written a two volume narrative history of the Cold War. All four reviewers praise it as a lively and factually accurate account that, while breaking no new ground, would make an excellent text in an undergraduate course on the Cold War. Andrew Bacevich speaks for all of them in calling it “an immensely admirable work, one that recounts the story of the Cold War with clarity, dispassion, and commendable insight.”
All specialists on the Vietnam War are likely well aware of the involvement in the conflict played by the RAND Corporation, the California based think-tank closely tied to the defense and intelligence establishments in Washington, D.C. Many, if not most, have also made use of some of RAND’s documents in their own research. Recently, however, RAND has experienced something of resurgence in Vietnam War studies. Several books about the Vietnam War have made extensive use of RAND documentation to attempt to reconstruct the history of the American war from the ground up. David Elliott’s unparalleled The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930-1975 draws on the author’s own extensive work for RAND during the war and the extensive collection of interviews conducted by analysts and employees of RAND. (David Elliott, as several of the reviewers here note, is the husband of Mai Elliott, who also worked for RAND during the war). David Hunt’s Vietnam’s Southern Revolution: From Peasant Insurrection to Total War relies heavily on the interviews conducted by RAND employees, and his appendix, “The Uses of a Source,” is a very helpful starting point for scholars new to the documents and seeking to understand the complex context within which they were collected.
Just over a decade ago, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the sudden revelation of new documents from the former communist countries, Cold War scholars were particularly keen to de-center their studies. By this, they meant internationalizing what they did, shifting the focus away from Washington, and not only exploring what went on behind the Iron Curtain in more archival detail but also developing a “pericentric framework” to highlight the importance of smaller powers in the Cold War international system. At the same time, historians working on specifically American topics had already begun to de-center their own work, looking less at the perceptions, motivations, and actions of the leaders in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, and more at issues of race, class, and gender.
Nicholas Thompson has taken an imaginative approach to the Cold War by presenting a comparative study of the public careers of Paul Nitze and George Kennan, two significant U.S. officials who participated in the Cold War from its post-WWII origins to its surprising conclusion. With access to the records of his grandfather, Nitze, and the diaries of Kennan, Thompson is able to develop their evolving relationship and the impact of their respective temperament, experience, and ambition on their policy views and involvement in the Cold War.
Are democracies more likely to win the wars they fight? This question has been of interest to historians and philosophers since Thucydides. During the Enlightenment, the question was highly relevant to the great issues of the day, as thinkers such as Thomas Paine wondered how emerging republics like the United States and France would fare in war against monarchies. It reemerged in the twentieth century, when some worried whether the Western democracies had the stuff to stand up to Nazi Germany and its fascist allies. After World War II, Westerners fretted that an American Athens would ultimately fall short against a Soviet Sparta.
Kevin Woods and Mark Stout have provided a valuable service to the scholarly community by using the trove of primary source documents captured by American forces in Iraq to try to reconstruct Saddam Hussein’s strategic thinking. Those who follow this case will be familiar with their arguments, which they (and other authors) set out in The Iraqi Perspectives Report (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2006) and The Mother of All Battles (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2008). The former dealt with Iraqi (which is to say, Saddam’s) decisions in the 2003 war and the latter with how Iraq behaved in the Gulf War of 1990-91. Woods and Stout, in footnote 3, assure readers that a “recent decision by the Department of Defense will in the near future make portions of this collection available to non-governmental scholars” on the model of how Washington dealt with documents captured during World War II. I hope that they have read the Pentagon’s thinking on this correctly, and I hope that the “portions” are pretty close to 100%. It is hard to imagine what national security rationale there would be for classifying the internal deliberations of a defunct foreign regime.
Almost without exception, students of security policy are not only analysts and proponents of abstract theories, they are also deeply concerned with issues of contemporary international politics and have strong policy preferences. There are likely to be connections here, and it is by no means obvious that the latter are subservient to the former. With all due respect to Kenneth Waltz, very few of us became drawn to international politics by reading his books. I doubt if I was atypical in becoming interested because of the events that were occurring when I was growing up and in being fairly quick to develop my own opinions, as ill-grounded as they were. By the time I was exposed to serious academic work, let alone starting to publish, my views about American foreign policy and a general political outlook were well established.
In setting up his analysis here, John Schuessler refers to one of the arguments Dan Reiter and Allan Stam make in their book Democracies at War. Democracies, those authors claim, “produce better estimates of the probability of victory than their autocratic counterparts do,” and they do so in large part because in democracies these issues are argued out in public.