Clash of the Strategists

A U.S. Marine, who is part of a military honor guard, takes his position before a welcoming ceremony for German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere

Clearly, the debate over how America should conduct itself on the world stage is far from over.

May-June 2018

Robert D. Kaplan, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Random House, 2018), 304 pp., $28.00.

Elliott Abrams, Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 320 pp., $24.99.

Harlan K. Ullman, Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 272 pp., $29.95.

AT A time when President Trump’s National Security Strategy claims to be one of “principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology,” three new books take different sides in the long-standing battle between realists and neoconservatives. Robert Kaplan’s collection of essays, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century, presents a well-crafted case for a hard-headed approach to international security that nevertheless incorporates America’s idealistic impulse. Elliot Abrams, on the other hand, makes an impassioned plea for a return to the democracy agenda so beloved of the neocons. As the title of his book, Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring, makes clear, however, he attempts to cloak his interventionist views in realist terminology. Harlan Ullman charts a third course. His Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts asserts in effect that neither approach has been consistently underpinned by what he terms “sound strategic thinking,” with the result that U.S. policy has suffered setbacks both on and off the battlefield.

Kaplan has a well-deserved reputation for eschewing ideology, if only because his travels off the beaten policy path and his historical perspective have convinced him that one must address things as they are, not as we would like them to be. His unique blend of geography, history, culture and economics makes for sound advice to decisionmakers who too often are either cloistered in their government offices or who, when on travel, spend their time in hotel rooms, at fancy dinners or on guided tours in between their official meetings. At the same time, he offers the general reader a sophisticated yet readable analysis of the evolving international system, with a heavy focus on the decline of the Westphalian order, as he articulates in his opening and leading essay, from which the book takes its name.

Kaplan offers an unusual perspective on Russian and Chinese expansionism. He argues that “the geographical heart” of the challenge that Russia poses is “the Black Sea Basin: here is where Russia intersects with Ukraine, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus. Or explained another way, where Europe meets the Near East and where the former Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg imperial conflict systems all merge.” He worries that Western policymakers have paid far too little attention to this geopolitical vortex. He highlights the strategic importance of Bulgaria, a NATO ally to be sure, but “just one of the many countries that are invisible to the Washington policy elite and consequently are never part of its conversation.”

The Chinese challenge is entirely different. Kaplan writes,

“globalization, with its exaggerated emphasis on sea lines of communication, has necessitated Chinese power projection into the blue-water extensions of its own continental landmass. Because that requires China to remain secure on land, it also means the permanent subjugation of the Muslim Uighurs, Tibetans, and Inner Mongolians. And thus we have the One Belt, One Road strategy. In short, China’s ethnic demons within its borders lead it to push out militarily and economically well beyond its borders.”

Nevertheless, he sees a significant though long-term threat to both countries in the form of internal authoritarian decay, leading to a challenge to central control of what are still in effect empires, as are Iran and Turkey. He postulates a similar challenge to the highly centralized rule of the Iranian mullahs—most recently played out on the streets of every major Iranian city—as well as that of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, whose own imperial ambitions are unlikely to be sustained over the longer term. As he puts it, “the imperial experiences of Turkey, Iran, Russia, and China explain the geopolitical strategy of each country to this day.” Yet he goes on to note that “because of the way communications technology empowers individuals and small groups—in addition to the instability that erupts from the increasing interconnectedness of crises worldwide—threats to imperial-oriented power centers are now greater than ever.”

Moreover, globalization poses a challenge to many nations in two distinct ways. On the one hand, it fosters “an emerging global culture that spans continents,” yet at the same time, “precisely because religion and culture are being weakened by globalization, they have to be reinvented in more severe, monochromatic, and ideological form by way of the communications revolution.” As examples of the latter he cites “Boko Haram and the Islamic State, which do not represent Islam per se, but Islam igniting with the tyrannical conformity and mass hysteria inspired by the Internet and social media.” Taking issue with Samuel Huntington, Kaplan therefore argues that “it isn’t the so-called clash of civilizations that is taking place, but the clash of artificially reconstructed civilizations” whose power lies in both the fear and exploitation of increasingly global networks.

In addition, Kaplan anticipates an ongoing upsurge of populist nationalism, such as that which has led to Brexit and which has fueled the drive for Scottish, Catalonian and north Italian independence from their respective central governments. Indeed, he sees fractured states across Eurasia, and Africa as well, as long-standing but submerged loyalties to city, region or tribe emerge to the fore. His summary judgment is that “Western civilization is not being destroyed; rather, it is being diluted and dispersed.”

KAPLAN ENTITLES the first section of his book “Strategy,” and it is naturally to Washington policymakers that he addresses his advice on what that strategy should look like. Kaplan’s prescription for the United States, whose stake in the Westphalian model was clearly linked to its creation of the postwar international military, economic and financial order, is twofold. First, he cautions that Washington be careful not to press for regime change, especially in its putative adversaries Russia and China. Indeed, he goes one step further. He would avoid any degree of interference in the internal dynamics of other states. “The world is intractable enough (and becoming more so),” he argues, “without our needing to impose our values on other countries’ internal systems. Thus, we should start with asking how we can act with caution and restraint, without drifting into neo-isolationism.” Overthrowing the current ruling structures in Beijing or Moscow could well lead to the chaotic breakup of either or both, which could spread throughout the Eurasian landmass, given the connectedness of the contemporary international environment. A world of warring regions and city-states would be America’s worst nightmare.

His second and related piece of advice is that Washington adopt Britain’s nineteenth-century model of caution when applying military force, while also striving to maintain its monopoly on sea control in the Eastern Hemisphere. The latter will be no mean feat, however, and not merely because China’s fleet continues to grow and expand its area of blue-water operations. As Kaplan points out in an essay on the decline of America’s maritime forces, entitled “Elegant Decline: The Navy’s Rising Importance,” the United States will need to rethink its approach to sea power, which remains vital to its national security. Some of his suggestions are quite radical, such as delegating some of its missions to private naval companies, in effect returning to the era of privateers, upon whom the fledgling American republic heavily relied. Others are more conventional, such as equipping large carriers with laser weapons, or adding far more submarines to the fleet. His central point is that the decline of the fleet can be managed, and offset, as long as its fundamental importance to national security in the years ahead holds a central place in the minds of policymakers.

Relying more heavily on the Navy and, by implication in an era of ongoing constraints, due to the Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Control Act, not expanding or even shrinking the Army—as he puts it, “our land strategy should be secondary, and should follow from our air and naval strategy, not the other way around”—renders it less likely that the United States will undertake another regime-change operation like that of Iraq. In another essay, in the section of the book entitled “War and Its Costs,” Kaplan addresses the question of whether what began as Operation Iraqi Freedom and continues to this day has been worth its cost in men and matériel. His conclusion is unequivocal: “at more than four thousand and counting, the answer for years to come will still be no.”

His view reflects his overall reluctance to have America engage in foreign adventures, especially when they do not directly affect American national security, as was the case with neither Iraq nor, for that matter, Vietnam, which he terms a “dirty, badly conceived” war. Indeed, he is leery of regime change whether or not it involves military action. In that regard he follows in the footsteps of Henry Kissinger, whom he unabashedly admires, and who is the subject of another chapter in the book, in a section devoted to “Thinkers.” But he also has much to say in favor of another realist who has been the subject of considerable criticism, namely Samuel Huntington, he of The Clash of Civilizations. Kaplan sees Huntington as an intellectual giant, who managed to blend old-fashioned liberalism and support for the export of American ideals with the need to maintain American power. American conservatism, Kaplan is in effect telling his readers, need not be cold-hearted and can certainly promote American values, without, however, forcing them on those whose cultures may resist them, or taking military action against those who resist them.

Kaplan’s volume includes an essay, written over a decade ago, that is likely to command special interest. In “When North Korea Falls,” Kaplan speculates as to the effect of a collapsed North Korean regime on the South, on America and on Korea’s neighbors. He observes that

“many South Koreans have an interest in the perpetuation of the Kim Family Regime, or something like it, since [its] demise would usher in a period of economic sacrifice that nobody in South Korea is prepared for. . . . China’s infrastructure investments are already laying the groundwork for a Tibet-like buffer state in much of North Korea, to be ruled indirectly through Beijing’s Korean cronies once the KFR unravels. . . . From the point of view of the average South Korean, the Chinese look to be offering a better deal than the Americans, whose plan for a free and democratic unified peninsula would require South Korean taxpayers to pay much of the cost. The more that Washington thinks narrowly in terms of a democratic Korean Peninsula, the more Beijing has the potential to lock the United States out of it.”

It is an observation that should give Trump administration policymakers pause as the president seeks an agreement with Kim Jong-un.

IN CONTRAST to Kaplan’s cautious realism, Elliot Abrams argues passionately and forcefully that democracy, that quintessential American value, is actually a universal one, and that Washington should do all it can to promote it in the Arab world, democracy’s stagnant backwater. An unabashed neoconservative—his intellectual honesty contrasts sharply with many of his fellow neocons, who deny their intellectual plumage—he spends a considerable portion at the outset of his book relitigating the policy debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Abrams is a prince of the neocon movement. Related by marriage to neocon stalwart Midge Decter (wife of Norman Podhoretz), he had worked for both Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Patrick Moynihan, the hawkish liberal Democrats who were political fathers of the neocon movement. Not surprisingly, Kissinger comes in for special criticism because he valued détente with the Soviets over human rights, and especially because he opposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment that linked trade with the USSR to Soviet Jews’ freedom of emigration. In fact, as Kaplan notes, but Abrams does not, Jewish emigration from the USSR actually declined after the amendment passed Congress. Abrams will only go so far as to say, “Debate continues on whether the amendment itself led to more emigration,” which, of course, is different from acknowledging that it had precisely the opposite effect. Abrams next contends, surprisingly, that “it can safely be said that emigration increased whenever the Soviets wanted anything from the United States, from increased trade to approval of the SALT I and SALT II treaties.” Having just acknowledged that any Soviet linkage between its desire for increased trade and emigration was debatable, he then fails to note that neocons, to a man or woman, bitterly opposed the SALT treaties. Evidently, while “realism” should not be permitted to trump humanitarian concerns, they considered it perfectly acceptable for an ideology that opposed arms control to do so.

After providing an account of the hoary battles between neocons and realists, Abrams then turns to the theme of his book: the Freedom Agenda and the Arabs. He contends that despite cultural and historical differences with the West, citizens of the Arab world value and long for democracy every bit as much as those of other countries. Employing extensive, indeed far too lengthy, quotations from President George W. Bush in particular, he asserts that Bush was really the only president who understood that promoting human rights involved not merely focusing on individuals, such as dissidents imprisoned by dictatorial regimes, but instead seeking to plant the seeds of democracy through greater support for nascent political parties. For this reason, he is critical of Jimmy Carter, who, while elevating the importance of human rights, did so only in terms of the rights of individuals, without calling for wholesale changes in governance.

Abrams’s commitment to overhauling the way the Arab world is governed even includes a role for Islamic parties. He argues that their participation in government would moderate them, while their exclusion would only result in their alienation and, ultimately, insurrection.

Abrams devotes most of his attention to the non-monarchical Arab states, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen in particular. With the notable exception of Bahrain, which he lumps with the four civilian-led regimes, he argues that the traditional monarchies—the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco—have the advantage of both legitimacy and gradual (if halting) attempts at reform. But just as Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms have focused less on democracy and more on improving the economic and social conditions of ordinary Saudis, the same can be said about the reforms undertaken by the other traditional rulers. Some, like Kings Mohammed of Morocco and Abdullah of Jordan, as well as the emir of Kuwait, do work with parliaments, even allowing Islamists to run for and win seats in parliamentary elections. Yet power remains firmly in the hands of the monarchical families and their most loyal supporters. The ruling families of the other traditional monarchies, including Bahrain, likewise retain power. Moreover, Abrams does not give sufficient credit to the Bahraini Al Khalifa family for attempting to reach out to the Shia majority, nor does he once mention Iran’s attempts to use the Shia to destabilize what it calls its fourteenth province (as Saddam called Kuwait his nineteenth province).

Abrams points to America’s successful promotion of democracy in postwar Germany and Japan; in Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines; in Latin America, notably El Salvador; and in Soviet central and eastern Europe. Every one of those places, with the exception of Japan, Taiwan and Korea, had some degree of democratic tradition prior to their falling into the hands of autocrats and dictators. Indeed, Japan also had a parliament prior to World War II and then, after having suffered from history’s only nuclear strikes, had no choice but to adopt a constitution drafted by Americans. As for Taiwan and Korea, both suffered under dictators for decades before transforming into democracies.

Abrams devotes relatively little space to America’s efforts to promote democracy in Iraq—at the cost of many lives and much treasure—subsequent to the initial defeat of Saddam. He correctly states that the initial motivation for the attack on Saddam was the belief, mistaken as it turned out but no less legitimate, that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. While he acknowledges that Iraq was a “morass,” all he can say about the ongoing American involvement there is that “it is fair to say that the combination of our Bush administration rhetoric with the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq led to the widespread conclusion that those invasions . . . were closely related to and perhaps the inevitable product of the Freedom Agenda.” Indeed, he then goes on essentially to deny that this was the case at all: “This was certainly not the view we took inside the administration. We had in mind a variety of traditional and nontraditional efforts to press for change in the Middle East.” That may indeed have been Abrams’s personal view. It was not the view of other neocons, especially those whom Ahmed Chalabi had led into believing that removing Saddam would not only lead to a democratic Iraq, but would trigger a chain reaction leading to democracy in other Arab states, and, a fortiori, create the conditions for peace with Israel. Surely, given Chalabi’s influence in Washington in the early years of the Bush administration, those who conflated regime change in Iraq with the Freedom Agenda were not very far off the mark.

Abrams implicitly criticizes Condoleezza Rice for seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement at the expense of the Freedom Agenda. He asserts that in seeking an agreement that would be a capstone to both the president’s term of office and her own as secretary of state, she felt that “pressure on the Arabs for internal reforms would have to take a back seat to ‘the Annapolis process,’ as the renewed effort on the Israeli-Palestinian front was called.” He does not mention his own skepticism regarding a two-state solution, which underpins the peace process. Just recently, he pointed out to Jewish Insider that

“I have long believed, and said publicly, that an independent and sovereign Palestinian State is unrealistic and is not actually viable. It would fall onto either Israel or Jordan, and it is much more logical that it should have some relationship with Jordan, which is a Muslim Arab state.”

No wonder that he would subordinate the Israel-Palestine peace process to the Freedom Agenda.

Abrams acknowledges that elections do not necessarily bring about democracy. Indeed, Abrams concedes that the participation of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections was a disaster. That does not lead him to forego support for elections in potential democracies, nor to exclude Islamists from participating in them. In the case of Hamas, he argues that “the most important error the Bush administration made was to permit a terrorist group to engage in politics without first laying down its arms and indeed without even pledging to do so.” He seems to overlook the reality that Washington might not be able to dictate the terms of who does, and who does not, participate in elections held by another country.

Abrams holds up Tunisia as a model of how the Freedom Agenda should work in the Arab world, even with the participation of Islamists. Yet Tunisia is the exception; it is the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring without reverting to a new autocracy, as in Egypt, or collapsing into civil war, as in Syria and Yemen. Moreover, despite the kleptocratic corruption of the authoritarian Ben Ali government, Tunisia had long been known both for its religious tolerance—Jews and Christians could worship freely there—and for its progressive treatment of women. The latter is something Abrams is willing to forego if other elements of what he considers to constitute democracy can be established, though women might take a different view.

Finally, only two other countries, admittedly both non-Arab, have seen Islamists not only participate in elections but come into power, with distinctly unhappy results. Turkey’s Erdoğan has relaunched a brutal assault on his country’s Kurds, arrested thousands of bureaucrats and hundreds of journalists, and undermined the independence of Turkey’s court system. And the mullahs’ Iran is not exactly a model for the Freedom Agenda, despite having an elected parliament in which even Jews can serve. Nor should one forget that it was democratic Weimar Germany that saw the Nazi movement become the country’s largest political party.

ABRAMS ADVOCATES directing American assistance, more of it private than governmental, to support the development of political parties rather than that of nongovernmental organizations, which tend to focus more on individual human rights than on regime modification or, better yet, replacement. He would condition security assistance on domestic reform; he argues that with the demise of communism, there no longer is an excuse for supporting “our sons of bitches.” What he seems to overlook is that the United States no longer dominates the international economy as it once did, and that states can and do look to China as a source of assistance as well as an alternative model for governance. Indeed, China is not alone in its willingness to support authoritarian regimes with no questions asked. India is no different. Nor, for that matter, is Israel. The United States simply cannot snap its economic and security fingers and demand progress toward democracy. Autocracies have elsewhere to go. And they do.

Autocracies will also not sit still in the face of American attempts to foist a new governance model upon them. They will retaliate. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has shown the way by banning the very institutions that Abrams argues offer the most in support of his agenda: the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Indeed, Putin has not stopped there. He has interfered in domestic American politics to a far greater extent than any other foreign power since British support for the Confederacy during the Civil War. And, despite being overwhelmingly reelected, he continues to protest American “interference” in his own electoral process.

None of this deters Abrams. His policy menu still would direct more American aid toward the development of political parties and focus less on supporting nongovernmental organizations and civil society. It would press for Islamist participation in governance. It would condition security assistance on domestic reform. It would call for elections. And it does not rule out military action to bring about regime change, rather merely acknowledging that the current American political climate renders such action unlikely, if not impossible. The contrast with Kaplan could not be greater.

HARLAN ULLMAN approaches American security policy from a rather different perspective. Drawing upon his experience as a naval officer in Vietnam and then as a senior defense analyst, both while still in uniform and subsequently with a number of leading Washington think tanks, Ullman argues that since the end of the Cold War, the United States simply has lacked the “sound strategic thinking” necessary to address effectively an increasingly evolving international environment. As a result, “where the use of force has gone badly awry, it was through the failure of decision makers, who allowed unsound and flawed strategic thinking to drive bad decisions.” Every administration since that of John Kennedy comes in for Ullman’s criticism, though he treats that of George H. W. Bush more gently than the others.

Ullman offers three requirements for what he repeatedly terms the “sound strategic thinking” that must underpin any major decision relating to the nation’s security. First, decisionmakers need a “deep understanding and knowledge of the circumstances surrounding and encompassing the issues.” In his view, the decisions to intervene in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as the war on ISIS, all fell short of this standard.

Second, “administrations have failed to understand the changing strategic environments of their times.” In Ullman’s opinion, “today’s foreign-policy intellectual framework remains embedded to a considerable degree in twentieth-century and Cold War thinking.” Policymakers have yet fully to assimilate the realities of a networked, multipolar world, and for that matter, too often view challenges through an ideological prism rather than in terms of their reality. In particular, Ullman identifies notions of deterrence as an example of outdated thinking. Deterrence is no longer dependent on force of arms and the threat of thermonuclear war; rather, Ullman asserts, it depends on “sound strategic thinking” that calls for cooperation with states in some respects, for example, defeating the Islamic State, even as there is competition and tension in others.

Third, Ullman calls for what have been called “whole-of-government” approaches to address international challenges through the use of nonmilitary influence—what Joseph Nye has termed “soft power.” Overreliance on military force to compensate for other tools of influence can never succeed. Nor for that matter, can reliance on what he calls “sound bites” such as “war on terror” or “hybrid war,” which he argues is “antithetical to sound strategic thinking.” By now the reader will have come across the term “sound strategic thinking” enough times to tire of the phrase. Ullman’s purpose, however, may well be to drive the point home sufficiently often and thoroughly so that it might actually influence policymakers and analysts after they put down his book.

Ullman proceeds to evaluate the degree to which each administration since that of John F. Kennedy employed such thinking. In some cases, he offers some keen insights. For example, Ullman compares the Kennedy administration’s hard-line, ideologically driven response to the Cuban missile crisis, which misread Khrushchev’s desire actually to reduce military expenditures, to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In the former, Kennedy employed “raw military power in order to close a missile gap that did not exist”; in the latter, the invasion was “in response to weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.”

In others, however, he does not always offer a viable alternative to the policies that actually were pursued. For example, Ullman, like Kaplan and very much unlike Abrams, offers fulsome praise for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who “wrought remarkable achievements vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Union,” “understood global politics and were well-versed in history,” and “had the sophistication to carry out a well-thought-out but risky strategy.” Yet he criticizes both men, especially Nixon, for “the secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. Instead of “a delaying action in Vietnam . . . had he in January 1969 launched Line-backer I, mined Haiphong, and initiated a more intense air campaign in the North, Hanoi could conceivably have been forced to the peace table.” Conceivably, but not necessarily; hindsight is always twenty-twenty.

To liven up his theme, Ullman offers a series of colloquies with leading policymakers who were intimately involved in one or more of the conflicts in which the United States has been engaged since the Kennedy administration. Not all of the dialogues are equally enlightening; he could have omitted several without detracting from his theme. Nevertheless, particularly when he records conversations involving persons he knows well, for example Les Aspin and John Kerry (about whom both Kaplan and Abrams have less than flattering things to say), he provides considerable insight into their concerns about key policy issues.

THE SUBTITLE of Ullman’s second-to-last chapter could just as easily have appeared in Kaplan’s book: “History Counts.” Summing up his evaluation of the failure of past administrations to win the wars they initiated, Ullman notes that it was not that they necessarily failed to apply strategic thinking, only that “too often they did it badly.” What is needed, he states, is a “brains-based approach to sound strategic thinking” that consists of the three elements he outlined at the outset of his book: full knowledge of “the problem set and solutions”; a twenty-first-century mind-set; and “a focus on affecting, influencing, and controlling the wills and perceptions of real and potential enemies.”

It is hard to disagree with Ullman’s prescriptions, but not everyone will share his premises. First of all, no one can have full knowledge of solutions to a given problem. Moreover, a “twenty-first-century mindset” could lead to radically different policies. For Abrams, that mindset calls for an emphasis on democracy; for Kaplan, it calls for caution when contemplating any sort of intervention in the affairs of another state. Finally, it is easier to speak about “controlling wills” than to do so. In a sense, Abrams could argue that this is precisely what he seeks to accomplish by de-emphasizing the good-governance projects that the Agency for International Development and various NGOs sponsor, and instead assigning greater budgetary priority to programs such as those of the NDI and IRI that support the creation of viable political parties. Kaplan, on the other hand, would argue that the notion of controlling wills is yet another example of American hubris, which has been the root cause of many of Washington’s troubles over the past several decades.

Clearly, the debate over how America should conduct itself on the world stage is far from over. To some extent, Donald Trump has sidelined that discussion, since no serious analyst would prescribe a tweet-based national-security policy. At some point, however, whether while Trump is still in the White House—perhaps as he implements the more conventional elements of his National Security Strategy—or it is occupied by his successor, that debate will again surface. Those seeking to understand the many sides of that debate would do well to peruse the meditations of Kaplan, Abrams and Ullman.

Dov S. Zakheim was an under secretary of defense (2001–4) and a deputy under secretary of defense (1985–87). He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters