Friday, February 25, 2011

The can-do kids: a Pentagon counterfactual

I want you to take a little trip with me, all the way back to 2004. The United States is at war, and nearly 70,000 American troops are on the ground in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld has some "issues w/various countries," so he fires off a memo to the Under Secretary of Defense to try to get some answers... only this time it's not know-it-all undersecretary for fiascos Doug Feith. No, we need a guy in the hot seat who understands The Coming Anarchy. Forget about idealistic neoconservatives; we need a guy who recognizes "humankind's tendency toward a kind of slipshod, gooey, utopian, and ultimately dangerous optimism." We need Bob Kaplan.

Just imagine...

RUMSFELD: We need to solve the Pakistan problem. Are you coming up with some proposals for me to send around?

KAPLAN: With more pressure [we] might increase Islamabad's cooperation in relatively short order.

RUMSFELD: I do think this memo on Pakistan is correct. I think we have to force the issue of Pakistan up to the Deputies and get a policy. If Pakistan goes under, we have serious problems (pdf). So, uh, thanks.

KAPLAN: America has strategic advantages and can enhance its power while extricating itself from war. But this requires leadership—not great and inspiring leadership which comes along rarely even in the healthiest of societies—but plodding competence, occasionally steely nerved and always free of illusion. So yeah, no problem, chief.

RUMSFELD: Yeah, ok, I get the point. No more emails like this. (Next time I'll ask Wolfowitz (pdf).)



  1. You're holding up Kaplan - a man who paints a grandly inaccurate strategic picture with the broad brush of cultural determinism - as the voice of reason? Even as a counterpoint to Rumsfeld and Feith, that's terrifying.

    Seriously, Gulliver - Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy ranks with Barber's Jihad vs McWorld and Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations as some of the most grossly misleading yet widely read foreign policy pablum of the last two decades. You need to find a wiser sage.

  2. MK:

    Let me be frank. I don't know where I'm going with this.

    In re Kaplan.

    I never read Barber's "Jihad," and never summoned the energy to finish Huntington's "Clash" when its flaws were painfully pointed out to me in fairly extensive detail. (And I'm an extraordinary fan of "Political Order.")

    You're right and (I think maybe) wrong about Kaplan. I don't know if you're referring to "The Coming Anarchy" (book - compilation of essays) or "The Coming Anarchy" (standalone essay). I found "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" in the former to be worth reading, "The Coming Anarchy" (in both) arguably to be worth reading, and the remainder of "Coming Anarchy" (book/standalone essays) to be of faint value at best.

    But back to Kaplan per se. He's a journalist, not a social scientist, for sure. I'd be curious to get your thoughts on whether that matters and, if so, how. I'm particularly curious given that to me the line between journalism and strains of social science somewhat generally construed (i.e., not the humanities - history - and certainly not the natural sciences) can be fairly narrow. I'm think of area studies within political science, to be specific. I'm not necessarily saying that writing "Ends of the Earth" necessarily imbues one with great knowledge, but to me it's a distinct work from "Clash." "Ends" is a set of snapshots from distinct locales (as I recall it) and while it obviously is not quantitative social science, nor necessarily rigorous qualitative social science (e.g., ordered selection from an entire, well-defined universe of cases), I'd contend there may be value in (1) the snapshots (case studies?) themselves and (2) the observations which occur from comparisons of the different snapshots.

  3. Part II)

    (Incidentally, although I don't know why, I found Kaplan's "An Empire Wilderness" to be vastly superior - or at least more enjoyable - than "Ends." The references and resonance with Joel Garreau's "Edge City" - one of my two favorite non-fiction works by journalists - and "Nine Nations" - which I've never, regrettably, read in full - may say something about why "Empire" appealed to me. But, I digress, perhaps considerably.)

    I was also struck by the article I read in today's/tomorrow's WaPo by David Ignatius, whose expertise in intelligence (above all else), military and Middle East/North Africa (and South Asia? - more contestable) matters I respect. (A lot if not most of his fiction is pretty good, too - some of it great.) It was an article on Syria's stability, or lack thereof, and I was irked because - and here is a term of art and precision - it just didn't seem right to me. I've actually played with ideas (in the most haphazard way, I assure you) he was touching upon, and I got the sense that, like "Seinfeld" was supposed to be (was never a fan), it was an article that ultimately was about nothing. Not that its topic isn't important - it, that is to say, Syria's stability and future prospects, is obviously a matter of concern, to understate considerably.

    But I suppose the unifying them (yes, Virginia, there may be one) is that I wasn't satisfied with Ignatius's reasoning (or really, lack thereof), in the same way that I think you're not satisfied with Kaplan's, even though I'm - relativley - satisfied with Kaplan's. Maybe it was because Ignatius's article seemed like speculation and projection based on what was really "mere" news, instead of putting forth some explicit process of prognosis (i.e., some positivist - I guess - method). And additionally, of late, in the wake of "Who Lost Egypt" and the bashing or glorification of area studies (depending on who you ask, what you already thought and won't change your mind about, what blogs you read, etc.), I've leaned toward area studies being more important than I perhaps previously gave it credit for. (While I'm sympathetic to Professor Walt's claims that it's hard to make predictions, especially about the future, at the same time, I have to acknowledge some of his predictions may have failed due not to the inherent difficulty of prediction, but because he simply lacked knowledge others possessed, and relied on his own work examining - really - at most seven revolutions, at least in depth.) To put it in context, then, at the moment I've been predisposed toward area studies, and I would argue that Ignatius is both smart and knowledgeable enough to hold his own against many a practitioner of social science and/or Middle East studies. In other words, call him an area studies specialist in journalist's clothing. At the same time, I found myself bothered by his style of reporting - that is to say, the absence of explicit methodology. I want one and I want the other, and there may be a contradiction in wanting both simultaneously, might be what I'm trying to say, or at least, what I'm wondering.


  4. Huh. I wrote up a whole 'nother post (Part II) about David Ignatius, Stephen Walt, area studies, and wanting more of it (perhaps) and wanting less of it, or a modified version of it (perhaps). It was truly scintillating, I assure you...

    Drat that generally reliable


  5. ADTS -- for some reason, it kicked that second one to the spam box.

    MK -- Uh, you recognize that this was a joke, right?

  6. The fin is funny, Gulliver.

    *I like the National Interest article (the part about the Anglosphere, especially. Hey, James Bennett is a coblogger at CBz so how could I not be a fan?)

    I always think of the Anglosphere not as cultural determinism but as a good strong head-start because of good strong ideas about how to govern (and educational levels, and infrastructure, and so forth.)

  7. Madhu -- I always think of the Anglosphere not as cultural determinism but as a good strong head-start because of good strong ideas about how to govern

    Winston Churchill would mostly agree with you (though there's some culturalism thrown in there, too).


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