Posted by: Shaun | May 18, 2008

Everything old is new again

Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American

Power. BY FRED KAPLAN. Wiley, 2008, 246 pp., $25.95

It was abundantly clear to anyone watching television on the morning of September 11, 2001. The United States had been attacked on its own soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor and everything had changed; international politics would never be the same from that date forward. Except that it would.

This is the central premise of Frad Kaplan’s new book, Daydream Believers, which argues that a number of misconceptions led policy makers to the false conclusion that a new era had dawned after September 11th when the old realities of global politics were, in fact, alive and well. Kaplan, who holds a doctorate from MIT and writes the “War Stories” feature for Slate, takes his cue from T.E. Lawrence’s famous missive on the dangers of “dreamers of the day” who are prepared to make real their wild fantasies.

At the root of the illusory world view posited by Kaplan was the fundamental misreading of a very real realignment of world power, the collapse of the Soviet Union. This left the United States the most powerful country in the world and the lesson George W. Bush and his administration drew from this was that they could “do pretty much as they pleased: issue orders and expect obeisance, topple rogue regimes at will, honor alliances and treaties when they were useful, and disregard them when they weren’t.” However, what the neoconservatives and other backers of the “unipolar moment” thesis failed to consider was that by removing a common threat, the demise of the Soviet Empire left many states throughout the world without the need for U.S. security guarantees and thus less susceptible to American demands. In some ways, the end of the Cold War left America weaker.

Other febrile beliefs under girded this central strategic assumption, and two of the most important highlighted by Kaplan are the efficacy of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). The RMA was supposed to harness the power of information technology to enable the ultimate joint operations. Real-time battlefield intelligence, instant communication, precision weapons, and high mobility forces all enmeshed in a digital network supposedly made the old, dirty, time-consuming methods of war familiar to veterans of Korea or Vietnam obsolete while promising rapid victories with minimal manpower almost anywhere in the world.

If no country on earth could challenge the U.S. in conventional military power, then some might try to deter American adventurism with nuclear weapons. Missile Defense would ostensibly negate this possibility by creating an advanced system of radars and interceptors designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles before they reached American soil. No matter that such technologies has been explored without success since the dawn of the missile age; with the proper investment, we could make it work (or so the Bush administration thought).

Thus, Kaplan argues, an America that thought itself unbeatable in battle, soon to be invulnerable from rogue missile attacks, and with no peer competitors in sight found itself attacked on 9/11. This was the catalyst for the disaster to follow. George W. Bush and his acolytes set out to transform the world, through force if necessary, in a strategy that culminated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Bush’s 2005 inaugural address, in which America’s interest in security and its ideal of democracy were supposedly unified in a grand quest to make the world free.

Except that the RMA proved unsuited to nation building and America’s military found itself vulnerable to the same sorts of tactics that dogged Napoleon in Spain. We still find ourselves sidling up to dictators in Beijing, Riyadh, and Alma-Ata. We are still forced to negotiate with rogue regimes like Kim Jong Il’s. And we are increasingly incapable of exercising influence in world affairs as our power is sapped by war, recession, and the reticence of our allies to aid the administration that so haughtily dismissed their concerns in prior years.

Kaplan ends his book by urging a return to realism (with a small “r”, not of the capitalized Kissingerian variety) with a conscience. Taking as his model the strategists of the early Cold War, like Dean Acheson, he believes America must base its strategy on an empirical assessment of the world and develop new institutions and alliances through which to pursue our interests in the world as it is.

While it does not contain much in the way of new or revelatory information, Daydream Believers is a cogent and highly readable account of the false assumptions that led the U.S. to the strategically precarious situation in which it finds itself. It is, by and large, a critique of the second Bush administration and largely leaves Bill Clinton off the hook. While Bush certainly carried the ideas of American supremacy to their extremes, we shouldn’t forget that Clinton’s Pentagon was the first to embrace RMA, that he was no stranger to the use of force in the name of abstract ideals, and that it was his secretary of state who declared America to be the “indispensable nation.” Still, Kaplan’s book is worth a read and the lessons he illuminates should be taken to heart by anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy.


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