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Books: Power and Prudence

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Harvard University Press).

Making War to Keep Peace

By Jeane J. Kirkpatrick

(HarperCollins, 384 pp.,


Jeane J. Kirkpatrick became famous as the Reagan administration's combative ambassador to the United Nations from 1981 to 1985, but few believed that the almost gamine former college professor could have much of a voice in shaping foreign policy, what with tough guy Al Haig and big man George Shultz in command at the State Department, and successive National Security Advisers happy to keep her in New York making noisy speeches while they quietly made policy in the White House. The implicit assumption of that line of reasoning was that the late-to-rise and early-to-bed Ronald Reagan himself was not all that important in the Reagan administration, so that even if it were true that he had a particular regard for Kirkpatrick, it would hardly matter. Besides, few believed the tale that Reagan had appointed her after reading her pieces in Commentary--that magazine's articles run to several pages, after all, and Reagan supposedly read so little that as president he even received his daily intelligence briefing in the form of bite-sized videos. With Reagan a mere cipher manipulated by his handlers, Kirkpatrick could have no White House support against powerful men with bureaucracies to serve them, and therefore no power.

The newly published Reagan diaries overturn all of the above. We encounter a shrewd and watchful president who treated Kirkpatrick as a valuable colleague in reforming the status quo at the United Nations, in which the members of the "non-aligned bloc" collected their American aid before firmly aligning their votes with the Soviet Union on almost every issue, decorating the proceedings with frequent diatribes against the United States. Observing today's ultra-tame United Nations, where inferiority complexes are vented only in such hopeless sub-venues as the Human Rights Council (China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia are members, the United States is not), one can scarcely imagine the General Assembly follies of those days, in which the perfumed representatives of smelly dictatorships competed in devising new accusations against the United States. The State Department thought all this was inevitable and harmless, and it vehemently opposed any strong response at the United Nations, let alone bilateral reprisals such as cutting aid. But Reagan did not agree, and he firmly supported Kirkpatrick's counter-attacks:

Tuesday, July 28 [1981]

Met also with Jeanne [sic] Kirkpatrick. She says the U.N. is a worse can of worms than even she had anticipated. We've agreed the U.S. has got to get tough and maybe walk out a few times.

Alexander Haig as secretary of state was jealous of his prerogatives, which extended far and wide in his own estimation, certainly embracing all American diplomatic missions, including the one in New York--this notwithstanding the inconvenient truth that Jeane Kirkpatrick had her own seat on the National Security Council as proof absolute of her non-subordination to the State Department. Inevitably there were serious policy disputes that could be resolved only by the president himself--and for a president who wants to stay in the loop to be able to exercise his own power, there is nothing much wrong with that, so long as public rows are avoided. Reagan knew the kingly craft, and his carefully balanced decisions were calculated to require further appeals to himself, enhancing his control over policy.

Monday, May 31 [1982]

Back to office to meet with Jeanne [sic]Kirkpatrick. She and Al H. have been at each others throats. Later in the day met with Al. Bill Clark at both meetings--thank Heaven. As it turns out there is some right and some wrong on both sides. I think we can get a lid on it with no further damage.

Reagan thus treated the two as equals--a win for Kirkpatrick, who had only a small U.N. staff at her command; a loss for the head of the vast State Department. As it turned out, Kirkpatrick remained at her post for the full term and more, leaving only in 1985, long after Haig was forced to resign from the State Department. Even after that she retained her access and her influence:

Tuesday, February 24 [1987]

After lunch a good meeting with Jeane Kirkpatrick reporting on her meeting with Gorbachev & Sakharov to Geo.B.[ush].,Geo S.[hultz], Cap W.[einberger] Frank C.[arclucci] Don R.[egan] & me. A very useful & good session.

And it really was, for it set the stage for the transformation of American policy-- in the diary Gorbachev soon became Gorby--often naughty, never quite evil.

Making War to Keep Peace, the book that Jeane Kirkpatrick completed not long before her death last December, is not a memoir. It is an investigation of an issue that apres Iraq easily detains attention: what are the proper criteria for the use of force when there is no immediate attack to repel and when no vital interests are at stake? (Read: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo.) When should the government of the United States invade foreign countries, unilaterally or multilaterally?

One lesson of recent wars, both medium and small, is that in spite of the ill repute of unilateralism and the virtuous connotations of multilateralism, it actually does not matter very much if allies can be rounded up or not. These days the distribution of usefully deployable military power is so spectacularly uneven that our most valiant British ally cannot quite sustain 16,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the others cannot match half that number. Even a total round-up of all that NATO, plus the Russians, plus the Chinese, could sustain in an expeditionary deployment overseas, plus all the odds and sods that respond to a U.N. summons for peacekeeping troops (there is money in it for the likes of the Bangladesh East Bengal Regiment), would yield a total force smaller than the U.S. Marine Corps, and infinitely less capable.

True, even the Marine Corps is mostly ineffective against enemies who refuse to wear uniforms and to assemble in conveniently targetable combat formations-- alas, the only enemies that are encountered these days; but the others can be downright embarrassing. There are many cases of units in U.N. or even NATO service that simply refused to fight when the situation urgently required it and the rules of engagement definitely allowed them to do so. There are quite a few cases of abject surrenders to outnumbered and outgunned aggressors, including African child soldiers, and at least one case of a complete national contingent (a Guinean unit in Sierra Leone) that promptly sold all its U.N.- supplied weapons, ammunition, and uniforms to the rebels they were supposed to fight, then demanded to be resupplied. (They were.)

Politically, too, it is now clear that even the broadest multilateralism would not help much in facing today's enemies. For Islamist insurgents, there is no difference between American, French, Russian, or Chinese infidels, and they are even more antagonistic to Muslim rulers who reject their ultra- fanaticism to cooperate with the United States. Had Bush & Co. succeeded in building a vast coalition to invade Iraq in 2003 instead of rushing ahead in fear that the whole thing would be called off if there were enough time for common sense to prevail--had the Russians, Chinese, Egyptians, Saudis, and French too come along for the ride to Baghdad--it would have made no difference to the insurgents. Variegated as they are, none would have recognized the legitimacy of the invaders and therefore desisted from fighting. For the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, no form of elected majority rule is acceptable. Always a minority, they always dominated the priest-ridden Shia, who are fatally divided by deadly priestly rivalries; and they firmly believe that they can dominate the Shia again as soon as the invaders leave.

So even if it had been a perfectly multilateral invasion that had removed Saddam and established an elected government, the Sunni Arabs would be fighting now just as they are, and so obviously would the Islamists who are now franchised by Al Qaeda. For them, the Twelver Shia of Iraq and Iran are worse than infidels: they are apostates who deserve death and whose heretical mosques must be destroyed. As for the Shia, they favor majority rule because they are the majority, but notoriously they are even more hostile to infidels than the Sunnis. (The supposed moderate Ayatollah Ali alSistani refuses to shake hands with Christians or Jews.) In fact, some of the Shia are so hostile to infidels that they attack the very troops that are protecting them from Sunni Arab revanchism.

It is the same in Lebanon now, where the U.N. force (UNIFIL) that is supposed to secure the southern part of the country has not been immunized from attack by its impeccable multilateralism--indeed, not even by the groveling appeasement of Hezbollah and Syria perpetrated by the major participating governments. It is poetic injustice that it was the Spanish who suffered the first casualties. It is fairly easy to close dishonorable deals with extremists; but in the realm of Islam there is always somebody a tad more extreme who will still send assassins to kill infidels.

In spite of her own diplomatic antecedents, Kirkpatrick's criteria for American military intervention disregard the uni/multi distinction that remains sacrosanct for so many in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Of course that is just what many would expect from a registered neoconservative from the Commentary stable with a particular dislike for U.N.-branded multilateralism-- but that is not the point at all. For Kirkpatrick, it did not matter if the use of force was amply multilateral or purely unilateral so long as it was justified by reasons so compelling that most Americans would necessarily accept them once informed of the facts, or else by the humanitarian urgencies of imminent genocide. She therefore approved of the Bosnian and Kosovo interventions because many lives were saved by them, and because they allowed the United States to re-affirm its leadership at small cost, and because it was all done with air power with no American ground forces engaged, greatly reducing the risk of casualties. She approved of the invasion of Grenada, which did require boots on the ground, because American medical students were in immediate danger; and she would have approved of an invasion of Rwanda to stop genocide, especially because it could have been done with few troops. More than half a million were sent to fight the first Iraq war, but for Kirkpatrick the national-interest reasons were powerful, and she approved of that war as well.

Of course, for the anti-Semitic commentators from Washington to London to Tehran who keep saying that it was not really Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, or Rice who decided to invade Iraq but rather their subordinates with Jewish names, "neoconservative" is merely a euphemism for the eternally conspiring Jew, and Kirkpatrick obviously does not fit the bill. But there is another valid definition of a foreign policy neoconservative: a prudent activist. A resilient optimism about the United States and its potential to do good was the source of the activism, while an erudite knowledge of the complexities of the world induced prudence--the collected Commentary articles of Walter Laqueur alone would amount to a veritable education in the ironies and paradoxes of international politics. It is no accident that eager proponents of the 2003 Iraq war such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, prototypical milk-fed carnivores, never wrote for Commentary during the Cold War years, nor read it most likely--they were too busy politicking to study the countries and cultures on which they pronounced so readily.

On many of the great issues of the day, Kirkpatrick and Laqueur (and the present writer) were distinctly more cautious than the majority of elite opinion. Nuclear arms control is a case in point. Many believed that because the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons grossly exceeded the culminating point of military effectiveness, American-Soviet arms-control negotiations could do much good and no harm. The neoconservatives disagreed, and the record shows that they were right: the Soviet non-nuclear military build-up actually accelerated after the 1972 accords. It was the same with their firm opposition to detente diplomacy in general: it was only when Gorbachev came to power after Reagan repudiated detente that its enabling role in preserving the decrepit Soviet Union became clear to all. The common denominator was prudence with the public weal, the refusal to follow supposedly universal arms-control or detente theories, or any other ambitious theories that made no allowance for the particular historical experience and political culture of the Russians, nor for the specific Bolshevik ideology whose Marxist humanism had long since been stripped away to leave only the Leninist intoxication with unfettered power.

There is no point in prolonging the suspense: while accepting its legality under previous U.N. resolutions inasmuch as Saddam had violated the 1991 cease- fire conditions, Kirkpatrick firmly opposed the Iraq War II of Bush II after vigorously supporting the Iraq War I of Bush I--except for its abrupt termination with Saddam Hussein still in control of large undestroyed forces of proven competence in fighting unarmed civilians. As Allan Gerson points out in his succinct postscript to Making War to Keep Peace, Kirkpatrick opposed Iraq II because she was careful, as befits a true neoconservative. In her book, she writes that she recognized no compelling reason to send American troops in harm's way in any of the arguments advanced for the war. Yes, it would have been right to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 1991 when all was ready and set to finish him off easily, but by 2003 it required a full-scale war, and that was not justified. True, Saddam would become a danger again if the U.N. embargo were lifted. If that happened and he did re-arm in threatening ways, then action could well be justified--but none of that had happened by 2003. Above all, Kirkpatrick (like the present writer) totally rejected the true motive of the war, which was to establish a successful democracy in the heart of the Arab world, to lead the way for the democratization of all the Arab states.

The advocates of the war from Bush down believed that democratization was the valid answer to September 11, that it was the best antidote to Islamic fanaticism as well as far better in itself than the autocracies and dictatorships that rule the Arab world. In other words, the armed forces of the United States were engaged in 2003 not to repel an immediate danger but to carry out a political experiment on the largest possible scale. I suggested at the time that if the experiment had to be attempted, it was much better to start with a micro-state such as the sheikdom of Fujairah or Sharjah, whose few thousand inhabitants could be individually re-educated one by one--or deported to Las Vegas condos if they proved to be too recalcitrant. In her book Kirkpatrick writes that it was utterly imprudent to believe that a democracy could be created out of nothing, with no cultural foundations and no historical preparation. Iraq in 2003 was not Germany or Japan in 1945--it had neither decades of pre-dictatorial parliamentarism nor the national unity of both countries.

In her concluding chapter on Afghanistan and Iraq, Kirkpatrick lists the pre- conditions of democracy: "the rule of law, an elite with a shared commitment to democratic procedure, a sense of citizenship, and habits of trust and cooperation." Noting that all were absent in Iraq, Kirkpatrick condemns the Bush administration for its failure to perform "the due diligence required for reasoned policy-making because [it] failed to address the aftermath of invasion. " In other words, the Bushies were spectacularly uncareful in wanting to transform a country of which they knew nothing. We may be certain that many a secretary in the Pentagon did more research on her next holiday destination than Secretary Rumsfeld and his officials did on Iraq before sending scores of thousands of Americans to visit the place. I was myself present at a pre-war military planning session in which it became clear that a couple of junior infantry officers who had done a few days of Internet searching knew more about the Jazidis, Nestorians, Shiite dynasties, Sunni tribes, and the different varieties of the Kurds than the proponents of the war, who kept talking about a non-existent nationality called "Iraqis."

In a first chapter on Iraq I, Kirkpatrick lays out her initial set of nationalinterest criteria, which definitely do not include forcible nation- building, and then provides an extensive counterpoint in the next chapter on the Somalia interventions, where American policy was again deformed by ignorance of the place under Bush I, later compounded by the anti-military phobia of the Clinton White House and the egregious incompetence and hidden political agendas of U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The outcome was ignominious failure at all levels, which ended with the abandonment of Somalia to the Somalis, whose many virtues do not include the ability to govern themselves. Like all U.N. secretaries-general, Boutros-Ghali picked up his Manhattan groupies who excuse all U.N. depredations (even those of Kojo Annan), and it will be interesting to see if any will now defend him from Kirkpatrick's devastating condemnation.

In the Balkans, Boutros-Ghali systematically opposed effective action against the Serbs under military policies that gave a bad name to impotence, whereas in Somalia his goals were insanely ambitious, securing a resolution in March 1993 that called for disarming all Somali clans and factions by U.N. troops under his own supreme command. The task was impossible: every Somali has a weapon and also knows how to hide it when necessary. Napoleon might have paled at the thought; but the Clinton administration spurned the advice of all officials who had ever been in Somalia and accepted both the impossible goal and the improbable supreme commander, and American soldiers died because of it-- especially needlessly because that particular debacle could have been averted by common sense at many points up until the very eve of the disaster.

The Balkan wars were a good deal more complicated, and even those who have read more than one of the many books that have already appeared on the subject will want to read Kirkpatrick's hundred pages on Bosnia and Kosovo. Since she knew how decisions were actually made, her depiction of the perverse interaction between U.N. disabilities, NATO limitations, the feeble intrigues of Europe's ex-Great Powers, and Washington's inhibitions is remarkably illuminating. She shows why in the end only the United States could stop mass atrocities that were perpetrated within easy reach of Vienna, just across the water from Italian beach resorts where millions of European tourists pensively chose between lasagna and tagliatelle, while bombardments, mass murder, and starvation continued month after month, year after year. There were both incipient genocide and threats to international peace that the United States could have stopped at a low cost by a bit of bombing and much forceful diplomacy. Hence Kirkpatrick supported the limited use of force, which proved to be sufficient.

Earlier, in a chapter on the vicissitudes of Haiti under its unelected and elected dictators, Kirkpatrick is more categorical. After carefully examining the new "failed states" doctrine that would abrogate sovereignty to justify benevolent interventions where government has broken down and the state no longer functions (Boutros-Ghali was, of course, an enthusiast), she concludes that this new colonialism was worse than the old, because at least some incidental good was done while extracting gold and such, while attempts to synthesize modern democracies for populations with quite other priorities can only turbo-charge their travails. Even in destitute Haiti, it is not difficult to organize an election--one needs only a supply of ballot boxes and slips of paper. But to organize a functioning democracy where none ever existed before, as in Haiti, Iraq, or Afghanistan--well, that is a bit more difficult. A century or two is usually required (that being my own reason for opposing Iraq II--call it impatience if you will). An immediate withdrawal after the destruction of the regime was never a possible option, while it was and is absurd to employ much of the deployable strength of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps as a Mesopotamian constabulary sine die. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was an interventionist, not an isolationist, but first of all she believed in being careful.

By Edward N. Luttwak