Happy holidays, Washington security wonks! You nominated some of your favorite books from 2013 on national security issues. We interviewed the authors. Edited excerpts follow.
The takeaway: “U.S. foreign policy in the past five years has been premised on the notion that America can and should do less in the world and, in particular, shrink its engagement in the Middle East and instead focus on Asia. That assumption has proven false. Disengagement from the Middle East has only exacerbated crises that demand American attention, and the perception of an American foreign policy in retreat has eroded American credibility and shaken confidence in American leadership, not only in the Middle East but also in Asia where America is looking to increase its influence. This is not only a failure of imagination but also debilitating rivalries between a White House, at once centralizing foreign police decision-making and brushing it aside, with the State Department.”
How do you see the material in your book affecting the current national security discourse?
Nasr: “The Dispensable Nation shows the costs of a minimalist American foreign policy, and the faulty assumptions that have ensconced such an approach in the heart of American public debate on the country’s place in the world. As those costs have mounted so has the pressure to reset American foreign policy, and this book goes to the heart of the debate over whither American foreign policy.”
What’s the most surprising or interesting detail in your book?
What were some of the challenges while reporting this book?
What’s the most surprising detail in your book?
The takeaway: “I tried to tell as much of the history of the secret wars since 9/11 as can be told at this point. What has happened in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia is as much a history of the post-9/11 period as what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan: These wars have created a new model for how the U.S. goes about waging war, and to an extent, everything is in secret.”
How do you see your book impacting the current national security discourse?
Mazzetti: “Much of the way war is now waged is done in secret without the public and, I would argue, even a large part of Congress even knowing what is happening…. Who makes decisions about war and peace, and life and death? I argue that one of the phenomenons of the post-9/11 period is that very critical decisions are put in hands of small group of people. The smaller the group of people, the greater the chance is for error.
[My book addresses] whether the way these decisions were made are really the best way they should be made. A big theme of the book is on how the CIA has transformed what was created to be an espionage service is now today more than ever a paramilitary and manhunting organization—and the question is, should the CIA be at the forefront of all these secret wars? And what are the opportunity costs?”
Is there an especially interesting detail you wrote about?
Mazzetti: “When you go into war in countries and you can’t send in the Marines, you often rely on sometimes odd characters to wage this shadow war. One of the surprising things was just who the government relied on to carry out intelligence-gathering missions and paramilitary missions”¦. A woman I write about in Virginia was gathering information in Somalia; a guy who was involved in the Iran-Contra investigation and was wrapped up in that scandal was running a private spy ring in Pakistan.”
The takeaway: “The thing that we learn a little bit more about is how different the relationship the partnership between Bush and Cheney really was. For too long we sort of nursed a cartoonish two-dimensional version of it. It was great for late-night fodder, but it didn’t fully understand more complex and dynamic nature of their eight years together. It was never as simplistic as people made it out to be, and it changed dramatically over time.”
What was it like to report this book?
Baker: “It was great to go back to all these people that had covered in the moment and get them to sit down and tell you what was really going on when they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, at the time. Once an administration is done, people are able to be more thoughtful, more candid, more introspective, and I think a lot of people understood this was a chance to record history—at least one draft of it. It took as long as 30 months to get some people to sit down, but in the end 275 folks did, including Cheney and Powell and Rice and Rumsfeld and Petraeus and others.
“President Bush wouldn’t; he was one of the few who said he didn’t want to participate. He felt an NYT reporter couldn’t be fair to him so he decided to take a pass. I tried to convince him otherwise. I showed up at one of his events and he said, ‘Baker, are you stalking me?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, just trying to get my interview.’ [But] you can learn a lot about him even without him sitting down directly to talk.”
The takeaway: “The very way we talk about warfare is all screwed up—we refer to ‘irregular’ warfare or ‘unconventional’ fighting as if there is something wrong with this method of combat. In fact, guerrilla warfare has been the dominant form of warfare over the centuries; it is ‘conventional’ warfare pitting two uniformed armies against each other which is the aberration. Guerrilla warfare is the norm.”
What are the implications of that for today’s warfare?
Boot: “We may be out of Iraq and getting out of Afghanistan, but we are not going to escape the need to prepare for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. These modes of warfare will be as important in the future as in the past—perhaps even more so given the way conventional warfare has all be disappeared from the modern world. We can’t afford to go back to conventional soldiering against mirror-images adversaries, as all of the military services would prefer: We need to maintain our ability to fight guerrillas and terrorists. As a result of a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. armed forces have become one of the greatest COIN forces in history. The lesson of Invisible Armies is that we can’t afford to turn our back on that hard-won expertise.”
Was there anything that surprised you in your reporting?
Boot: “The most interesting and important finding is the growing impact of public opinion on guerrilla warfare. This is really what separates ancient from modern warfare. The dividing line between the two, I was surprised to find, was our very own American Revolution. Contrary to most accounts, the rebels did not win the war with battlefield victories at Saratoga and Yorktown. Even afterward the British Empire still had ample resources to continue fighting. But it chose not to do so because war-weary parliamentarians turned against the hardline North ministry and forced peace talks with the rebels. This was a template, of using public opinion to best a superpower, that would be followed in our day by many of America’s enemies, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.”
The takeaway: “Even smart strategies and strategists can go terribly wrong. Counterinsurgency was a smart strategy in certain districts in Iraq. David Petraeus was a smart strategist who employed his strategy shrewdly. But he turned it into an ideology, then almost a religion. He thought that he could make it work everywhere. And that’s what led to the defeat in Afghanistan and his own downfall.”
How does your book affect today’s national security debate?
Kaplan: “I think it’s more relevant than ever. First President Obama, then most senior military officers, concluded that Iraq and Afghanistan do not form the face of future warfare, for not for us anyway, and that COIN is a tool that fits a small number of conflicts, not a universal doctrine. The Army is going through an existential crisis, but the resolution begins with that realization.”
What’s an especially compelling detail you discovered in your research?
Kaplan: “I’m generally not a conspiracy theorist, but the book’s subtitle—David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War—is no hyperbole. The more I delved into my research, the more I realized this was a plot. The surge, the official adoption of COIN, the ‘Anbar Awakening’ and ‘Sons of Iraq’ movement that turned a corner in Iraq—all of these developments were the work of a complex plot, and very clever bureaucratic maneuvering, by Petraeus and some of his colleagues who came out of West Point’s Social Sciences Department.”
The takeaway: “Cyber issues are no longer just for the ‘IT Crowd.’ They have not only dominated recent headlines, but have more broadly evolved from a technology matter into an area that we all need to understand. To put it another way, cybersecurity and cyberwar has shifted from a ‘need to know’ area into one we all now need to know more about, whether working in politics, business, military, law, media, and academics, or even just as a good citizen or parent.”
What’s your objective in writing this book?
Singer: “The goal of the book is to provide an easy-to-read guide to the key questions, laying out how it all works, why it all matters, and what can we do, most importantly in way that takes the histrionics out of it all. I hope that it helps shift us from being taken in by our own ignorance on multiple levels (whether it’s by being individually hacked, by making a bad investment for your organization or business, or by making bad policy decisions for your agency, your military, or nation on something you really don’t understand), and instead start to better manage and better debate these important issues.”
What’s the most surprising part?
Singer: “That you can make a book about cyber issues interesting! To understand what’s happening in cyberspace, you have to focus on the people, the organizations they are in, their incentives, and all that comes with that, for better or for worse. Fortunately, from a writing standpoint that gives you the fun of the book, weaving in all the fascinating stories and characters, whether it be the time Pakistan held hostage the world’s cute-cat videos (used to explain how the Internet works), to lessons from others fields and history, such as the story of the real Pirates of the Caribbean or the zany Air Force plan to nuke the moon in the midst of the Cold War.”