2013’s 7 Books for Security Wonks to Read

You nominated them; we interviewed the authors.

National Journal
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Sara Sorcher
Dec. 24, 2013, midnight

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.

(Doubleday) National Journal


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?


(Mark Mazzetti) Mark Mazzetti

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.”

(Courtesy of Peter Baker) National Journal


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.”

(Courtesy of Max Boot) National Journal


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.” 

(Courtesy of Fred Kaplan) National Journal


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.”

(Courtesy of Peter Singer) National Journal


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.”


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