The il­lu­sion-free case for en­hanc­ing U.S. mil­i­tary might

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Rosa Brooks

Don’t let the ti­tle fool you: Eliot A. Co­hen’s new­est book, “The Big Stick: The Lim­its of Soft Power and the Ne­ces­sity of Mil­i­tary Force,” isn’t a pro-war polemic. In­stead, it’s very much in the “older, sad­der, wiser” vein: Once seen as a cheer­leader for the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s am­bi­tious neo-con­ser­va­tive agenda, Co­hen now of­fers a vi­sion of Amer­i­can power largely stripped of il­lu­sion. The United States must en­hance its mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties and re­main en­gaged in shoring up the in­ter­na­tional order, he con­tends in this thought­ful and eru­dite book — but not be­cause it is in­fal­li­ble. It’s sim­ply that in this messy and un­cer­tain world, there are cur­rently no bet­ter al­ter­na­tives.

Even though Co­hen is pas­sion­ate about a United States that is mil­i­tar­ily pow­er­ful and in­ter­na­tion­ally en­gaged, he is also a stu­dent of his­tory, and for the most part, he owns up to re­cent U.S. fail­ures. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States was “un­pre­pared, in­tel­lec­tu­ally and or­ga­ni­za­tion­ally.” It made “fun­da­men­tal mis­judg­ments,” and the mil­i­tary adapted only halt­ingly and in­ter­mit­tently to the new forms of con­flict it faced. Ul­ti­mately, Co­hen con­cludes, the Iraq War, which he once staunchly sup­ported, was “a mis­take.” False in­tel­li­gence about weapons of mass de­struc­tion

dam­aged U.S. cred­i­bil­ity, as did the abuses at Abu Ghraib and else­where. More broadly, the war strained civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tions, caused ten­sions with key U.S. al­lies and left the United States weaker rather than stronger.

Co­hen is equally crit­i­cal of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. En­am­ored of Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces and drone strikes, U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers have con­fused tac­ti­cal suc­cess with strate­gic progress, and the mil­i­tary has failed to in­vest in “the in­tel­lec­tual in­fra­struc­ture” of hard power and to de­velop in­no­va­tive new ways to bring in vi­tal tal­ent.

Why, then, should the flawed and er­ror­prone United States not sim­ply cul­ti­vate its own gar­den, re­serv­ing the use of mil­i­tary force for nar­row, de­fen­sive pur­poses?

Co­hen has an an­swer, and it’s far from tri­umphal­ist: We live in a coun­try that has been con­tin­u­ously at war for the past 15 years and con­tin­u­ally at war through­out its his­tory, and we be­long to a species that seems uniquely prone to bouts of mass slaughter. As Leon Trot­sky is said to have re­marked, “You may not be in­ter­ested in war, but war is in­ter­ested in you.” If we take that se­ri­ously, the United States needs to be en­gaged in the on­go­ing project of shoring up the in­ter­na­tional order it helped cre­ate, and it needs to ac­cept that there may be times when po­lit­i­cal lead­ers will con­clude, “how­ever re­luc­tantly, that vi­o­lence is the least bad pol­icy choice.”

That in­ter­na­tional order (and the Amer­i­can in­ter­ests it pro­tects) faces four main chal­lenges. The first is China. China’s world­view is fun­da­men­tally in­com­pat­i­ble with that of the United States, Co­hen as­serts. In the South China Sea, for in­stance, “China has made claims that would not only deny other coun­tries ac­cess to the riches of the seabed, but would, by con­strain­ing com­merce, ren­der them vas­sals to their gi­ant neigh­bor.” More broadly, China re­fuses to “rec­og­nize a state sys­tem based on equality and sovereignty, and an eco­nomic sys­tem built around glob­al­ized free trade sup­ported by the rule of law.” In­stead, “it has a hi­er­ar­chi­cal con­cep­tion of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.”

China, one sup­poses, might say the same of the United States. Still, Co­hen is surely right that China’s re­cent at­tempt to claim most of the South China Sea as part of its ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters runs afoul of in­ter­na­tional law and greatly in­creases the risk of in­ter­na­tional con­flict. “War,” Co­hen notes, “may come with­out ei­ther side willing it from the be­gin­ning”; even an “ac­ci­den­tal or nearly ac­ci­den­tal clash be­tween Amer­i­can and Chi­nese forces” could quickly spi­ral into overt con­flict, and there is no guar­an­tee that the United States would emerge vic­to­ri­ous.

Wash­ing­ton, Co­hen con­tends, must there­fore “con­vince [this] ris­ing, as­sertive and yet vul­ner­a­ble peer” that at­tacks on its neigh­bors or on the United States would “not only fail, but en­dan­ger the regime that launched them,” some­thing that can “only be ac­com­plished by an Amer­i­can force struc­ture, al­liance sys­tem, and mo­bi­liza­tion ca­pac­ity that makes such at­tacks self-ev­i­dently un­wise.”

Co­hen sees a sec­ond chal­lenge to U.S. in­ter­ests in the be­hav­ior of pow­er­ful nu­clear and near-nu­clear states such as Rus­sia, Iran and North Korea. Each aims to change re­gional bal­ances of power in ways that could trig­ger wide­spread con­flict, and each, he ar­gues, can be de­terred only by clear ev­i­dence that the United States will, if nec­es­sary, re­spond to ag­gres­sive or desta­bi­liz­ing ac­tions with de­ci­sive force.

In Co­hen’s eyes, a third threat is posed by the “var­i­ous ji­hadi move­ments — al-Qaeda, the Is­lamic State, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and oth­ers.” Tra­di­tional mod­els of de­ter­rence have lit­tle to of­fer when it comes to ide­o­log­i­cally mo­ti­vated, vi­o­lent non­state ac­tors, and the United States has strug­gled both to de­fine and to re­spond to these non­tra­di­tional foes. On the one hand, such ex­trem­ist groups pose no ex­is­ten­tial threat to the United States; on the other hand, they can’t merely be ig­nored. Co­hen ad­vo­cates a com­bi­na­tion of “lethal op­er­a­tions . . . to tamp down, dis­rupt, and limit a virus that can­not, how­ever, be de­stroyed this way”; a fo­cus on cap­tur­ing “and where pos­si­ble, turn­ing” lead­ing ter­ror­ists; and a greatly ex­panded ef­fort to har­ness Amer­i­can “soft power” to counter ex­trem­ist ide­olo­gies.

Fi­nally, “The Big Stick” turns to the chal­lenges posed by un­governed spa­ces and the global com­mons. Here, there is of­ten no “en­emy” but rather a com­pelling U.S. in­ter­est in en­sur­ing that the world’s trou­ble spots don’t boil over. The refugee flows en­gen­dered by Syria’s civil war are desta­bi­liz­ing Europe; in­ter­nal con­flicts in Ye­men, Iraq and a dozen other places also threaten re­gional sta­bil­ity. Sim­i­larly, ten­sions over ac­cess to and con­trol of the oceans, over the po­ten­tially vast re­sources be­neath the melt­ing po­lar ice caps, over outer space, and over cy­berspace could eas­ily es­ca­late. Com­plex as they are, Co­hen in­sists, “in all these di­men­sions of un­governed space and the com­mons,” Amer­i­can “mil­i­tary power re­mains the ul­ti­mate guar­an­tor that the di­verse great com­mons of mankind re­main ac­ces­si­ble to all.”

In some ways, “The Big Stick” is less a de­fense of the con­tin­ued rel­e­vance of hard power than a broad­side against var­i­ous dan­ger­ous il­lu­sions. Co­hen is scathing, for in­stance, to­ward Steven Pinker, Fran­cis Fukuyama and all those in­clined to dis­miss the 20th cen­tury’s bru­tal world wars as mere ran­dom blips in a long-term trend to­ward peace: “If the world’s ran­dom­ness is such that it can pro­duce slaughter on such an epic scale,” he asks, “why should we be any less fear­ful of it in to­day’s world — a world with far bet­ter tools for in­flict­ing mass death?” He is equally sav­age re­gard­ing those who imag­ine that the use of force can ever be fully pre­dictable or con­trolled. To Co­hen, those who speak of “con­tain­ment, end state, and exit strat­egy” are merely sprin­kling “a kind of strate­gic pixie dust” over com­plex prob­lems, de­lud­ing them­selves into think­ing of war as “a kind of en­gi­neer­ing en­ter­prise,” rather than “a con­test of op­pos­ing wills con­ducted in the murk of pol­i­tics,” sub­ject, like ev­ery­thing in hu­man af­fairs, to “ac­ci­dent, con­tin­gency, and ran­dom­ness.”

No ques­tion, U.S. ef­forts to serve as the guar­an­tor of world order have fre­quently been char­ac­ter­ized by fail­ure and in­com­pe­tence — but, Co­hen re­minds us, “fail­ure and in­com­pe­tence are more the norm in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics than suc­cess and skill,” and in any case, as Syria and a mul­ti­tude of other tragedies demon­strate, “the per­ils of in­ac­tion . . . can be as great as those of ac­tion.”

In a dan­ger­ous and un­cer­tain world, he con­cludes, the best we can do is ac­knowl­edge how very lit­tle we know and try to build a mil­i­tary and a so­ci­ety ca­pa­ble of rapid adap­ta­tion to chal­lenges we can barely an­tic­i­pate, much less con­trol. To those who ask, “Why the United States?” Co­hen of­fers an im­plicit chal­lenge: Who else?

“Mil­i­tary power re­mains the ul­ti­mate guar­an­tor that the di­verse great com­mons of mankind re­main ac­ces­si­ble to all.” Eliot A. Co­hen

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