The fan­tasy of turn­ing swords into plow­shares

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Dan Ne­grea Dan Ne­grea is a New York pri­vate eq­uity in­vestor.

Pro­fes­sor Eliot A. Co­hen, a Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity his­to­rian who served as an ad­viser in both the De­fense and State De­part­ments, chose an un­am­bigu­ous ti­tle for his lat­est book: “The Big Stick: The Lim­its of Soft Power and the Ne­ces­sity of Mil­i­tary Force.” As if added clar­ity were needed, the book’s jacket shows com­bat boots on the ground. He ar­gues force­fully that strong Amer­i­can lead­er­ship is in­dis­pens­able for peace and pros­per­ity in the world, and re­ly­ing on soft power alone to pro­vide it is un­re­al­is­tic.

The in­tro­duc­tion sets the tone for the book with a pas­sage from a 1901 speech by Vice Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt: “We may be cer­tain of one thing: Whether we wish it or not, we can­not avoid here­after hav­ing du­ties to do in the face of other na­tions. All that we can do is to set­tle whether we shall per­form th­ese du­ties well or ill.”

This is the one mes­sage to which the au­thor re­turns again and again: Facts are stub­born, the re­al­ity of world con­flicts is not pretty, and our na­tion’s lead­ers bet­ter be pre­pared to deal com­pe­tently and un­sen­ti­men­tally with the tough de­ci­sions they must make. He il­lus­trates this point in the next chap­ter, “Fif­teen Years of War,” in which he ar­gues that nei­ther Ge­orge W. Bush nor Barack Obama ex­pected to be a wartime pres­i­dent, but both were forced by events to or­der Amer­ica’s war­riors into harm’s way.

The au­thor’s over­view of Amer­ica’s ad­ver­saries starts with in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive China, whose rapid eco­nomic and mil­i­tary rise he views as the most im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional phe­nom­e­non of the 21st cen­tury. Still, China has many ob­sta­cles on the road to be­com­ing a su­per­power and a weak strate­gic po­si­tion be­cause of its bor­der dis­putes with ev­ery sin­gle one of its neigh­bors.

As for con­fronting al Qaeda, ISIL and other ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, Mr. Co­hen asks for clar­ity of pur­pose: We need to state plainly that their ide­ol­ogy is rooted in Is­lam and that we are en­gaged in a gen­er­a­tional war to erad­i­cate them. But he also be­lieves that their bar­barism lim­its their ap­peal and will even­tu­ally halt their mo­men­tum.

A chap­ter ti­tled “Dan­ger­ous States” lumps to­gether ad­ver­saries Rus­sia, Iran and North Korea, along with nom­i­nal ally Pak­istan. They are all au­thor­i­tar­ian, will­ing to use force, and eco­nom­i­cally frag­ile. And their nu­clear weapons or nu­clear as­pi­ra­tions are cen­tral to their na­tional de­fense. Pak­istan, “if not a failed state, then a wretch­edly con­structed one,” has played a dou­ble game for a long time, espe­cially in sup­port­ing the Tal­iban in Afghanistan. All four na­tions have a “para­noid style” in pol­i­tics, with their me­dia filled with pre­sumed plots by en­e­mies both for­eign and do­mes­tic.

The “Amer­ica’s Hand” chap­ter re­views the re­sources we can call on to op­pose our ad­ver­saries. Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary spend­ing dwarfs that of its op­po­nents. Since it rep­re­sents to­day just 3 per­cent of our GDP (com­pared to 8 per­cent in the Rea­gan years), Amer­ica’s strate­gic sol­vency is high. Its many al­liances are a crit­i­cal as­set that give it “an ex­tra­or­di­nary global lo­gis­ti­cal in­fra­struc­ture.” And con­sid­er­ing its pow­er­ful econ­omy, pos­i­tive de­mo­graph­ics and ro­bust po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, the odds are that Amer­ica will pre­vail: “No other coun­try, or col­lec­tion of coun­tries, has a bet­ter hand to play in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics.”

At its core, this is a book about dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions im­posed by un­for­giv­ing facts. Diplomacy has an im­por­tant place in the tool kit of state­craft, even when it re­quires po­lit­i­cal com­pro­mises with “odi­ous regimes.” So does soft power, which, Mr. Co­hen ar­gues, is not al­ways gen­tle: Sanc­tions, for ex­am­ple, can de­prive a coun­try’s poor of food and medicine.

But when all else fails, our lead­ers must make po­lit­i­cally dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions in­volv­ing hard power. Like in­creas­ing mil­i­tary spend­ing to at least 4 per­cent. Or like sta­tion­ing troops for many years in ar­eas of po­ten­tial con­flict, which worked well in the past: Leav­ing Amer­i­can troops for decades in Ger­many and South Korea helped those two wartorn na­tions find their way to democ­racy and pros­per­ity. In the in­ter­est of global sta­bil­ity, to­day’s Amer­i­can politi­cians must find the courage to sta­tion Amer­i­can troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Poland and the Baltic states.

The ul­ti­mate hard power de­ci­sions, though, deal with go­ing to war and even do­ing so pre-emp­tively. The most sober­ing pas­sages of the book re­gard pre-emp­tive strikes, espe­cially nec­es­sary if weapons of mass de­struc­tion fall into “ut­terly ir­re­spon­si­ble hands.”

This is a lu­cid book about war by a man who loves peace. Mr. Co­hen, a re­serve Army of­fi­cer, has a son who served two tours in Iraq and a daugh­ter in the Navy (which he does not men­tion in the book), so he is fully aware of the in­cal­cu­la­ble hu­man cost of war. But he also knows that ap­peas­ing evil is not an op­tion. Trag­i­cally, the world con­tin­ues to add to what Churchill called the “dark and lam­en­ta­ble cat­a­logue of hu­man crime.”

“The Big Stick” is a valu­able re­source for those try­ing to keep Amer­ica’s flame of lib­erty burn­ing bright in this stormy world.

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