Monday, December 6, 2010

There is No Good Reason to Read Robert D. Kaplan, I Must Make that Clear

A friend of mine, a really sharp journalist, nice & funny guy, and generally someone I've always liked, told me to go buy him Robert Kaplan's new book when I took a trip to the states last week. I was pretty against this, and told him as much, but as I said, he's a nice guy. So I got it for him. And then he was all "What's so wrong about Robert Kaplan, anyways?"

I told him how Kaplan just kinda makes stuff up, doesn't research well, and finds facts to support his theses. He's also kind of creepily paternalistic and all foreign women are "girls". Really, I should have (and am now) directing him to Tom Bissell's fantastic excoriation. But I also decided to write my own after reading the latest of RDK's in the WaPo.

The thing about Kaplan is that he's actually a decent writer, especially as a travel writer. What he says isn't necessarily true, but it sure is evocative. It's a far way from, say, Tom Freidman's literary gymnastics that tend to end with faceplants. Kaplan writes well, but he uses words for how they sound or what they evoke, not for what they mean. He's a great travel writer and a miserable policy writer. Because his beliefs are more grumpy-old-man then actual policy. So shall we begin?
What is the cause of such turbulence? The absence of empire. During the Cold War, the world was divided between the Soviet and U.S. imperial systems. The Soviet imperium - heir to Kievan Rus, medieval Muscovy and the Romanov dynasty - covered Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia and propped up regimes in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The American imperium - heir to maritime Venice and Great Britain - also propped up allies, particularly in Western Europe and East Asia. True to the garrison tradition of imperial Rome, Washington kept bases in West Germany, Turkey, South Korea and Japan, virtually surrounding the Soviet Union.
 His "imperial ancestors" have less to do with truth, more with evocation. He invokes exoticism and trade, sure, but he'd be just as accurate saying "heir to the Roman Empire and the Mongol Hordes," or even "The Malinese and the Hothian Empires." For either. There's also the question of propping up "regimes" vs. "allies" and to ask whom surrounded whom. This whole paragraph is really just a recitation of Civilization V details that sound erudite but really aren't.
The breakup of the Soviet empire, though it caused euphoria in the West and led to freedom in Central Europe, also sparked ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and created millions of refugees. (In Tajikistan alone, more than 50,000 people were killed in a civil war that barely registered in the U.S. media in the 1990s.)
Somewhere in Australia, Christian Bleuer weeps.
The Soviet collapse also unleashed economic and social chaos in Russia itself, as well as the further unmooring of the Middle East. It was no accident that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait less than a year after the Berlin Wall fell, just as it is inconceivable that the United States would have invaded Iraq if the Soviet Union, a staunch patron of Baghdad, still existed in 2003. And had the Soviet empire not fallen apart or ignominiously withdrawn from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden never would have taken refuge there and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, might not have happened. Such are the wages of imperial collapse. 
The causes of the invasion of Kuwait are kind of complicated, and y'know, it maybe was just a coincidence with the Berlin Wall thing. Besides that, the U.S. had a history of invading Soviet client states.  Oh, and bin Laden was in Afghistan before the Russians left. He had a big part to say in getting the Russians to leave. This is pretty really basic history.
Now the other pillar of the relative peace of the Cold War, the United States, is slipping, while new powers such as China and India remain unready and unwilling to fill the void. There will be no sudden breakdown on our part, as the United States, unlike the Soviet Union, is sturdily maintained by economic and political freedom. Rather, America's ability to bring a modicum of order to the world is simply fading in slow motion. 
Really? China and India don't want to be superpowers? Do we have any sourcing for that whatsoever? Or is that just a trope we're gonna see repeated? Oh, and you know that nobody saw the USSR collapsing, which was why the Berlin Wall was such a seminal moment. So it could, conceivably, happen unexpectedly again. That's what "sudden breakdown" means. And let's not mention "economic freedom" and "no sudden breakdown" in the same sentence. That'd be awkward.
Then there is America's military power. Armies win wars, but in an age when the theater of conflict is global, navies and air forces are more accurate registers of national might. (Any attack on Iran, for example, would be a sea and air campaign.) The U.S. Navy has gone from nearly 600 warships in the Reagan era to fewer than 300 today, while the navies of China and India grow apace. Such trends will accelerate with the defense cuts that are surely coming in order to rescue America from its fiscal crisis. The United States still dominates the seas and the air and will do so for years ahead, but the distance between it and other nations is narrowing. 
Wait, I thought that the whole "new way to wage war" thing was about a non-reliance on simply military might, because simple military might is fallible. Really, I thought if we learned anything since the Afghanistan invasion, it's that big militaries are not infallible. Also: an attack on Iran is a really, really, bad idea and I hope is not a given. And: the US still spends pretty much more than every other country combined on its military. And: there's reason to think that the Reagan era contributed to the current crisis, and is not the polar opposite of it. Kaplan just states trite things without giving reason to support it. It's like when Grandpa Bill talks about fighting the Nazis when you're watching baseball. I hate the Cubs too, but lets be serious.
Terrorist acts, ethnic atrocities, the yearning after horrible weaponry and the disclosure of secret cables are the work of individuals who cannot escape their own moral responsibility. But the headlines of our era are written in a specific context - that of one deceased empire that used to be the world's preeminent land power and of another, the world's preeminent sea power, that finds itself less able to affect events than ever before, even as it is less sure than ever of the cause toward which it struggles. 
Hey smart boy, you like puzzles? Here's two sentences. Diagram them. (my attempt: individuals who are slaves to their morals do things like terrorism, ethnic atrocities (what the fuck is an "ethnic atrocity?"), pining away like schoolchildren, and tell secrets. Headlines are written under the understanding that a land power and a sea power are unable to affect events, the understanding is unsure of why it struggles.)

This is no indictment of President Obama's foreign policy. There is slim evidence of a credible alternative to his actions on North Korea, Iran and Iraq, while a feisty debate goes on over the proper course in Afghanistan. But there is simply no doubt that the post-imperial order we inhabit allows for greater disruptions than the Cold War ever permitted. 
It kinda reads as an indictment, but hey, that's fair. But why are we suddenly cool with the Cold War being a good thing? The Cold War kinda sucked for a lot of people, we don't need a sepia tone to it. But this is what I mean, Kaplan uses nice words with absolutely no meaning behind them.
Husbanding our power in an effort to slow America's decline in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world would mean avoiding debilitating land entanglements and focusing instead on being more of an offshore balancer: that is, lurking with our air and sea forces over the horizon, intervening only when outrages are committed that unquestionably threaten our allies and world order in general. While this may be in America's interest, the very signaling of such an aloof intention may encourage regional bullies, given that rogue regimes are the organizing principles for some pivotal parts of the world.
Which leads me to ask: how do you expect us to get to a post-Iraq and a post-Afghanistan world? How will a "lurking air and sea force" prevent future Iraqs and Afghanistans? Did  the U.S. not have a lurking air and sea force before Iraq and Afghanistan? Or would this force instead be a signal of aloof intention (whatever that means), in which case would it be a good or bad thing for these "organizing principles" in "pivotal parts of the world"? When reading this graph, I can almost see Kaplan biting on the lobe of his glasses in a pose of studied thoughtfulness.
During the Cold War, North Korea was kept in its box by the Soviet Union while the U.S. Navy dominated the Pacific as though it were an American lake. Now China's economic dominance of the region, coupled with our distracting land wars in the Middle East, is transforming the western Pacific from a benign and stable environment to a more uncertain and complex one. 
Man, Japan is gonna be sooo mad they weren't relevant in the Pacific. Indonesia, too. How soon we forget the 1980's meme that we're all gonna be speaking Japanese soon. How soon we forget the spectre of an unaligned Sukarno. This whole paragraph translates to, "Say, you know I have a book coming out about the western Pacific?"
With its improving mine-warfare capability, seabed sonar networks and cyber-warfare in the service of anti-ship ballistic missiles, not to mention its diesel-electric and nuclear submarines, China will make U.S. Navy operations more dangerous over the coming years. 
 ...if it wants to, that is. They probably won't start bombing American ships for funsies.
As for Taiwan, China has 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles pointed at the island, even as hundreds of commercial flights each week link Taiwan with the mainland in peaceful commerce. When China effectively incorporates Taiwan in the years to come, that will signal the arrival of a truly multipolar and less predictable military environment in East Asia. 
Will the incorporation be violent or not? Isn't that really interesting to discuss? And there are a lot of variables at play. Again, this is just a gloss-over without mentioning any tactile facts, just making a supposition, then jumping to a conclusion based on that supposition. Like saying, "I asked my daddy for a pony for Christmas. I can't wait to see it race in the Kentucky Derby!"
In the Middle East we see the real collapse of the Cold War imperial order. The neat Israeli-Arab dichotomy that mirrored the American-Soviet one has been replaced by a less stable power arrangement, with a zone of Iranian influence stretching from Lebanon to western Afghanistan, pitted against both Israel and the Sunni Arab world, and with a newly Islamic, and no longer pro-Western, Turkey rising as a balancing power. 
If you think the Israeli-Arab dichotomy was neat, boy, I have an Iran-Iraq war from 1980-88 to sell you. I could also mention the Untied Arab Republic, the invasion of Mecca, the Muslim Brotherhood, and more. Let's not even touch the issue of Palestinian Refugees. This happens to be the one paragraph that I really know things about, and thus the one, to me, that he comes off the most ignorant. Kaplan refuses to let facts get in the way of what he wants to prove.

And I'm gonna drink some 1 Euro beers tonight just to laugh at the idea of an Islamic Turkey. then I'll work on a German advertisement at work to laugh at that not-pro-Western thing.
Yes, empires impose order, but that order is not necessarily benevolent, as Iran's budding imperial domain shows. U.S. threats against Iran lack credibility precisely because of our imperial fatigue resulting from Iraq and Afghanistan. Out of self-interest we will probably not involve ourselves in another war in the Middle East - even as that very self-interest could consign the region to a nuclear standoff. 
And here is where I'm not sure if Kaplan knows the difference between "empire" and "diplomacy/trade".
One standard narrative is that as we recede, China will step up as part of a benign post-American world. But this presupposes that all imperial powers are the same, even when history clearly demonstrates that they are not. Nor does one empire sequentially fill the gap left by another. 
Then why did we have that whole, "heir of  the Kieven Rus and the New York Giants" thing in their previously?!?! That wasn't all that long ago!
While the Soviet Union and the United States were both missionary powers motivated by ideals - communism and liberal democracy - through which they might order the world, China has no such grand conception. It is driven abroad by the hunger for natural resources (hydrocarbons, minerals and metals) that it requires to raise hundreds of millions of its citizens into the middle class. 
I'm pretty sure China stands for something to themselves, even if not to Kaplan. I'm beginning to doubt he can find it on a map, though, so maybe not.
This could abet the development of a trading system between the Indian Ocean, Africa and Central Asia that might maintain peace with minimal American involvement. But who is to fill the moral void? Does China really care if Tehran develops nuclear weapons, so long as it has access to Iran's natural gas? And Beijing may not be entirely comfortable with the North Korean regime, which keeps its population in a state of freeze-frame semi-starvation, but China props it up nevertheless. 
I love how "analysts" are always somewhere between "ancient trade routes! silk road!" and "dusty deserts full of benighted tribesmen" when describing the non-white realms. And the entire concept that we can talk about a "moral void"  with straight faces when discussing imperial strategy seems a bit...facetious.
It can be argued that with power comes moral responsibility, but it will probably be decades before China has the kind of navy and air force that would lead it to become an authentic partner in an international security system. For the moment, Beijing gets a free ride off the protection of the world's sea lanes that the U.S. Navy helps provide, and watches us struggle to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan so that China can one day extract their natural resources. 
Peter Parker over here isn't sure if China counts as a partner, but then uses more weird logic. There is very little protection of world sea lanes, because there is very little need for it. Piracy protection as it is now is too expensive, so unless a magic-bullet solution is found, just sending cruisers into the Straits of Molucca is a fig leaf. I'm not sure why Kaplan is demanding China throw good money after the U.S.'s bad. And I don't think he realizes how much China is investing into Central and South Asia.
Looming over all of this is the densely crowded global map. Across Eurasia, rural populations have given way to megacities prone to incitement by mass media and to destruction by environmental catastrophe. Lumbering, hard-to-deploy armies are being replaced with overlapping ballistic missile ranges that demonstrate the delivery capabilities of weapons of mass destruction. New technologies make everything affect everything else at a faster and more lethal rate than ever before. The free flow of information, as the WikiLeaks scandal makes clear, and the miniaturization of weaponry, as the terrorist bombings in Pakistani cities make clear, work against the rise and sustenance of imperial orders. 
I like how "incitement by mass media" is a bad thing. Dammit, we want our masses uneducated! It's also worth mentioning that the only "overlapping ballistic missile range" is the new NATO one projecting into Syria and Iran. And I don't think you can even play Six Degrees between Wikileaks, weapon miniaturization, and the Pakistan insurgency. My favorite part of this, by the way, is his shoe-horning of Wikileaks into a discussion of military spending. So he can be "trendy" instead of "hawkish."
The American empire has always been more structural than spiritual. Its network of alliances certainly resembles those of empires past, and the challenges facing its troops abroad are comparable to those of imperial forces of yore, though the American public, especially after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, is in no mood for any more of the land-centric adventures that have been the stuff of imperialism since antiquity. 
Great, now you went and upset Sarah Palin, too with that "spiritual" bit. And I'm pretty sure you said earlier that all empires are different. Rome didn't have F-16s, Alexander didn't face Taliban with wireless communications. NEITHER were democratic and saw the politicizing of war like the U.S. does. And I think using "land-centric" as a qualifier is a bit specious. I don't think anyone is going to be all cool with a naval/aerial war instead because either a) it won't work or b) it won't be just naval/aerial. Drones don't solve it all.

And it warrants mentioning that a naval invasion of Iran is going to be kind of impossible, because the U.S. will be all penned in like Salamis in the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea is, well, inland. So I'm not sure how that would get worked out, but what am I? A Grand Strategist?
Americans rightly lack an imperial mentality. But lessening our engagement with the world would have devastating consequences for humanity. The disruptions we witness today are but a taste of what is to come should our country flinch from its international responsibilities. 
Though this reads as a conclusion, it's really anything but.  He just spilled hundreds of words talking about the American Imperial Mentality, then now says it doesn't exist. Without ever defining what it could possibly be. He says we shouldn't become disengaged, but never previously mentions disengagement. He never attempts to link (or, for that matter, define) disruptions to a lack of American engagement. In fact, it would not be too hard to link things like Islamic-framed insurgencies, Wikileaks, a yell-tastic Iran, to American engagement done sloppily.

So, this is my beef with Kaplan, and why I believe he should not be read. His thesis, I suppose, is that America must act as an empire. But his conclusion states that Americans don't have an imperial mentality. He doesn't really define either. All of his examples, all of his actual foreign policy and his contextualization, solely exist to prove his thesis that America should act as an empire. Any examples to the contrary are ignored. And everything is so poorly researched and lazily sewn together.

This is all kind of expected in a op-ed, though. What really gets my goat is the slight-of-hand of it all. The conviction of an expertise lying in weasel words and non-attribution. His viewing of history through hater-blockers, then open-mouthed awe at any possible disagreement. He says things that sound smart to the non-experts, giving them ammunition to quote, creating this vicious circle of insipidity that leads to really bad decisions. Because nobody, all of the sudden, knows how behind the 8-ball they really are.

Mr. Kaplan reminds me of Nashville. Not the aboreal, bbqful, Nashville. But the beige, corporate, Nashville of country music infamy. My favorite writer on the internet, Orson Swindle, once dedicated a few paragraphs to Nashville music, and I suggest that you read them to get a feeling of where I'm coming from. This, my dear Kaplan-reading friend, is the sort of journalism you're after:
Originally country music was written by men and women who barnstormed up from the electricity-free rural cowplots they were born in, and who alternated writing songs about drinking and fighting and fucking with songs about drinking while fucking, fucking while fighting, or about combinations of the three that happened while driving semi-trucks.
You know real country singers because they are either now all dead or semi-retarded from years of excessive alcohol and drug abuse. They did not have six-pack abs and did not manage their money. They died in fiery plane crashes and holding bottles of liquor; they clutched their hearts and fell to the ground when whole pieces of fatback clogged their arteries after years of eating vile road food. They were not pretty.
Just replace "country music" with journalism and this sounds like the life you would love to read about, learn what they had to say.

Kaplan's idea of journalism? Well, it's more like this:
You and the entire industry cranking out music that tells people exactly what they want to hear about themselves and their lives.
A more fitting epitaph for Robert Kaplan's writing cannot be found. Under the window dressing of "telling the hard truth" he just reaffirms what middlebrow politicians and their staff want to hear about American power, moral imperialism, and the like. And he won't let truth get in the way of an op-ed or a book deal.

It's not researched fact, it's just a truth that you want to hear. And that's why there is no good reason to read it.

1 comment:

  1. So have you convinced Justin of the error of his ways?