Few historians understand US foreign policy as well as Gabriel Kolko. Normally, he writes massive books packed with footnotes, drawing information from stacks of declassified government documents. But this time, he used his decades of research to briefly summarise his thoughts on the post-9/11 world.
Fortunately, his opinions are kept to an absolute minimum. This book is full of historical information that backs up his point of view. He covers the US response to 9/11 in Afghanistan, the history of the conflict there with the Soviet Union, and its connections to oil reserves and political influence. Then he describes the connections between the KLA in Kosovo, Osama bin Laden, and Pakistan. Its amazing how he can condense so many facts into so few pages. He makes it easy to understand and impossible to forget.
He goes on to describe the failures of US foreign policy. This part of the book will get under the skin of some Americans, as Kolko shows that US plans for stability in the Middle East have failed miserably. He finishes up with a quick look at economic ties to foreign policy, pointing out that the military-industrial complex is unable to promote peace.
There is a lot of essential information in this book. Kolko knows what he’s talking about. His conclusions are unsettling (to the say the least). He concludes that the world cannot survive another century of war, so the imperial ambitions of the US must change. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand whats happening in the world at the beginning of the 21st century.
An intelligent, if windy and repetitive, a critique of US foreign policy and the pox it has brought upon the American people. Terrorism is not some spontaneous morph. It has roots that go way back, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, says Kolko (Vietnam, 1997, etc.), to understand that those roots have often enough been nourished by an ad hoc, selfish American foreign policy.
When it comes to economic interests and questions of credibility, the US has shown a willingness to intervene-whether by direct military action or through surrogates and proxies propped by up American money and weapons-anywhere around the globe. In a complex world, such unilateralism might find temporary military success, but the “repeated political failures only confirmed that the world had problems about which the United States could do nothing, and it was to everyone’s interest that it avoid getting involved.” Kolko advocates not isolationism, but rather a coherent foreign policy that strives for political solutions and addresses such basic issues as poverty, human rights, and illiteracy.
In particular, and about the war on terrorism, US meddling in the Middle East has been so convoluted and opportunistic-support Saddam, revile him; virtually create al-Qaeda, then seek to destroy it-is it any wonder that its people find the US a big problem? The US might as well train the terrorists themselves, which in Afghanistan we did.
The Kolko’s critical assessment covers the bases, and then covers them again in what could have been a pamphlet. It comes down to reaping what you sow; in this case, political hubris and folly have grown havoc. “The United States itself is now on wars front line-and it will remain there”-until unilateral military adventurism and skullduggery are replaced by a just, thoughtful political agenda, which, the author suggests, may never be.
Frankly, this slender volume is a disappointment. Too much is repetitive, such as commentaries on the Afghan war and the Northern Alliance in particular. I get the impression of a work written in too much haste, while the editors didn’t attend to needed revisions. More significant is a rather superficial misevaluation of post-WWII American foreign policy, made all the more surprising because of the authors sterling credentials.
The gist is that an over-reliance on military intervention has made the world including Americans less safe and that we all would be better off had our policy been to stay out of other nations affairs. He bolsters this conclusion with numerous instances of what Chalmers Johnson calls blowback, or unintended consequences that cause as much damage as the problem the intervention was supposed to fix.
Because of accumulated blowback, he argues, America is more vulnerable than ever. On the whole, interventionism as a tool of national policy thus stands discredited (pp. 138-139). Granted, he has room to make a case here, though probably not a popular one.
My misgivings are two-fold. First, intentionally or otherwise, Kolko sometimes sounds as though interventions as a matter of internal logic must produce failure. Its easy enough to find instances where intervention did, in fact, produce debacle: Iran,1953; Vietnam, 1965-75; Afghanistan,1980-88. But must intervention fail?
It seems to me there are many more instances of intervention that on a pragmatic scale did, in fact, succeed with little blowback: Central America 1980-91; Dominican Republic, 1965; Indonesia, 1965, are a few examples. On a humanitarian scale, all may have been failures, but nation-states are not moralists; they operate on pragmatic grounds.
More importantly, he sees no apparent pattern in these interventions. He points out numerous contradictions such policies have exhibited over the years but attributes them to ad hoc decisions and a militarised foreign policy. Thus, little light is shed on rational causes behind a policy of interventionism, making the policy and its execution appear irrational. This, I believe, points the reader in exactly the wrong direction.
As other commentators have observed, interventionism in its instances may be carried out with varying degrees of effectiveness and intelligence, but there is a pattern to it — namely, defence of empire (free world) over which the US presides.
What may appear irrational on the surface because the government cant discloses its true imperial reasons, becomes understandable on this approach. I don’t necessarily fault Kolko for not taking up this particular theory. There are others. But I do fault him for mischaracterizing interventionism as overall irrational. That amounts to a failure to look beyond the surface.
The book has strengths. The chapter on the Afghan war, though repetitive, contains some insights. But overall, coming from a historian of Kolko’s calibre, the work stands as an unexpected disappointment.