Friday, October 28, 2005

The front line is everywhere

Robert Kaplan has written a number of impressionistic books about conflict, principally in Third World locations. Many of his books painted a bleak picture of a world falling apart, one book about the Third World was called the Coming Anarchy and a book on the US was called the Empire Wilderness. His latest, Imperial Grunts, depicts American special forces as the means to hold this world together. He traveled everywhere for this book, from Bagram in Afghanistan to the Mongolian steppe to the the jungles of Colombia and everywhere he found special operators (known as SOF.) I for one was surprised at the omnipresence of the military.He does a great job portraying the soldiers, their daily lives and the way they do their jobs, the Mongolian chapter is one of the most interesting as it is so little known. On the negative side, he promotes the notion of an American Empire, without defining it well or debating its value to the US or to the world. He does argue that SOF is the best tool for managing it as they are more like soldier/diplomat/sociologists than plain soldier and their flexibility makes them more useful. He unfortunately totally buys into the SOF vs. Big Army debate. It would have been nice for him to address why there is a Big Army and what it can do well. Still, as a long time writer for the Atlantic, Kaplan has a way with words and does a great job defining the landscapes and the differences between each deployment. Read this one for the stories he tells, not for the worldview.

Empire is one of the hot topics in international relations. Questions include, what is an empire today? Do we like or dislike it? How much is order dependent on it? Is great power cooperation possible? Are the Europeans or Chinese capable of acting like the Americans? Niall Ferguson in Colussus says a ruling power is necessary for global order. His thesis is that only the US can too this, so it's too bad that Americans don't have the BALLS to do it. Stephen Walt argues for the US to essentially withdraw and only act in the greatest of emergencies. Despite the Amazon reviewer, offshore balancing is isolationist, but that doesn't necessarily make it bad. Both of these books are for wonky types who want to have models by which to examine the world. They are more analytically rigourous, but that also means less fun to read.

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