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Hand of Reason - Part 2

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The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

The Fog of War is a film about the life and times of Robert S. McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The piece is a mix between historical footage and an interview with Robert McNamara by the director, Errol Morris. While allowing McNamara to tell the story from his perspective, Morris also divides the film into eleven lessons that can be taken away from McNamara’s life. What results is an inside look at one of the most important and controversial figures of 20th century American government. The film is also a candid look at the human side of the decision makers that run the United States and how their personalities can affect policy.




Our Notes

McNamara opens with the statement that while all military commanders make mistakes and try to learn from them, there will be no learning period with nuclear weapons. A single mistake will lead to a major catastrophe.

Lesson #1: Empathize with your enemy.

McNamara recounts the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis to illustrate how close we came to nuclear war. He says that although he and Kennedy wanted to keep the nation out of war, other elements within the White House wanted to invade Cuba.

Kennedy received two messages from Krushev during the crisis; McNamara calls one the “hard message” and the other the “soft message”. The soft message, ensuring that the U.S.S.R. will remove the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. promises not to invade, is received first. However, before Kennedy can respond the hard message is received declaring that the U.S.S.R. will respond with massive amounts of force if the U.S. does invades Cuba.

During deliberations over how to respond, the ambassador to Moscow, Tommy Thompson, recommends that Kennedy should respond to the soft message. Though Kennedy scoffs at the idea, Thompson eventually persuades the president by anticipating that Krushev would be more concerned with being able to tell the Soviet people that he saved communist Cuba from an U.S. invasion. McNamara believes this to be empathizing with your enemy.

We need to try and look more at the world through the eyes of our enemies in order to understand their opinions and thought processes.

Lesson #2: Rationality alone will not save us.

It was luck that saved us during the Cuban Missile Crisis; rational individuals nearly came to nuclear war. McNamara claims that potential for nuclear war still exists today. The message of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that the combination of nuclear weapons and human error will result in a major catastrophe.

Lesson #3: There’s something beyond one’s self.

McNamara recounts important events in his life that contributed to his policy decisions later on as Defense Secretary.

Excelling in academics and with an intense focus in philosophy, McNamara graduated from Berkley and continued to the Harvard Graduate School of Business.

He then went back to San Francisco where he began to court his wife, married her, and started a family.

As the U.S. entered WWII McNamara was an assistant professor at Harvard. Harvard received a contract with the government to start up an officer candidate school for what was then called Statistical Control in the U.S. Air Force. McNamara became an officer with the 8th Air Force where he worked on statistical analysis.

Lesson #4: Maximize efficiency.

McNamara was brought back from the 8th Air Force and assigned to the 58th Bomb Wing flying planes to the Pacific theater. It was here that he helped maximize efficiency.

McNamara worked on, and was largely responsible for, the decision to begin firebombing Japanese cities. This led to massive destruction in Japan and greatly increased the efficiency of U.S. bomber runs.

Lesson #5: Proportionality should be a guideline in war.

McNamara posses the question of whether or not it was necessary to drop two atomic bombs on Japan when they were destroying so much already with firebombing.

McNamara goes through how much of Japanese cities were being destroyed. Some of the more notable figures are: Tokyo, roughly the size of New York at that time, 51% destroyed; Toyama, the size of Chattanooga, 99% destroyed; Nagoya, the size of Los Angeles, 40% destroyed; Osaka, the size of Chicago, 35% destroyed, all of which was done before dropping the nuclear bombs.

McNamara believes that if the U.S. had lost the war they would have all been tried as war criminals. He believes that they were indeed acting as war criminals.

After the war McNamara and friends began working for Ford Motor Company in 1945 as the company was in need of leadership from people with higher educational degrees.

Lesson #6: Get the Data.

While working in an executive position at Ford, McNamara commissioned several studies aimed at getting information on everything from buyer demographics for certain vehicles to accident reports to make cars safer. He used this information to design cars that were great successes. In July 1960 Henry Ford gave McNamara the job as president of Ford. He was the first person that was not a member of the Ford family to hold the position. Four months later he had quit the position after being offered the job of Secretary of Defense.

John F. Kennedy originally offered McNamara the position of Secretary of Treasury, which McNamara turned down. He subsequently accepted Kennedy’s offer for the position as Secretary of Defense.

The film jumps to 1963 and McNamara can be heard on tapes talking to JFK about taking out all U.S. advisors in Vietnam within two years. He then discusses the coup in South Vietnam that saw its president murdered, making it harder for the U.S. to pull out. He says he never saw JFK more upset, particularly because the U.S. was partially responsible for the coup.

The film cuts to tapes of Lyndon. B. Johnson talking to McNamara about how he always thought JFK’s considerations for pulling out of South Vietnam were foolish, believing it to be detrimental psychologically. As the tape continues, McNamara and LBJ disagree on the severity of the situation in South Vietnam. McNamara believes that if escalation is needed to improve the deteriorating condition, the American people needed to be educated on the dire circumstances of that country.

Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are both often wrong.

Through more tapes, generals are heard discussing the Gulf of Tonkin incident and whether or not it actually happened. The ending message is that an attack probably did happen. However, it is shown later that a second attack did not occur.

LBJ and McNamara discuss the possible necessity of escalating troop deployments after the confusion of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. While McNamara believes in very distinct limitations on troop commitments, the Joint Chiefs do not.

While McNamara believes that they were wrong in their decision, the determined mindset of the Joint Chiefs led to heavy repercussions.

Though the United States had put themselves in the “skin of the Soviets” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the government failed to do so with Vietnam due to a lack of understanding of the Vietnamese’s position. The conflict in Vietnam was a civil war in the eyes of the people, not a Cold War battle that the U.S. thought it was.

Lesson #8: Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.

McNamara states that even though we are the most powerful nation in the world today, we should not use that power unilaterally. If we cannot convince our allies and friends of the correctness of our actions then we should reexamine our reasoning.

Lesson #9: In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

Even though we have to engage in evil at times, we must do our best to minimize it.

McNamara then discusses his sympathy with the anti-war protestors during his time as Secretary of Defense.

Lesson #10: Never say never.

McNamara holds the belief that responsibility for the Vietnam War is with the president. Though he says he loved Johnson, in the end they were “worlds apart.”  He continues on to assume that if JFK had lived, the situation would not have been as bad as it was.

These tensions between LBJ and McNamara reached a boiling point resulting in  McNamara stepping down from his role as Secretary of Defense. But before his resignation, LBJ awarded him with the  Medal of Freedom.

Robert McNamara states that he is sorry for his errors.

Lesson #11: You can’t change human nature.

McNamara explains that ‘the fog of war’ refers to how complex war is and the inability of the human mind to fully comprehend all of those complexities at one time. He believes that human nature will make it impossible to end war any time soon, and though we are rational creatures that rationality has limits.

McNamara still refuses to explain why he did not speak out against the war after he resigned. He believes his words would appear inflammatory especially to those who misunderstand the war and misunderstand him. After prompting from the director, McNamara concedes that he is damned if he does and damned if he dose not, but he would rather be damned if he does not.

After leaving the U.S. government Robert McNamara served as president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981.

Bottom Line

The Fog of War gives us a poignant look into the life and thought processes of perhaps the most famous U.S. Secretary of Defense thus far. This film is a wonderful view for historians and political scientists alike and, in its own way, a good companion to McNamara’s 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. By giving us a rare glimpse into the mind of a major policymaker, the piece allows us to better understand how individuals and their personalities so greatly affect the different paths that U.S. foreign policy takes.

Our Response

One of the only unfortunate omissions in The Fog of War is the lack of concrete answers from McNamara regarding his feelings about the war in Vietnam, though this is hardly surprising after watching the film. As he says himself, McNamara’s words can be inflammatory and he is very adept at moving an interview where he wants it to go. Nevertheless, it would have been beneficial to hear why it took him nearly twenty six years to come out and talk in depth about the war, its causes, and his role in it, subjects that many people wished he had addressed long before 1995.

Despite such omissions the film is still overall a wonderful piece. Morris is able to look at the issues of the film, particularly Vietnam, without reflecting his own personal biases on the subject. Through the interview, historical tapes, and visual footage he allows the story to tell itself. This lack of overt bias is refreshing as subjects like the Cold War, and especially Vietnam, tend to have a polarizing affect on the people portraying them. Rather than exonerating or condemning McNamara and the administrations he served under, Morris allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the events portrayed in the film.

Finally, although the film does go into Vietnam, it is not an in depth analysis of the war. From the film’s perspective, Vietnam is only part of the story that is Robert McNamara. Therefore the film may disappoint anyone looking for more details about the war itself. Anyone desiring to look more in depth at McNamara’s opinions on why the U.S. went into Vietnam and why it failed to achieve its objectives there should read his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Rather than an intense look at Vietnam, what the film best demonstrates to the viewer is the striking fragility of our leaders both mentally and physically. Whether it be the assassination of John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson’s struggle to grasp the situation in Vietnam, the film makes it all too clear to us that our leaders are never the ideal human beings that we so often hope they are. That is not to say that all of our leaders are necessarily ineffective at what they do. It just helps us to remember that they are human too and the decisions they make are colored by the same kinds of biases and shortcomings from which all human beings suffer.


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Surviving a Nuclear Attack – Irving Redlener

Irving Redlener gives a short lecture on the possibility of a terrorist nuclear attack. Splitting up the nucear age into two chapters, Redlener describes the first chapter (between 1941-1992) as one of paranoia and delusion, exhibited by impractical evacuation plans. The only thing that prevented the United States and the U.S.S.R. from bombing the other was the assurance of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. A simple miscalculation or misreading of radar signals could leave result in a state launching its missiles and another to retaliate. The next chapter, which takes place from 1991 to the present, is characterized by the uncertainty of nuclear terrorism. It is here that Redlener’s main points are made clear, that the risk of a nuclear attack is still plausible and the United States is nowhere near prepared enough to respond to a such an event.. Redlener also offers a step-by-step process for how to survive a nuclear attack.

Our Notes

The nuclear age began during WWII with the Manhattan Project in an attempt to harness the power of the atom to end the seemingly endless war.

All countries that had nukes at this time were part of what was called the “nuclear club”. The world during this time had 65,000 warheads; 95 percent of those were held by the U.S.S.R. and America.

By 1985, prior to the Soviet split, both the U.S.S.R. and the America began to disarm their warheads down to 21,000.

Redlener describes the official number of disarmed bombs as problematic because these weapons can easily be “re-commissioned”. Since 1985, two members have also been added to the nuclear club, Pakistan and North Korea.

Redlener characterizes this period between 1949 -1991 as ultimately about a nuclear threat story; a “nation vs. nation fragile standoff” between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.

Since MAD ensured that neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. would survive a nuclear exchange, a misreading of the radar could be mistaken for a nuclear attack and thus lead to the destruction of the world. He summarizes this first chapter of nuclear threat as essentially being one of delusion and paranoia.

Redlener criticizes the response planning conducted by the United States during the Cold War and includes the following:

  • Prioritizing strategic objectives over casualty reduction of U.S. citizens.
  • Unrealistic evacuation planning of U.S. cities.
  • Weak public education on how to respond to a nuclear attack.

This disconnect from reality experienced in the Cold War has never been reconciled.

In Chapter 2, the possibility of an all-out war has diminished and has been replaced by the threat of a single attack of nuclear terrorism.  Redlener outlines four trends that have led to this increased probability of a nuclear terrorist attack:

  1. Global nuclear weapons stockpiles are not uniformly secure and fissionable material is relatively available through theft or the black market.
  2. The know-how needed to make a nuclear bomb is fairly accessible through media sources like books and through the internet
  3. Since terrorists are stateless, MAD becomes irrelevant and terrorists cannot be effectively deterred from using nuclear weapons.
  4. High value U.S. targets are accessible, soft, and plentiful.

While the probability of an all-out war has greatly diminished, local flashpoints in the Middle East, such as Pakistan, could escalate into a nuclear conflict.

To overcome this dilemma, Redlener suggests education, better inspection of shipping cargo containers, and better screening.

Redlener offers the following advice for anyone caught near a nuclear blast:

  • Avoid looking at the blast. Staring at the blast could blind you permanently.
  • If you are within a 2 mile radius, you have about 10 to 20 minutes to get a mile away from the blast area before nuclear fallout begins to rain from the mushroom cloud.
  • Within 24 hours, nuclear fallout will follow the prevailing winds.
  • Go either perpendicular to the wind or downwind to avoid the lethal amounts of radiation that will follow it.
  • If you are in the direct fallout zone and you’re looking for shelter, you either have to be above 9 stories, or as deep underground as possible.
  • If you are in the fallout zone, you must find shelter and wait until help comes.

Redlener argues that if the above procedures are taken, it could mean the difference between 250,000 to 500,000 and 750,000 to one million casualties

Redlener recommends that the U.S. implements stronger security measures for border security such as inspecting more ship cargo containers as well as developing  better emergency response measures for high value cities in the United States through education.

Our Response

While certainly educational, Irving Redlener’s lecture creates a disconnect that weakens his argument. Ultimately what he is trying to explain is how to survive a nuclear blast. But he also states that the U.S.’s security measures and prevention policies against a terrorist nuclear threat is currently far too weak and needs to be strengthened. If Redlener’s argument suffers from anything, it’s the divergence between his two policy prescriptions. It is unclear whether the U.S. should focus on border security or educating the public as to how to respond to a nuclear attack. While both measures would be ideal, Redlener arguments are not focused enough to explain each point sufficiently. Essentially, a lack of structure in his presentation confuses the two points and detracts from his main argument. If we assume that educating the populace and preparing cities in the event of an attack is a primary point, it is something he never really goes into. Exactly how we should prepare multiple cities and educate the masses is never explicitly stated; he just touches the surface and moves on.

The practicality of Redlener’s policies is also in question. As Redlener asserts, only 5-7% of shipping cargo containers are checked throughout the entire year but how practical would it be to check even a third of the total amount that comes into the U.S.? Considering the sheer volume of shipping containers that enter the U.S. every day, checking them all is a logistical nightmare and would have serious consequence for commerce and trade.

Some of the data Redlener uses seems to lack context. For example, he explains how 84 of 132 suitcase bombs from the KGB were missing in 1997. This was nearly a decade before Redlener’s lecture and deserves further explanation on what exactly has occurred to the suitcase bombs since then. Are they still missing or have they been located?

Even though a nuclear attack is possible, it may not be as likely as an event as other disasters. Given the relative frequency of natural disasters, an emergency response system should prioritize natural disasters over a nuclear terrorist attack. Past events like the Haiti earthquake and the floods in Pakistan, as well as Katrina only serve as an example of the frequency of such events.  Whereas natural events like an earthquake or flood occur every few years if not more, we have yet to see any an actual terrorist nuclear attack. There is no doubt that a nuclear attack on U.S. soil would be the most devastating thing to happen in America’s history. However, the lack of a nuclear attack leads us to believe that resources in federal emergency response planning are better spent towards preparing for environmental disasters. Since a scarcity of funds and time limits any policy initiative, hard choices must be made to build the most beneficial disaster response systems.

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Hans Rosling’s New Insights On Poverty

Hans Rosling, doctor and researcher, seeks to change perceptions about the developing world and dispel myths and common misperceptions. In his latest TED Talk, Rosling shows trends in health and economics, ultimately seeking to explain how countries are pulling themselves out of poverty. The dimensions of development, or the tools necessary to move away from poverty, include human rights, environment, governance, economic growth, education, health and culture. He asserts that economic growth is the most important means to achieve development, but should not necessarily be the most important goal. The primary goals should be the promotion of culture and human rights.

Our Notes

In 1950, the industrialized countries had lower fertility rates and higher life expectancy; conversely, the developing countries had high fertility rates and lower life expectancy at birth. At that time, there was a clear division between developed and developing countries.

As the world changed over time, most developing countries moved towards being the developed countries and demonstrated trends of low fertility rates and high life expectancy. The only real exception to this trend has been Africa, which still exhibits large families and low life expectancy due to the HIV epidemic.

The trends of child mortality rates and GDP per capita show that the countries in the world slowly grew richer and by the 20th century, for the first time, more than ninety-percent of children survived the first year of life.

Rosling asserts, however, that statistics can be misleading. Compared to the U.S. and Sweden overtime, it becomes apparent that countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East have achieved advances in health, education, and the possession of human resources faster than developed countries of the West. In the emerging economies of the world, health progress is preceding economic progress.

Additionally, it becomes apparent that every country achieved wealth and health at the cost of carbon dioxide emissions. Global leaders, on the subject of global warming, complain that the emerging economies are releasing too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The emerging economies, suggest that it was the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries, or the wealthier countries, which caused the current trends in climate change. Rosling says that this problem needs to be changed.

Rosling then moves on to discuss poverty, how to get out of poverty, and finally how to move away from poverty to reach permanent development. When an individual is in poverty, everything is about yields—it is about survival and having access to food. To get out of poverty, technology becomes essential. However, for a country to permanently develop, there is a need for a market and human resources specifically schools, health, infrastructure, credits, and information.

It is possible to achieve this, even in Africa where it seems impossible, Rosling claims. According to him, Africa has developed the most. In fifty years they have transitioned from pre-medieval conditions to a status comparable to Europe 100 years ago with functioning nation-states. Misconceptions about development have led people to believe otherwise because the world was grouped solely in two categories: developed and developing. In reality, there are many more factors to examine; it is not a “one-size fits all” situation.

Finally, Rosling ends his presentation by examining the dimensions of development by order of importance: economic growth, governance, education, health, the environment, human rights, and culture. Within these aspects, Rosling distinguishes between the means to achieve development versus the actual goals of development. While economic growth may be the most important means, the end goal for permanent development and well-being of the society must lie in the preservation of culture and the environment. In order to ensure that the culture of a county persists with a sustainable environment, the government must currently implement the means of stable levels of economic growth. With this distinction in mind, Rosling places the greatest goal-oriented emphasis on human rights, culture, environment, health, education, governance and economic growth, respectively.

Our Response

Rosling makes an important claim that no country has experienced health and economic development without increasing carbon dioxide emissions.  While Rosling acknowledges the severity of the problem, he does not offer any solutions. Based on the evidence he provides, and the subsequent lack of evidence on how to change this problem, it may seem like there is no solution. However, several developing countries (namely Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey) have undertaken measures which have increased development and reduced emissions; these measures include making energy prices realistic to decrease energy waste, cutting dependence on foreign oil, using natural gas or other alternative fuel types derived locally, and promoting the development of cleaner energy sources. For more information, view the Pew Center report on global climate change, Climate Change Mitigation in Developing Countries (PDF).

Rosling also claims that economic growth is the most important means to obtaining development. His graphical representation seems to discount other factors that may be just as important. The graph fails to depict the dependency and interconnectivity of all the variables he lists. For example, human rights, especially property rights, are essential to economic growth (see The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando de Soto). Furthermore, strong human rights cannot exist without good and stable governance. Even though Rosling seems to understand these points as he does give them some credit as a means to development, it is the poor graphical representation at the end of the lecture which causes confusion.

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Countdown to Zero – The Case for Nuclear Disarmament

Countdown to Zero attempts to remind us that while most people may not perceive nuclear weapons to be as threatening as they once were, they still pose as grave a threat to the human race and world stability as they did during the Cold War. Using interviews with world leaders such as Jimmy Carter, Robert McNamara, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Joe Cirincione, the film goes through several scenarios in which a nuclear weapon could go off within a major city. The director views the ways in which such an event could happen through accident, miscalculation, or madness. They conclude that since a nuclear accident or attack cannot be avoided in the long run, the only reasonable possibility is to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.

Our Notes

One of al-Qaeda’s stated goals is to kill four million Westerners to make up for Arab losses throughout history that they attribute to the West. The only realistic way they could achieve this is through the use of a nuclear bomb.

There are three ways terrorists can acquire a nuclear weapon: buy, steal, or build.

Getting nuclear grade material is the hardest part of making a bomb. One of the easiest places to acquire such material today would be the former Soviet Union states, due to such materials being poorly secured.

There are several instances in Russia of people being caught trying to sell nuclear material. While these threats have been intercepted, it is impossible to tell how many of these transactions have succeeded that were not caught.

Nuclear material would not be very difficult to ship into the U.S. One could simply put it into a lead pipe on a cargo ship, easily avoiding the majority of radiation detectors.

There are several instances of accidents on the part of the U.S. military involving nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have been in aviation accidents or have been unintentionally transported cross-country without the flight crew’s knowledge.

Safety systems are put in place to prevent an unintentional detonation. However, as these systems become more complex the possibility of them failing increases. The only safe bomb is an unusable one.

There is a low probability that a nuclear bomb could accidentally go off, but low probability events do happen.

Nuclear technology has spread, in chronological order, to America, Russia (former U.S.S.R.), England, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Though South Africa and some former Soviet states have had the weapons and technology, they have since decided to give up nuclear weapons ambitions.

A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, has been responsible for the diffusion of nuclear production knowledge to several states through his commercial network.

Iran is almost certainly pursuing a nuclear bomb, partially with knowledge gained from Khan.

If Iran were to get a bomb, an arms race could ensue within the Middle East as other nations try and balance the threat posed by Iran.

North Korea has a history of selling conventional weapons and delivery systems to other countries, making the fact that they have nuclear weapons all the more unsettling.

Port detection systems are pointless. If a bomb were smuggled into a port, terrorists could simply detonate it from within and still cause major damage.

Radiation detectors are also useless since a bomb could be hidden in products that already give off radiation such as kitty litter.

If nuclear material were smuggled into the U.S., building a bomb would be relatively easy and could be done in the target city with a group of between 15 to 25 people.

An estimated six million dollars would be needed to carry out an attack, and five million of that alone would be for buying the nuclear material.

Pakistan is a very dangerous place considering the presence of nuclear weapons and materials, an unstable government, and insurgents/terrorists.

There are an estimated 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. That’s down from 60, 000 at the height of the Cold War.

The U.S. has around 1,500 hydrogen bombs on missiles ready to launch within fifteen minutes of receiving the command. Russia has around the same amount.

If Russians fired missiles at the U.S., a step-by-step procedure would follow in an incredibly short time period in order to reach a decision on how to respond :

  1. The missiles would be detected in well under a minute
  2. Whether or not it was an attack would have to be determined within sixty seconds
  3. The president would get a thirty second briefing on his response options
  4. He then would have anywhere between ten seconds to twelve minutes to make a decision on how to respond.

There have been several times in which a nuclear launch was almost initiated by miscalculation or confusion.

In 1995 Russia mistook a U.S. scientific missile launch for a nuclear attack and almost retaliated.

During the Cold War a flock of geese being mistaken for bombers and a training video accidentally being played at NORAD almost led to a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

By banning the production of nuclear material, increasing security, working to better detect its illicit transfer, and eventually destroying it is the way to ensure safety.

There are 1700 tons of highly enriched uranium in the world today, enough for 50,000 to 100,000 weapons. There needs to be an international system to safeguard this material, such as international fuel banks and reprocessing centers.

Nuclear missiles need to be taken off high alert status, safeguard technology needs to be shared internationally, and a joint international warning center are necessary steps to make sure nuclear war cannot happen by mistake.

There needs to be diplomatic negotiations between states aimed at making treaties that achieve phased reductions of nuclear weapons and stockpiles around the globe.

Public support of these measures is needed to pressure political leaders into taking steps to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Bottom Line

Through excellent historic and original footage, the film is able to impress upon the viewer the very real threat that nuclear weapons still pose to the human race. However, while the documentary gives a good overview of the pro-nuclear disarmament camp, it neglects important counterpoints. In this way the film is one sided and should be viewed as such. The information in the film is also nothing new to anyone familiar with its subject matter. Therefore it is not recommendable to anyone in the field who is looking to gain a significant amount of knowledge from the piece. That being said, the film is still a very enjoyable and well-made look into one side of a major dilemma affecting our society.


While Countdown to Zero provides great examples and solid filmmaking to illustrate the danger of nuclear weapons, it ignores some of the primary counterarguments. Foremost of these would be the sobering effect that nuclear weapons have upon leaders and how these weapons tend (so far) to stop them from going to war. This is referred to as “deterrence” since it deters world powers from going to war. By not addressing the other theoretical side of the issue and simply implying that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable without giving it a multi-angled view, the film detracts significantly from the validity of its arguments.

The assertion that states should give up nuclear arms entirely also neglects to take into account how that action would possibly increase the incentive for other states to pursue such weapons. As it currently stands, a non-nuclear state would have to produce a considerable amount of nuclear weapons and develop highly complex delivery systems if it were to try and match the capabilities of the U.S. or Russia. Therefore it is extremely difficulty and costly, both in terms of time and resources, for a state to try and increase its international standing by matching the capabilities of the current nuclear powers. However, if nuclear weapons were to be given up altogether then a rogue state would need only to produce a few weapons in order to drastically increase its influence.

Finally, the film seems to be aimed more at alarming the viewer rather than informing them. Scenes showing or implying the potential destructive power of nuclear weapons serve only to inspire fear in anyone watching rather than a better understanding of the capabilities of nuclear arms. The one sided viewpoints expressed by the interviewees also only allows us to see an apocalyptic aspect of the issue, thus masking the variety of discourse taking place on the spread and use of nuclear arms. In this way the documentary seems to be making a more concerted attempt at frightening people into action, which makes it very entertaining to watch but not as useful for someone looking to deepen their understanding.

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Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife – John A. Nagl


John A. Nagl performs a comparative study in his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, between the British Army’s response to Malaya and the American Army’s response to Vietnam. By examining each case study at length, Nagle concludes that the ability or inability to learn resulted in success for the British and failure for the Americans. While the British adapted to the insurgency, the Americans continued to apply conventional strategies to an insurgency. Even though Nagl admits that optimization for unconventional warfare results in a neglect of conventional capability, he concludes that the United States military should make itself more flexible than it currently is to be able to respond to the unconventional operations that dominate the international system. Since peace keeping, nation building, humanitarian aid, and insurgencies occur far more frequently than conventional conflicts between states, the American Army should move closer to the unconventional end of the spectrum.

Chapter 1 – How Armies Learn

Not only do militaries have different organizational cultures, these differences directly impact the ability for these organizations to respond to their environment (5-6).

The “institutional learning process” involves the recognition of the shortcomings in the institution followed by the pursuit of solutions. This process is repeated indefinitely. The “institutional memory” of an organization is the knowledge of how to perform in a given circumstance; militaries define their “institutional memories” within doctrine. Considering the lengthy bureaucratic process that accompanies a change in doctrine, changes in “institutional memory” often precede this (6-7).

The organizational culture of militaries makes doctrinal change highly difficult and typically follows a costly event that necessitates the change (8).

The British Army had developed a “learning institution” which allowed it to develop counterinsurgency doctrine in Malaya. In contrast, the American Army never established itself as a “learning institution” in Vietnam, which prevented necessary changes to doctrine and the adoption of effective British counterinsurgency strategy (11).

Chapter 2 – The Hard Lesson of Insurgency

For strategists, winning a conflict has depended on the elimination of the opposing force. This concept is mistakenly attributed to Carl von Clausewitz whom, as Nagl argues, actually claimed that the power of any given army rests within the government and the people. The prescription of focusing on the elimination of the enemy can be attributed to Henry Jomini and his interpretation of the wars of Napoleon (16-19).

This link between the people, government, and the army was used to greater utility by Mao Tse-Tung during the Chinese Communist revolution. Gaining the support of the people served as the most influential variable and created a true “army of the people.” Instead of the army being a separate entity, it would live among the populace and emerge to strike the enemy before returning within the fold of the populace (21-22).

Mao had a three-phase strategy for his protracted revolutionary war:

  1. Organization
  2. Progressive Expansion
  3. Destruction of the Enemy (23)

Several factors have made revolutionary conflicts far more prevalent following World War II including:

  • The rise of nationalism and communist ideologies
  • The decline of the imperial powers
  • The increased availability of firepower to non-state actors
  • The media’s ability to cover even the most remote conflicts in detail
  • The avoidance of casualties by great powers (24)

While Clausewitz believed a “people’s war” could be used as a defensive strategy, the above factors allowed it to become a viable offensive strategy. In other words, the Communist insurgency of Mao was not a new kind of war but an adaption of Clausewitz’s “people’s war” that was made available by the factors cited above (24-25).

There are two general approaches to counterinsurgency: Annihilation of the insurgents and winning the loyalty of the people. This distinction mirrors the two general approaches to conventional warfare as well. There is the “direct approach” which focuses on destruction of the enemy and the “indirect method” which attempts to obtain political objectives without a frontal clash of forces (26).

Applying the “direct method” to insurgencies stems from the assumption that the methods used to fight an unconventional war are similar to those used in conventional conflicts. Therefore, all wars are the same and should use the same strategy of elimination, which depends on the flawed interpretation of the wars of Napoleon by Jomini (27).

The “indirect approach” focuses on eroding the support of the insurgents by the people and is usually more effective over the long term (29).

Chapter 3 – The British and American Armies: Separated by a Common Language

There are several themes that pervade the British strategic culture:

  • An emphasis on the Royal Navy and a lack of commitment to the British Army. The army was not expected to engage in protracted conflicts but to be extracted when faced with mounting losses.
  • The need to police the extended British Empire
  • A lack of cohesive doctrine or theory for the British Army developed different regiments with completely separate operating principles created in response to local conditions (35-37).

After 1945, the British Army developed a doctrine of warfare that emphasized the importance of working alongside the local population, prioritizing political objectives, and gaining public support (41-42).

For counterinsurgency specifically, three principles were developed:

  1. Minimum force
  2. Civil-military cooperation
  3. Tactical flexibility

These principles were achieved through decentralized small-units (42-43).

In other words, the British Army has traditionally been involved in “limited war” to achieve specific objectives and has tailored its approach to local conditions while resisting any centralized military doctrine or theory. The successes of the British Army in the postwar era can be attributed to this approach to warfare (43).

In contrast, the American military has defined the army’s role as the elimination of existential threats to the nation. Additionally, politics is considered irrelevant as soon as war begins, allowing the military to maintain a large degree of control over military strategy and policy. This extends to a black and white perception of war in America; it is either at peace or at war but never in between (43).

Other themes of American warfare include:

  • Reliance on technology
  • Faith in the moral mission of the United States
  • An unwillingness to use unconventional strategy or tactics (43-44)

Despite numerous small wars throughout the history of the United States including the counterinsurgency campaign beginning in 1898 in the Philippine Islands, conventional wars between large armies became the primary focus of the US Army. The Civil War encouraged this perception, which was then solidified with World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War (46-47).

In contrast, the US Marine Corps had developed small war capability due to its assigned missions in Latin America and China, hence the publication of the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual. Before the Marine Corps could fully specialize in small wars however, it was directed to specialize in amphibious assaults (47-48).

By the Vietnam War, the United States Army had adopted a reliance on technology and firepower to achieve the absolute defeat of the enemy without concern for the political contexts of a conflict (49-50).

Chapter 4 – British Army Counterinsurgency Learning During the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1951

The Malayan Emergency exemplifies how the British Army abandoned ineffective counterinsurgency and ultimately defeated the Communist insurgency, proving itself as a learning institution (59).

The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) attempted to employ the same strategy used by Mao, focusing on the people for support in its attempt to convince the British to abandon its colony. The insurgent forces would come to be known as the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) (63-64).

Two schools of thought emerged amongst British officials for how to respond to the insurgency:

  1. The insurgency was purely a military problem with military solutions
  2. Economic and political factors were fueling the insurgency and must be addressed.

Due to the recent experience in World War II, most officers preferred conventional tactics to suppress the insurgency that produced lack luster results (66-68).

Some officers began to innovate tactically by using smaller patrols. Most notably, Walter Walker established the Jungle Warfare School to teach small war tactics. These innovations were incremental as conventional tactics continued to dominate the response of the British (68-70).

Lieutenant General Sir Harold Briggs further adapted the response of the British by establishing the Federal War Council to coordinate efforts and to reorient the focus of the campaign to separate the insurgents from the support of the population by focusing on small areas before moving on to the next. This constituted the “Briggs Plan” (71).

The most difficult problem was convincing the Chinese population that an independent Malaya provided a better future than a Malaya subordinate to Chinese communists (73-74).

The British were unable to engage the insurgents as a result of the unwillingness of the population to provide intelligence. To overcome this, “New Villages” were created and fortified to protect Chinese villagers. These villages were crucial to the Briggs Plan and greatly aided the counterinsurgency efforts. However, support for the MCP continued (74).

A disunity of command plagued the British and prevented a sufficient adaptation to the insurgency (78).

At the end of 1951, the British Army had yet to develop a successful counterinsurgency doctrine despite tactical innovations. In other words, the British Army exhibited a “learning process” from below but high levels of command continued to rely on the same conventional strategies they had employed in Europe (78-81).

Chapter 5 The Empire Strikes Back: British Army Counterinsurgency in Malaya, 1952-1957

General Sir Gerald Templar was selected to lead a reorientation of the British approach to the insurgency. He had a dramatic impact and prioritized British the desire to make Malaya self-governing as soon as the insurgency had subsided. His single greatest achievement was to use nationalism to rally support against the insurgents (87-91).

The British also leveraged radio and film to spread an anti-insurgent message and help win the “hearts and minds” of the people (93-94).

Food denial was used extensively to root out insurgents. The British targeted areas that heavily supported insurgents, confiscated all food, and only distributed rationed, cooked rice from a central location. Small patrols with local trackers would then be used in the surrounding jungle to locate insurgents (97-99).

Templar also went to great lengths to fully coordinate all social, political, economic, police, and military policies to strengthen the local host government and reduce the desire to support an insurgency amongst the people. This coincided with a clear chain of command that was directed to specifically win “hearts and minds” (100-101).

Once the initiatives employed by Templar began to make an impact, support for an independent government grew rapidly which the British nurtured and encouraged. Increased security allowed many institutions to develop on their own and even though the Emergency lasted for another seven years, the turning point occurred under Templar’s leadership (101-102).

Compared to the doctrine and tactics used in 1951, the strategy used in 1957 represents an evolution of counterinsurgency doctrine within the British Military. Unity of command, increased governance by locals, the importance of local military leaders, and an integration of all races into a unified government represent the primary ways the British adapted its doctrine. The greatest difference within the military was the move from massive ground sweeps to targeted operations by small patrols using intelligence from locals and infiltration of the insurgents (103-105).

Under Templar, the British developed a successful counterinsurgency doctrine that was then used throughout the campaign. Templar’s emphasis on innovation and honest assessment were instilled into the British Army in Malaya and allowed them to continue to adapt to the insurgents over the following years (105-107).

Chapter 6 – The U.S. Army in Vietnam: Organizational Culture and Learning During the Advisory Years, 1950-1964

The US Army was not able to develop institutional learning between 1950 and 1972; it continued to attempt to eliminate the enemy without regard to the role of the populace. Instigators of change and adaption were largely ignored and an incredibly strong organizational culture repeatedly stifled institutional learning of counterinsurgency (116-117).

The US Army employed advisors in Vietnam to avoid large troop commitments while limiting the spread of Communist forces in the region. However, these advisors were only qualified to build a Vietnamese Army as a replica of the US Army with an emphasis on conventional capability. This neglected the types of conflict that the Vietnamese Army was likely to face (120).

A focus on conventional forces allowed insurgents to spread terror amongst the population, recruit, and gain the initial traction it needed (124).

John F. Kennedy was both familiar with Vietnam and had a sound understanding of the political nature of insurgencies. Even though Kennedy and his administration supported a typical counterinsurgency strategy, the military resisted any change and continued to request approval for conventional operations (124-125).

On the whole, the Army lacked both the knowledge and the desire to focus on anything other than conventional conflicts (126).

In contrast, the CIA was far more receptive to counterinsurgency strategies due to its short and varied institutional memory. In the 1960’s, the CIA developed the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) to focus on village security that represented an innovation in counterinsurgency that produced significant results. Even with such a success, the CIA was unable to spur any further innovation in the US Army (128-129).

The British Advisory Mission (BRIAM) led by Sir Robert Thompson responded to American requests for assistance and advice regarding the conflict with the Viet Cong. Even though BRIAM advocated for less emphasis on firepower and the need to address the political nature of the insurgency, it had little influence on American forces or doctrine (130-131).

Since the US Army could not adapt to the conflict, assassinations and kidnappings of South Vietnamese civilian officials proliferated and exemplified the failure of the US Army to provide stability and achieve its goal of a non-Communist Vietnam. The US Army continued to rely on a conventional strategy and firepower without increasing the capacity of local forces to respond to the immediate threat of an insurgency (137-138).

The institutional learning that did occur was confined to advisors in the field. Changes to the doctrine only began to occur in the 1960s and was also restricted to the United States while officers in Vietnam continued to resist any change (140-142).

Chapter 7 – The U.S. Army in Vietnam: Organizational Culture and Learning During the Fighting Years, 1965-1972

With optimism that U.S. troops would quickly defeat the Vietcong with their mobility and firepower, support for a U.S. troop deployment continued to grow. After the deployment, the Army focused on using its firepower in a strategy of attrition for several years (152-155).

Major General Lew Walt of the USMC used the experience of the Marines with small wars to form Combined Action Platoons (CAPs) that integrated American and Vietnamese forces and divided their time between patrols and civic programs. In 1967, the area controlled by the CAPs was the only one that didn’t experience an increase in Communist influence (156-158).

In 1965, the Army Chief of Staff commissioned a study to evaluate the effectiveness of the Army’s strategy in Vietnam. The program was called the Pacification and Long Term Development of South Vietnam group (PROVN). The study concluded that the emphasis on firepower and the “search and destroy” strategy was failing and suggested focusing on securing the support of the population. The report produced little in the way of change (158-160).

Even as political and military leaders began to endorse the need to focus on political and military objectives, few steps were taken in this direction before 1967 (164).

The Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program is the most prominent example of a shift towards integrating political and military objectives. It included personnel from the CIA, USIA, AID, State Department, the White House, and military as well as deployed small, unified civil-military advisory teams. Even though CORDS produced a large degree of success, it was too little too late (165-166).

While General Creighton Abrams attempted to abandon the “search and destroy” strategy in favor of focusing on security for the Vietnamese people, his efforts were also unable to overcome the Army’s strategic culture (168-169).

There are several key problems that the American Army was unable or unwilling to address:

  • A focus on firepower that was unsuited to the warfare of South Vietnam
  • No coordination between counterinsurgency efforts until CORDS
  • A preference for large-unit operations that is ineffective for counterinsurgency (174-176).

When the Army did undergo a self-evaluation and innovation did occur, the institutional culture that prioritized conventional conflict prevented any change from developing. CORDS was largely a result of the Tet Offensive exposing the obvious shortcomings of the Army’s strategy (179-180).

Chapter 8 – Hard Lessons: The British and American Armies Learn Counterinsurgency

Several factors unique to the British Army allowed them to more easily adapt to an insurgency:

  • The class basis of order in British society and the relaxation of rank structure
  • An unwritten and more flexible doctrine governing British military operations
  • An appreciation of the unique identities of foreign countries
  • The military experience of guerrilla fighting from Burma and Malaya during World War II (192)

An unwritten doctrine allowed young officers to innovate when dealing with an insurgency. Combined with receptiveness to suggestions from below, innovation was developed and then spread throughout the organization within a reasonable timeframe (194-195).

Harold Briggs and Gerald Templar were both incredibly influential in providing the strategic vision and leadership to respond to the political dynamics of the insurgency. However, Templar was very much a product of the British Army culture and cannot be considered an atypical officer. Many officers understood the importance of addressing political factors (195-197).

In contrast, the American Army culture prioritized conventional strategies to the insurgency and ignored any attempts at innovation regardless of their source. Young officers, the CIA, and even President Kennedy could not shift the dominant culture of the Army (198).

Innovation was directed primarily towards maximizing firepower while neglecting intelligence sources and the security of the populace (199-200).

With the majority of American officers garrisoned in the United States during noncombat periods, few had any chance to develop a background in addressing political concerns of foreign populations to the same degree as British officers (201).

The American Army’s reliance on a specific set of strategies that would impair any attempts to adapt to insurgencies particularly emphasized:

  • Firepower
  • Maneuverability
  • An organizational structure dependent on battalions and divisions (203)

Even though the official British military doctrine largely ignores counterinsurgency, this omission is secondary to the wealth of experience of its officers, focus on small units, and an understanding of political dynamics as well as the importance of minimal force. In other words, the British Army is well adapted to irregular warfare (205).

The American Army on the other hand has not accepted the need to respond to insurgencies with a different doctrine than conventional conflicts. Following Vietnam, the American Army intentionally abandoned any lessons from the experience to focus, once again, on conventional conflicts. The conclusion was to avoid insurgencies altogether. (205-207).

Chapter 9 – Organizational Culture and Learning Institutions: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife

Some international relations theories claim that states are interchangeable since every state focuses on the advancement of its own power. Therefore, states will respond in the same manner as each other if placed in the same position. Nagl contends that the international system is far more complex than this. One factor that can make states respond differently from one another is the organizational culture of their militaries. Even when civilian leaders attempt to impose change on the military, organizational culture can be incredibly resistant and impact the states’ effectiveness in the international system (214-215).

Even when faced with substantial external pressure, as was the case with the American Army in Vietnam, the organizational culture can override the ability of the military to acknowledge that its current policies are ineffective (217).

Since conventional and unconventional warfare are so different from each other, an army cannot be optimized for one without failing at the other. The organizational culture of the American Army may struggle severely with counterinsurgency but it is ideal for confronting a conventional threat. With the increased occurrence of unconventional conflicts, the American Army would do to well to make itself more flexible in a post-Cold War world where change is abundant (223).

The Bottom Line

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife is John Nagl’s doctoral dissertation, which means there is a great deal of depth, a lot of theory, and plenty of analysis. In other words, it is a very heavy read. If you are looking to dive into Vietnam and the Malayan Emergency, you will find Nagl’s book to be incredibly informative. On the other hand, if you want an introduction to counterinsurgency in general, we recommend The Accidental Guerilla by David Kilcullen.

Our Response

The vast majority of Nagl’s book is thorough, well structured, and clear. He systemically addresses each of his points in kind while offering a great deal of evidence to support his claims. Since popular wisdom is that Vietnam failed due to constraints enforced on the American military by their civilian counterparts, Nagl does an excellent job at providing a substantiated case that a strategy derived from conventional warfare proved to be far more detrimental. After completing the book, many readers will likely wonder how this has changed during the insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan. Does the American Army still prefer conventional strategies or has it begun to adapt to the demands of unconventional warfare over the last decade? David Ucko discusses this exact topic at length in The New Counterinsurgency Era.

Possibly the only shortcoming of the book resides in the conclusion. After discussing the details of the British and American responses to their respective insurgencies, he seems to rush through several of his more important claims at the end. He quickly covers several critical points that do not seem to have been given the attention they deserve. Within international relations, there are vibrant debates between how states act and respond to each other. Nagl uses his analysis of organizational learning to conclude that different characteristics within a state can radically alter its choice of action. Even though Nagl has more than enough evidence to back this claim, he briefly conveys this idea in his conclusion and then quickly moves on.

Furthermore, Nagl concludes that America has no choice but to adapt to unconventional warfare because of its inevitability. While this argument has a great deal of support behind it, Nagl only briefly discusses the logic behind this conclusion. As Nagl notes, the predominant form of conflict is within states, not between them. Considering the proliferation of insurgencies, civil wars, and failed states, it is reasonable to conclude that the United States should expect to be involved in these types of conflicts in the future and prepare accordingly.

The counter to this argument is to assert that the United States should simply avoid these conflicts altogether. Avoidance may be sound advice but the real question is whether or not it is possible. Neither the insurgencies of Iraq nor Afghanistan were expected. Even if the United States continues to focus on conventional warfare and adopts a formal policy to avoid unconventional conflicts, it may find itself embroiled in an unconventional conflict despite its best efforts at avoidance. Yet Nagl does not address this line or reasoning and explain the difficulty of avoiding unconventional conflicts despite genuine attempts by policy makers.


Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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International Security – Winter 2010/2011

Two Cheers for Bargaining Theory: Assessing Rationalist Explanations of the Iraq War – David A. Lake

Bargaining Theory can help us to better understand why states go to war by looking at the range of rational agreements that can be made in order to avoid war. Since war is always more costly than the range of mutually acceptable outcomes that states face when they bargain to resolve a dispute, bargaining theory argues that war is therefore a failure and states should be able to reach a rational accord. While bargaining theory can help us to understand the causes of wars and ways in which they can be prevented, it is nevertheless lacking in a few key areas. According to Lake this has become all too apparent from the war in Iraq. The theory’s failure to fully explain why the war happened, despite the presence of several less costly alternatives to war that both sides could have taken, warrants another look at its assumptions and ways that they can be modified to better-fit reality.

Lake identifies several assumptions/characteristics of bargaining theory that would have to be modified in order to explain the reasons behind the Iraq war:

  • States are unitary actors.
  • Bargaining theory is modeled in terms of two-player games.
  • War is over once a settlement is reached.
  • States act rationally.

The assumption that states are unitary actors belies the presence and influence of internal actors. Organizations and individuals, such as special interest groups and lobbyists, can shrink the range in which governments are willing to bargain and therefore make them more belligerent and willing to go to war in lieu of better options. In the context of the Iraq War, Lake points to groups such as the Israeli and oil industry lobbies that, in pursuit of their own interests, wanted to see a war in Iraq. This in turn may have helped goad the Bush Administration into becoming more aggressive and ultimately made the decision to go to war more appealing.

Lake as well challenges the two-player game model of bargaining theory, which only looks at a pair of states, A and B, interacting. He contends that this view is oversimplified and does not account for other external actors that states A and B may be influenced by. For example, while Iraq did not have WMDs it did not make this clear to the U.S. despite the threat of invasion. The Iraqi regime did so because they were afraid of emboldening regional adversaries such as Iran into becoming more aggressive towards them. These sorts of signaling complexities are not present in an A and B model.

The Iraq War also raises the question as to whether a war can really be considered “over” simply when sides A and B reach a settlement. The cost of the Iraq War is considerably less if one were to only look at it in the frame of major military operations. However, the cost of the post-war reconstruction phase becomes significantly higher. Therefore, if the entirety of the cost were considered during the bargaining phase, the decision to go to war would have looked much less attractive.

Finally the assumption that states act rationally overlooks the fact that the people leading them may be affected by deep cognitive biases that can severely affect their judgment. Lake argues that President Bush and his administration made assumptions that were based on previously conceived beliefs. Additionally, groupthink and an aversion to dissenting opinions were decisive factors in not fully assessing the potential costs of the war and deciding to invade Iraq.

Based upon these findings, Lake suggests that bargaining theory incorporate four changes in order to make it a stronger model for assessing conflicts:

  1. Influential internal actors, such as special interest groups need to be taken into account when assessing factors in decision making.
  2. N-player games need to be developed in order to replace A and B actor scenarios so as to accurately account for more complex factors. He believes that this is the “research frontier of the future.”
  3. Postwar governance needs to be added into the overall cost for the victor. If the costs are small then they play a minor role in conflict behavior, however if they are high, then it will affect the original decision to go to war.
  4. A behavioral theory of war needs to be further developed that accounts for “cognitive and decision making biases.” Lake finds this to be the most sever challenge to bargaining theory but believes that one can be developed that would compliment bargaining theory.

Lake concludes by laying out the main failures of the Bush Administration in its approach to the Iraq War and suggests two main policy improvements:

  1. Making sure that all points of view are considered when making decisions. He believes this could be accomplished by creating competition between agencies rather than having them all under unitary direction, so that the president hears more varied opinions.
  2. While it would be impossible to create perfectly rational institutions, there should be more emphasis on finding creative ways to “correct the likely causes of bargaining failure not only between states, as implied by current theory, but also within states through the policymaking process.”

The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad – Thomas Hegghammer

In this essay Hegghammer attempts to define foreign fighters, in the context of Muslim conflicts, more clearly and to lay out the reasons behind an increase in the foreign fighter presence in such conflicts since the 1980s. Hegghammer defines foreign fighter as a person who has “… joined and operates within the confines of an insurgency, lacks citizenship of the conflict state or kinship links to its warring factions, lacks affiliation to an official military organization, and is unpaid.”

Of the eighteen conflicts in the post-1945 Muslim world that involved foreign fighters sixteen occurred after 1980. There are six plausible hypotheses for why there was such a drastic increase in foreign fighter involvements after 1980:

  1. Conflict Structure – Such as whether or not the conflict is interreligious, very bloody, or involves blatant foreign invasions.
  2. Insurgent Profile – Foreign fighters may join conflicts where the local insurgents have certain characteristics, including strong Islamist ideology or preexisting links with other countries.
  3. Government Obstruction – Actions such as the degree to which a government cracks down on recruitment or makes it harder to enter a country where there is an ongoing conflict.
  4. Communications Technology – Global foreign fighters may require communications technology not in existence before the early 1980s. Additionally the increasing ease of world travel and lower transportation costs make it easier for them to reach foreign conflicts.
  5. The Evolution of Islam – The rise of modern Islam may have contributed to the increase, even though it has been around well before the 1980s.

Hegghammer believes that while these first five reasons may very well contribute to the increase of foreign fighter presence in Muslim world conflicts since 1980, they do not fully account for it individually. He believes that the 6th possibility is the best explanation. After 1980, a distinct new ideological sub movement emerged within Islam that did not exist prior. Hegghammer finds that there is a significant overlap in personnel, recruitment literature, and funding sources within this movement. This overlap established strong ideological, social, and organizational links.

To further test the sixth hypothesis, he examines recruitment propaganda from Muslim world conflicts involving foreign fighters in that time period. He finds a trend within the propaganda that consists of a diagnosis that the Muslim nation faces an external threat, a prognosis that Muslims need to fight back militarily in the subject area, and a rational that Islamic Law requires all able bodied men to join the fight. The common theme is the appeal to Islamic Law and the unity of Muslims over a common enemy. This differs from existing jihad doctrines in that it focuses on an outside enemy when Islamist revolutionary doctrine is concerned with the enemy within. As well, it puts more of the responsibility for fighting on the individual where before it was seen as the responsibility of the community. Individuals were not allowed to travel to participate in the conflict without the explicit permission of “parents, creditors, and political authority “(75). Based on these findings he believes that foreign fighters constitute their own unique subgroup with a distinct ideology from other kinds of violent actors.

Hegghammer concludes with two policy recommendations:

  1. Anyone wishing to curb foreign fighter recruitment should understand that the recruitment messages are not reliant on “complex theological arguments” but rather on a “populist anti-Western” theme. Therefore the focus should be on countering such themes in Arab news networks and propaganda on the Internet.
  2. Western policy makers should remember when using public diplomacy to communicate with Muslim populations that these people see foreign fighters and international terrorists differently and that grouping the two together can cause communication problems and misunderstandings.

Who Lost Vietnam? Soldier, Civilians, and U.S. Military Strategy– James McAllister

In his article “The Myth of Military Myopia: Democracy, Small Wars, and Vietnam”, Jonathan Caverley theorizes that Vietnam was lost largely because the civilian government of the Johnson Administration forced the military to accept a specific strategy it did not want. He charges that General Westmoreland and the military were forced by Johnson and his advisors to accept such strategies as using heavy firepower to pummel the enemy, which requires large material expenditures, instead of effective counter insurgency and pacification strategies that would have instead required heavy personnel expenditures and loss of life.

According to Caverley, Johnson lost the war by investing in strategies that would keep the loss of life low as not to lose public support and thereby denied the military resources it needed to win the war. Caverley extend this line of reasoning to argue that there is an overall trend in democracies being unable to allocate the correct resources to counter insurgency operations for fear of losing support of the electorate.

In “Who Lost Vietnam?” McAllister attempts to disprove Caverley by pointing out his use of insufficient, mis-read, or out of context historical evidence. The article puts forth three main critiques of Caverley’s paper that the author backs up by reanalyzing specific documents used by Caverley:

  1. General Westmoreland, for the most part, pursued his own strategy and was not instructed to fight within South Vietnam in the way he did by the Executive Branch.
  2. There was no dispute between the civilian and military sectors of the government over pacification strategy, and even if Westmoreland had acted on his own he still would not have pursued a counterinsurgency (COIN) or pacification strategy.
  3. Caverley’s theory about voter preference having a deciding affect on how the Johnson Administration conducted the war is unsupported or contradicted by the evidence.

The article concludes by blasting Caverley for cherry picking “sentences and phrases” that support his theory rather than looking at the documents as a whole to see whether or not his theory is at all viable. As well, McAllister closes by stating that he believes the war was “unwinnable at an acceptable cost by the summer of 1965.” The burden of success for counterinsurgencies ultimately lies in the hands of the host nation, and cannot be substituted for with US “blood and treasure.” In this way it was the inability of the South Vietnamese themselves to effectively carry out COIN operations that was to blame for the loss of the war.

Explaining U.S. Military Strategy in Vietnam: Thinking Clearly about Causation – Jonathan D. Caverley

Responding to McAllister’s “Who Lost Vietnam?” that critiqued his “The Myth of Military Myopia” article, Caverley attempts to defend his cost distribution thesis that civilian distaste for high losses of human life led the civilian Johnson administration to opt for a less effective strategy focusing on heavy material expenditures, as opposed to personnel. Caverley believes that McAllister’s logic and evidence do little to dispute his Vietnam theory.

Caverley breaks his article down into four main arguments/parts:

  1. He shows how his argument fits into mainstream Vietnam War historiography and suggests that deductive reasoning can play an important role in addressing puzzles that remain in this field.
  2. Because McAllister does not distinguish between necessary and sufficient causal explanations his evidence is of little use for testing cost distribution theory against arguments resting on military nearsightedness.
  3. He disputes the claims that there is little evidence for both the assertion that Johnson pursued capital-intensive approaches and that there is a link between voter preference and military strategy.
  4. Assesses McAllister’s conclusion that the South Vietnamese government’s inability to fight for itself was the main underlying problem.

McAllister’s claim that Westmoreland and the military wanted to pursue the course that was taken regardless of the civilian leadership’s wishes is inconsequential according to Caverley. The military was bound to have the same view as the civilian leadership since they were appointed by them. McAllister also only looks at three of the document interpretations that Caverley makes and even his counter analysis of those is flawed, as is his assertion that those documents do not contain enough evidence to substantiate Caverley’s claims.

Finally, McAllister’s claim that the war was unwinnable thanks to the general inability of the South Vietnamese government to deal with the insurgency on its own is flawed for two reasons. First, the fact that the South Vietnamese government was unable to hold out on its own is the reason the US was involved in the first place, and therefore cannot be considered a separate factor from the efforts of the US military. Second, just because there were multiple reasons for failure does not undermine the integrity of Caverley’s argument as another contributing factor in that failure.

Strange Bedfellows: U.S. Bargaining Behavior with Allies of Convenience  – Evan N. Resnick

“Strange Bedfellows” explores the United States’ record of bargaining with “allies of convenience” after 1945. Resnick assesses the U.S.’ effectiveness at bargaining in such situations through the lens of three distinct hypotheses that he applies to the U.S.-Iraq relationship during the Iraq-Iran war. He defines alliances of convenience as “the initiation of security cooperation between two states that are ideological and geopolitical adversaries, in an effort to balance the growing threat posed by a third state (or coalition or non-state actor) that each of the partners views as a greater immediate danger to its security than is posed by the other partner.”

The three hypotheses that Resnick uses are from the Neorealist, Two Level Games (also known as Tying Hands), and Neoclassical Realist schools. The hypotheses state that:

Neorealist Hypothesis – The U.S. is less committed and dependent on its alliances of convenience since it is more powerful relative to its ally and less proximate to the shared threat. Therefore, since America does not need an ally as much as an ally would need America, the U.S. has a stronger bargaining position that it can use to gain the upper-hand on issues it is strongly interested in.

Two Level Games/Tying Hand Hypothesis – U.S. negotiators are more constrained than their counterparts in authoritarian regimes, since they have to work within a democratic system and answer to a broader electorate. Therefore they can say that their hands are tied which constricts their bargaining position to more acceptable options. In that way the United States gains more concessions from its ally and successfully bargains.

Neoclassical Realist Hypothesis – The U.S. is “weak” internally because it has to conform to domestic constraints characteristic of a democracy, while autocratic allies are “strong” since they are not held back by such limitations and thus can bargain more aggressively. While the Two Level Games/ Tying Hands Hypothesis believes that the democratic regime is favorable for the United States in negotiations with its authoritarian counterparts, the Neoclassical Realist Hypothesis states that U.S. foreign policy negotiations are bound to fail because of the need to appease various interests and parties that are given a voice in democracy. Therefore U.S. bargaining is bound to fail, even on issues that it is strongly invested in.

According to both the Neorealist and Two Level Games Hypotheses, the U.S. should have bargained aggressively with Iraq during its time of alliance. The third hypothesis, however, predicts failure for the U.S. bargaining position.

However, when Resnick applies the empirical evidence from the U.S.’ relationship with Iraq during its war with Iran, it is found that the Neoclassical Realist Hypothesis is the most valid. He picks the two main points of contention in the relationship, Iraq’s development of nuclear weapons and sponsorship of terrorism, and finds that Iraq usually persevered in both instances. Individuals within the State Department, Congress, and special interests constrained the resources of the Regan Administration and prevented it from having the ability to make credible threats or offer incentives. This inhibited any attempt to bargain aggressively.

In conclusion, even small allies of convenience with different values than the U.S. can exploit weaknesses within the U.S. political system to gain advantage. Resnick lays out three policy implications:

  1. The U.S. should take pause when considering the formation of an alliance of convenience since domestic bargaining “pathology” can unintentionally lead to the creation of an even stronger future adversary.
  2. The U.S. can reduce the anticipated costs and risks of an alliance of convenience by keeping the relationship as covert as possible and thereby avoid domestic pressure.
  3. The findings imply that any attempt to bargain with an enemy in the absence of an “overarching third-party threat is even more prone to failure than the attempt to do so under the auspices of an alliance of convenience.”


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Retrofitting Suburbia – Ellen Dunham-Jones

In a TED presentation, Ellen Dunham-Jones shows how to drastically improve the sustainability of cities by reducing suburban sprawl through “retrofitting,” the redevelopment of underperforming retail and office property. The primary design project over the next few decades will be retrofitting old retail sites into more productive sites. Through retrofitting, growth can be redirected into existing property instead of pursuing further expansion. Economic efficiency, public health, and carbon footprints can all be improved by restraining suburban sprawl and channeling development into deteriorating property.

Our Notes

The average urban dweller has about 1/3 the carbon footprint of the average suburban dweller due to increased driving and detached dwellings which are less energy efficient. In other words, enormous gains can be achieved by “urbanizing” the suburbs. This entails building up condensing instead of building out and spreading.

Suburban areas also correlate with sedentary lifestyles and obesity. Urbanization of suburbia may improve the overall public health of the United States by providing environments that are conducive to activity.

The rising transportation costs have outweighed the benefits of buying cheaper suburban land at the margins of cities.

The demographic shift to the Y Generation has created a demand for more urban lifestyles within suburbia.

Original retail areas with expansive parking areas now have relatively central locations to cities, making the property more profitable for vertical development. This provides opportunities for “re-inhabitation.” This falls short of complete redevelopment. They can be particularly ideal as a “third place,” a location other than work and home that allows individuals to hang out and build community.

Redevelopment projects remove prior buildings and completely redesign the space provided. This can be accomplished incrementally or all at once.

Retrofitting usually builds pockets of “walk-ability” around existing infrastructure and seldom eliminates former buildings and structures.

Corridors are crucial for more systemic retrofitting throughout a given city.

Re-greening and restoring natural areas such as “daylighting creeks” that have been covered by previous development are just as important in retrofitting.

There are three challenges facing retrofitting:

First, retrofitting must be planned at a systemic level to determine which areas should be regreened, redeveloped, or reinhabited. Using Atlanta as a case study, Dunham-Jones recommends reversing suburban sprawl through 3 moves over the next 100 years:

  1. Transit on all major rail and road corridors
  2. Thousand-foot buffers along all stream corridors.
  3. The creation of the eco-acre transfer to encourage development along transit corridors while re-greening former subdivisions for food and energy production.

Second, improving the architectual design quality of  retrofits is essential to obtain authenticity among residents.

Third, all of us must demand  and support zoning changes, limits to road construction, and infrastructure improvements within our local suburbias

Our Response

Dunham-Jones, while informative, lacks depth at certain points. For instance, she concludes that there should be thousand-foot buffers between development and stream corridors but she does not elaborate as to why or what it is. Likely, this is a result to meet time constraints imposed by TED. If you’re interested in diving deeper into her recommendations, check out her book Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.

Additionally, little consideration is given to public opinion or the political constraints that would prevent much of the urban planning from being initiated on such a grand scale. With a stalled economy, an aging population, and a growing deficit, there is little likelihood that the public would support infrastructure investments of this kind. In other words, practical considerations of local and national politics must be incorporated into policy recommendations for retrofitting suburbia. Politics is always a compromise between what is desirable and what is obtainable.

Beyond the lack of consideration for constraints, the policy recommendations deserve more depth as well. The process of retrofitting should be broken down into manageable steps that target different actors. What policies can local officials advocate that would spur retrofitting by the public sector? What are the common pitfalls of retrofitting? How can people encourage their own community to retrofit? Having an ideal picture of making cities more efficient is all well and good but figuring out how to get there is just as important as figuring out where we need to be.

Lastly, Dunham-Jones neglects to discuss how lower-income demographics impact retrofitting. Retrofitting undoubtedly provides more sustainable infrastructure but it also produces gentrification, the process of displacing lower-income residents as rents and property values rise from development. The displacement of the poor should be accounted and planned for before pursuing systemic retrofitting.

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Counterinsurgency Reading List

Note: This is very much a work in progress, there are numerous sources and material for those seeking to deepen their knowledge of counterinsurgency (COIN).  The material I have included below merely reflects the sources I’m currently familiar with. For the moment, this list will be fairly informal and includes some speculation. Please feel free to correct me if a judgement of mine is skewed. I by no means espose to be an expert on COIN. For a more authoritative reading list, I recommend Andrew Exum’s reading list or the Annotated Bibliography of The U.S Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Service members will find LtGen James Mattis’ reading list particularly helpful.

The Classics

Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice: Galula’s book is cited frequently and considered one of the foundational pieces of counteirnsurgency theory. Drawing from his experiences of irregular wars in China, Greece, Indochina, and Algeria, Galula provides an easy read for those new to COIN. Keep in mind that Galula developed theory that does not account for a host nation and occupying powers like the current conflict in Afghanistan, his experience was restricted to colonial powers. Nevertheless, Galula’s book is an excellent place to start for learning about COIN as it is both a quick and easy read.

Robert, Sir Thompson. Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam: The other pivotal work for COIN theory. While I haven’t read it, Thompson is cited frequently and I’ll be looking to get my hands on a copy.



Lawrence, T. E. “The Evolution of a Revolt”: Instead of reading the book, download this PDF for the key points of Lawrence’s argument. This article of T.E. Lawrence synthesizes the lessons of COIN from his Seven Pillars of Wisdom and will let you skip the rest. It’s only about 20 pages and is critical to developing an understanding of COIN.



Contemporary Theory

The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: This is the commercially published version of Field Manual 3-24. There’s numerous versions of this manual floating around as PDFs so only purchase it if you absolutely want to. The manual can also be found on Scribd here. The first two chapters serve as an excellent introduction to the prevailing theory of COIN and should be read by everyone. Read the first two chapters in conjunction with Galula to get both perspectives. The rest of the manual is useful to those involved with counterinsurgency operations but may be a bit detailed for others.

O’Neill, Bard E. Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse: O’Neill gives a contemporary overview of COIN that’s highly accessible. For someone looking for a book that introduces concepts of COIN without getting too heavy on theory, this is probably one of the better choices. I’ve read portions of of the book and will post my review and summary when they’re done.

Colonel Hammes, Thomas X. The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century: I have read Colonel Hammes work but it was some time ago. If I remember correctly, he focused on the evolution of warfare through four stages with the fourth stage being asymmetric conflicts. I’m planning on doing a close reading of it and will post my summary and review as soon as it’s done.

Kalyvas, Stathis N. The Logic of Violence in Civil War: Cited by both Nagl and Kilcullen as a source of theory for analyzing political violence, I’m expecting it to be very in-depth and heavy since it is usually assigned in graduate-level coursework. Once I’ve read it, I’ll post a more specific recommendation.

Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One: This is Kilcullen’s first published book on COIN. If you’re seeking a quick overview of this book, watch the Authors@Google talk by Kilcullen which covers the main points. I haven’t read it yet but I’m curious to see how far Kilcullen advances COIN theory or if he simply adapts already established principles to modern circumstances.

Kilcullen, David. Authors@Google Talk: During a talk at Google, Killcullen gives an overview of the main points within The Accidental Guerrilla. If you’ve already read the book, skip to the 25 minute mark and catch the Q&A. The video also serves as an excellent introduction to COIN.

Kilcullen, David. Counterinsurgency: This is a collection of previously published work on COIN by Kilcullen and includes his “Twenty-Eight Articles” that went viral, his article “Globalization and the Development of Indonesian Counterinsurgency Tactics” which summarizes the research of his doctoral dissertation, a personal reflection of an operation on the border of East and West Timor, a keynote address given at the University of New South Wales, and finishes with “Countering Global Insurgency” which uses a systems analysis to formulate a more effective strategy for the War on Terror. Our full review and summary can be found here.

RAND. Reconstruction Under Fire: Unifying Civil and Military Counterinsurgency: RAND explores the civil componant of COIN and how civil operations can be conducted during an active insurgency. The recommendations of RAND include how to prioritize civil operations, allocate security forces, integrate security and civil operations, and other general requirements necessary for effective operations. RAND has also published a companion volume to Reconstruction Under Fire that focuses on three case studies: Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, Nord-Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Al Anbar province in Iraq. The full PDF is available for free through the link.

RAND. Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Sources of Success in Counterinsurgency: For this report, RAND has used data from the 30 most recently resolved insurgencies to test basic tenets of COIN. The full PDF is available for free through the link. Even though importance of popular support is confirmed, the ability to deploy tangibles like personnel, resources, and financing is the single greatest indicator for success. A full PDF is available for free through the link.



Ricks, Thomas E. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005: One of the most widely read books on the Iraq War and the subsequent insurgency. For much of the book, Ricks applies COIN theory to chronicle the initial mistakes made by the Bush Administration, even referencing Galula.

Ricks, Thomas E. The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008: The Gamble is the follow-up to Fiasco. While I haven’t read it yet, I’m expecting it to use similar analysis.

Ucko, David H. The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars: Ucko centers his work on how the United States has adapted to the the insurgency of Iraq. Historically, the United States Military has largely avoided learning COIN. Despite the apparent adaption over the course of the Iraq occupation, Ucko concludes that the United States Army continues to resist fundamental change that prioritizes COIN.




Peters, Gretchen. Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda: Peters provides a fairly thorough account of the narcotics dynamic within Afghanistan. She does not utilize COIN theory in her analysis but her work will prove useful for those seeking to better understand how narcotics impacts the populace and provides funding for the Taliban. Peters concludes that Afghanistan resembles the FARCO insurgency in Columbia more closely than Iraq. Our full review and summary can be found here.


Krepinevich, Andrew F. The Army and Vietnam: I have yet to read it but many consider it to be the seminal work on Vietnam as it directly contradicts the consensus that the failure of Vietnam resulted from political constraints, not strategy. Krepinevich, supposedly, analyzes Vietnam through a COIN lens and comes to a completely different conclusion.

Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Half of Nagl’s book covers the American response in Vietnam while the other half covers the British response in Malaya. Nagl explores the strategic culture of both the American and British militaries for explanations on why one was able to adapt to an insurgency and the other wasn’t. This is a great starting point for anyone researching Vietnam, Malaya, or how militaries respond to insurgencies. Keep in mind that this is Nagl’s doctoral dissertation and contains a great deal of depth. We have a review and summary posted here.

El Salvador

Wood, Elisabeth Jean. Insurgent Collective Action and civil War in El Salvador: As I understand it, Wood has given a detailed account of a counterinsurgency campaign that can be described as an “advisor” or “indirect” approach. This kind of counterinsurgency utilizes small teams of US personnel to assist local forces in stabilizing an insurgency. I have yet to read it but am incredibly interested in any lessons that could be drawn from it.

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South Asia’s Geography of Conflict – Robert D. Kaplan

Robert D. Kaplan has recently released a report that examines the pivotal role that both India and Afghanistan play in the strategic interest of the United States. According to Kaplan, India is a crucial pivot between China and the United States, with the potential of altering future relations between these two great powers as China’s influence within the international system grows. As a result of geography and historical trends, the entire Indian Subcontinent has traditionally been united. For cultural as well as geostrategic reasons, India remains invested in the future of Afghanistan. In other words, The United States decision between commitment or withdrawal will have impacts on India’s influence within the region as well as the US-India relationship.

The report published by CNAS is both free to the public as well as a condensed version of Kaplan’s forthcoming book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. The report is concise, making it a must read for anyone interested in Middle East policy or the US-China relationship. CNAS has also published a quick interview with Kaplan:


The implications for Kaplan’s conclusions are pretty substantial. For a realist, the invasion, counterinsurgency, and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan have not pursued any national interest of the United States. Because Afghanistan does represent an existential threat to the United States, the benefits of such substantial resource allocation to Afghanistan do not outweigh the costs. After factoring Kaplan’s argument, this all changes. If Afghanistan could drastically impact India’s influence throughout the region, pursuing long-term stabilization operations in Afghanistan would serve the United States’ national interest. In other words, it completely changes the debate for committing United States’ resources in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

However, all of this rests on a single assumption that not only is China unsatisfied with the current status quo of the international system, but is also determined to challenge the hegemony of the United States. Power Transition Theory dictates that as China becomes more powerful and the influence of the United States wanes, the probability of conflict increases. But once again, there is the assumption that China is dissatisfied. Kaplan may address this assumption within his book that comes out next month and we are eager to get our hands on it to see if he does. Unless China’s dissatisfaction with United States’ hegemony can be emphatically demonstrated, the lack of importance of Afghanistan to the United States’ national interest will not change for realists.

For neoliberals of foreign policy looking to stabilize the region as a whole, leveraging the capitalist and democratic norms in India to encourage similar developments throughout the Middle East has a much greater appeal.  From this perspective, encouraging democratic norms and free-market policies has the greatest potential for reducing conflict, especially as the middle class begins to assert itself. Vali Nasr gives an excellent overview of the Middle East from this perspective in his book, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it will Mean for Our World.  With India’s ability to encourage modernization throughout the region, stabilizing Afghanistan to support India is far more important than realists will argue.

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Forces of Fortune – Vali Nasr


In his new book, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it will Mean for Our World, Vali Nasr provides an overview of the broad, societal trends that have shaped the Middle East over the last century. Each chapter serves as an overview of the popular topics of the region including Iran, Dubai, Pakistan, Turkey, fundamentalism, and the popularity of state control over the economy though Kemalism. Anecdotes are used throughout the book with engaging writing to absorb the reader in his discussion of the historical trends in the region. Nasr also makes a point to address popular misconceptions of events in the Middle East, providing a clear and thoughtful overview of many heavily debated topics. Throughout this discussion, Nasr exemplifies the importance of the middle class in fostering democratic norms, reducing tensions, and developing an economically vibrant region. If the West hopes to achieve long term reform within the region, it must promote economic reforms that support the moderate Muslim middle class. Only then will secularism, human rights, and democracy begin to gain prominence.

Chapter 1 – The Power of Commerce

While Western policymakers should be concerned about fundamentalism, they should not focus on it at the expense of the bigger picture. Fundamentalism is only practiced by a small minority in the Middle East and is not growing in influence. Fundamentalism has not led to its broad adoption; the broad adoption of Islam has allowed fundamentalism to survive (10-11).

Islamic goods and services are growing in demand. For instance, Islamic finance has moved beyond a niche market, growing at 15-20 percent a year. Islamic finance is simply banking services that conform to sharia law which prohibits collecting or paying interest as well as investing in businesses that may violate sharia law like liquor stores or casinos. There are financial complications to these services as financial entrepreneurs have had to adapt these restrictions to modern banking systems. Nevertheless, Islamic finance is far more palatable to Muslims, encouraging many to interact with western banking systems that have long been shunned in the Middle East (15-19).

Blending Islam with capitalism through tools like Islamic finance enable the west to connect with the growing middle-class of the Middle East, the center of gravity in many Muslim dominant societies. The key to encouraging capitalism in the Middle East is through the businessmen of this middle-class, not the state-sponsored elite. Democratic reforms and the adoption of human rights will not occur until the region is transformed by capitalism (22-25).

Chapter 2 – The World According to Dubai

The combination of an aversion to Western financial institutions after 9/11 and the need to secure funds from political and economic turmoil in the region creates a substantial inflow of capital into Dubai, generating demand for financial services and large volumes of trade. This turns Dubai into a critical regional investment hub (34-35).

Large conglomerates that are government financed but not government run have been the primary driver behind Dubai’s success (38).

There are several concerns with Dubai’s circumstances and growth model however. Having a heavy reliance on construction to fuel growth, the global financial crisis has hit Dubai particularly hard. Furthermore, the increased dependence on migrant labor is not exportable to other economies. Lastly, the high risk of conflict in the region further threatens to impede Dubai’s growth. All of this has allowed competitors to emerge, namely Abu Dhabi and Qatar (40-42).

Dubai exemplifies the desire for capitalistic reform in the regional Muslim’s willingness to engage with the global economy (44).

Dubai is Iran’s gateway to the world and provides the goods and services that economic sanctions have denied Iran. This lifeline to Iranians is an excellent opportunity for the West to engage the emerging middle class of Iran, the same middle class that the future of political and social reform depends on (46-47).

Chapter 3 – Iran’s Predicament

There is a surge of support for reform within Iran. The threat of political and economic reform is what led to the clerical support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and 2009. To this end, Ahmadinejad has utilized populist and revolutionary sentiments of the lower class to keep the reform of the middle class in check (50-51).

Iran’s influence in Afghanistan and Iraq does not stem from military aid or ties to fundamentalists but from its economic ties (52-53).

The connection between Iran and Hezbollah has no economic underpinning, leaving it  incredibly vulnerable and weak (56).

Sine 1979, Iran’s regime has been dominated by the conflict to provide economic progress while limiting economic and political reforms (56-57).

Iran is a theocracy ruled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatolah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, who sits above the law bust must also rely on elections to choose the country’s President, parliament, mayors, and city councilman. However, the judiciary and economic institutions are directly under his control in addition to all legislation through an ability to veto. All government candidates must also obtain approval from the Guardian Council whose members are personally appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei. (58 -59).

Ahmadinejad has the support of Supreme Leader Khamenei to fend off calls for reform, cleric seeking more power, and the increasing control of the political system by the Revolutionary Guards (59).

Iran was willing to cooperate with the United States immediately after 9/11 and worked to rebuild Afghanistan with the Americans. Even after the deceleration of the “Axis of Evil” by President Bush, the regime once again attempted to discuss and resolve all outstanding issues between The United States and Iran. These opportunities were largely ignored and not taken fully advantage of by the United States (63-64).

The revolution that toppled the Shah was predominately the result of income inequalities, not religious fervor (65).

Under President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, modest relaxation of economic restraints on the middle-class spurred cultural and social activism. Economic progress for the middle class served as the single greatest driver of democratic and liberal reforms during the period. The election of President Muhammad Khatami offered further hope for continued reform in 1997. Eventually, Supreme Leader Khamenei realized that continued economic reform would eventually demand political reform as well and began staunch opposition towards further reform by empowering the Revolutionary Guards with increased control of the economy. The lower classes’ anger with the new found wealth of the middle class as well as Supreme Leader Khamenei desire to prevent further change would culminate in the election of Ahmadinejad (66-76).

There is evidence to indicate that Supreme Leader Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad is waning and that parliament may pursue economic reform once again (80).

Sanctions on Iran may help contain the influence and power of Iran’s elite but sanctions have a disproportional impact on Iran’s middle class, decreasing the odds of reform within Iran (83).

Chapter 4 – The Tragic Failures of Secularism

There have been three tragic flaws with the the promotion of state-centric modernity in the Middle East through what has come to be know as Kemalism:

  1. The development of patronage states.
  2. Failure of a truly independent bourgeoisie.
  3. An over-emphasis on secularism which has alienated much of the public by attempting to repress Islam (85).

Muslim societies have maintained a large degree of power and influence for much of history. The imperial overstretch of the Ottoman Empire during the technological advancement of Europe helped produce the current disparity between Islam and the West. This was followed by post-World War I colonialism where the West attempted to maintain control of much of the region by exploiting religious and ethnic divides (86-93).

The initial paradigms that Turkey and Iran adopted after World War I became known as Kemalism and quickly spread throughout the Middle East (94-95).

Even though the leaders of the Middle East that utilized Kemalism solidified their countries and built state infrastructures, many quickly succumbed to despotism, became corrupt, and left bloated state institutions that would stifle markets for decades. While Kemalism proved to be an excellent paradigm for initiating state development, the state-centric model quickly became a drag on economies (109).

Much of the economic and democratic developments in the West owe themselves to the rise of the bourgeois. With the state-centric model of Kemalism, an independent middle-class has never been able to fully form to demand political reform (112-114).

Chapter 5 – The Great Islamic Revolution

The Iranian Revoultions may have ended in theocracy but it did not begin as such. The movement began as a collection of interests comprised of pro-democracy, socialist, communist, and Islamic activists from all levels of society. The middle class served as the driving force behind the revolution after becoming disaffected with Kemalism (117-119).

In 1952, the CIA sponsored a a propaganda campaign to encourage opposition against Mohammad Mossadegh, the Prime minister of Iran from 1951-1953. Contrary to popular opinion that the CIA instigated the coup against Mossedegh that would allow the Shah to rise to power, General Zahedia was actually the primary actor in ousting Mossedegh (124-125).

The turn towards theocracy was largely the result of the middle class’s inability to compromise their secularism. In other words, the middle class of Iran preferred a secular dictatorship over an Islamic democracy, which alienated the lower class and derailed progress towards any form of democracy. The West should learn from this; a secular regime or middle class is not as important as institutions that encourage commerce and the loosening of state control (140-144).

Chapter 6 – The True Course of Fundamentalism

Militant extremism is not on the rise within the Middle East. It is able to gain footholds only in areas that lack government control and stability. Furthermore, the popularity of Islam since its inception has been the result of it’s appreciation for the arts and science, not the willingness to spread Islam through bloodshed (146).

Fundamentalism is not a complete rejection of the West, it is a rejection of modernization with secularism. Examples such as the Taliban are by far the exception and do not represent the interests of the broader population. Even though fundamentalism does claim that Muslims must live in a strictly Islamic society governed by an Islamic state, there is no model for how an Islamic state would function in practice or an agreement on what that model would look like. Even shariah law, which an Islamic state must adhere to, has numerous interpretations (148-151).

Fundamentalism began in the 1930s and is largely attributed to Abul Ala Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb. Qutb becoming highly influential and much of these writings served as the basis for modern Islamic extremism. Fundamentalism was developed on the conclusion that Islam rose to prominence by integrated religion and politics. In order to obtain that prominence once again, religion and politics should once again be merged (152-157).

Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud, began providing funding for the promotion of Wahhabism in order to deflect popular rage over programs of modernization within the country and maintain political control. This gave a boost to fundamentalism (162).

After the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, those involved returned to their homes throughout the Middle East and employed their skills of violence for fundamentalist causes. In Afghanistan, a global perspective took sway with the United States becoming the focus (162-163).

The debate within many Muslim societies is not between Islam and secularism; there are few that advocate for secularism. The debate is between types of Islam. Commerce and economic development is the key to encouraging the adoption of moderate versions of Islam (168).

For voters and politicians, fundamentalism and shariah law do not drive elections. Instead, the economy and public services do (175).

Chapter 7 – Chapter 6 – The Prophets of Change

Kemalsim and fundamentalism have both lost their appeal; the Middle East is now embracing pluralism (176).

Radically changing Islamic law or compromising its values, as many in the West have demanded, is not a option. Modernization and increased uncertainty in a globalized market place has encouraged people to return to Islam for a degree of social and cultural security. Promoting reformism will not produce change or moderation. Issues such as the status of women and minorities are unlikely to change in the short term. These changes will have to occur if Islam is to integrate itself into the international system but these changes will come from within, not from Western political pressure (184-187).

The Madrasah has been portrayed as a breeding ground for fundamentalism and extremism. While there are Madrasahs that provide fanatical teachings, they are by no means the norm. The vast majority of parents seek high-quality, useful Islamic education that teaches religious values and the knowledge to succeed in a competitive market place (190-193).

Chapter 8 – Pakistan’s Horror and Hope

The pledge of support by Pervez Musharraf immediately after 9/11 aimed to increase foreign aid, secure American support for his regime, end international sanctions, and use the United States to protect Pakistan’s position against India (204).

The Pakistani military has maintained a tight control over the country, even during times of civilian rule, since it first took control through a coup in 1958. This cyclical pattern between the military and weak civilian regimes has created a downward spiral where each iteration produces fewer results and the military must grow more manipulative to maintain control (207-208).

The success of defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan convinced many generals and ISI agents of Pakistan that fueling jihadist movements could be an incredibly effective means to secure national interests. Pakistan used this strategy to increase their influence in Afghanistan through support of the Taliban in order to achieve “strategic depth” against India in proxy control of Afghanistan. This strategic vision has created many ties between the ISI and extremists and cannot be characterized as a rogue element. To this day, ties with extremists have served a specific role in Pakistan’s national interest and strategy against India. The infrastructure for these connections exists to this day and is not under the full control of Pakistan (214-222)

As with the rest of the Middle East, there is evidence, like the lawyers’ movement that denied Musarraf complete control, to show democracy will take hold when the middle class is allowed to assert itself following economic reform. This should be the focus of the West’s policy towards Pakistan (226-227).

Chapter 9 – The Turkish Model

Turkey’s progress towards capitalist growth and political pluralism should serve as a model for the West when formulating policy towards the Middle East. Turkey’s success has primarily been the result of free-market reforms but also the constitutional requirements set forth by the European Union (EU) as conditions for accession into the EU (233-234).

In the post-Ataturk period, state planning and Kemalism served as the models for promoting development which has limited private-sector growth. With the emergence of a new political party, the AKP, the states’ monopoly on the economy has been challenged. Today, the political dynamics of Turkey’s center of the conflict is the rising middle class represented by the AKP and the old business elite that benefited from state’s control (236-248).

Even though the fate of Turkey and AKP is not secure, it will become a Muslim capitalist democracy if it stays on course. The West should support these efforts (250-251).

Chapter 10 – Winning the Future

Democracy will not take root within the Middle East until legitimate economic progress is made. Instead of demanding elections, the West should demand that leaders in the Middle East [1] submit to the rule of law, [2] accept constitutional checks and balances, [3] eliminate regulations and bureaucratic red tape that impedes commerce, [4] employ fewer and smaller state enterprises, [5] reduce the public sector, [6] employ fewer people through a government payroll, and [7] open up for foreign direct investment, trade, and the free flow of goods and services. Aid given by the West should concentrate on supporting entrepreneurship and commerce while opening Western markets to the goods and services of the Middle East (256-257).

Sanctions and policies of isolation only make it more difficult for commerce and the middle class of Iran to assert itself. Considering that the middle class is likely the only force that can provide stable, long-term reform within Iran, the use of sanctions should be reevaluated (263).


The Bottom Line

Vali Nasr presents an incredibly informative book. Forces of Fortune is, hands down, one of the best primers on the Middle East. While there are numerous topics not discussed like the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Nasr focuses on the underlying dilemmas within the region that underpin today’s tensions. Anyone that has an interest in the Middle East must read this book. For those that have already studied the Middle East at depth and are familiar with the concepts of neoliberalism, this book won’t provide much in the way of new insights however.

Our Response

Nasr’s thesis of empowering the middle class of the Middle East to spur democratic reform throughout the region depends on a single assumption: the adoption of a neoliberal world view. Neoliberalism is a perspective within international relations that states economic interdependency and the adoption of democratic norms will reduce conflict throughout the globe. This is essentially Nasr’s argument. As the middle class of the Middle East is allowed to progress economically, political reform will follow and tensions between the Middle East and the West will decline.

There are numerous counters to this perspective. For example, Japan and the United States were highly integrated economically before World War II yet this did not prevent them from going to war. Realism, the other dominant world view in international relations, would assert that states are inherently self-interested since there is no global power that can monopolize force. Even though the middle class of the Middle East may spur economic development, these states will persistently pursue their self interest. Since the survival of any given country is never assured, national interests are built on a foundation of increasing one’s relative power compared to other states.

The answer is most likely somewhere between the two perspectives. Nasr’s policy perspectives will most likely decrease conflict within and from the region. However, conflict should not be expected to be completely negated. There are no foundational “peace” theories within international relations, and for every model of peace, there is contrasting examples of that model leading to war. In short, Nasr’s policy recommendations are likely to increase long-term development, consolidate democratic norms, and reduce tensions, but they cannot be expected to bring complete stability and peace to the region.

Nasr, Vali. Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it Will Mean for Our World. New York: Free Press, 2009.

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