Sunday, November 27, 2005

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Deconstructing Kaplan

With the exception of a lovely Atlantic profile of Sam Huntngton, I've never really cared for most of Robert D. Kaplan's writings. I fear that part of this is born out of petty jealousy. Kaplan has my dream job, a bewitching mélange of travel writer and analyst of world politics. It's as if P.J. O'Rourke had given up writing to entertain and instead tried writing for policy elites -- and then those policy elites actually took him seriously. Part of it is more substantial, however. According to numerous accounts, Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts and its "ancient hatreds" thesis convinced Bill Clinton not to intervene in Bosnia during the earlier years of his presidency.

Well, now I'm jealous of David Lipsky. In today's New York Times Book Review, Lipsky does a number on Robert D. Kaplan's latest book, Imperial Grunts -- and, by extension, Kaplan's entire body of work. The good parts:

[T]he book goes to pieces immediately. The first problem is headgear. Kaplan's got both his hats on at the same time, and the travel writer (who likes flavors and vistas) keeps barging in. "Who here was Al Qaeda? I asked myself, licking my fingers after devouring a greasy chicken in a sidewalk restaurant filled with armed youngsters." The next one is my favorite: "We were suddenly going out on a nighttime hit of a compound just outside Gardez. There would be no time for the steak and shrimp dinner that had been prepared." And it's a shame such well-traveled eyes are welded between numb ears: Details are "grisly," murders are "gruesome"; you hear "faint" echoes but "shrill" cries; "chiseled" bodies cross "manicured" landscapes; troops become "hardened," resemblances grow "uncanny." Kaplan is trying for fine writing - literary special effects - but he doesn't resist the old grooves, and if a writer can't avoid stock expression, it suggests imprisonment at the conceptional level. Kaplan keeps getting into scrapes at the keyboard. "I wanted a visual sense of the socioeconomic stew in which Al Qaeda flourished." You smile in admiration, as at something rare, like a triple play; it's a double mixed metaphor....

Like many writers and houseguests, Kaplan needs an argument to get his best juices flowing. But here he's on a trip to utopia, and what emerges are surprising opinions. He meets a Filipino and observes: "His smiling, naïve eyes cried out for what we in the West call colonialism." He chastises the "elite" for casting Vietnam in a bad light; the soldiers consider that war "every bit as sanctified as the nation's others." The longtime Kaplan reader pulls out the older books. Vietnam is the war he's described as a "mire," a "mistake" and "a disaster."....

Kaplan, the realist, has elsewhere defined his realism as "an unrelenting record of uncomfortable truths. . . . The realism exhibited here may appear radical." In fact, it tends toward the cozily familiar: like evolutionary psychology, his findings don't so much upset conventional wisdom as support it with a surprising pillar. Most situations, however novel, will submit to cold-war realpolitik and the "he's-our-son-of-a-bitch" alliance.

Then there are Kaplan's predictions. He has amassed the same strikes-and-gutters record as anyone, with no loss of confidence. A year before 9/11, he foresaw the Taliban "inexorably" losing power in Afghanistan. He warned that the Caspian Sea region could become our decade's Vietnam (and so presumably sanctified). The central eye-popper in "The Coming Anarchy" - beyond Canada's "peaceful dissolution" - was that various stresses "will make the United States less of a nation than it is today." ("That was wrong," he flatly told a C-Span audience this spring. "You write a magazine piece, and if it's relevant for six months, you're happy.")

That last admission is pretty mind-boggling -- because more than six months after "The Coming Anarchy" came out, Kaplan had converted its central thesis into a book-length treatment, The Ends of the Earth -- which I reviewed and panned here.

[OK, smart guy, what about your own predictions?--ed. Maybe, just maybe, I've made a mistake or two. On the other hand, I was right about J. Lo!]

posted by Dan on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM


I have been trying to figure out the reason for the Atlantic publishing Kaplan's series for the last 2 years, and the only thing I can figure is that they are trying to prepare the knowledge worker class for a military coup in the United States. Nothing else seems to fit.

I particularly liked the Kaplan essay where he claimed that the US Pacific Command "ruled" the Pacific basin from its Honolulu HQ. Besides China and Vietnam, who no doubt find such a claim amusing on its face, the millions of scholars, students, and businessmen who have been building relationships between the US and Pacific nations for the last 30 years would probably only say "huh?" to that theory.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

What were/are your feelings on Warrior Politics? (I like Kaplan, and thought that Balkan Ghosts was a good book when I read it. I don't think you can blame him for Pres. Clinton going wobbly though, given our otherwise terrible record re genocide. See Rwanda, Sudan, et al.).

posted by: John Jenkins on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

From the updated forward to Balkan Ghosts, Kaplan explains why Clinton's reliance on the book was disconcerting:

1) "First, there is exceedingly little about Bosnia in Balkan Ghosts. As the reader will see, it is a subjective, broad-brush travel book about the whole Balkan peninsula, not a policy work. Only four of nineteen chapters are specifically devoted to the former Yugoslavia. . . . That policy makers, indeed a president, might rely on such a book in reaching a momentous military decision would be frightening, if true."

2) "I myself have been a hawk on the issue. Since the first half of 1993, I have publicly advocated military action in support of the Bosnian Moslems, even raising the possibility of U.S. ground troops, on CNN and C-SPAN, in the Washington Post Outlook section, and in other forums."

posted by: PD Shaw on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

PD, I have little difficulty believing that it really was true. Clinton entered office a novice in the whole area of foreign policy and national security affairs, and it showed. The idea that a President could be moved to major policy decisions by a very small amount of the data and analysis available to him is disconcerting, but it is the more likely to be true the less experience he has with a subject on becoming President.

posted by: Zathras on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

But one should always be suspicious when military powers claim to be doing weaker states favours by occupying them.

posted by: NeoDude on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

The following review is better:

posted by: musashi on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

A number of troubling judgments are made by the author and outlined here.

posted by: Chris on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Kaplan is fun to read Dan is quite correct that his track record as global forecaster isn't all that great. Then again, Mearsheimer has been predicting another Franco-German military conflict since 1990.

Kaplan definitely is read by policy elites though. I'm familiar with the curriculum at one of the military colleges (not an academy, for higher level officers) and the primary authors they used on the international system in the next 20 years were Tom Friedman, Sam Huntington, and Robert Kaplan. You'll also see very strong notes of Kaplan in military's unclassified joint document that gives their vision of what future conflict environments will be like.

posted by: AnIRProf on 11.27.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

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