Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Review of Dana Priest's The Mission: Waging war and Keeping Peace with America's Military

The only thing that most people (except for a few stuffy academics) know about Carl von Clausewitz is his famous dictum that war is just politics by other means. Dana Priest's book, The Mission, is a prolonged affirmation of this. The book basically has three main points: First, is that the Commanders in Chief (CinCs) of the US military have had their foreign politics powers growing to the point that it rivals or even surpasses that of the foreign service. Second, is that there is a growing trend in the US to use the military to achieve foreign policy objectives. And third, the book illustrates the difficulties the military has in keeping the peace.

The book explores at length how the CinCs and their CinCdoms actually carry out their own foreign policy track parallel and occasionally at odds with the agenda and interests of the foreign service. The military comes off as having somewhat of an ego problem who seems to need independence from the rest of the government. This leads to the sort of "coercive diplomacy" that the US finds itself so often practicing to "shape" the world to fit our dreams for it.

Second, when the United States has something they need to accomplish in some other country, they send in the military. When we need to stop drug dealers in Colombia, we declare a metaphorical "war on drugs" and send in the non-metaphorical soldiers to fight it. When we want to distribute food, or aid relief, we send in the army to do that. We seem to have no other way to get any of these jobs done. The US government is dependent on the military for all of these services.

Finally there is the problem that the military is not necessarily the most efficient means of carrying out all these missions. The military is not trained to distribute food or keep peace, but it should be, or those jobs should be carried out by a branch of the government that is trained for this. Moreover the military often lacks the proper authority to carry out its mandate where it needs to.

Along the way, in this rather informative book, Priest takes us through the ins and out of the routines of the various CinCs generals and higher ups, like Zinni, Powell, and Clark. We are also given a very close look of what the Special forces is made of. We learn what they can do, and where they do it.

There are a few great chapters on Afghanistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Colombia. Each of the chapters illustrates the military strengths and also the peacekeeping weaknesses of the special forces. We see where the military and civilian authorities have different visions and expectations of their versions of diplomacy. The military has a vision of how diplomacy ought to be carried out, and what is feasible and what is not. This is not necessarily what is the case from the perspective of the civilian leadership.

The civilian leadership to their discredit has failed to perceive and appreciate the role of the military over the political in many foreign policy contexts. There is no one else the US has to carry out the objectives that are given to the military. Moreover there is no one else on the planet who can carry out these much needed objectives. The UN is generally ineffectual for even the most basic of tasks (like showing up on time) and NATO is basically the US and her yes men.

The book itself is entertaining. There are lots of anecdotes and stories that span the routine of Anthony Zinni to the grunts in Kosovo attempting to make sure that the Serbs and the Albanians are not squatting in each others houses. Priest does a good job of not boring us with the details. There are plenty of stories, and relevant anecdotes that make for a good read. The last couple of chapters about the 82nd Airborne and Kosovo are especially worth the time.

Overall the book is a bit disconnected, but it makes an important point, and if you want to get an idea of how our military works from the view from the top, and roughly what it does, this is not a bad place to look.