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Sixteen Foreign Policy Books ’16 Contenders Must Read, Part I


To be commander-in-chief, you must master the nuances of the four pillars of American power: military, diplomatic, informational and economic. You may advocate powers soft (diplomatic and convocational) or hard (kinetic and military) or sticky (attractive and beguiling). You will be forced to send Americans to bad neighborhoods. Sometimes, those bad neighborhoods will come to you.

You must execute your foreign policy under one idea. A national strategic end-state must inform foreign policy, which in turn must pull together diplomatic and military efforts into a coherent national whole. When the State and Defense departments work at cross purposes, they will fail you, and fail the country.

Your power is that of your office: statutory, ceremonial, and persuasive. You must understand those to whom you will give orders and from whom you will seek advice. Of those, the military is the most difficult tribe to penetrate: they are the hardest to understand, and the price for mistakes is infinite.

Generals look great and speak better. This is why they are generals. They are the only people in your purview who will execute exactly what you want, and right now, and this makes using the military very, very seductive. So seduced, too many of your predecessors have substituted military policy for national policy, when properly a military action should fall beneath a larger strategic narrative. You must write that narrative; believe in it; sell it.

The successes here are few and scattered; the failures many and unrelenting, just as will be the problems you confront. This list will give you the sweep and span of American foreign policy and military intervention, with a focus on actions of presidents after World War II. These books are lessons in overreach, optimism, misuse of power, and misreading of reality.

‘A Bright Shining Lie,’ by Neil Sheehan

This is the foundational book about the Vietnam War: precisely how, and why, Americans went so very wrong for so very long. Seventeen years in the writing and a lock for the Pulitzer upon publication, it is a tense, engaging postmortem on a disaster. General James Mattis has said that you do not learn from success—failure is the bitter teacher of angry truths. So it is here.

‘A Bright Shining Lie’ proves that a bureaucracy will do its thing.

Based around the person of John Paul Vann, the ultimate patriot—soldier and civil servant, devoted to both his own country and to Vietnam—“A Bright Shining Lie” proves that a bureaucracy will do its thing. The United States had no end-state for its involvement in the Vietnamese civil war, and our answer to every question for ten years—more—explains why we lost men, pride, power, and confidence.

This book sweeps from individual actions in the jungle to the Oval Office, and weights the seething, brilliant anger of gifted and determined 1960s war correspondents against blithe and endless reassurances of generals, diplomats, and politicians. The lessons of that war have disappeared, only to be rewritten in blood in Afghanistan. We must learn them now.

‘Why We Lost,’ by Daniel Bolger, U.S. Army Lieutenant General, Retired

The sole heir to Sheehan, Bolger measures out the bouillabaisse of military action, culture, religion, Washington reality, and global realpolitik which were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wonders why America, again, inserted itself into causes it did not believe in, in countries it did not understand, with languages we do not speak and religions we do not follow, for reasons we still have not defined.

He wonders why America inserted itself into causes it did not believe in, countries it did not understand, for reasons we still have not defined.

Adrift from a strategic, operational, or tactical mission, military commanders in these 14 years of war—as their fathers did before them in Vietnam—made it up as they went. Absent clear guidance from the White House, the military did what the military does: sent armed teenagers to foreign lands. By presenting a focal point for the Taliban, al Qaeda, Shiite revanchists, and angry Muslim youth, the American military effort in two theaters of war led to disaster, loss, death, and pain, and bore out the warnings of those who knew better.

The writing out of the Vietnam War stands alone for precision, anger, passion, and truth. This book is the first in 30 years to join those ranks.

‘Theodore Rex,’ by Edmund Morris

The last great president, Theodore Roosevelt was America in one room-filling man: tough, hardy, relentless, muscular, expansive, dedicated to causes, profligate in his passions and interests. This is a lament for the time when Great Men roamed Washington, when great issues demanded great action and the United States strode chest-out onto a world stage dominated by European dynasties.

Every great empire in modern history—Germany twice, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States, Brittania—was a naval power. Roosevelt , author of (still) the definitive work on naval strategy in the War of 1812 and at one point acting Secretary of the Navy, understood as no one else the second- and third-order benefits of the Great White Fleet. He expanded both America’s global reach and the art of the possible in the minds of Americans. Devourer of books (sometimes three a day), coffee, and ideas; devotee to the cause of the American civil servant and working man; second to no one in the noblesse oblige unique to the turn-of-the-century great New York families; he, not Churchill, was the last lion.

‘Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness 1948-1991,’ Ken Pollack

America’s foreign policy, and military focus, is dominated by concern with the Muslim—more properly, the Islamist—world. That world, having undergone neither Enlightenment nor Reformation nor Renaissance, is inimically and fundamentally alien to the American mind in its insistence on theocracy, de facto or de jure. Our endless forays into military adventure in those lands have been frustrations from pillar to post. Pollack explains why.

Divided into chapter by country (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria), this book lays out the why behind Arab actions our comforting Rational Man theory abhors. These are tribal societies of deserts and monarchs and the Koran…this is the Other which Americans fear.

The Arab world is perplexing, its leaders unstable enemies and treacherous friends. This is the matrix in which our last war failed, and the next war will grow.

‘Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents,’ by Richard Neustadt

This is your bedside reading, the closest anyone has yet written to an instruction manual on the presidency. Neustadt studied, from the inside, the postwar White Houses from Roosevelt through Reagan, and pulled away lessons and themes that flow through the office and the men who hold it.

Every president arrives with banners high, congratulations ringing in his ears, and adrenalin flowing; every president leaves gray and frustrated.

Pay closest attention to the issues of power. You hold the one office for which every citizen votes, yet are far less powerful than you believe. Every president arrives with banners high, congratulations ringing in his ears, and adrenalin flowing; every president leaves gray and frustrated. Truman put it best as Eisenhower prepared to take office behind him: “He’ll sit here and he will say, ‘Do this! Do that’ and nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Neustadt understood this. He explains power, from watching presidents try and fail to use it.

Our president is both head of state and head of government: power emanating from one desk, while in other western countries that power is spread among and across some combination of parliaments, prime ministers, presidents, and thrones. Our president draws power from persuasion, reputation, and prestige, from others’ willingness to work for him or fear of what he may do.

Franklin Roosevelt used to ask his aides to find him “something I can veto,” to keep Congress guessing. Reagan took equal footing with the Soviets not through military blustering but by crushing the air-traffic-controllers union seven months after taking office. Fear has its uses.

Take lessons from the Bay of Pigs. Think about Iran-Contra. Read carefully about the Marshall Plan, the great foreign policy achievement of the twentieth century, possible only because of Truman’s transcendent secretary of State and Truman’s sharing of his own power and prestige with that office. General George Catlett Marshall knew and worked with our allies in Europe: for this his background had prepared him. Truman had spent ten years in the Senate: he knew how it worked, who to lean on, who to work around. Both men had supreme and unerring direction and purpose in what they were doing, and did it.

‘Last Reflections on a War,’ by Bernard Fall

Anyone who studies or fights insurgency stands in the shadow of Dr. Bernard Fall. French, he first served in the Resistance as a teenager, then served in his army and as a staff member at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. In the 1950s, he began a lifelong study of Indochina. He first analyzed the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu in the lyrical “Hell in a Very Small Place;” he then spent the rest of his life, cut short by a landmine in 1967, warning the Americans that they were making the same mistakes in the same order in the same country as had his countrymen. His lessons went unheeded.

It is Bernard Fall who understood a simple fact no one else could see: a country is ruled by whoever controls not the institutions but the people. With a Saigon central government inept, corrupt, and an agency of disappointment to its people, the Viet Cong came at night, imposed its own government, collected taxes, controlled the people, and won the war. In an insurgency, the people are the prize.

‘Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War,’ by Robert Coram

The Pentagon is not what everyone thinks it is. It does not exist to run the military (the operational commanders in the field do that). The Pentagon exists to buy weapons. Your greatest frustration as president will be your inability to control the costs of the United States military. The acquisition, development, procurement, and fielding process for equipment is astoundingly expensive, profoundly corrupted, utterly broken, and completely unchangeable.

The acquisition, development, procurement, and fielding process for equipment is astoundingly expensive, profoundly corrupted, utterly broken, and completely unchangeable.

This book is a primer on that process. John Boyd was an Air Force fighter pilot, a legend as a straight-shooting, deeply intellectual maverick whose work redounds today to the young pilots flying the F-15, F-16, and A-10 jets. Boyd rewrote the ideas about how war is conducted. He was not interested per se in hardware, missiles, ships or infantrymen—Boyd was interested in energy, and asserted that the force which could change states of energy more quickly would win. This means not just quick invasions and swift movement across the battlefield; it means strategic patience and a clear eye of your objective. Boyd insisted that wars are fought not by force of arms, but in the minds of men.

He took on and defeated the aircraft procurement system, bringing to life new, cost-efficient jets that were nimble and survivable, and he did it inside the system. Our DESERT STORM success was due to his teaching about decision cycles and agility of mind and intent; his disciples ran that war. They learned from him, and so should you.

‘Duty,’ by Robert Gates

You have four key positions to fill when staffing your Cabinet: secretaries of Defense, State, and Treasury, and Attorney General. Choose carefully.

Your influence inside the United States rests on fiscal and economic policy, and on issues of justice and rights. Your influence abroad comes from your prestige with heads of state, and that is enlarged or diminished by those at the head of the diplomat and military corps. Foreign policy flows down through them to your proconsuls: the geographic combatant commanders who control hour-by-hour military operations around the globe.

The Defense Department is the largest single organization in the world. Robert Gates is a thoroughgoing intellectual with a wry humor about his job in running such a behemoth bureaucracy. He is unusually insightful about how the office works—and doesn’t. Here are object lessons is what the people one level down from the president think, how they operate, how they form alliances (his with Hillary Clinton, then at State, is of interest) and how things get done overseas.

Gates provides you direct, clear inside perspective, on both his relationships up to the White House and down to the young men and women he sent, by the hundreds of thousands, to the sound of the guns.

To be continued.