Smart Power Is the Winner

For Syria, the president weighs his options in case the Russian-brokered approach through which Bashar Assad will give up his chemical arsenal fails. For Egypt, all sides pressure him on General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, shutting down the country's Muslim Brotherhood and confiscating its assets. For Afghanistan, he confronts pressures on whether to pull out our troops -- a "zero option" -- or leave behind a force that can train and bolster the Afghan government.

The president faces difficult decisions. What's the right approach? Former State Department official Christian Whiton has just written a fascinating, well argued book, Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War (Washington: Potomac Books, 2013). Whiton argues that a wise approach is well summarized by his book's title: smart power. Whiton rejects the idea that "soft power" like foreign aid or smarmy statesmanship that produces empty promises or meaningless action, or mindless tough-guy approaches that foolishly embroil the U.S. in armed conflicts, costing precious blood and treasure, is prudent.

Whiton is a member of what I call the hard-nosed school of realism. He advocates the use of kinetic means if essential, but mostly he favors a tough-minded approach that challenges those who oppose the U.S. through savvy peaceful means that achieve well-defined political objectives -- what the military thinks of as "end-states" -- while avoiding unnecessary bloodshed.

Two presidents stand out in his analysis and they offer lessons for the future. President Ronald Reagan forced the Communists to recognize that their system had reached a dead end, through his much-derided but politically savvy gambit that proposed a "star wars" anti-missile defense. Reagan critics hooted and hollered. But Soviet President Michael Gorbachev understand the point Reagan was making and his recognition forced the Soviets to rethink their future. Communism, with his restrictions on free thought, was headed for the dust-bin of history. Only a free society that encouraged not only entrepreneurial innovation but scientific discovery, was like to thrive and prosper. George H.W. Bush and his top-notch team that included General Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of State Jim Baker, and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, managed this nation's statesmanship deftly, with a firm but smart approach that let the iron curtain fall by itself. It took smart people to understand where history was headed and to make decisions that ensured the U.S. could capitalize on what was happening.

Whiton's other hero is Dwight Eisenhower. Ike consciously presented a public face of a somewhat doddering, likeable grandfather who needed strong help to keep the ship of state moving in the right direction. It was a mask. Ike had a razor sharp mind. Henry Kissinger once confessed that until he met Ike, he had the misimpression that the President wasn't that sharp. A few hours with the former military commander rectified that mistake. Read Eisenhower's memos on national security, as an officer and a President. They are well written, astute, tough, and like Eisenhower's leadership in the National Security Council, left no doubt who was in charge. Eisenhower served during a period in which some spoke wistfully of "co-existence" with Communism. As Whiton details, Eisenhower had no patience with such droopy thinking. His goal was to defeat Communism and he instituted policies that put the White House in charge and drove action aimed at achieving that end.

In today's era, Whiton worries that the U.S. is glossing over what he terms "five deadly illusions:" the mistaken idea that China is not an adversary, manifest in its reliance on "weak or sympathetic elites in Washington" to ignore its expansionist ambitions; the absurd prejudice that Al Qaeda is the only real terrorist threat; the foolishness of neglecting allies like Israel to place implacable enemies like North Korea and, in his view, Russia and, as to Taiwan and Japan, China; the suggestion, to quote Whiton, that "the CIA knows all," which he views as a "mythical image;" and confidence in the State Department to properly guide our statecraft.

Each of these arguments Whiton makes with verve and energy. Whether one agrees or disagrees, he is an engaging, informed writer, and his views make this book an essential contribution to the discourse over the direction of national security. It's highly readable and he speaks from his own experience, not as an academic.

I disagree with some of his arguments. He sides with those who opposed intervention in Rwanda. In fact, that genocide was entirely preventable. Bill Clinton, Tony Lake and Richard Clarke -- who has made a career out of lambasting George Bush officials for ignoring threats to U.S. security - believed we should sit on the sidelines. The fact is -- as U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power has well stated -- when the Europeans sent in a heavily armed force (that could have been quickly and easily reinforced) to rescue the whites in Rwanda, they could have stopped the bloodshed. As it was, the lightly armed U.N. force on the ground worried the Hutu extremists. Unlike Syria's unfolding tragedy, in which distinguishing the "good" side from the "bad" side is a more complicated, nuanced challenge than the media might suggest - doubters, ask yourself why the Christians, Druze, and the business communities in Aleppo and Damascus, all groups we would identify with, side with Bashar Assad, despite the fact that Assad and his family are thugs - Rwanda offered a clear-cut case for intervention t prevent genocide.

He's also too tough on the State Department. Its officers are sophisticated, cosmopolitan people. The blame for behavior that Whiton dislikes, especially as to North Korea, rests with the senior policy makers, not the career officers.

But Whiton is always thought-provoking and the best way to provoke new thinking and debate is to ignite discussion with incisively written analysis that challenges conventional thinking. In this well done critique, Whiton succeeds admirably. One does not have to agree with all of an author's arguments to make a book worth reading. It's vital to understand the wide spectrum of discourse and to understand the wide range of different ideas that shape it. This book offers a fine contribution in achieving that vital goal.