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Judging a Book By Its Coverage


I’m always suspicious when politicians or pundits cite a work of recent nonfiction to support a policy.

For one thing, I hope they’ve arrived at that policy based not on one book but on long experience – their own or their advisers’ – as well research and intelligence.

Also, an author doesn’t always write as if his analysis will be used to make decisions that will affect lives…and deaths. And he will often overstate his thesis. A politician should not necessarily reject, on the basis of one new book, everything that was previously considered wise or conventional.

Moreover, politicians and pundits pick and choose the bits they like in a book and ignore inconvenient qualifications. Usually, any real influence the book has is on readers like us, not the tout who has already seized on his policy for other (good or weak) reasons.

I’m not building up to an anti-Bush attack, although I confess that recent discussions of the president’s alleged reading list got me thinking about the subject. But two significant book recommendations by policymakers and pundits—one involving George W. Bush, the other Bill Clinton – support an argument in favor of caution.

First, the Clinton example. In 1993, while the former Yugoslavia was violently breaking apart, the president let it be known that he was reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, a travel book which reported in great depth on the ancient hatreds of ethnic groups in the region and suggested those ethnic tensions were a reason for the U.S. and others to stay out of the region.

“Balkan Ghosts:
A Journey Through History”

Perhaps the book actually had a huge impact on Clinton’s thinking. But he had many reasons to avoid getting militarily involved in the Balkans: the debacle in Somalia was fresh in mind; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and others strongly opposed American intervention; European opinion was not unified on the issue; Russian President Yeltsin, whose reforms Clinton was trying to support, had indicated he would not silently stand by if the West attacked Serbia; and American public and congressional opinion did not strongly support intervention.

As for the “ancient hatreds” business, Clinton would not have first learned about that from Kaplan’s book: the region’s ethnic tensions were the reason the administration of the first President Bush used for not committing forces to the region. Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger had both served in the American Embassy in Belgrade earlier in their careers and were wary of Balkan nationalism. Even out of office, Eagleburger had continued to publicly counsel against intervention in the Balkans, and his favorite argument (at least in public) was the volatility of old ethnic hatreds. Eventually (and far too late, in my view), the Clinton administration did use military force to stop the ethnic cleansing in the region, and the much-predicted resistance to the peacekeepers from fight-to-the-death hypernationalists never materialized.

Does that mean Kaplan—like Scowcroft and Eagleburger—was wrong about these ancient hatreds, or that Americans were foolish to listen to Clinton when he let it be known that he was influenced by Balkan Ghosts? Neither. Those nationalist hatreds were real but they didn’t make the entire case for lack of intervention. In fact, even though Balkan Ghosts served to shape public opinion against intervention, Kaplan himself publicly supported the use of military force starting in early 1993.

And yet many reasonably careful political observers knew only of his book’s findings about ethnic hatreds and its role in shaping Clinton’s argument, not of his actual view: That sufficient resolve and force by the West could overcome nationalistic resistance.

While Clinton touted a book to buttress his other reasons for staying out of a conflict, supporters of George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq embraced a book – Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq – to underscore their reasons for starting a shooting conflict.

“The Threatening Storm:
The Case for Invading Iraq”

The Threatening Storm “turned more doves into hawks than Richard Perle, Laurie Mylroie, and George W. Bush combined,” Slate’s Chris Suellentrop wrote. “[T]he New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote that Pollack was as important as Tony Blair and Hans Blix in recruiting new members to the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club.”

Pollack was much more poorly served by his new fans than Kaplan was by Clinton. Kaplan really did write all the things that Clinton implied he had, and both men had their facts right: he (Kaplan) simply believed that these deep nationalistic hatreds could be overcome by Western power. Clinton (and readers sympathetic to his and the previous administration’s policy of inaction) did not ignore anything Kaplan wrote in the book. Pollack was not so lucky.

While Pollack also wrote all the things that war enthusiasts said he did – among them that Saddam was a bad man who should not be allowed to develop and maintain weapons of mass destruction – he also wrote (in the same book, with the same careful reasoning) that a number of conditions should shape plans for any invasion. Former ambassador Jack Matlock, Jr. summarized these conditions in an October 2002 review of Pollack’s book: they included the need for overwhelming force for the invasion, support of key governments in the region and some support in Europe, a commitment to a long an expensive occupation, and other critical factors to which the current Bush administration did not tend.

Even before the invasion, Pollack was on record distancing himself from the action precisely because these conditions had obviously not been met. Later, he would give more thorough explanations for his argument and how it was abused and misused; he also complained that his analysis of the Iraq threat was based on bad intelligence. Yet it is almost certainly true that many more of us were exposed to the pro-war arguments attributed to Pollack than were ever made aware of his reservations.

So what should you do next time a pundit or politician waves a book around to back up his policy? Well, don’t judge a book by the coverage it gets from the pundit class. Had more people read Pollack’s book they might have been less inclined to support the invasion we got. And reading Kaplan’s book would not have convinced you to support intervention in the Balkans because it was not that kind of policy tract, but it would have made you smarter about Balkan nationalism.

And think of where the book fits in the debate over the real issue. Balkan nationalism was not the issue when it came to U.S. intervention in that region. The issue then was whether the U.S. and its European allies should intervene and how that intervention should be conducted. The more general question at hand with both these books and their authors was – or should have been – are we better off in going to war or avoiding military involvement (in the Balkans) and continuing with containment (of Saddam’s Iraq)?

“The Persian Puzzle:
The Conflict Between
Iran and America”

If more people had remembered all the earlier talk about the power of nationalism before the Iraq invasion and occupation, perhaps the current violence among Iraq’s sectarian divisions would not have surprised the war enthusiasts. As it was, there was very little talk in the media before the war about Iraqi nationalism or sectarian politics. The pro-war politicians and pundits obviously did not want us to think about nationalism in that case; but couldn’t the media have asked Middle East experts if Iraqi nationalism was an issue of consequence?

In Pollack’s case, perhaps interested citizens will now actually read his new book. It’s about Iran—he was actually researching it before he put it aside to write the Iraq book–and I haven’t yet heard anyone from the White House touting it. You have to wonder why not.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 7:08 AM | Permalink

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