Blogs > Cliopatria > Nicholas Thompson: Review of Philip Gordon's Winning the Right War: The Path to Security for America

Mar 24, 2008 12:34 am

Nicholas Thompson: Review of Philip Gordon's Winning the Right War: The Path to Security for America

[Nicholas Thompson, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a Senior Editor at Wired, is writing a book about George Kennan and Paul Nitze.]

Philip Gordon. Winning the Right War: The Path to Security for America and the World. New York: Times Books, 2007. $24.00 (hardcover). ISBN: 978 0-8050-8657-9.

Roundtable Editor: Thomas Maddux Reviewers: James Goldgeier, Michael Mazarr, Tony Smith, Nicholas Thompson

(c)2008 H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

Imagine that George W. Bush had been president during the Korean War. He would have reacted angrily and pridefully to the initial attack. He would have demanded that Douglas MacArthur carry the battle beyond the 38th parallel. He would have been aggressive in every way, linking the local threat to the existential menace of Communism.

And what would have happened after November 1950? Of course, one can't be sure. But Bush would likely have bombed China, and he might have sent MacArthur across the Yalu. He would probably have exaggerated (both to himself and to the nation) the influence that the Soviets were exercising in the battle. Truman hid the evidence that America fighter jets were engaging with Soviet MIGs; Bush would likely have reveled in it. He might have brought out our nuclear arsenal, arguing that since the enemy started the fight, there was no limit upon our ending it.

Historical counterfactuals taken too far become silly. But there's an important lesson here. One of the central policies in the Cold War was restraint. Even at the hottest moments---Korea, Vietnam, Berlin---America chose to limit the odds of conflagration.

This is one the central points in Philip Gordon's strident, clear, and important new book, Winning The Right War: The Path to Security for America and the World. Gordon argues that the Bush administration is fighting the wrong war against the wrong people in the wrong way. We should be engaging in a battle of ideas with Al Qaeda and its potential recruits; not a battle of Kalashnikovs and UAVs against everyone we don't like in the Middle East. The results, Gordon argues, have been disastrous for this country. George W. Bush has been a uniter, not a divider, in only one way: he's taken a part of the world long engulfed with tension and rivalry, and begun uniting ancient enemies in their opposition to us. To Gordon, the proper response to September 11th would have been to pull out and retune the theory of containment that George Kennan articulated in 1947. Obviously, there are vast differences between fighting an imminently nuclear Soviet Union and a shadowy world of men with TNT strapped to their chests---much as there's a difference between fighting a raging bull and a swarm of insects. But as Gordon shows, there are also very useful things to learn from the old fight.

For starters, we didn't need to attack the Soviet Union to rid ourselves of our threat. We just had to keep it in its place and wait for it to self-destruct. Kennan's wrote that communism"bears within it the seeds of its own decay."1 Gordon argues that:"With time and experience---and if we make the right choices---Muslims will turn against the extremists in their midst." (p. 162)

There are other parallels between the two men's arguments. Kennan argued relentlessly that communism wasn't monolithic. Tito wasn't Stalin, and Stalin wasn't Mao. Likewise, Gordon argues forcefully that the Bush administration has done a disservice by lumping so many different threats in the Middle East together. Bin Laden isn't Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad isn't Nasrallah.

Kennan and Gordon both focus on the need to make America strong at home--- morally, economically, socially---to set an example for the rest of the world."The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States," Kennan wrote in the X article."To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation." Gordon argues passionately that the loosening of civil liberties at home, and America's torture scandals abroad, have been a great gift to the nation's enemies.

Gordon's whole argument isn't reflective of Kennan's. The so-called war on terror (nomenclature the author finds wholly misleading, but no longer worth arguing about) offers dramatic differences from the Cold War. One of the more interesting is that it's hard to see how it will end. A peaceful endgame to the Cold War may have seemed highly unlikely, but at least it was conceivable that a friendly government would gain power in Moscow. But what will the end of the GWOT look like? To Gordon, it will be when terrorism is a nuisance, not an obsession. He makes an interesting parallel to crime in New York. No, it will never go away. It's a heck of a lot better though now than 20 years ago. If we do the same thing with terror, then it's time to pop the champagne corks.

This smart and clear book has two weaknesses. The first is that it can seem partisan. Gordon worked in the Bill Clinton administration and at times he takes his arguments one step too far---into the realm of Harry Reid more than George Kennan. For example, at one point he argues that the Bush administration isn't adequately funding the war in Iraq. But, if one buys the rest of his arguments, this doesn't follow. It's rarely better to throw two $20 bills, not one, into a fire engulfing your neighborhood.

Second, and relatedly, Winning the Right War can sometimes read like a campaign book. It's short and covers lots of ground; the strength is breadth and brevity, not depth and surprise. By the second-to-last chapter, we're skipping over the course of 10 pages from meta political recommendations for Iran, then for Pakistan, then for Turkey. One wonders whether the prime target of this book isn't Barack Obama's briefcase.

That may be a slightly frustrating feature for readers, but it wouldn't be such a bad thing for the country. Gordon's got a set of smart ideas that he's articulated well, and he grounds them solidly in our history. If the next president follows Gordon's advice, America will take a turn in the right direction---toward the sensible set of policies and values that got us through the Cold War and that could well guide us though the foreign policy troubles of today.

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1"The Sources of Soviet Conduct," Foreign Affairs, (The"X" Article), July 1947, Vol. XXV. P.566-582. Accessed at: on December 11, 2007.

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More Comments:

N. Friedman - 3/29/2008


Repeating, as you do, lies over and over again does not make them true. The US acts for its own purposes.

Randll Reese Besch - 3/24/2008

That what is going on now here at home and in the Middle East was planned years ago under the PNAC doctrine? The GWOT is the scarecrow to keep the masses busy as their republic becomes a fascist dictatorship with crusader tendencies.

omar ibrahim baker - 3/24/2008

Had it been America's battle that the USA initiated and is still, at a very high cost pursuing, in the Middle East Gordon's argument:

"We should be engaging in a battle of ideas with Al Qaeda and its potential recruits; not a battle of Kalashnikovs and UAVs against everyone we don't like in the Middle East. The results, Gordon argues, have been disastrous for this country." would have stood unchallenged.

This argument would have had "cast iron" durability and universal validity had this war been truly and genuinely America’s!
What American authors insist on bypassing, or at least underestimating, out of seminal ignorance cum blindness or out of intentional disinformation and conscious camouflaging is that this present war is NOT America's!

It is, par excellence, Israel's war that the USA is fighting and paying for in blood and treasure!

A rudimentary knowledge of the doctrinaire background of both Hammas, the offshoot of the arch Sunni Moslem Brotherhood, and Hizb Allah the archetypical Iran armed and financed Shiite organization would have ordained the near impossibility of their ever joining forces, tactically and strategically, except for their common strategic interest in confronting and containing Israeli aggression , expansionism and designs for regional supremacy.

The same also applies to the Marxist PFLP and Hammas in, and around, ISRAELI occupied territories.

The only common factor that brought together Hamas, Ahmedi Nejjad , the PFLP, the nationalist movements of Nasserites and Baathists ,the diverse communists, Hizb Allah , the, inter alia, Saudi masses and Syria (all until recently bitter enemies and doctrinaire rivals) is their common strategic perception of the regional dangers posed by Israeli policies and the threat emanating out of its Zionist character and doctrine.
Except for Israel Iran, particularly as a Shiite state, would have never commanded the overwhelming public support it enjoys now in Arab countries, despite what is going on now in Iraq.
Except for the Israeli A bomb the potential of an Iranian counter bomb would never have been warmly welcomed nor would have ever commanded the unanimous public Arab, and Moslem, support for Iran’s present nuclear technology acquisition policy .

The tragedy, as far as America is concerned, is that the nightmare that has engulfed it, the seemingly bottomless abyss into which it has sunk has absolutely nothing to do with its vital interests and the war it is fighting is Israel’s not America’s although its is the USA that is paying dearly for it. .
As long as American authors bypass this cardinal fact, and the American public is ignorant ( or made ignorant) of it, this Tragedy, for the USA , will continue and probably escalate