America’s Failing Empire. The name is rather evocative; in fact it’s down right emotive. Warren Cohen takes the reader through a brief, light, exploration of the engrossing topic of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Examined within the covers of this slim, dense tome are the author’s views of exactly how two presidents, George Herbert Walker Bush, and William Jefferson Clinton have failed to protect America and its interests in a world where America is the acknowledged eight hundred pound gorilla.
Within a few pages (assuming one ignores the title); it becomes readily apparent that Cohen has aimed this book primarily at the people who count. At least that is the people who count in his parlance; the anti military, left wing, intellectuals who “truly” understand the world and have studied American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War in depth. While it’s true that no single volume could cover this nearly incomprehensibly complex topic in a single volume, Cohen glosses over issues and compresses data in a way that makes things at best vague and at worst grossly dishonest. Cohen continually exhibits a marked preference for emotional discharge as opposed to a more scholarly infusion of facts and reason. In the forefront of these emotional expulsions are statements like “The killing fields of Tiananmen left a stain the Communist Party of China could never erase.”[I] This statement is useless, in more than one regard, firstly in that it implies that the center of the capital city of what is arguably the oldest civilization on the planet, and what is the most populace nation of its time is somehow a rice patty over run by evil men out to kill babies for sport, and secondly that the Communist Party of China actually gives a damn about anyone’s opinion outside the party. A further example of this is his declaration that “Other signs that the peaceful world many Americans expected after the Cold War was a fantasy were apparent across the globe.”[II] , this and other generalization are made airily and pushed upon the reader with an aircraft carrier sized broom and with as many facts to support it as the moon being made of cheese. To my memory of the time, most Americans no longer expected nuclear winter to occur in their life times, but peace and America have never been more than nodding acquaintances. If you count the numerous times the U.S. has invaded Mexico, The Spanish American War, the Civil War, both World Wars, Panama, Grenada, the Bay of Pigs, the Gulf War, Somalia, the activities against the Barbary Pirates, Vietnam, Korea, the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the multiple conflicts in the western hemisphere with other nations, the U.S. has been involved in at least one armed struggle on average about every ten years.
In reviewing this book I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the academic misadventures present in this texts construction. The lightest of these offenses is his use of the word collection quoted in the last paragraph which wasn’t even a complete sentence. Next up is his use of his own works as reference material for this book. The mind boggles at this concept as I can’t fathom anyone asserting with a straight face that they are qualified, and the most qualified to be their own information source in a field as complex, and well documented as American history. He hasn’t discovered a new medication to treat disease that is based solely on his previous work, he’s writing about events that billions of people were alive for and probably thousands wrote and published books on. Using ones own material for reference works is both intellectually dishonest, and lazy. In the simplest terms its circular logic and much akin to answering the question “What makes evil evil? with “Because its evil.”, it doesn’t prove you understand what’s going on, just that you can parrot something. Last of the points I’ll address in this passage is his assertation that The American struggle to open up Japanese markets had begun in the 1960’s.”[III], this statement robs anything Cohen could write of any and all academic integrity and leads to the points to be addressed in the next section.
Japanese –American trade relations were nonexistent at one point. This point was prior to the 1850s, more than one hundred years and two world wars prior to the worrisome statement Cohen makes about when trade opened up. Cohen, in his knee jerk reactionary way has revealed his repugnance to all things military. Through out the book he minimizes the impact of every diplomatic mission and pours scorn upon each and every situation in which the military is called upon to do their jobs. One of the other telling statements is his calling the troop deployment to Somalia by Bush of 25,000 “a major American force”[IV], but fails to note the Bosnia mission which peaked at over 27,000 troops as such a commitment.[V]
The most salient point in refutation of thinkers like Cohen is that their ideological blinders prevent them from seeing the success of America’s post World War Two policies. They point to terrorism and the hostility of the Iran’s, North Korea’s, and Iraq’s of the world as a failure. This is not so. These states, with some justifiable points, do have reasons not to love us, preeminent among them; envy and fear. North Korea has an economy that has not at any time in the last century been anything other than ramshackle, Iran and Iraq are fundamentally feudalist states with few of the “Western” values we as Americans, take for granted. All three of these states together are incapable of competing with the United States in any arena; economic, military, academic, or broad spectrum consensus building. All three nations (and I speak of Iraq as the Saddam Hussein era state as its too early to speculate on what post war Iraq will look like) use strict and sweeping censorship of Western media to minimize the potential threat to the positions of the powerful if the average person in their nation (note I do not term people in these nations citizens because that too is a Western concept) became aware of Western life styles. The goal of the American foreign policy makers since we’ve had our own state, and most clearly and repeatedly enunciated after the end of World War Two was thus: Let no foreign invader set boot to American soil. The secondary obligations were to keep our allies from being consumed by foreign powers. In those to goals America was unquestionably succeeded beyond expectation. America has not had any foreign nation attack the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or it’s other outlying territories. It’s principal Allies during the war; Canada, France, The United Kingdom, and Australia have all been free of major military threats. When Kuwait, a creation of World War Two and Cold War Era politics was threatened, America came to its aid. Israel, a state that depends on America for most of its military technology has managed, despite radical population imbalances to be the regional superpower since at least the 1970’s. Plainly put, the fact that we are being attacked by terrorists proves beyond the shadow of any reasonable doubt that America has succeeded in convincing the majority of human kind that attacking America in any military sense is actively suicidal. Even men as fundamentally hostile to the Unites States as Hugo Chavez, or Fidel Castro who could conceivably reach the U.S. with conventional weapons don’t advocate it, don’t talk about it, and in general stick to using the U.S. as some child snatching, granny beating, boogey-man to further their domestic agendas. Again, terrorist activity exists because those radicals have no place in the government of any nation, and no official say in their military action. This is a good thing. Cohen and others like him make three fundamentally unsupportable mistakes. The first in assuming that all people are capable of being reasonable, the second in assuming that all reasonable people can agree on what is reasonable, and the third in the belief that their exercises of reason are always (or at least predominantly) right.
Yet another item in the litany of things wrong with this book is the ineffable lack of coherence of argument. Cohen argues that all sorts of fairly minor events on the scale of warfare and world affairs are auguries of Armageddon. The passages on page five make it sound like the end of World War Two, The Korean War, and the ascension of Saddam Hussein all occurred concurrently. Cohen further casts himself clearly as a centrist, and then goes on to advocate nearly every position of the “Left”[VI]. Another of Cohen’s deviations from argumentative structural integrity is: “Although the American s had surely been mistake to support Yeltsin when he ordered the attack on parliament in October 1993, and when he sent troops into Chechnya in December 1994, the Clinton-Yeltsin relationship had proved useful.” Why was it a mistake to support the government of Russian in its attempts to suppress a secessionist movement? Surely the Americans expected, and (mostly) received non interference by foreign powers when it had its civil war, why shouldn’t the American nation extend reciprocal treatment to other nations? How do we have the right to go tinkering in Russian internal affairs? America certainly would not have welcomed “assistance” when confronting the Branch Davidians. But overall my favorite glaring logical lapse is when he shines his beacon of truth on the deaths of 241 American service people in Lebanon as proof of the failure of American policy since the end of the Cold War. The problem with this are that the Cold War was a state of diplomatic tension between the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, with the rest of the world only of interest when one side wanted to counter the other. Lebanon was not the highest priority on either sides list, and of course there’s the small matter of the deaths taking place in 1983, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union taking place years later. Then too is his insertion of a reference to Timothy McVeigh as a further testament to the failure of foreign policy.
Perhaps the most troubling expositional trend in America’s Failing Empire is that in the most clinical sense, Warren Cohen writes as if he were schizophrenic. The most concise definition of that admittedly controversial, but apt, term is a separating of intelligence and memories. In reading the sections on the Bush years, and too the Clinton years I lost track of the number of times Cohen would first take note of the American diplomatic response to which ever “rouge state” was in question, and then noted that only Great Britain frequently supported us. He’d further note the cross purposes at which the U.S. would find itself with nations like France, Germany, China, and Russia and how those nations would work to mitigate or negate the effectiveness of diplomatic sanctions., and then go on to criticize whomever was making policy as if they existed in a vacuum. Aside from being a point of concern for the author, it also undermines his arguments in ways I cannot. His very castigation of Bush, Clinton, or their staffers for things that he writes are overridden by the actions of others also just doesn’t make sense. The absolutely irredeemable nature of America’s Foreign policy seems to be Cohen’s hobby and he certainly seems to have set spur to it and ridden off in all directions.
What all these academic, logical, logistical, structural and other deficiencies add up to is a book not worth printing, by a writer not worth reading. His fulsome attempts to convince through scatological attacks such as his reference to George Herbert Walker Bush as “a wimp”[VII], self contradiction, and his Monday Morning Quarterbacking will lead the observant and knowledgeable reader to one plausible conclusion; that Cohen has little understanding of the scale and mechanics of what he’s discussing. Cohen talks about every incident involving a soldiers, sailor, marine or airman’s death as if it in itself were on a scale comparable to the Battle of the Bulge, the obvious fallacy of this position precludes any meaningful expansion upon it. At its core a defensive posture, which is what has been the prevalent way of thinking for most of America’s existence, embodied in positions of not striking first, will inevitably lead to some defensive wounds. Even if we could be offensive, all the time, we would still be surprised. No matter how powerful we are, or think we are as a nation, there are roughly three hundred million Americans, and almost six and a half billion other people on the planet, the ability to strongly influence the actions of that many people consistently would not be that of a nation of men and women but of corporeal deities. This is predicated on the simple fact that you can not ever forecast the behaviors of known opponents (or allies), much less unknown. A better summation of this comes from the man who is arguably the best writer, and wit America has produced, Samuel Clemens;
“There are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.”[VIII]
while, I won’t pass judgment on his abilities in other areas, this book illustrates that Cohen fails to recognize the power of the ignorant antagonist, the only advice to which I can offer is: know thyself.
To me, the only academic values of this book were the mental exercise I got reading it. Attempting to keep straight what happened when, and who did what and what their actual knowledge was at the time were more engrossing, and enlightening than the text. Much as I tried to find worth in his positions, they far too often contradict themselves and each other. The other facet of this exercise was getting to see how the beliefs of a population segment form their reality and hence their actions. It does make them more approachable, but no more understandable.
[I] Cohen, P 16
[II] Cohen, p31
[III] Cohen, p59
[IV] Cohen, p37
[V] http://www.fas.org/man/crs/93-056.htm (9/19/07)
[VI] Cohen (p40-1)
[VII] Cohen (p30)
[VIII] Clemens, Samuel via http://www.twainquotes.com/Stupidity.html (9/27