We may well be living the age of video and short takes and 140-character word spasms. But you’d never know it from the flood of new titles on every aspect of international affairs, history, war, peace, revolution, revolutionaries, terrorism, populism, refugees, and the end of the world as we know it. Foreign Policy dives back into book reviews with our first installment of what we hope will be a regular feature offering our take on new or recent releases that caught our eye. We hope they’ll serve you well.
The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight — Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy
Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State — Carter Malkasian
All Measures Short of War — Thomas Wright
The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao — Ian Johnson
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World — Erica Benner
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution — China Miéville
The Cold War: A World History — Odd Arne Westad
Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, Bloomsbury Publishing, 640 pp., $19.99, May 2017
There are no shortage of narratives about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and especially his grisly end. Hollywood gave us Zero Dark Thirty, a sensationalized account of the exploits of the CIA officers who obsessively tracked and eventually found the terrorist leader. No Easy Day, a first-person account of a Navy SEAL who says he shot bin Laden (a claim made by another SEAL as well), offers the perspective of those who carried out the 2011 operation that killed Al Qaeda’s founder.
What those accounts are missing are the voices of those inside al Qaeda, in part because most of the key people are dead, in hiding, or in prison. “What we do have, courtesy of the U.S. government, is a cherry-picked history,” write Scott-Clark and Levy in their new book. (The authors are also interviewed on today’s E.R. podcast.)
They remedy that by securing exclusive interviews with key bin Laden associates and family members, recreating the astonishing story of al Qaeda’s ten years on the run, from the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, to the “tourist complex” in Iran, and ultimately, for bin Laden and some of his family, to a walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The fraught bin Laden family relations, with his feuding wives and many children, makes for scintillating reading, but also provides important insights into al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The story behind Hamzah, bin Laden’s son, who is now stepping publicly into his father’s role, is particularly telling.
More than a history, the book is a warning about the future, particularly for those, like the Obama administration, who were inclined to discount al Qaeda. The authors note a troubling tug-of-war over the documents taken from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The CIA wanted to keep the information closely held; the military wanted to exploit what it found to better understand the threat from al Qaeda.
Scott-Clark and Levy’s warning is ominous: With the Islamic State crumbling, the terror group with real staying power remains al Qaeda.— Sharon Weinberger
Carter Malkasian, Oxford University Press, 280 pp., $27.95, July 2017
For any cadet entering West Point, or for that matter, anyone who’s ever ventured an opinion about the Iraq war, this is a must read.
Ten years on, Carter Malkasian — who spent the early years of the Iraq war as a civilian counterinsurgency advisor to U.S. Marines — revisits the “Anbar Awakening,” an episode once hailed as a tipping point in the conflict and which became a template for further U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and beyond.
When tribal sheiks in the deserts of western Anbar province joined forces with American troops to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007, it was portrayed as a resounding success and a redemptive moment for the American military. It enabled and complemented the “surge” of five additional U.S. brigades to stabilize a disintegrating Iraq. The Pentagon’s top brass, and Republican politicians, argued that the tactics employed in Anbar could be applied with a similar outcome in Afghanistan.
But a decade later, it’s clear that whatever success was achieved was fleeting and bound to crumble, writes Malkasian, who’s also written about the never-ending war in Afghanistan and is currently a civilian adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By 2014, a new version of al Qaeda in Iraq — the Islamic State — had come roaring back to Anbar and its capital city, Ramadi. Having exploited the chaos of the civil war in neighboring Syria, the militants had regrouped and routed a heavily-armed Iraqi army that lacked the will to fight. Their appeals to marginalized Sunni Arabs proved more powerful than the pull of a weak central government perceived as an instrument of Shiite-led persecution.
Above all, the gains made in Anbar could not be maintained without a U.S. occupying force and U.S. funding. Malkasian puts the Anbar battlefield under a microscope, applying a historian’s sober-minded detachment to a chapter that has been shrouded in myth and partisan rhetoric. He rejects some of the more black-and-white interpretations of the events of 2007, concluding that the “surge” of 30,000 additional troops ordered by then-President George W. Bush was not a decisive factor in the success of the tribal uprising. But he also cautions against placing too much weight on the effect of al Qaeda’s brutality in provoking the initial backlash among Sunni tribesmen.
The book concludes with a warning to any president who underestimates the risks and consequences of military intervention. “What we can do now is take heed and be wary of our ability to change foreign lands,” he writes. — Dan DeLuce
Thomas Wright, Yale University Press, 288 pg., $27.50, May 2017
A fundamental myth, writes Thomas Wright in his new book, underpinned the U.S. approach to the world for much of the post-Cold War era, a world that is currently coming apart at the seams.
Under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, U.S. policymakers took for granted that the world was converging toward a more liberal, cooperative order. China would become, in the words of Robert Zoellick, a “responsible stakeholder.” Europe would steadily spread democracy and liberal norms ever further east. Transnational challenges like terrorism and climate change would push countries away from zero-sum competition and toward a stronger version of the international order Washington built after World War II.
And then it all blew up. That was partly due to the financial crisis in 2008-09 which kneecapped economies everywhere, especially in the West, but things really accelerated after 2014. Russia started erasing borders in Europe, while China sought to redraw the map of East Asia, all while the Arab Spring turned into a conflagration.
All Measures Short of War, like other recent releases including Gideon Rachman’s Easternization and Robert Blackwill and Jennifer Harris’ War By Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft, offers a lively, engaging roadmap to a world that, as Wright notes, is characterized less by global convergence and more by rising nationalism and cutthroat national competition.
Wright’s answer to that fresh challenge, like Blackwill and Harris, is for the United States to use its full toolkit to gain cooperation where it can and leverage where it must — all measures, that is, short of war, from economic and trade policy to development aims to a forward-leaning cyber policy.
Ultimately, though, Wright views the world through seven decades of postwar U.S. leadership, where a healthy international order — rather than retrenchment and America Firstism — best serves the national interest. Greater U.S. engagement in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, he argues, should aim to nudge others to become status quo powers. China, in particular, represents a frontal challenge to the existing order in East Asia — which must be checked — but could be a force for stability in Eurasia more broadly. Russia can be both a geopolitical rival, but also a partner on particularly thorny questions, such as nuclear proliferation.
But Wright finished the book just after Donald Trump’s surprise election win, and he worries that an “America First” foreign policy will “dramatically accelerate the shift” away from that supposed convergence toward a more nationalist and competitive world.
“It is a good rule of thumb that the greater the U.S. disengagement, the greater the global problems,” Wright concludes. — Keith Johnson
Ian Johnson, Pantheon, 480 pp., $30.00, April 2017
When communism fails, what is left to believe in?
For 300 million Chinese (and counting), the answer they’ve found is religion. In his new book, Ian Johnson explores how millions of Chinese are turning back to Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity as a balm to the moral vacuum left by the death of a totalitarian ideology, and by the resulting triumph of an unbridled capitalism that has turned Chinese metropolises into a brutal wild-west brawl over profit at any cost.
The Marxist-inspired atheism or religious indifference of the 1960s and 1970s is no more. In cities and villages across the country, everyday people are reviving traditional pilgrimages and holidays, or making up new ones. Temples and churches are popping up. Worshippers are donating their newfound wealth.
“This is not the China we used to know,” writes Johnson.
Here Johnson, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and a student of religion, is at his best, showcasing his mastery of immersive reporting as he travels with Buddhist pilgrims and lives with Chinese Christians.
Perhaps most astonishing, however, is that state-sponsored atheism is giving way to state-sponsored religion. Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to revive the pride – and the moral boundaries – afforded by Confucian and Buddhist traditions, which themselves provided the underpinning for centuries of social cohesion in imperial China. This is a China we can recognize: Authorities are hoping to curtail the independent-minded social forces unleashed by religion. In addition to capitalism with Chinese characteristics, they hope to create a Christianity with Chinese characteristics — meaning a Christianity that serves the purposes of the Chinese Communist Party.
But for all his talk of religious revival and the government’s hand in co-opting it, Johnson largely overlooks the most extreme example — China’s Muslims.
In recent years, Chinese authorities have increasingly viewed this small but visible minority in starkly black and white terms –good Muslims versus bad ones. To promote a state-friendly version of Islam, authorities have enacted draconian restrictions in the country’s heavily Muslim northwest, dictating who can pray, who can fast, what they wear, and even what they name their children.
This otherwise peerless book would have benefitted from Johnson lending his storytelling prowess to examining this complex group — and the massive government efforts spent to shape it to its own purposes. — Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
Meredith Hindley, PublicAffairs, 512 pp., $30.00, October 2017
The classic 1942 film Casablanca immortalized the sunbleached Moroccan port city, giving it a permanent place in popular culture. But history books have been less kind. Morocco and its most famous city usually get glossed over in histories of the war, even in classics like Rick Atkinson’s Army at Dawn or Barrie Pitt’s The Crucible of War series.
Hindley comes to the rescue with a compelling read, packed with a Casablanca-worthy cast of characters and a penetrating look at the inside workings of Vichy France.
Hindley’s wartime Casablanca, like Humphrey Bogart’s, is peopled with the flotsam and jetsam of the European war: Desperate Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi clutches in Africa, imperious French colonialists, and the brave (and sometimes foolhardy) Americans clumsily trying to establish spy networks in North Africa. Featuring prominently is Josephine Baker, a famous African-American jazz singer turned French Resistance agent, who based her operations out of North Africa. Then there was Hélène Cazes-Benatar, a French-Moroccan Jewish lawyer who established a refugee committee to aid thousands of refugees pouring into Casablanca to escape the Nazi war machine. Not to mention Bill Eddy, a World War I veteran turned college president turned intelligence operative, who built up a network of spies in North Africa for the forerunner of the CIA.
But Hindley really shines when she lifts the veil on the complex inner workings of Vichy France, especially in France’s North African colonies. Often viewed as a simple Nazi vassal state, under the surface there was a desperate power struggle between the true collaborationists, and French patriots trying to parry Nazi influence from within. And plenty of Vichy officials steered uneasily between those two poles, dispelling the black-and-white narrative of Nazi collaboration (though by 1942, at the height of Nazi Germany’s powers, Vichy France had purged many of Allied sympathizers). Through this, readers will also learn a lot about the complex spectrum of French attitudes toward the Allies – particularly the British, who in an oft-forgotten episode bombed a massive French fleet in Algeria into oblivion, killing some 1,300 French sailors, lest the fleet fall into Nazi hands.
No one better embodied the conflict than Maxime Weygand, a wily French military commander who worked tirelessly as a member of the Vichy government to keep France’s colonial holdings, especially Morocco, out of Nazi clutches, while quietly and indirectly helping pave the way for an Allied invasion of North Africa.
History buffs will love the colorful stories and the grand geopolitical scheming. But there’s enough action, intrigue, and adventure to make Destination Casablanca a perfect beach read. — Robbie Gramer
Erica Benner, W.W. Norton & Company, 384 pp., $27.95, May 2017
Imagine you wish to confront a prince — a man who calls himself a citizen but acts as first among equals, who would undermine the state to enrich himself, who would promote his friends at the expense of the most qualified, and who would weaken civic institutions. What would you do?
If you’re Niccolò Machiavelli, weaned on republicanism and the radical notion that sovereignty resides with the people, you might take up your pen and seek to expose him. The prince will meet The Prince.
That, at least, is the Machiavelli that emerges in Erica Benner’s Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World, a biography that sets out to do for the Florentine what Ron Chernow (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) did for Alexander Hamilton. While not the first to tread this ground, Benner makes a convincing case that The Prince is meant not as a guidebook for would-be Medicis, but a way to “expose the perversities of princely rule.” Benner rescues an oft-misunderstood Machiavelli who in the centuries since has become sort of a pre-modern Bismarck, a cunning Florentine practitioner of Realpolitik.
She puts The Prince, from the early 16th century, squarely in the context of Machiavelli’s other writings, notably Discourses on Livy. What emerges is a deeply patriotic, devoted republican, a student of history, determined against all evidence of Italian city state warfare to hold fast to the notion of a popular militia as a guarantee against foreign invasion and princely misrule. Far from an Italian Richelieu, Machiavelli tried to hold people to their better natures, even while allowing that they could revert to their worst.
Benner’s eminently readable book serves as an introduction to Machiavelli and offers plenty of fresh insight even for those sure they know him and his work. Like Machiavelli’s own writings, Benner’s is a meditation on the virtues and flaws of various forms of government and ambitious men who will rule at will unless checked by institutions or other equally ambitious men.
And it holds a lesson worth remembering for princes and those that would dethrone them: The Prince works not only because the author understood his subject, but because he understood his cause. — Emily Tamkin
China Miéville, Verso Books, 384 pp., $26.95, May 2017
I grew up exploring the fantastic and horrifying fictional universes conjured up by China Miéville, replete with grisly creatures that pilfer, rape, murder, and destroy but also create, love, and dream. Miéville’s capacity for creation and destruction, for prose both elegant and ghastly, actually makes him a great fit for a creative retelling of the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
This is not your standard academic tome on Lenin and Stalin and Trotsky and all of October’s backstory — there are scores of them out this year at any rate — but rather a creative depiction inspired by real letters, books, and other artifacts of the ten months that shook the world.
Miéville takes us by the hand to show Lenin in his disguises and train journeys, Kornilov and his militant defiance, the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, and every party in between as tension builds in revolutionary Russia.
I found myself dog-earing particularly delicious passages: “the trees shook from the thud of guns,” when Petrograd started spiraling out of control, for instance. Or a scene that summer, when a man trying to sell rotten meat is dragged face first through the streets, his own blood mixing with that of the rancid flesh he’d tried to hock.
For fans of fresh, dark prose and historical fiction, October is an excellent choice. For readers already captivated by Miéville’s fiction, if you can navigate the maze of Russian politics, you won’t be disappointed. — Jenna McLaughlin
Well, you might be disappointed.
Miéville’s retelling of those ten months certainly ranks among the more offbeat of 2017’s overplus offerings on the subject. The author doesn’t contribute new research, nor even a new reading, to the vast literature on the Russian Revolution — rather, he repackages an out-of-fashion reading in brisk prose. For Miéville is a true believer in the gospel of Marx and Lenin, and his history paints the revolutionaries and above all, the Bolsheviks, in a decidedly romantic light.
To his credit, Miéville is both upfront about his bias and unfailingly fair in his analysis. But he assumes the best of intentions of the party of Lenin (mercifully, not of Stalin) and in doing so, stakes a political claim that undermines his stated purpose in writing October: to provide “a short of introduction for those curious about an astonishing story.”
Miéville is right to remind readers time and again that we shouldn’t write off the Russian revolutions just because Lenin’s dream devolved into Stalin’s nightmare. Things weren’t foreordained to shake out the way they did.
But what’s past is prologue, and 1917 did ultimately birth the conditions that let the Bolsheviks unleash their darkest impulses. These days, we need more of that kind of hard history — not sympathetic storytelling. —Noah Buyon
Odd Arne Westad, Basic Books, 720 pp., $35.00, Sept. 5, 2017
The Cold War was much more than just a post-WWII confrontation between the United States and the U.S.S.R., argues Odd Arne Westad in his latest book. Rather, he puts the Cold War squarely in the middle of a century-long ideological tug-of-war between capitalism and socialism that reaches back to the 19th century and has implications still for the 21st.
Westad, a scholar of the Cold War and East Asia, has covered some of the same ground before; The Global Cold War, for example, is notable for its geographic scope. However prominent Europe remains in the popular Cold War imagination — Berlin, Hungary, Prague, Poland, Berlin again — Westad’s The Cold War keeps the spotlight moving from Asia to Africa to Latin America, areas he says bear some of the deepest scars from the ideological fights of the Cold War era.
He’s also careful to widen the aperture time-wise, essentially dating the conflict not to Yalta, but to the financial crises of the early 1890s, which shook capitalism to its core, emboldened socialists and leftist thinkers, and coincided with an eruption of anti-colonial feeling around the world. Much the same held true for decades of the Cold War proper. It’s a broad-brush approach that sees Reagan and Gorbachev as essentially the coda to an international struggle that began not long before William McKinley’s assassination.
And it ensures that Westad’s stress is not just on the traditional power politics behind the U.S.-Soviet confrontation, but rather the deep ideological divide that separated them. That chasm forced sometimes painful decisions on countries around the world, many of which were actually created during Westad’s 100-year window, making them Cold War creations in their own right. Those effects linger to this day: Just look at who’s running North Korea, and how — or the ongoing debate over what U.S. relations should be with Cuba.
In many ways, Westad has long argued, the Cold War made the world what it is today. His latest book is an eloquent and enjoyable defense of that proposition. — Jesse Chase-Lubitz
Déjà vu All Over Again
It’s not just new releases that speak to what is going on today: Older titles often shed as much light on what’s happening now as what happened then. This section will reach back to the dusty shelves to highlight easily-available older books that have suddenly become new again.
Barbara Tuchman, Ballantine Books, 1958, 1994
Throughout ’15, ’16, and into ’17, a foreign power went to jaw-dropping lengths to meddle in U.S. policy, stir up trouble at home, and especially to shape the country’s attitude toward Europe. It was a medley of spies, codebreakers, saboteurs, suborned agents, fake news, backchannels, clandestine hotel meetings, gunrunners, scheming diplomats, feckless leaders, and would-be Machiavellis.
And most telling of all, when the U.S government finally secured proof positive of foreign interference — provided, helpfully, by self-interested spies in Britain — plenty of lawmakers were happy to carry water for a hostile foreign power rather than support for a second the international, Atlanticist outlook of the Eastern establishment.
Written like a thriller, The Zimmerman Telegram tells the story of Germany’s efforts to keep America out of the First World War by embroiling it in a war with revolutionary Mexico — and if possible, with Japan, too. The smoking gun, which eventually pushed Woodrow “He Kept Us Out of War” Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war, was a coded telegram sent in early 1917 by Germany’s foreign minister prodding Mexico to declare war on the United States to regain its lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. British spies read the telegram in disbelief — and just needed a way to get it to Washington without any British fingerprints, lest the codebreaking operations in top-secret Room 40 become known in Berlin.
Coming just as Germany renewed unrestricted submarine warfare, a red line for the Wilson administration, Germany’s clumsy attempts to keep America out of the war eventually ensured it would come in. It serves as a timely reminder that foreign interference in Washington is hardly new, and that such antics paralyzed governments then as now — as well as of the perennial divides between America’s isolationist leanings and the lure of involvement in the wider world. — Keith Johnson