Book review: 'The Big Stick': Talk is cheap, firepower speaks louder

Two days after the presidential election, Eliot A. Cohen — military historian, former counselor to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department and impassioned Never Trumper — wrote an essay in The American Interest intended to console his anxious friends. Yes, he conceded, the notion of a Donald Trump presidency was far from ideal ("dreadful" was the precise word he used), but he'd still advise fellow Republicans to work for the new president, so long as each kept an unsigned letter of resignation just a file drawer away.

Shortly thereafter, one of Cohen's friends in Trump's circle reached out to him, asking for names. Cohen provided them. Then things took a nasty turn.

"After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away," he tweeted on the morning of Nov. 15. "They're angry, arrogant, screaming 'you LOST!' Will be ugly."

His message was retweeted nearly 14,000 times.

That's what you get for provoking someone who's made a careful study of the uses of hard power. Cohen knows all too well the impact of a carefully timed smart bomb.

Had Hillary Clinton won, it's doubtful that Cohen's new book, "The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force," which he clearly finished well before the election, would receive the attention it now surely (and quite deservedly) will. For all of Trump's chest-pounding about the Islamic State, it was Clinton, ultimately, who was viewed as the more interventionist, even hawkish, of the two candidates.

But it was her rival, the erratic isolationist with a mysterious affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a worrying contempt for NATO, who won, which makes Cohen's book both an implicit critique of the president-elect's worldview (to the extent that he has one) and a toothsome snack for those who despise Trump. Even if you disagree with Cohen — and I did, often, scribbling violent objections in the margins as I read — it's easy to spend time in his company. He writes thoughtfully, methodically and with unfussy erudition. His chapters are organized with the pleasing precision of a bento box.

The main argument of "The Big Stick" is encapsulated in its subtitle and its sly cover image, a close-up of a pair of boots on the ground. He makes an unfashionable, unabashed and — above all — unwavering case for the use of force in the service of U.S. security and ideals. To shy away from hard power, in Cohen's view, would come at great moral and mortal cost in a world of irrational regimes, religious revolutionaries, cyberguerrillas and bellicose competitors like China and Russia.

"The chances are growing that the United States will find itself using military power chronically, and at varying levels of intensity, throughout the early decades of the 21st century," he writes in his introduction.

It is perhaps an occupational hazard in Cohen's line of work to see the world in light of its dangers. (He also has a son who has done two tours of duty in Iraq, and a daughter in the U.S. Navy — two facts he admirably never mentions, let alone exploits, in "The Big Stick.") Those with dovish inclinations will doubtless propose very different solutions to the problems he identifies. But he does a very good job of identifying them, providing a thorough if disconcerting tour d'horizon.

On Cohen's list of concerns, China ranks highest: Its naval aggression and transgressions could reshape the international order, particularly if it starts a conflict with one of our allies. Russia's aggression concerns him, too, especially now that it has found sympathetic authoritarian and nativist governments in the West. "Without unity," he notes, "NATO is paralyzed."

At the time Cohen wrote that sentence, he was referring to the governments of Hungary and Greece, which have both shown themselves to be sympathetic to Putin. Who would have imagined adding the next U.S. president to the list?

Also relevant to the new world order: Cohen believes the only way to fight global terror in any meaningful way is through long, sustained campaigns on the ground, as well as from the air. (Imagine how much more stable Libya would be, he asks, if the United States and its allies had sent in troops just after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.)

But in order for this strategy to work, both the American public and its leaders would have to make a dramatic psychological adjustment, thinking much more flexibly, and patiently, about war. They would have to accept that future conflicts may be neither swift nor immediately decisive. "Such an honest appraisal," Cohen writes, "will test the character of politicians who, naturally enough, hope to end their tenures having won, or at least finished, the wars that they have begun or inherited."

This is a tall order for any elected official. For Trump, who made "We are going to win so big" a rallying cry, it seems higher than the moon.

All of Cohen's proposals would cost a great deal of money — and, potentially, human lives. He'd like to see forces deployed in Poland and the Baltic States to ward off Russian hostilities. He'd like to see a beefed-up air and naval presence in the Persian Gulf to thwart Iran. In retrospect, he wishes we'd left 10,000 to 20,000 troops in Iraq. (He doesn't address the sticky problem of reconciling this idea with the Iraqi desire for sovereignty.)

These may not be the most practical or, to many, desirable suggestions. Cohen is well aware of the contemporary arguments arrayed against U.S. interest, or competence, in waging war, which he addresses in Chapter 1. But they're one response to an increasingly dangerous — and nuclearized — globe. To read Cohen is to realize he thinks for a living about terrible things: Pakistan's lobbing a nuke at India; Israel's lobbing a nuke at Iran; the United States' launching a nuclear weapon at North Korea; China's threatening to launch one at us.

"To assume that nuclear weapons, or some overwhelming logic of international politics, make statesmen cautious," he writes, "is to assume that human beings are not capable of tremendous error, which is almost to assume that they are not human."

Just before Christmas, Trump tweeted that the United States "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability." What that meant we do not know. It could have meant that he will violate existing nuclear treaties. It could have meant nothing specific — just another inchoate emanation from his head.

Cohen notes that all presidential candidates' views of national security change once they're in office, because they're forced to confront the world as it is, not the world as they wish it to be. The problem is that Trump apparently does not sit still for the intelligence briefings that try to describe the world as it is. And if that's the case, the future may not be as dark as Cohen foresees. It could be darker.


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