Sunday Book Review: Hawk and Dove

>> Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nicholas Thompson'sThe Hawk and the Dove is an exceptionally readable dual biography of George Kennan and Paul Nitze. George Kennan is, to some, rather an odd dove; he helped formulate the vision of containment that led to NSC-68 and militarized confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Moreover, he was hardly a pacifist; nevertheless, in the way in which debate over national security policy became structured in the Cold War, Kennan most often stood on the "dovish" side. Nitze, the most direct father of NSC-68, as well as Team B, plays the role of "hawk." Nitze is also Nicholas Thompson's grandfather.

Both Kennan and Nitze were privileged and wildly talented. It's true enough that an Ivy League pedigree won an undue degree of influence in the 1940s and the 1950s (a situation which absolutely, positively does not hold today), and Thompson details the manner in which Kennan and Nitze built their social networks and, eventually, their influence within government. Nitze was much better at this than Kennan; whereas Kennan believed that ideas were key to moving the machinery of government, Nitze understood the value of creating, nursing, and maintaining a group of bureaucratic warriors, as well as key connections with other major policymakers. It's hardly surprising that the most prominent neocons found their start with Nitze; he understood that the bureaucracy responds to ideas that are prominent within the social circles of the bureaucracy, rather than to ideas that are popular within the general public or that are well regarded in the academy. Nitze also came to understand that the best approach to seizing influence over foreign policy was bipartisan; to make sure that your people were part of the larger machine of foreign policy, regardless of who happened to control Congress or to sit in the White House at any given time.

Nitze became obsessed with the question of how nuclear weapons could be utilized in an actual war. This isn't because he wanted the nuke the Soviets; he genuinely believed that if the Soviets ever achieved "escalation superiority," which in its essence meant "more megatons than us" that they would be able, by threat of nuclear annihilation, to win serious diplomatic concessions. US "preparedness" prevented both nuclear conflict and inevitable concession to Soviet aggression. Nitze spun out scenarios of nuclear war that were based on pure fantasy; the Soviets would somehow squirrel away the bulk on their population in vast civil defense shelters, then use their larger warheads to deal a devastating first strike to the US, secure in the knowledge that only their cities, infrastructure, and industry would be destroyed by a US counter-strike. The debates became tribal, as all such arguments will; the enemy became pacifist appeasers, and the use of any tactic to defeat this enemy, including accusations of treason and the invention of "facts," became legitimate.

Nitze's greatest failure, and the biggest difference between him and Kennan, was his de facto assumption that Soviet domestic politics didn't exist. For Nitze and his acolytes, the assumption that all of the relevant policymakers in the Soviet Union were incorrigibly and equally hostile was sufficient in order to proceed with analysis. Weapons production was always the result of a nefarious plan formulated in the Kremlin, and never the result of the bureaucratic strength of various faction within the Soviet military. Any modernization, even one required to match US capabilities, was evidence of an evil Soviet plot to acquire escalation dominance. But this was only part of Nitze's trick; by the time Team B was put together, Soviet arms production and capabilities could be inferred from imputed Soviet intentions. This is to say that evidence of Soviet weapons production at time A indicated evil Soviet intent, which then led Nitze and his cohort to estimate future Soviet production based on that indication of evil Soviet intent. The result, of course, was a wild overestimation of Soviet capabilities, and a complete misunderstanding of Soviet intent. Richard Pipes famously declared Team B a success, because it had established that some within the Soviet Union believed that a nuclear war could be won. What Pipes declined to note was that a) a similarly influential group within the United States believed the same thing, and b) the Soviets who believed in the possibility of victory were, like their American counterparts, a minority of the strategic establishment, c) almost to an individual, these Soviets believed that the war would begin with an American nuclear attack, and d) the most hawkish elements in the Soviet Union won bureaucratic victories on the backs of men like Paul Nitze. The products of School Nitze, as it were, would repeat these errors with Iraq, Iran, and China.

Thompson's Kennan is a man who was wrong about many things, but who was right about one big thing. Kennan had frankly bizarre views about a number of subjects, including the value of democracy, race relations within the United States, and the project of modernity. However, he was fundamentally correct to identify the internal politics of the Soviet Union as dysfunctional, and to conclude that the regime had a limited lifespan, even on the time metrics normally associated with empires. The Soviet Empire was not, by his argument, the sort of creature that could survive in the long term, and it certainly could not outlast the Western democracies, however flawed they might be. The Soviet permanent war economy depended on a permanent perception of threat, and as this faded the Soviet experiment became less tenable. Kennan was also correct that Soviet expansion was limited in immediate aims, and that it could be successfully managed. Thus managing the Soviet Union was worthwhile, as it was a foul regime led by awful men, but the task had to be undertaken in a measured fashion.

Oddly enough, Kennan and Nitze interacted only at a few key times during their careers. Kennan made his key contribution before Nitze really found his niche in government, and Nitze gave a particular shape to Kennan's basic framework. Kennan's influence on major policy was minimal after the early 1950s, while Nitze had his hands in some manner on almost every strategic decision until the late 1980s. The two were friends early on in the same sense that all Ivy League cogs in the US foreign policy machine were friends; they were never particularly close, yet they never personalized their disagreements. Personally, I found the Kennan half of the book fascinating, simply for the basic weirdness of its subject; Kennan was an odd duck, with strange ideas. The Nitze sections left me infuriated; Nitze and his clones pursued one big idea, and didn't both to worry overmuch about whether it was right, or at all helpful to the country. It's not quite right to say that Kennan's ideas deserved more credence, as his central argument was extremely influential; however, Nitze's acolytes should have been chased out of government and indeed out of public life. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle should have had to struggle to publish an op-ed in the Dayton Daily News; instead, they were able to repeat their flawed analysis of the Soviet Union on a succession of other states, all to dreadful effect.


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