Today, I'm reviewing Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. I enjoyed the book, and I'm hoping those of you who are into non-fiction will like it too.
Hardcover, 680 pages
Published April 23rd 2013 by Nation Books
Format read: Finished copy (owned)
Synopsis (via Goodreads)
Things that worked:
Dirty Wars is without a doubt, the most comprehensive book written to date on the Global War on Terrorism and the effect it has had on the Federal Government’s response to this menace. We must be grateful to Mr. Scahill and his ability to write on the complexities of this threat. Certainly, we have seen previous books written on the subject, but most are narrow in scope, focusing on a particular conflict or aspect, such as Obama’s failed decision to close Guantanamo Bay or Bush’s Surge in Iraq. This book moves in a very clear way through the last 12 years, weaving a narrative that is entertaining, informative, and highly critical. Even those who strongly disagree with Schaill’s conclusions (I was one of them) cannot deny the shear breadth and depth of his analysis. This is masterful book on the history of the War on Terror.
* Writing style
Unlike many books, Mr. Scahill has crafted a master class of international relations, one in which his polemical style and extensive research are able to occupy the same space. Very few works in the GWOT are capable of being able to be both informative and passionate; of being American and international. Scahill has written something that will be studied and analyzed for decades to come. His writing will be parsed for meaning, long after the actors of this particular tragedy have long since passed.
One of the key threads of this tale is that of the teenage son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who found himself the accidental victim of a US drone strike in Yemen not two weeks after his father was deliberately targeted and killed. The tragic nature of this boy’s death is woven into the larger narrative of his father’s killing and the unwinding of legal protections by the US government. Like many authors of the Vietnam era, Scahill writes with a certain amount of fatalism and disgust. Yet, his polemical arguments never undermine the factual evidence and methodical nature of his writing.
* Excellent timing
With the recent almost-defeat of President Obama’s plans to launch a limited strike on Syria for their use of chemical weapons, Scahill’s book comes at a time where other Americans appear to be rebelling against the use of American force abroad. Just last year, President Obama ran on a campaign that openly touted his willingness to use military and clandestine force to go after terrorists around the globe. That the first use of WMD in over 25 years, against innocent civilians on a massive scale, is no longer enough to rouse the American public to support the Commander in Chief is telling. Schaill appears to have picked up on a latent discontent in the larger body politic that desires an end to the often-extreme measures taken in waging the War on Terror.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
America’s recent political stratification is one area where the author does not explore. The split between the traditional GOP and the Tea Party far right is one area where foreign policy is changing, possibly permanently. As the traditional GOP has distanced itself from the neoliberal tendencies of the Bush 43 Administration, the Tea Party GOP has forged an anti-interntationalist viewpoint that is largely contradictory to the GOP view of international relations since before the Second World War.
This recent split has shown these libertarian Republicans joining forces with left-leaning Democrats to push for greater cuts to military spending and oppose President Obama’s plans for military action in Syria. Such recent changes may be unsustainable going forward, especially if the GOP leadership reasserts control. However, if such a bipartisan foreign policy overlap continues, the US could see renewed congressional oversight of covert actions and a greater likelihood of politicians calling for the ‘end’ of the War on Terror. Power in the American political system has frequently shifted between the Executive and Legislative Branches throughout history. We may yet bear witness to another shift, this time away from Presidential power, with significant implications for the conflicts Scahill has written about.
* Contradictory evidence of US foreign policy objectives (Mali? Syria? Egypt?)
Scahill’s opinion of US foreign policy stands largely in contradiction to the evidence found over the last 60 years. Certainly, America has found is way into many major interstate and intrastate conflicts of this half-century. However, it doesn’t change the fact that Scahill’s evidence is largely based upon a traditional progressive view of American foreign policy. However, the real-world evidence is murkier.
In Egypt, the US government was willing to support the overthrow of a dictator who was our ally and the election of a President who wasn’t technically our friend. In Mali, we avoided plunging head-on into another conflict. The same is now true for Syria, whose Civil War we have avoided for over two years. Lastly, Iran’s nuclear program remains active. American foreign policy has certainly led to conflicts in a great many regions over the last few decades. Yet, it has also avoided conflicts in others, even when our national security interests were on the line. To this reviewer, there is no one-size-fits-all foreign policy for America’s handling of the War on Terror.
About the author:
He is the author of the best-selling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, winner of a George Polk Book Award.
He also serves as a correspondent for the U.S. radio and TV program Democracy Now!. Scahill is a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute and a frequent contributor to The Nation.