May 12, 2018
NY Times Book Review
WAR ON PEACE
The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence
By Ronan Farrow
Illustrated. 392 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.
In 2010, just before Thanksgiving, American foreign-policy makers flew into a panic. The United States government had gotten word that an outfit called WikiLeaks was preparing to release an enormous cache of secret diplomatic cables, in coordination with teams of journalists from this and other newspapers. At the time, I was a policy hand in the State Department. It fell to me and my colleagues to dutifully craft apologies on behalf of our bosses, whose sensitive communications and private insults — speculation about, say, a foreign leader’s mental aptitude or mysterious wealth — were about to become public. They, meanwhile, confronted weightier concerns, scrambling to anticipate the coming fallout. Would missions and sources be compromised? Would activists be exposed to persecution? Would anyone ever talk to American officials again?
Almost no one, however, anticipated what would prove to be one of the more lasting consequences of the leak: surprised admiration for American diplomats. “My personal opinion of the State Department has gone up several notches,” the British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash wrote. He compared one veteran ambassador’s prose to Evelyn Waugh’s, and deemed other analyses “astute,” “unsentimental” and “hilarious.” Beneath their “dandruffy” exteriors, he concluded after browsing the classified offerings, these diplomats were sharper, and funnier, than they looked.
Ronan Farrow aims to achieve a similar effect in “War on Peace.” At a time when the Trump administration has called for gutting the State Department’s budget and filled foreign-policy jobs with military officers, Farrow draws on both government experience and fresh reporting to offer a lament for the plight of America’s diplomats — and an argument for why it matters. “Classic, old-school diplomacy,” he observes, is “frustrating” and involves “a lot of jet lag.” Yet his wry voice and storytelling take work that is often grueling and dull and make it seem, if not always exciting, at least vividly human. A Foreign Service officer’s hairstyle is “diplomat’s mullet: peace in the front, war in the back”; an Afghan strongman’s choice of décor is “warlord chic,” with “leatherette La-Z-Boy recliners” and “a giant tank full of sharks.”
With his knack for getting high-level, on-the-record access — he recently shared a Pulitzer Prize for his New Yorker reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s abuses — Farrow managed to interview every living Secretary of State, up to and including Rex Tillerson, in his waning days presiding over a department “increasingly unmanned and cut down to size.” In a sense, Farrow is telling a story with a well-known ending but a surprise beginning. Much has been made of Trump’s disregard for diplomats. But the disproportionate flow of resources to military and intelligence solutions has been going on much longer, at least since 9/11. “In many of America’s engagements around the world,” Farrow argues, “military alliances have now eclipsed the kind of civilian diplomacy that once counterbalanced them, with disastrous results.” He traces those results through fights over Afghanistan strategy, as well as through less prominent policy debates — like the case of a massacre by an American-backed Afghan militant (currently serving as his country’s vice president).
At the heart of Farrow’s book is the time he spent as an aide to the legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke, then a special representative working on Afghanistan and Pakistan while longing for a bigger job. Recounting his arrival at the State Department early in the Obama administration, Farrow offers himself as the ingénue, poised for an education in the ways of Washington. (Farrow and I served in the department at the same time but never worked together directly.) What followed was part “West Wing,” part “Veep.” His job interview with Holbrooke began in a fluorescent-lit office, continued into an elevator and a meeting with the secretary of state, then into a taxi, then into a bathroom. “What about negotiations with the Taliban?” Holbrooke asked while urinating, Farrow just outside the door.
Holbrooke was a larger-than-life figure, by his own willful design. “There were reminders of his view of our place in history everywhere,” Farrow notes of their offices. By that point, Holbrooke’s place in history was already assured, thanks to his success in negotiating the Dayton Peace Agreement that had ended war in Bosnia a decade and a half earlier. But he was intent on earning at least one more entry, by repeating a version of that diplomatic feat with the deteriorating American war in Afghanistan. To that end, he was “grasping, relentless” and “oblivious to social graces in the pursuit of his goals.” When Farrow repeatedly defied an instruction, Holbrooke erupted into a tirade — “I know you think you’re special. I know you think you have a destiny” — that ended only when an assistant started weeping. Yet he also inspired total devotion in a staff of acolytes, making them equally relentless in pursuit of their goals.
One part of Farrow’s education was prosaic. The biggest obstacle to Holbrooke’s ambitions, for himself and his diplomacy, was that the President and senior White House aides just didn’t like him. “Beneath the sweep of history,” Farrow reflects, “was a small human struggle, of ego and age and fear.” So in an administration that promised to privilege diplomacy over force, philosophical convergence was undercut by personal animosities between the self-dramatizing Holbrooke and the “no drama Obama” White House. “What began as whispers of malcontent from Obama’s inner circle about Holbrooke’s antics eventually turned into a three-ring circus of humiliation,” Farrow contends. He shares the view of other Holbrooke advisers that their key diplomatic aim — peace talks with the Taliban — got short shrift in overall strategy as a result.
Ultimately, all policy making is personal. When Holbrooke died suddenly in December 2010, his heart giving out after months of punishing travel, progress toward those talks had barely begun.
But Farrow sees the rift that left Holbrooke out in the cold as about more than just personalities. Holbrooke set out to overcome what he characterized as “mil-think” — the military-driven logic that shaped the American approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan — and, no matter the administration’s supposed preferences, lost. The sidelining of Holbrooke, in Farrow’s analysis, was of a piece with a more general sidelining of diplomacy amid a continuing “militarization of foreign policy.” Holbrooke “had spent his final days alarmed at the dominance of generals in Obama’s Afghanistan review,” Farrow writes. Under Trump, this phenomenon was expanded “almost to the point of parody.”
The problem with “militarization” is not that military leaders are especially intent on using force. In fact, they are often more reticent than their civilian counterparts to resort to it, with those most implicated in fighting a war slower to advocate for one. (For recent examples, look at debates over military action in Iraq and Libya.) Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s line — “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition” — has been endlessly (and fruitlessly) quoted to the Trump White House over the past year.
The distortions are more subtle. Even when a stated policy aims to balance diplomatic and military concerns, how the message is delivered matters. If the diplomatic piece comes via a State Department official who arrives alone, flying coach and rolling his own overnight bag, and the military piece comes via a uniformed officer who arrives in his own airplane, with an entourage and eight or nine figures’ worth of security assistance in hand, it’s not hard to guess which is likely to come through more clearly to foreign leaders. And if investment in diplomatic tools is erratic and inadequate, those tools lose their effectiveness, giving policymakers little choice but to resort to military alternatives. Farrow lays out the vicious cycle: “American leadership no longer valued diplomats, which led to the kind of cuts that made diplomats less valuable. Rinse, repeat.”
Yet real as these dynamics are, Farrow’s account of them comes with some omissions that skew the broader picture. Even while Holbrooke’s push was stalled, other diplomatic processes were just getting underway, against long odds. Only in the final pages, in the context of Trump’s threats to dismantle the Iran deal, does Farrow get into the years of diplomacy that yielded that agreement. He similarly has little to say about the other diplomatic accomplishments of the Obama years — the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate accords — let alone the diplomatic efforts that ultimately failed. (Remember the Russia reset?)
Those omissions are in themselves telling, since they reflect a deeper challenge that reinforces the dynamics Farrow deplores. Even the most towering diplomatic achievements are at best partial victories; what look like necessary compromises at the negotiating table become ripe targets for political attack when diplomats come home and present uncertain promises and half-measures to a public that prefers silver bullets and sweeping principles. Reflecting on the Iran deal, one of the great career American diplomats of recent years, William Burns, reminds Farrow that “diplomacy was always going to produce something short of a perfect solution.” Americans rarely appreciate imperfect solutions, at least until they’re gone.