This slender volume is packed with many insights. A collection of short chapters, some not much longer than op-eds, reveals author Mark Katz's wisdom and prudence when it comes to the use of military power, and the need for patience and persistence when pursuing long-term objectives. The book also allows him to showcase his knowledge of a region of the world that is frequently misunderstood. And he still has room to offer advice to U.S. policy makers going forward. That is quite an achievement in a mere 133 pages of text.
Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, does not break new ground, per se. Experts on some of the particular places discussed — including Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — are unlikely to learn anything that they didn't already know. But Katz earns points for presenting the relevant facts in a clear and dispassionate manner. His straightforward prose engages the reader in what often feels like a quiet one-on-one conversation, a patient explanation from a professor to an earnest student. And the short, digestible essays are arranged in a logical order, which builds to a concise assessment of the Bush legacy and of the likely Obama one. The book is suffused with a tone of welcome optimism, but not naiveté.
On the contrary, Katz is refreshingly direct. His assessments of what has gone wrong, as well as what has worked, are devoid of partisanship, ideology or sentimentality. His prescriptions for the future are grounded in a careful reading of history and propelled by a willingness to consider the plausible best case, as opposed to simply the worst. He succeeds by drawing parallels to the Cold War, Katz's other area of expertise. Marxist-Leninists and Arab nationalists found it difficult to remain united while propagating their ideology. They also became corrupted by power and often resorted to the same sorts of repression that they had previously railed against. These practices engendered opposition that ultimately thwarted their most grandiose aims.
In a similar way, radical Islamists may unleash sectarian animosity within the countries they seek to govern, while also bumping up against regional rivals if they try to expand their influence. In short, the dreaded transnational Muslim caliphate from Morocco to Indonesia is a figment of fevered imagination, and not much else. The Islamists, Katz concludes, are unlikely "to be more patient, resourceful, and foresighted" than the Marxist-Leninists of the Cold War era. Katz's discussion of particular regional dynamics reveals why. He explains how the rise of terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda has been driven by sectarian divisions within societies that many Americans presume are monolithic. By revealing the tensions within Iraq, Yemen or Iran, or between transnational Islamist movements, Katz suggests how a wise strategy would exploit these divisions and hasten al-Qaeda's demise.
Policy makers should also be watchful for shifting loyalties and rank opportunism on the part of our erstwhile friends and present-day adversaries. The Bush administration made common cause with former Saddam Hussein loyalists in Iraq, and the Obama administration has proved willing to talk to former Taliban sympathizers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such outreach invites attack from political opponents at home, who will decry negotiations with anyone with American blood on their hands. It might be harder still to shove aside uncooperative allies, even when it is clear, as in the case of Pakistan, that our interests generally do not align. But Katz makes a compelling case for why such flexibility is essential to long-term success.
The mere framing of the book, as expressed in its title, might be its singular achievement. For many Americans, "leaving" is synonymous with losing. The nation thankfully did not suffer the ignominy of desperate Iraqis clinging to helicopter skids — à la Saigon 1975 — but Iraq does not feel like a win for most Americans. Victory, by contrast, is often associated with staying. By this logic, we can tell that we won in Germany, Japan and Korea by the fact that tens of thousands of Americans remain in those countries more than six decades after the shooting officially stopped.
But there is an equally compelling case that long-term occupation is a sign of a nation's weakness, or at least self-doubt. If the advocates of wars of liberation are as convinced by their own rhetoric as they would have us believe, then U.S. troops shouldn't need to remain behind to ensure that the newly liberated remain our friends. Having purchased their goodwill with U.S. blood and treasure, why should Americans continue to underwrite their security? The truly grateful should be more than willing to cooperate with the United States going forward.
But their calculations are unlikely to be guided by gratitude or sentimentality, Katz explains. If former adversaries choose to ally with the United States in the future, it will be because they fear us less than they fear others. During the Cold War, "revolutionary regimes came to see a fellow revolutionary regime as more of a threat than the previously reviled United States." Consider, for example, the case of Vietnamese rapprochement with the United States, in part as a response to China's rising power and influence. Before that, tensions between the Soviet Union and China created an opening for U.S. diplomacy with both countries. Might the Taliban come to fear the United States less than neighboring Iran? Might some other Islamic revolutionary government or movement put aside its hatred of the United States in order to improve its security position vis-à-vis a nearby rival? While highly unlikely today, the possibility cannot be ruled out in the future.
A similar tone of cautious optimism underlies much of Katz's "leaving isn't losing" narrative. The most vocal advocates of the war in Iraq presumed that the intervention would enhance U.S., regional and global security. Likewise, they were certain that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to utter chaos. Not necessarily, Katz explains, drawing on what happened after the United States extricated itself from Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s. "Just as the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina led to Marxist overconfidence and overexpansion in the 1970s," Katz explains, "the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan may similarly lead to Islamic radical overconfidence and overexpansion that the United States can also use to its advantage. Withdrawal, in other words, need not mean defeat."
Are Americans ready for such candor? The nation has just observed the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. At present, some are openly contemplating a similar operation in neighboring Iran. The interest — and, in some cases, enthusiasm — for a new war proceeds despite the fact that the 12-year-long war in Afghanistan has not yet been brought to a close. A proper reading of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan would include skepticism about open-ended nation-building missions, concern that regime change is likely to be followed by civil strife and possibly bloody civil war, and humility about the wisdom of preventive war, which Bismarck once described as "committing suicide for fear of death."
In short, we didn't need to go into Iraq and Afghanistan to learn that war is costly and unpredictable. And a cursory reading of history shows that remaining behind does not guarantee success. But for those unfamiliar with those lessons, and who are willing to listen, Mark Katz has performed a noble service.