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Foreign Service Journal Review of Bill Polk's latest book

Winning Battles but
Losing the War
Violent Politics: A History
of Insurgency, Terrorism &
Guerrilla War, from the
American Revolution to Iraq
William R. Polk, HarperCollins,
2007, $23.95, hardcover, 273 pages.
REVIEWED BY ROBERT V. KEELEY
Violent Politics: A History of
Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla
War, from the American Revolution
to Iraq is William R. Polk's third
book in three years, all clearly stimulated
by the war in Iraq. Like its
predecessors, it offers uncommonly
useful expertise and policy guidance
to anyone who is serving in Iraq,
dealing with Iraq, or just concerned
about the quagmire we have fallen
into there.
First came Understanding Iraq
(2005), a guide to a country and its
people and history that we knew
almost nothing about before invading
it. A year later, Polk and coauthor
George McGovern spelled
out precisely what to do to end
our involvement there — by the end
of 2007, no less! — in Out of Iraq: A
Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now.
Some of their more prescient and
detailed recommendations included:
sending home the mercenaries like
Blackwater; halting construction of
permanent bases in Iraq; letting the
Iraqis decide how and to whom to
sell their oil; and turning the Green
Zone over to the Iraqis. Regrettably,
their plan to extricate us from this
disaster has been totally ignored by
the administration, and by Congress
as well. (Both books were reviewed
in the Foreign Service Journal.)
Now Polk has expanded his focus
beyond Iraq to provide a history of
insurgencies in many places over
three centuries. As he explains, the
common thread among the case
studies is the fact that, in nearly
every case, the insurgents lose all the
battles but still win the war. They
are able to do so because their
enemy is made up of occupiers,
colonists, invaders who seek to rule
or otherwise establish their hegemony;
in other words, foreigners.
Insurgencies go through three
stages, according to Polk. The first is
political: pursuing a cause that
recruits a cadre to fight against the
foreigners. This force depends on a
supportive population, as in Mao
Tse-Tung's famous analogy of the
fish in the sea. Terrorism is often
the only tactic available to them at
this stage. According to Polk's calculations,
this stage represents 80 percent
of an insurgency, on average.
Next the insurgents create an
alternative, anti-government administration
in the country, a phase
that lasts for another 15 percent of
the struggle. Only the final 5 percent
consists of traditional combat,
yet that phase is what almost all
books about counterinsurgency
focus on.
The book's 11 chapters recount
the French failures in Spain, Algeria
and Vietnam, the British defeats in
America, Ireland and Kenya, the
Germans' losses in Yugoslavia and
Greece, and the American experience
in the Philippines and Vietnam.
But the most instructive episode
concerns Afghanistan, where the
failing foreigners were by turns
British, Russians and Americans. In
fact, the long, painful history of that
most unfortunately located territory
is even more instructive than the situation
in Iraq, for it resulted from
even greater ignorance and miscalculation
by successive foreign interveners.
Yet despite the weight of all that
history, and the many indications
that Iraq will be the latest entry on
that long list of debacles, it appears
that the Bush administration has
now set its sights on Iran. Heaven
help us.
Polk concludes by quoting the
famous speech President Dwight
Eisenhower delivered on April 16,
1953: "Every gun that is made, every
warship launched, every rocket fired
signifies, in the final sense, a theft
from those who hunger and are not
fed, those who are cold and are not
clothed. The world in arms is not
spending money alone. It is spending
the sweat of its laborers, the genius of
its scientists, the hopes of its children.
… This is not a way of life at all, in any
true sense. Under the cloud of threatening
war, it is humanity hanging
from a cross of iron."
More than a half-century later,
the prophetic power of Eisenhower's
exhortation remains as stirring, and
relevant, as ever.
Three-time ambassador and retired
Foreign Service officer Robert V.
Keeley operates Five and Ten Press,
a small, independent publishing
company he founded to bring out
original articles, essays and other
short works of fiction and nonfiction
that have been rejected or ignored by
mainstream outlets.
A Welcome
Reissuance
First Line of Defense:
Ambassadors, Embassies and
American Interests Abroad
Robert V. Keeley, editor; American
Academy of Diplomacy, 2007,
paperback, 124 pages, $15.00
REVIEWED BY
STEVEN ALAN HONLEY
As we enter an election year, the
many pressing foreign policy challenges
on the agenda call for a public
that understands the critical role of
diplomacy in handling them. With
that mission in mind, the American
Academy of Diplomacy has reprinted
its flagship publication, First Line of
Defense: Ambassadors, Embassies
and American Interests Abroad.
When the book was originally published
in 2000, funded by a grant from
the Nelson B. Delevan Foundation,
there was little attempt to publicize
it. (The Journal did note its
publication as part of our first annual
compilation of books by Foreign
Service-affiliated authors, "In Their
Own Write," in November 2000.) As
a result, the book has not yet found a
wide audience, something the
Academy hopes to change.
First Line of Defense relates
dozens of instances where chiefs of
mission have intervened successfully
to further U.S. interests, even
sometimes at the risk of their personal
safety. These include the
experiences of Robert Strauss in the
Soviet Union, Walter Mondale in
Japan, Raymond Seitz in the United
Kingdom, Frank Carlucci in Portugal,
Elinor Constable in Kenya,
Richard Carpenter in Spain, James
Jones in Mexico, James Blanchard
in Canada, Frank Wisner in India,
Michael Armacost in the Philippines,
Harry Shlaudeman in Venezuela,
Robert Oakley in Pakistan,
and Thomas Pickering at the United
Nations.
Retired FSO Robert Keeley, himself
a three-time ambassador (Mauritius,
Zimbabwe and Greece), lets
the stories he has compiled speak for
themselves, which they do quite eloquently.
Collectively, they demonstrate
how effective diplomacy is
essential in getting from policy conception
to success.
Because the book offers multiple
examples while remaining short and
lively, it is particularly effective for use
by those teaching international relations
or trying to explain the diplomatic
function to the public.
It is unfortunate that AAD was
unable to update the book's contents
or add a new introduction, but nonetheless
the compilation remains useful.
It is available for purchase by
sending a check to:
American Academy of Diplomacy
1800 K St. NW, Suite 1014
Washington DC 20006
For more information, visit the
Academy's Web site at www.academy
ofdiplomacy.org/publications/fld.
html.
Steven Alan Honley is the editor of
the Journal.
74 FOREIGN SERV I C E J O U R N A L / J A N U A RY 2 0 0 8
B O O K S
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