Sunday, 30 November 2008

“Striking First”, by Michael Doyle (Princeton University Press)

Doyle-StrikingFirst Tackling one of the most controversial policy issues in international relations of the post-9/11 world, Michael Doyle argues that there is no adequate response to pressing issues of international security in today’s world. In Striking First, Doyle “addresses not only the underlying moral question of the conditions under which preventive war is justified, but also the complex practical question of how, if at all, international law should be refashioned in the current era”. Doyle’s aim is to offer his opinion of the conditions under which preventive war is justified.

Doyle explains how the United Nations can again play an important part in enforcing international law, something the Bush Doctrine has often flaunted and disregarded in the administration’s pursuit of the War on Terror. In an effort to redeem the practice of pre-emption and prevention (now much maligned in the wake of the Bush administration), he suggests circumstances when unilateral action can be justified (i.e. without UN sanction) or is necessary. Doyle argues that traditional international orthodoxy is unrealistic and unnecessarily constraining given the conditions and situations that now confront global leaders. At the same time, Doyle argues that the Bush Doctrine offers to broad and unstructured a framework through which to work.

A useful addition to the book is a collection of responses from noted international relations scholars Richard Tuck, Jeffrey McMahon and Harold Koh, allowing Doyle’s ideas to be put to a peer-review. These are then followed by another chapter from Doyle, responding to these guest writers.

Drawing on a number of examples of preemption/prevention, Doyle looks at the current war in Iraq, the 1998 attack on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Cuban Missile Crisis and a number of other events to help reinforce his argument. His framework is comprised of four guidelines that address 1). the lethality and likelihood of perceived threat; 2). the legitimacy of the threat; 3). the necessity to make the case to international institutions (e.g. the UN); 4). the acceptance that multinational bodies don’t always act rationally or reasonably.

Not everyone will agree with his proposals, such as the unilateral pursuit of pre-emptive measures when multinational consent is found wanting (see the guest commentator’s critiques for more on this, specifically Koh’s essay), but they deserve to be taken seriously. There is also a question of feasibility, and not enough attention is paid to electoral incentives to act in a nation’s self-interest, rather than seeking international approval for specific actions; the efficacy of the UN is also questioned as a body capable of influencing determined state actors.

This is an useful book to further the debate about pre-emptive and unilateral state action in international relations, and I believe Doyle succeeds in his ultimate goal of offering a framework to help improve decision making and assessment of looming threats, and also further out understanding of when a nation might be justified in acting unilaterally and preemptively. The book’s brevity is a bonus, and Doyle doesn’t get too bogged down in the minutiae of international law, making the work more accessible to intermediate level IR scholars and enthusiasts. His long experience both as a scholar and government official informs his thesis throughout, adding extra weight to his positions.

Striking First won’t suit everyone, but if you’re interested in learning more about preventive and defensive pre-emption, this would be a good place to start.

Friday, 28 November 2008

“Shakespeare on Toast”, by Ben Crystal (Icon Books)


An enthusiast bursts the bubble of Shakespeare elitism, opening its doors to all

Who’s afraid of William Shakespeare? Just about everyone. He wrote too much and what he wrote is inaccessible and elitist. This is wrong. Shakespeare on Toast knocks the stuffing from the staid old myth of Shakespeare, and author Ben Crystal brings the Bard to life, revealing the man and his plays for what they really are: modern, thrilling and uplifting drama.

Crystal romps through the facts about Shakespeare’s life in under fifteen pages and then dismisses them with a cool ‘I don’t care who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.’ He then launches into a pithy and witty account of what Elizabethan life was like, what it would have been like going to the theatre in Shakespeare’s time, and why exactly he wrote in poetry anyway. The second half of the book covers how to read and understand Shakespeare’s language, explains how Shakespeare left clues for his actors within the text, and finishes with an in-depth examination of a scene from Macbeth. Crystal’s prose is peppered with humorous asides and pop culture, his use of dialogue from Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, or rap by Mos Def to explain about rhythm and metre. The structure of the book breaks it down into five easily digestible “Acts”, while the chapter titles are all fun and pertinent scene locations, e.g. “Act 2: Curtain Up, Scene 3, A galaxy far, far away”.

The author is a trained actor who also studied Language and Linguistics at university, and obviously knows what he’s talking about. It is refreshing to have an actor’s perspective on Shakespeare, and makes a great change from dry academic books with too much emphasis on reading Shakespeare and not enough on actually watching him. As Crystal admits, the book is short, but it does exactly what it says on the label: offers the reluctant reader a way to crack the basics of the Bard. Crystal’s no-nonsense attitude and witty approach really make the book stand out, and he covers all the major things you need to understand and (whisper it) enjoy Shakespeare. I’d like to buy a copy for the last two Shakespeare-phobic directors I worked with.

This should be required reading for actors, anyone doing English Literature at school or university, and the girls who spoiled the performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor I went to at the Globe this summer by whispering to each other that they couldn’t understand a word. Highly recommended, and not just by me but also by Judi Dench and Richard Eyre!

Try this along with Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare and David Crystal’s Think on my Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language.

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

Sunday, 23 November 2008

“Angler”, by Barton Gellman (Allen Lane/Penguin)


An in depth look at the shadowy reign of the most powerful vice-president in US history

In Angler, Barton Gellman expands on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles about Vice President Dick Cheney’s domestic agenda, that appeared in The Washington Post. In the book, Gellman broadens his scope, starting with Cheney’s role in his own selection as Vice President, his control over the transition team, and moving through the eight years he’s served. He’s had an unprecedented role in shaping America’s economic, environmental, and military policies during this time. Gellman details Cheney’s role in shifting the focus of the War on Terror from Al-Qaeda to Iraq, helping to instigate the domestic wire-tapping program to spy on American citizens, and also promoting cruel and unusual torture methods.

Gellman tells us that “Cheney’s overriding goal was enlargement of presidential authority”, and Angler is filled with anecdotes and explanations of the vice-presidents methods for achieving this: for example, how “amid stealth and misdirection, with visible formalities obscuring the action offstage”, Cheney managed to get his own way for many important policies and decisions that historically have not been the purview of the Vice President. These included (among others) reversing the president’s position on the environment, which Cheney achieved simply by isolating the President from those with views opposed to the vice-president’s; it also included Cheney's taking over executive office oversight of all intelligence-related projects.

Gellman’s writing style is very accessible and engaging, not to mention sparse; almost informal in tone. The quality of the writing puts me in mind of John F. Harris’s excellent account of the Clinton White House, Survivor (2006), which was narrative in style and had, at times, the feel of an intimate political novel. Unlike Harris, however, Gellman has a tendency to focus on a specific incident for longer than is really necessary, long after his point has been made (for example, exactly when the “weapons free” order was given, following the airplane collisions with the World Trade Centre). This is not a frequent occurrence, but a noticeable one nonetheless. In the main, Gellman is more than capable of holding the reader’s attention and interest.

Angler is packed with fresh insights and first-hand recollections from those close to the Vice President. Gellman was able to draw on amazing access to Cheney’s staff and associates (which he apparently condoned), as well as revealing, lengthy interviews with those who found themselves on the receiving end of Cheney’s brand of Machiavellian politics. The book particularly comes into its own when explaining the situation post-9/11. Up until that point (about the first third of the book), it had the unfortunate feel of a roll-call of Cheney’s staff, not particularly contributing much to the debate.

Using already published material, contemporary notes from officials and staff, and plentiful original reporting, Gellman has drawn a fascinating (though not particularly intimate) portrait of a man famous for his personal discretion and pathological secrecy (especially in the chapter "Dark Side"). Angler is an important book for anyone wanting to put to rest some of the conspiracy theories floating about Cheney, and also for those wanting to get a look inside the executive branch from a slightly different angle.

Recommended reading, Angler is one of the most intriguing books of this year.

Also try: Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency (2008); Stephen Hayes, Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice-President (2004); Bob Woodward, The War Within (2008); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Frederick Schwartz & Aziz Huq, Unbalanced & Unchecked (2008); Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency (2007)

Thursday, 20 November 2008

“The Reagan I Knew”, by William F. Buckley Jr. (Basic Books)


An intimate look at a friendship between one of America’s most gifted conservative thinkers and America’s 40th President

When William F. Buckley started National Review in 1955, proposing a journal that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop!”, Ronald Reagan was an actor in Hollywood stumping for liberal Democrats. Buckley grew up in a patrician household speaking three languages. Reagan was born in an apartment in the tiny town of Tampico, Illinois. Buckley attended Yale, Reagan went to Eureka College. Despite these significant differences, these two men would come together and define American conservatism in the 20th century.

The Reagan I Knew is Buckley’s tribute to their friendship. The book is comprised of correspondence with Reagan and his wife Nancy (with whom Buckley was extremely close), transcripts of Reagan on Buckley’s long running TV show, Firing Line, and his personal observations of the man who was known affectionately as “The Gipper”.

Buckley’s relationship with Reagan roughly corresponded with Reagan’s transition from an FDR liberal to the conservatism he would later come to define. The book is broken into sections of time and issues Reagan was involved with (Panama Canal, presidential campaign, budget issues, and national defense) and illustrates his thinking well.

The letters between Buckley and Reagan, and especially the transcripts of Reagan’s appearances on Firing Line, show clearly that the two men had significant differences over policy – specifically with regard to the Panama Canal. But on the core issues (anti-communism, slowing the growth of government, and a strong national defense) they were in concert.

It is often said that Buckley made conservatism respectable by detaching it from, and in the process discrediting, the far right, anti-Semitic, protectionist base it had previously been associated with. Buckley, despite his high-brow manner and blueblood upbringing, brought conservatism out of the country clubs and gave it a veneer of worldliness which largely reflected the man himself. Buckley engaged the world and, more specifically, confronted his enemies directly, through years of debates on Firing Line and other public forums with such establishment leftists as Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, and indirectly via his columns and books decrying communism.

Buckley was a public intellectual in the truest sense of that phrase and recognized more than any other figure on the right that conservatism must be clearly defined and be forceful in the public arena to have any effect. In Ronald Reagan, Buckley found a man who could bridge the gap between the heady world of intellectual debate and the average American. The correspondence between Reagan and Buckley details this process and the book is at its strongest when the two men are grappling with consequential issues such as the Panama Canal, d├ętente with the Soviets and the budget.

The book also delights when Buckley recounts Reagan’s interaction with personalities such as Truman Capote, as well as some personal anecdotes regarding both men’s children. Unfortunately, there are too many letters between Buckley and Nancy Reagan of no real value or interest to anybody but the two authors and the book looses focus during these. I have no idea if such correspondence exists between Buckley and the First Lady, but it would’ve been interesting to gain an insight into Nancy’s thinking during her “Just Say No” campaign or her thoughts later in Reagan’s presidency when the press was increasingly attacking his advanced age.

The Reagan I Knew provides a unique insight into two of the most consequential men in the last one hundred years of American politics and is well worth the read for students of politics and history.

Reviewed by Nick Plosser

Also recommended: William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale (1951) & Up From Liberalism (1961); Ronald Reagan, An American Life: The Autobiography (1990) & Reagan: A Life in Letters (2003)

Saturday, 15 November 2008

“The Leaders We Deserved (& A Few We Didn’t)”, by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Basic Books)


A new look at the presidential rating game

With George W. Bush on his way out, and the inevitable presidential post-mortems that will follow his departure from the White House, it’s good to look back at his predecessors and consider how successful they were at the world’s most powerful and difficult job. Will Bush be like Truman, who left office with rock-bottom approval ratings, only to be redeemed by history? Or will he be remembered like James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson – both considered to be failures in office?

Felzenberg does not include George W. Bush in this, his take on the presidential rating game. Looking instead at the other 42 men who have held the office, he attempts to inject more of a scholarly, even scientific approach to grading them. In the introductory chapter, Felzenberg gives a quick account of previous rating polls (conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Snr. & Jnr.), discusses the difficulties in conducting an unbias evaluation, and proposes a better approach.

Where previous attempts, according to Felzenberg, have been little more than opinion polls, here he identifies six criteria with which to grade past presidents (with scores out of five):

  • “Character”, “Vision”, “Competence”, “Economic Policy”, “Preserving & Extending Liberty”, and “Defence, National Security & Foreign policy”

For each criteria, Felzenberg has a chapter which focuses on those he rates the highest and also the lowest. This allows for a varied spread of examples and analysis, for the most part. Some of the usual suspects crop up in all or most of the chapters (Reagan, Jefferson, Lincoln), but it is also refreshing to read about some of the lesser-know – some might say “forgotten” – presidents, such as Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore and Rutherford B. Hayes. The short treatments of the presidents in each chapter – all written in fluid, tight prose – make the book far more accessible and easily digestible. Looking at each president through the lens of each criteria also makes for interesting, varied reading throughout, and Felzenberg’s analysis is often insightful and illuminating. Another first, the author is also able to make the chapters on policy interesting, holding the reader’s attention throughout (even for economic policy, which many people might automatically skip over).

Even if you do not agree with Felzenberg’s ratings, reading The Leaders We Deserved will provide you with a wealth of historical detail and analysis that will certainly expand your knowledge of the presidents, as well as make you question your natural biases depending on your political philosophy. For example, I agree with most of his top 12 picks, but I would not rate Reagan any where near as high as Felzenberg has (5/5 for economic policy… really?).

His giving Abraham Lincoln the top spot would be difficult to argue with, but his considerable down-grading of presidents such as Truman and Lyndon Johnson might strike some as bizarre. This, I think, is where Felzenberg’s rating system is most flawed: each of the categories carries the same weight. As a result, presidents with good characters can be rated higher than presidents with bad characters, but who also got more done in office (Taft is higher than both Lyndon Johnson and also Bill Clinton, for example).

Inevitably, those presidents he rates most highly, as already mentioned, crop up in most chapters. Unfortunately for some, this means limited examples with which to draw on – this is more the case in the first three chapters than the latter three. The discussions of Jefferson are always interesting and colourful, but the sections on Reagan do become a little repetitive. In fact, I would say that Felzenberg’s obvious fondness for Reagan has not allowed him to make as balanced an argument for the 40th president as he might hope. His treatments of some of the "lesser" or "forgotten" presidents - such as Benjamin Harrison, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge - are pleasantly fair and instructive, suggesting that perhaps they shouldn't be so forgotten after all.

Ultimately, though, I think Felzenberg has succeeded in his ultimate aim: to stimulate debate. His conservative/republican preference is clear in the final rankings, making his work considerably different from existing polls, which had a tendency towards liberal/democratic bias. Not only will this book stimulate debate (and no doubt a few of heated arguments), but it’s main strength is that it will offer presidential scholars and amateur history buffs alike a proper framework with which to consider the legacies and impacts of past US presidents.

Intelligent, in-depth and rigorous, The Leaders We Deserve is an important book for all those with an interest in the US presidents and their legacies, as well as those seeking a source for historical detail on a broad range of presidents. Highly recommended, and highly enjoyable.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

"The American Future", by Simon Schama (Bodley Head/Random House)

An in-depth look at four facets of America’s nature.

In The American Future, British historian Simon Schama shines a light on four facets of America that help make it what it the nation we all love or hate: “American War”, “American Fervour”, “American Plenty”, and “What Is An America?”. He does this by looking at both the large figures of American legend and history, but also lesser-known (if at all) Americans who have left their mark on the world’s most powerful nation. Taking advantage of the recently-ended election, Schama tries his hand at campaign journalism for his prologue, which sets the scene (and style, in many ways) for the chapters to come.

American War, the first and longest part of the book, discusses the often contentious place of warfare and the military in America’s national character, and the militarism that permeates its society. Using the military academy at West Point and the Meigs family as touchstones for his history, Schama paints a very personal picture of how the Meigs family left their mark on America: Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster for Grant’s Union army during the civil war, designed the Capitol’s dome, and set up Arlington Memorial Cemetary on his former classmate and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Virginia estate. Throughout the discussion, Schama draws our attention to the rival factions among the Founding Fathers (specifically, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the latter of which was the more bellicose) and how these initial squabbles have continued through over two centuries of America’s existence.

American Fervour. It seems everyone is ready to mock the religiosity of America, but what Schama does instead, is just look at the roots of religion in America. He discusses the roots of religion in the US – Jefferson’s declaration of religious and intellectual freedom for the State of Virginia, which he and Washington campaigned to make official throughout the new country. He touches on how it is that America enshrined these freedoms as a “natural right”, yet it remains one of the most religious Western nations with religion creeping ever more into national politics; covering also religion as an impetus to rid the United States of “the National Sin” (slavery), its importance to the Civil Rights Movement, and its role in Prohibition. Again, Schama looks at the Presidents and “smaller” Americans who shaped religion in the US (including Charles Grandison Finney, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Billy Sunday), as well as the evolvement of the church from small chapels to the mega-churches of Evangelical America.

American Plenty. This was an excellent chapter about how continental expansion has affected the American mindset when it comes to resources and the can-do, “boundless” attitude. Discussing how expansion has led to such engineering advances and marvels as the Hoover Dam (and, by extension, Las Vegas), but also disasters such as the Dust Bowl. This was a surprisingly interesting chapter, as I'm not usually that taken with tracts on agriculture and so on. Schama's use of real-life examples of families affected by resource depletion and so on makes the subject matter more compelling and interesting by giving it a face, rather than treating it in the abstract.

What Is An American? (Perhaps this section could have been entitled “American Ethnicity”, to keep with the same format?) An important section of the book, given the ever-changing notion of what and who is American, and the contentious issue of immigration that fires up political bases of both parties every few years. Schama discusses the wide range of ethnicities that have poured into the American make-up, and how each affects the character of certain regions. Schama shows how initial beliefs that the US would be a land of free immigrants have changed as the source of these immigrants has changed. He also shines a light on the darker side of the American melting-pot – such as the anti-immigration policies of the Know-Nothing party, the paranoia of unchecked-immigration of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson’s harsh treatment of Native Americans, the abuse of Chinese labourers after they built America’s railroads. Schama’s not averse to showing the darker underbelly of the United States, which makes the book all the more useful and interesting.

A superb achievement, The American Future is one of few books that create an engaging history of America while not being yet another volume of Presidential biography. Despite his years as a university professor (and the assumed stuffiness that should bring), Schama has a gift for fluid prose that allows one to breeze through the book at a remarkable clip. He provides an occasional chuckle as he points out an absurdity or inherent contradiction, dealing with it not in an aloof manner, but the lighter touch of someone who has some genuine affection for the US, warts and all. Sometimes these lighter moments can detract from the book, though; such as the times he injects his opinions of certain officials he may not like. It is therefore not flawless. Schama can also come across as being indulgent with his choice of overly poetic phrases and imagery, and perhaps a few too many references to his own opinion or experiences.

The American Future is nonetheless engaging and informative, filled with superb historical detail, depth and is mostly even-handed. A must read for all interested in understanding a little more about America and the components of its collective psyche.

Also try: The American Future DVD (2008, BBC - for those who maybe don’t have the time for the whole book, or want something with more on the 2008 Election); Robert D Kaplan's An Empire Wilderness - Travels Into America's Future (1999)